Top US Design Programs & Tips for Choosing One

Top US Design Programs & Tips for Choosing One

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A question I often get asked via email is “Which graphic design school / university should I attend?”. To be honest it’s a very hard question to answer as everyone has different needs, however, today we have Brian Jenkins* here to highlight some of the top US design schools. If you are not from the US please do share the top design programs in your country, in the comments below.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2008, there were about 286,100 graphic design jobs in the USA . Employment growth for graphic designers from 2008 to 2018 is forecasted by the BLS to be about as fast as the average for all occupations. Keen competition is expected for positions in the field. According to the BLS, those with website design and animation experience will have the best job opportunities.

Recent college graduates will have to depend on their educational credentials and portfolio to convince employers to hire them so it’s vital to select a recognised graphic design degree program to ensure you get the education you need. Some important factors for employers – after your body of work – are the school’s reputation, the quality of the graphic design program, and accreditation by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. These certainly not the only credentials, but it does help.

When choosing a school, consider schools that have up-to-date design software and technology as employers are looking for candidates who know how to use them. Find out if the schools you’re considering have connections in the graphic design industry and if they provide internships. Internships give valuable experience and networking opportunities, and oftentimes employers will their hire talented interns.

US Top Rated Design Schools

The following schools’ graphic design graduate programs were ranked in the top ten by U.S. News & World Report in 2008. These schools also offer quality undergraduate degree programs that include the vital elements of graphic design:

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  • The Rhode Island School of Design: This school is widely regarded as one of the best stand alone design schools in the nation.
  • Cranbrook Academy of Art: This school doesn’t have faculty, but instead has artists-in residence. The program focuses on the core of art and design. Cranbrook provides a very unique experience.
  • Yale University School of Art: This fine school is tied #2 in the U.S. News & World Report list.
  • Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU): VCU offers a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts in Graphic Design. The program includes a range of design-specific classes.
  • Carnegie Mellon University: Graphic design students attend the university’s College of Fine Arts. The college emphasizes hands-on learning.
  • Maryland Institute College of Art: It’s one of the nation’s oldest art colleges. The school is included among the top 25 design schools by ID magazine.
  • California Institute of the Arts: CalArts, founded by Walt Disney, offers a graphic design program that places an emphasis on the practical and conceptual sides of graphic design. Students have access to studios 24/7. The school has a extremely accomplished faculty.
  • Pratt Institute: The Institute’s School of Art & Design faculty is made up of numerous recipients of prestigious awards including Fulbright, Tiffany, and Guggenheim fellowships. Pratt is a member of the Association of the Independent Colleges of Art and Design which consists of 36 of the premier art schools in the nation. It has been regarded as one of the leading art schools in the nation since its founding in 1886.
  • School of Visual Arts: This school offers a graphics design undergraduate program that works in 3D, 2D, and digital media.
  • California College of the Arts: CCA provides internships at publishing and printing firms, nonprofit organizations, and technology companies.

Here’s a list of other US notable schools:

  • University of Delaware
  • Penn State University
  • Kansas City Art Institute
  • Academy of Art University
  • Parson Schools of Design (see their Graphic Design Degree)
  • Cleveland Institute of Art
  • UCLA School of Arts and Architecture
  • University of the Arts
  • University of Illinois at Chicago School of Art and Design

Remember that not one school is right for every individual. Do the research to find out what’s best for you & try your best to get there!

Notable Schools In Other Countries

Have a recommended design school in your country? Please let us know in the comments.

*Brian Jenkins writes about a variety of topics related to education and careers for BrainTrack, including careers in graphic design & online graphic design degrees.

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Image source: Shutterstock

29 thoughts on “Top US Design Programs & Tips for Choosing One”

  1. Honestly rankings don’t matter. If you try your best and be as creative as possible you will come out of school with a solid portfolio. You have too search around and look at the current student’s work. I remember visiting University of the Arts and Penn State and not being very impressed. But my word means nothing!! Check it out for yourself and if you are really passionate about design, you will do fine!

    • Mike, I agree about being passionate and being creative as possible, but sometimes you need the teachers and mentors to bring the best out of you. Also, having the foundation from a solid design program certainly does help, though it’s not always essential.

  2. I’m going to nominate my own alma mater in the UK: Goldsmiths, Uni of London. The reason I loved it is because the personal development programme that runs alongside whichever programme you’re on is very strong and practical. It offers you classes for things like running a business, personal branding and building your online portfolio, and has a very strong alumni network; I’ve freelanced for many Goldsmiths alums, many of whom have gone on to work agency side, which, as a web producer, is always handy!

  3. I went to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, they have a decent history in design and arts. Buckminster Fuller taught there for a while and the town is blanketed by the arts (amongst Bucky Domes).

    It was a great school and even a better town. I would highly recommend that Art and Design programs to anyone. They had a strong focus on typography.

    The only down side is they do not have a masters program in design.

  4. Wow no S.C.A.D or Ringling or RISD I figured those would get some recognition?

    @Johnathan whats wrong with Fullsail University? I’d like to hear your opinion. I’m a proud Alumni of FS and my career is going very well. I currently work for a Professional Sports franchise. I do feel though many of the students it’s their first “real college” and they pay for it in their career. Basically you get what you put into it. Hard work always pays off!


