What Are Online Graphic Design Programs Really Like? 9 Things to Expect
By Brianna Flavin on 10/26/2023
If you’re interested in a graphic designer degree online, you probably already know you have creative and visual instincts. Maybe you even have prior experience in visual or graphic arts.
You might have opinions on colors and fonts. You might cringe at cluttered, confusing designs. You might have a vivid imagination that you really enjoy putting to use. It’s no wonder you're interested in becoming a graphic designer.
But when you sit down to start learning the software and tools, or when you start trying to attract clients for some paying graphic design work, reality sets in.
There are so many things graphic designers need to learn. And video tutorials can only take you so far. Plus, when you’re wading through Adobe® tutorials alone, you might struggle to keep your creative spark (and motivation) alive.
“It is one thing to be creative and want to learn to monetize that with a career, but it’s another thing to actually learn the software that allows that to happen,” says Anthony Sims, Assistant Professor in Rasmussen University’s Graphic Design program.
Online graphic design programs can absolutely help with that. And these days, you can find affordable options for a Bachelor's in graphic design, or even an Associate's degree—all online.
But what are online graphic design degrees like? How would it be different from just queuing up a ton of video walkthroughs and trying to teach yourself Adobe Creative Cloud®? Would a Bachelor’s in graphic design online help you get work as a graphic designer?
As you consider these questions, take a moment to see what an online graphic design program is really like. When you have a better idea of what online students in these courses can expect, you’ll be able to decide if it's a good move for you.
So, what can you expect from an online graphic design degree program?
1. Your courses will take place in a consistent format
Some online programs are designed thoughtfully from square one, and some are hasty attempts to make an in-person course remote. This happened with many universities when the pandemic began, for some, their in-person education suddenly became an online bachelor program. But a thrown-together option seldom leads to a great experience.
Accrediting bodies like the higher learning commission and the colleges and schools commission have worked with fully-online institutions of education for a long time, ensuring that online programs meet a high level of education standards. Online programs are not lesser, but they are very different than traditional learning.
Look carefully at your chosen graphic design program’s….design. Were these courses made to be online? Does the platform support a rich user experience? Are you going to have to wade through new, clunky UX (user experience) every time you start a new course?
Since that type of barrier can really interfere with what you are learning, Rasmussen’s courses are designed in the same format through your program. Once you adjust to the first one, you’ll know what to expect as you progress.
2. You’ll get a lot more familiar with computer systems
“The best graphic design tools out there happen on computers,” Sims says. Software for graphic designers might be available for tablets and mobile phones—but the tools you’ll need for today’s market are computer system tools.
“A unique struggle that both younger and older students have is understanding the standard PC/Mac® system and how to work within it,” Sims says. He explains that older people tend to assume younger students are better with technology, but that sometimes doesn’t apply to computers.
“Some younger students know phones and tablets, but the professional world of desktop computing is a mystery to them in a way that perhaps older millennials didn't have to worry about.”
Whether you are in your sixties or your twenties, you’ll need to get used to doing coursework from a computer and learning how PCs and Macs operate, along with the creative suite of graphic design tools on their systems. This is critical for web design projects and most of the work you'll do as a graphic designer.
“The first hurdle to overcome is getting used to online courses,” says John Mindiola III, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at Rasmussen. He says once students get used to the following aspects of an online graphic design program, they’ve cleared that first learning curve.
- How the website works
- How to contact instructors
- How to participate in Live Classroom sessions and view recordings
- How to find grading feedback
- How to stay on track with the weekly due dates and manage your schedule
You might find it challenging. “But, in the end, this is what separates a creative professional from a hobbyist, and why you are in a graphic design degree program,” Sims says.
3. At first, the program might feel more technical than creative
Graphic Design Bachelor’s programs and Associate’s programs often begin with design fundamentals and tools. After all, if it was just about snapping photos of gorgeous color arrangements or choosing your favorite fonts, you could do that on your own. Online graphic design degrees exist to guide you through some of the most essential programs and systems graphic designers rely on every day.
At first, it might feel like a lot of technical work that doesn’t inspire your creativity—but once you start gaining fluency with each application, you’ll see how wide the graphic design possibilities open up.
In your first batch of classes, Sims says graphic design students really need to “batten down the hatches,” and get serious about learning Adobe Creative Suite® and Microsoft 365®
“We build MOST of our classes around those tools,” Sims says. “They are the basis of most of what we teach.” These are the nuts and bolts of the graphic design career—and once you have that foundation, you can wield the tools to create amazing things.
4. You’ll learn traditional arts as well
Though the digital tools are the “paintbrush” of graphic design in many ways, graphic design programs will also teach you traditional arts that inform and enhance what you’ll make.
