You can see graphic design in every aspect of contemporary cultural life, from advertising to street signs to print media. Visual communications today are driven by digital design technology, yet anchored in essential visual arts principles. As the potential for graphic communication expands, art schools and universities are keeping pace with advanced formal training in graphic design.
The highest achievement in graphic design education is the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in graphic design. Available via on-campus and online programs, the MFA in graphic design prepares you for advanced professional careers in design or an academic career as a college graphic design professor. Some programs also offer a Master of Arts (MA), which focuses on design theory.
This guide to the MFA in graphic design prepares you for the advanced degree. You can find an overview of the discipline and the degree, plus step-by-step instructions to applying for an online or on-campus MFA in graphic design.
A Guide to the MFA in Graphic Design
Graphic designers trace their discipline back to the cave drawings of Lascaux, but the discipline as we know it today emerged in the early twentieth century. The field gained formal recognition in 1914, when a group of leading graphic designers established the first professional association: The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA). Today, graphic design is a thriving industry that touches advertising, entertainment, retail sales, media communications, and more.
Graduate Graphic Design Programs: MFA or MA?
Graphic design education has evolved to meet the demands of today's highly visual culture. Most graduate-level degrees focus on design as a professional practice, but an increasing number of colleges are establishing academic master's degrees that advance design theory. Consider these two types of graduate degrees in graphic design:
- The MFA in graphic design challenges students to apply state-of-the-art design technology and theory to deepen their graphic design practice
- The MA in graphic design approaches graphic design as a cultural phenomenon influenced by social science and arts disciplines such as social psychology, linguistics, cultural theory, and media arts
In keeping with the ethos of innovation, graduate graphic design programs support a broad and evolving selection of degree specializations. Some of the standard areas of concentration include:
- Interface design
- Digital imaging
- Graphic communications
Some career-focused MFA programs allow you to specialize in a particular professional application of graphic design. Examples include:
- Advertising design
- Web design
- Desktop publishing
- Logo design or identity packaging
- Print media
These specializations are designed to focus your advanced design training. You also have the opportunity to develop an MFA project that reflects your unique creative vision and technical repertoire.
The MFA in graphic design may lead to a career in professional practice as a designer or an academic career as a graphic design professor. Many graduates incorporate both design and teaching into their career path, splitting their time between creative consulting and professional instruction.
Your MFA project or specialization is likely to suggest a particular career path. Some of the career options available to you as a professional graphic designer include:
- Multimedia designer
- Publications designer
- Creative or art director
- Web designer or animator
- Communications specialist
- Typographical designer
- Environmental graphics designer (developing signage systems)
- Corporate communications specialist
- Television or motion picture graphics designer
- Museum exhibit designer
- Logo designer
- Interactive media specialist
How to Apply for the MFA in Graphic Design
After you've developed a sense of your design passions and career objectives, applying to an MFA program in graphic design becomes a matchmaking exercise. Your goal is to find the schools that best fit your personal profile.
Find the Right Graduate Graphic Design Program
The leading association of art colleges and universities, the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD), lists about 250 programs in graphic design. Many of them offer campus-based and online master's degrees. With so many options to choose from, finding the right program can seem like searching for a needle in a haystack.
Fortunately, you have an array of resources to guide your search. This step-by-step process helps focus your program research so you can zero in on the program that meets your requirements.
Step One: Develop a List of Accredited Programs
Goal: Create a working list of MFA programs in graphic design.
Start your list of MFA programs in graphic design by consulting online directories sponsored by WorldWideLearn.com, professional associations, and accrediting agencies. Accreditation is an important baseline measure of a program's quality. Independent accrediting agencies such as NASAD conduct regular program evaluations to ensure academic quality. A school's accreditation status ensures the value of your degree, as well as your eligibility for some federal financial aid programs. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a database of approved accreditation agencies.
Step Two: Online or On-Campus Format?
Goal: Select a campus-based or online format, and find graphic design schools that offer your preferred learning environment.
With new advances in multimedia communications and educational technology, the online MFA in graphic design offers a viable alternative to campus studio degrees. Factors to take into account when deciding on a program format include your personal circumstances, learning style, and access to design technology. Consider the two types of program formats:
- The online MFA in graphic design offers an asynchronous learning format, allowing you to complete the degree on your own schedule and at your own pace. Benefits of the online program include convenience, making this an attractive option for working adults. In addition, the distance education format allows you to connect with graphic design experts from anywhere in the world. Professionals already employed in graphic design may also take advantage of the work-study synergy by developing an MFA project that applies design theory directly in a professional context.
- The campus-based MFA in graphic design is the traditional format, offering access to campus studio facilities. Campus-based degrees are a good choice for students new to the graphic design field who may not have access to state-of-the-art technology and can benefit from interaction with design peers and professionals. Aspiring academics may also benefit from campus residency, because they can build relationships with faculty mentors and practice their future vocation as teaching assistants.
