5 Things Good Graphic Design Programs Have in Common

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You’ve already decided a formal graphic design education will give you the best bet for a successful design career. But with so many schools and options out there—online, on-campus, bachelor’s, associate’s, certificates—how do you decide which ones have what you need to excel after you graduate?

While determining the best of anything is usually a pretty subjective process, there are definitely a handful of factors you’ll want to give careful consideration to when searching for a graphic design program. In this article, we’ll provide you with some helpful guide rails and things to look for as you search.

5 Signs of a good graphic design program

Every program is created differently. But there are a few features that good graphic design programs include. While you’re on the hunt for the best graphic design program for you, keep an eye out for these important characteristics.

1. Diverse courses and curriculum

More and more is expected of graphic designers than ever. Not only are they supposed to create effective and engaging designs, they’re also called upon to provide expertise in niche design areas like user experience (UX) and user interface (UI). So how do you make sure you’re prepared to succeed in this changing field?

When you’re scrolling through a college’s program page or course catalog, look for courses that focus on design fundamentals, like color theory, typography, layout design and color theory. After those courses, you’ll want to stretch your skills further into print, interactive, web projects, motion graphics and user experience design. Rasmussen College School of Design Dean Jennifer Ayotte believes that curriculums should begin with a solid foundation in the basics and then advance into more specialized, in-demand skills in order to produce graduates that are competitive and prepared to get out in the job market. At Rasmussen College, you’ll find courses like:

  • Advanced Color Theory
  • Advanced Typography
  • Advanced Digital Photography
  • Search Engines, Optimization and Analytics
  • Advanced User Experience Design
  • Advanced Motion Graphics

As you can see, these courses touch on a lot more than just how to use common design software—they provide a broad base of knowledge used to make those tools useful.

“Much like a brush does not make a talented painter, Photoshop® does not make a talented image editor and Illustrator® does not make a talented logo designer,” Ayotte says.

Don’t be afraid to go beyond the website or course catalog when exploring your options. “Some very important details may be missing at that level,” Ayotte says. If a course listing isn’t providing much detail, try getting into contact with a school’s admissions team. Often they can help provide some of these answers—whether that’s immediate or through a faculty member who is an expert in the curriculum.

“A potential design student should feel comfortable knowing what the main competencies of a program are, and how the courses in the program lead to achieving those competencies,” says Ayotte. Here are a few other questions you may want to ask an admissions team member or faculty about the graphic design curriculum:

  • Are there live demonstrations where students can ask questions and get help?
  • Which software programs are used in class? Which will be provided and which will I need to purchase at an additional cost?
  • Are there opportunities for peer collaboration or peer critique in or outside of class?

2. Hands-on experiences

If you’re interested in graphic design, there’s a good chance you love to create things—as a kid in art class, or as the “craft-y” one among your friends. You know that you learn well by doing and that the best projects take practice. When considering graphic design programs, take note of the courses that let you tackle tangible projects with results you can tuck into your portfolio to show future employers.

“Research and writing papers are always valuable tools, but design courses should largely be infused with projects that require students to get their hands dirty in the software and produce design-based deliverables.” Since graphic designers work on a project basis in the field, starting creative projects early in their education is the best way to prepare.

Graphic design students should also get real-world experience through internships. Many graphic design programs build for-credit internships into the curriculum, but even if they don’t, students should look for one (or more) anyway—the experience is worth much more than just school credits.

If you’re not able to find an internship that works for you, you can look into doing pro bono or freelance design work outside of class. Nonprofits and other charitable organizations frequently accept design work in exchange for helping designers build up an impressive resume and portfolio. “Real-world, real-client work always stands out in a portfolio,” says Ayotte.

If you can’t spot any mentions of “hands-on,” “authentic assessments” or “project-based learning” on the website or in the course catalog, reach out to admissions or a faculty member to inquire about project-based learning. “It’s worth the extra time to inquire and feel confident that the program they’re interested in helps prepare them through immersive learning,” says Ayotte.

3. Experienced instructors

Your instructors will have the greatest influence on your time in any graphic design program, no matter where you end up. Your time will be shaped by their own teaching style and design preferences, so the more saturated they are in the field, the better. “When I went to college for graphic design, some of the best instructors were the ones who strolled into class right after large client meetings or on the heels of uploading a major website project,” says Ayotte. 

Students thrive learning from instructors who can connect classroom lessons to real-world examples—they’ve seen a lot of what’s on the road ahead, and being able to lean on that experience is an asset for students. Ayotte recalls a time when a former student was able to save a video project from failure thanks to her retelling of a critical error of her own—and the steps students can take to make sure it doesn’t happen to them. “Students really absorb that information and retain it for many years.”

4. Up-to-date tools and technology

On your first day of work as a graphic designer, you want to be able to get your new laptop and hit the ground running with software you’re already familiar with. Learning to use industry-standard software and tools is key to a smooth transition into a graphic design position and producing the best work you can.

While you’ll learn a lot about psychology, layout hierarchy and typography, you’ll need tools to put all that knowledge to work. “Knowledge and tools combined is the most potent combination that a designer can bring to the table,” says Ayotte.

How do you learn to use all these tools? At Rasmussen College, you’ll learn software in small doses alongside design theory, principles and psychology. This includes Adobe Creative Cloud® software (Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign®, After Effects® and Dreamweaver®), among others. “Coursework should be a constant tapestry that weaves the software in and out,” says Ayotte.

For example, as you’re learning about color theory and the effects of color on design, you should be challenged to incorporate this information into a design of your own using those software tools. This reinforces what you’ve learned and builds your overall confidence and familiarity with the software at your disposal.

5. Alignment with industry certifications

Industry certifications can’t replace the value of a formal graphic design education, but in combination with a strong portfolio they can help make your resume stand out. Design certifications give third-party validation to a candidate’s technical skills with key design software.

The Rasmussen College Graphic Animation and Web Design courses prepare students to take various Adobe certifications. You’ll establish basic skills and knowledge, and practice both in and outside of class. Best of all, Rasmussen College also offers testing fee reimbursement for up to three certifications, regardless of whether the student passes or not. “We want students to feel empowered, not hindered,” says Ayotte.

Find the best graphic design program for you

Now that you’ve got a checklist for evaluating potential graphic design programs, you’re all set to start exploring your options. Continue your research to find the best graphic design program for your specific interests and needs.

Learn more about what the Rasmussen College program offers by visiting our Graphic Design program page.

Adobe, Adobe Creative Cloud, Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, After Effects and Dreamweaver are registered trademarks of Adobe, Inc.

About the author

Kirsten Slyter

Kirsten is a Content Writer at Collegis Education where she enjoys researching and writing on behalf of Rasmussen University. She understands the difference that education can make and hopes to inspire readers at every stage of their education journey.


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This piece of ad content was created by Rasmussen University to support its educational programs. Rasmussen University may not prepare students for all positions featured within this content. Please visit www.rasmussen.edu/degrees for a list of programs offered. External links provided on rasmussen.edu are for reference only. Rasmussen University does not guarantee, approve, control, or specifically endorse the information or products available on websites linked to, and is not endorsed by website owners, authors and/or organizations referenced. Rasmussen University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, an institutional accreditation agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

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