Intro classes for Rasmussen's online graphic design programs mix traditional art theory along with intro lessons in those software apps, Sims says. “We have a basic intro class in Graphic Design Tools and Techniques that gets graphic design students running with Adobe Photoshop® and Illustrator®, and a more in-depth class with Elements and Principles of Graphic Design, which really gets them cracking on those apps and graphic design execution.”
Graphic design students also take a Sketching for Designers course to help them integrate basic visual communication and pre-visualization techniques.
“And in that first batch of courses is the initial Color Theory course, an art/design school staple,” Sims says. “As a traditional artist first, I have a soft spot for color theory and sketching. They are the basis of so much of graphic design, and I enjoy expressing the importance of these basic elements.”
5. Your graphic design program instructors are also successful artists and career designers
One way to evaluate any prospective program is by looking at what the faculty do or create. Do you see a strong sense of style in their graphic design? Are they using graphic design to communicate in varied ways?
Your instructors will use what they know from their own careers as graphic designers, art directors and web designers to teach you—so it’s worth looking into. Sims says the instructors in the Rasmussen Graphic Design program are one of its greatest assets.
“We have a veritable army of wonderful and qualified adjuncts pulled from the very fields that our students want to join, as well as a small but varied and determined full-time staff of very long-time faculty,” Sims says.
6. Online graphic design courses can be personal too
Just because your classes take place online, doesn’t mean they have to be impersonal. Graphic design instructors are primarily working to help you digest the material, but they also find ways to interact and personalize things.
“I like to create feedback videos where appropriate,” Mindiola says. “This allows me to discuss students’ submissions while sharing my screen, replicating an in-person critique.” While this isn’t something he does for every kind of assignment, Mindiola’s students share that they appreciate the extra detail and personal touch of a video feedback response.
“It can help them better understand why they earned the scores they did and areas where they can improve.”
“I like showing that I am more than just a professor,” Sims says. “I am active as an artist and a creative professional.”
Sims likes to offer his social media tag so students can see his artwork (@BlueChino.ART_ig) and encourages all students to follow or engage with their professors as artists too. This can be a great way to build your professional network and future sources of inspiration even after you graduate.
7. You might take business courses as well
Many graphic design programs leave the business world for after graduation. But since an understanding of business is critical for freelance graphic designers, and also extremely marketable for in-house and agency graphic designers, Rasmussen’s Associate and Bachelor’s degree programs include courses about the business side of design.
This is pretty rare for graphic design programs, Mindiola says. But it’s valuable.
“For designers to be successful, they need to have at least a basic understanding of the relationship between design and business. Design isn’t something that’s just created for fun—it exists to help companies and organizations build awareness and achieve their objectives.”
8. The coursework will be relevant to today’s market
A good graphic design program should not have the same course curriculum now that it did twenty years ago. While many principles of art are timeless—graphic design is a technology-heavy field, and it shifts as technologies advance.
“We are very active in maintaining as well as creating courses that keep the degree paths current and useful for the students,” Sims says.
In this program, students learn how to think like designers too, according to Mindiola. It’s not just about making what you like to look at. “Students are challenged to approach assignments from different angles, about a wide range of scenarios, to produce work they didn’t expect to create. All of this helps students explore the far-reaching potential of design.”
9. Your classmates will be a source of learning too
The students who thrive in this program are driven and determined. For this type of online student, “no assignment is too small, every objective is simply a moment to learn and a moment to show off what you are bringing to the table,” Sims says.
“I have had students who genuinely amaze me, and despite being a professional designer, illustrator and animator, I have had students whip out skill sets that would be competitive with my own,” Sims says.
When you interact with your peers, you’ll see the unique things they are considering or attempting. You can keep your head down and ignore their work, but if you open yourself up a bit, you could learn twice as much.
Making your passion professional
“Graphic design is a professional offshoot of what is typically considered to be a passion skillset,” Sims says. “While it is often more focused on direct application of creative talents to a business-like execution, it’s also about making people responsive to what they are creating, be it for a product or their own art.”
Graphic designers need to adapt to each professional challenge that comes their way, and that starts during your online graphic design program.
“We don’t expect anyone to get everything right the first time,” Mindiola says. “Learning is always smooth and linear.” He explains that students who thrive are open to receiving feedback and communicating regularly with their instructors, and they are determined to make beautiful and effective graphic design.
If you feel that sense of determination when you think about taking hold of a career as a graphic designer, you might have what it takes to succeed in an online graphic design degree program.
Get the all the details about our online Bachelor's in graphic design or the Associate's online graphic design degree. Rasmussen University’s Online Graphic Design program page will explain how long each type of graphic design degree takes, career outcomes to consider, tuition costs and more.
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Adobe Creative Suite® is a registered trademark of Adobe Systems Incorporated CORPORATION DELAWARE 345 Park Avenue San Jose CALIFORNIA 95110
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