  5. I was working in the same industry & have experience but I didn’t have any Degree… That’s why I was facing so many problems. N I was just thinking to get admission in Arts Iniversity. But while i was confuse to choosing any university. But now i know which is best, Thanks for this nice work n solving my problem 🙂

  6. Thanks for all your contributions!

    I am contacting Brian to see what’s up here. Thanks for the tip off!

    Update: He mentioned he didn’t rank them in order, however I have since updated the post to display them in order.

  7. @JG,

    “Basically you get what you put into it”

    I suppose you are right on that. I have just had some rather bad run ins with a few people working on a degree / completed a degree with FS.
    Maybe horrible work can come from any college, like you said, “Basically you get what you put into it”.


    Does anyone here have any knowledge of the Houston Art Institute or related campuses?
    I went there to talk to a councilor when I was on R&R from my last deployment and it wasn’t a very pleasing experience.

  8. I’ll agree that choosing a top school to get your degree is a booster, but your portfolio and references are plenty to launch a career. How bad do you want it? Take the time to learn the skills that employers require and prove to them that you can talk the talk with your resume and portfolio. When you get the chance to prove yourself…walk the walk. Anyone who does not take the provided experience or education seriously will not succeed. It does not matter whether it’s learning on your own time, community college, or Cranbrook.

    As you can see I’m not a big supporter of overspending on bloated education. I’m sure it’s worked for some people though, and I’ve visited a few companies that absolutely require a BA 3.5 GPA or better.

  9. Buffalo State is a very good school for design (and art), as well. The school has it’s own art museum, the Burchfield-Penney, and is directly across the street from the Albright Knox. Buff State is pretty much in the heart of Allentown, Buffalo, which is brimming with the arts and culture, making it a perfect school for design and art.
    I’m majoring in Communication Design right now and I love the program. They teach you everything you could possibly need to know so you can build up a great portfolio; and they keep you so busy (not in a bad way!) that you can’t possibly minor in anything. The head of the dept even went to Pratt, so the students know that the program is designed with the industry and its standards in mind. I could go on and on but I’ll leave it at that. 🙂

  10. May I add the ECAL, Lausanne’s School of Arts and Design (Switzerland), which is among the top-rated in Europe. It offers courses in graphic design, industrial design, media and interaction design, photography, cinema and visual arts.

  11. @EVERYONE…So I am about to Graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill and really need guidance on the best schools to get a MASTER’s degree in Graphic Design from! Any solid suggestions? I have looked all over for reviews from current students but I come up with nothing 🙁 I am applying to North Carolina State Univ. School of Design, RISD, and SCAD but one of my Art profs. seems to think that I am not widening my scope of schools to apply to…any help?

  12. This article makes a very important point about the highly competitive nature of graphic design jobs, and what it means for would-be graphic designers. A graphic art degree from an accredited, highly ranked and well rated college will give you the theoretical instruction, the practical experience, the necessary push to make and perfect your portfolio, and the stamp of a college, which is a definite plus in the eyes of employers and clients alike.

  13. I am surprised to see Art Center College of Design not on the list, from what i know, its is second only to RISD

  14. I put together a list of the most named schools and narrowed that down to the most well known. I’m in California and so I have a choice of several here. I also put together a list for NY, Italy and U.K. incase I decide to move to either one. The point is you should find the best schools nearest to you and when I say best, I mean best teachers. The more experience then the better.

  15. Really surprised not to see DAAP (the Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning school at the University of Cincinnati) listed. I would consider its successful history and co-op program to place it above many of the schools that were.

  16. Thanks for this. I do believe that you can only learn so much from your academic program. Although these schools have some of the best instructors in the world, it would be nothing without a valable experience as a design intern. I found an internship as a designer at a start up in San Francisco and had a ton of responsibility. I would have to say that I learned more from the Manager during my 3 month internship than my 2 years in school so far. Check out the other opportunities if you’re interested:

  17. Hello..
    How about the DOMUS ACADEMY,Milan or IED in europe.
    I have heard they have a good reputation too.
    The courses are also neatly put.

  18. From my personal experience- Glasgow School of Art.
    But: although the school is consider one of the best ones in Britain and possibly in the world, I’d like to give you some personal comment, in case you thinking of applying there.
    GSA is an excellent school, but only if you are able to work on your own, control your own schedule, etc. I’d say it’s a good choice for mature people, who know what they want to do and are determined to achieve their goals, as they give you a lot of freedom in here and you sometimes can feel a bit lost.
    Anyway, it’s a very modern school, with literally no lectures and very focused on your personal development.

  19. Though there are plenty of various design schools which give valuable knowledge, I still believe that most of design skills can be obtained via personal practice and motivation to learn. Sometimes people who didn’t attend any school or college become a very good professionals and vise versa. I was attending a school of grafic desing, but soon I found that I’m not that creative enough, so I became a writer and now I write essays for

  20. So I just wanted to chime in – I got my Masters for the New England School of Art & Design at Suffolk and it was not only a great program but I was able to get a fantastic graphic design job right out of the program and have since progressed significantly over the past few years. It not only taught me great design but also the skills to thrive in the workplace.

    I would definitely recommend NESAD.

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