According to the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), the variety and number of programs have increased over the past twenty years. The AIGA is the profession’s oldest and largest professional membership organization for design—with more than 70 chapters and more than 25,000 members. Whether you’re a design enthusiast, student, freelance designer, in-house designer, design educator, design thinker, or a business owner, AIGA is the professional association for design.

The assortment of names in the profession may be cause for confusion. Each name corresponds to a degree title. These are the more prominent titles that have graphic design incorporated in their respective curricula:

  • Graphic design
  • Communication design
  • Communications design
  • Visual communications
  • Visual communication design
  • Interaction design
  • Advertising design
  • Multimedia design

According to a joint statement by AIGA and the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD), “this diversity is healthy as long as students make informed decisions about the match between their own educational goals and what programs deliver in actual preparation for performance in the field.” The statement goes on to assert that “the presence of graphic design content in college courses or curricula, or even its designation as an area of emphasis or concentration, does not automatically indicate that the degree program adequately prepares students for professional practice.”

We present an exposé of the common degrees in the field of graphic design at all degree levels.

Associate of Applied Science

Students learn to use basic design principles to communicate ideas through visual images and text. As with most degree programs at this level, the Applied Science degree has courses in typography, color theory, digital layout, drawing, and graphic design. Color design, for example, analyzes the cultural, social, and psychological implications of color in everyday life. Students examine perceptions of color and the understanding of it through particular brain processes.

This degree serves students who wish to acquire skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in an entry-level position in the field of Graphic Design. Some of these programs are available at junior and community colleges. Graduates find employment in a variety of settings including the publication and printing industries, advertising and marketing organizations, and graphic design department of corporations, government agencies, and retailers.

Associate of Arts

Classes in this curriculum are often hands-on, with some programs offering simulated workspaces and production labs. Students often work toward building a portfolio that they can use when seeking employment to display their abilities. In addition to general education courses, students typically complete an introductory education in design, drawing, and digital applications. Other courses may include:

  • Computer illustration
  • 3-D design
  • Desktop publishing
  • Art history
  • Digital imaging
  • Typography

Some of the Arts programs may combine the study of media communications. This adds valuable experience in understanding and utilizing social media. It also enhances communication through spoken and digital applications for self-expression, news, persuasion, and entertainment. In addition, you may develop a portfolio of finished work that you display in a professional manner.

Associate of Science

The coursework will generally be similar to an Arts degree. Within the A.S. program in graphic design, students gain knowledge of interactive art systems, creative design, production processes, and communication skills. Some programs cover photo image editing (using Adobe Photoshop), web design, multimedia development, and animation using the Adobe Creative Cloud software. You may also learn and practice graphic design and production using Adobe Illustrator to create website interface.

Some schools will require that you have the necessary software installed on your computer, including Adobe software (Creative Cloud, Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, etc.) and Microsoft Office Professional. You would also need a printer, scanner, digital camera, and, of course, drawing supplies.

An A.S. degree may involve more computer skills, as well as a mathematics course, such as algebra. Another difference is a business and technical writing course. Students learn to compose memos, emails, outlines, reports and proposals, descriptions, and organizing materials. Students also work on honing their grammar skills.

Associate of Fine Arts

The Associate of Fine Arts prepares students to transfer to a Bachelor of Arts or Fine Arts in Graphic Design or related degree. This could be in advertising, art education, digital media, fashion design, and many others.

A Fine Arts program typically places a greater emphasis on art. This means courses in drawing, two-dimensional design, three-dimensional design, art history and appreciation, and possibly a painting studio elective. Painting, for example, identifies, demonstrates, and discusses painting concepts and techniques. Interprets and analyzes various processes from traditional to contemporary painting styles.

The objective of art history is to recognize styles and identify specific works of art from a variety of the world’s ancient cultures. You learn to identify specific examples of art by artist, historical period, style, and culture as appropriate.