Step Three: Explore Academic Programs
Goal: Refine your list by identifying academic programs that match your academic interests and career profile.
Because each graduate graphic design program offers a unique take on the discipline, you need to dig deeper to determine which programs align with your interests and career goals. Take into account the following factors as you explore academic program (ranked in order of importance):
- Faculty areas of expertise
- Facilities and equipment (for campus-based programs)
- Curriculum and course requirements
- Special programs such as graduate symposia, design shows, internships, design workshops, and design publications
Learning from the masters. Master of Fine Arts programs offer an opportunity to learn from the masters in your discipline. It's important to find a program led by experts in your graphic design specialty. You can benefit from the mentorship and professional contacts of a faculty specialist.
WorldWideLearn.com facilitates the task of researching programs by putting you in touch with representatives of schools that meet your basic requirements. Fill out an online form indicating your academic program criteria, and the system matches you with the appropriate programs. A school representative may contact you by phone or e-mail to answer your questions about the program.
School Web sites offer a wealth of information at your fingertips. Find links to faculty and student graphic design work, faculty bios and areas of expertise, and detailed course information. You can also find links to special programs and events sponsored by the graphic design department.
Graphic design journals and magazines may help you scout for potential faculty mentors. You can also get a sense of what to look for in an academic program and which schools are breaking new ground in your field. Some publications to check out include:
- Visible Language
- Design Issues
- AIGA Journal
- Loop (American Institute of Graphic Arts)
- Statements (American Center for Design)
Leading design magazines include Print, Metropolis and I.D.
Step Four: Evaluate Program Quality
Goal: Evaluate programs for quality and selectivity, narrowing down your list to six to ten programs to which you want to apply.
In your final assessment, zero in on the schools that offer the best value but are still within your reach. Quality, reputation, and selectivity are the primary factors here. The top graphic design programs admit only a small percentage of applicants, so it's important to aim high but also to include some sure bets.
Evaluate schools based on:
- Career support resources
- Financial aid resources
Rankings by high-profile publications give you a sense of a school's quality and selectivity:
- U.S. News & World Report features a general ranking of the best graduate schools in graphic design
- The Princeton Review offers more focused rankings of individual MFA programs, even drilling down to areas of concentration within graphic design; the Graphic Design, Communications/Multimedia, and Animation rankings include separate lists for communications technologies, computer graphics, digital communications and multimedia, graphic design, intermedia/multimedia, and printmaking
School data affords valuable insight into academic quality. Ask an admissions counselor for statistics on job placement, graduation rate, and student demographics. You can also find information about admissions standards and selectivity.
Campus visits offer a valuable opportunity to assess the quality of the educational experience. Take a tour of campus facilities, meet with graduate students and faculty, and arrange to audit a class for a day.
Preparing for an MFA in Graphic Design
When you know which programs you want to attend, applying is simply a matter of connecting the dots. WorldWideLearn.com's Education Resources Guide offers information on the logistics of applying to graduate school, answering questions about financial aid, online learning, GRE test preparation, and more.
The following steps can lead you straight to the (online or on-campus) MFA classroom:
1. Satisfy prerequisites
Most MFA programs in graphic design require a portfolio of your design work and an undergraduate degree in a related field. If you don't have a BA in graphic design or a similar field, you may have to supplement your background with basic courses in design technology. Graphic design courses also offer a structured context for building a strong portfolio, the critical element in your graduate school application. Some graphic design programs also require that you take the GRE test before applying.
2. Compile application materials
Graduate graphic design programs generally require the following application materials:
- Bachelor's degree, preferably in a related field
- Portfolio of your work
- Personal essay or statement of interest
- Academic transcripts
- Academic or professional letters of recommendation
Many schools prefer that you submit your application online.
3. Arrange graduate school funding
You can find a number of sources of financial aid ranging from school programs to federal and private funding. Options include:
- Teaching assistantships
- Scholarships and grants
- Federal and private student loans
4. Start networking
It's not too early to start building relationships with other design professionals. You have several opportunities to get involved before you begin your program:
- Attend conferences and design exhibitions
- Join professional associations such as AIGA
- Read graphic design books, journals, and magazines
Joining the Academic Community
A master's degree in graphic design signifies mastery of your craft and membership in a community of design professionals. Make the most of your educational experience by establishing a solid foundation today. Careful planning and a clear vision of your career path sets you up for success as you pursue your MFA in graphic design.
- Academy of Art University Online, School of Graphic Design, MFA Program
- AIGA, Is There a Doctor of Design in the House? An Interview with Meredith Davis, by Steven Heller
- Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, Graphic Designers
- College Art Association (CAA)
- North Carolina State University, Graphic Design Career Planning
- North Carolina State University, Master of Graphic Design
- The Princeton Review, Arts and Architecture Graduate Degree Program Rankings
- The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Graphic Design Major Guide for 2008-2009
- U.S. Department of Education, Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs
- Wiley P, A History of Graphic Design, by Philip B. Meggs