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The 20 Best Graphic Design Schools in the US

Posted by Ellen McCammon | Jul 9, 2016 8:00:00 AM

College Info

 

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Graphic designers are involved in nearly everything we look at, watch, or read, from the designs on books, to the way websites navigate, to halftime commercials, to the logos on business cards. Graphic designers are the visual wizards who make sure every concert poster and app user interface has an impact and communicates a desired message. 

If this sounds appealing to you, you might wonder how you become a graphic designer. Well, you go to school! In this article, I’ll discuss what a graphic design program is, how I created this list, the best graphic design schools, and how to choose the right program for you.

 

What Is a Graphic Design School?

Graphic design, or communication design, is the use of image, text, and media to convey information or ideas. Graphic designers are strategic communicators who design advertisements, book jackets, posters, websites, app interfaces, publishing layouts, album art, logos, and so on and so forth. If you’re creative and innovative, particularly if you’re also interested in technology, graphic design may be a good option for you.

To get work as a graphic designer, you’ll need a strong portfolio of work to show potential employers. You could theoretically do this on your own, or get an Associate’s degree, but for a fully fleshed-out college experience, a guaranteed strong portfolio, and ready-made industry connections, consider getting a BA or BFA in graphic design or communications design (the name and specific degree type depends on the school). Graphic design programs can be found both at art schools and as departments within larger universities. They are even found at some technical schools!

This list includes graphic design programs of all types, but all are great places to get a graphic design education and learn the skills you need to launch a design career.

 

Ranking Method

How did I compile these rankings?

First, I found as many lists of the best graphic design schools that I could possibly find. I eliminated ones that seemed to come from less reliable/reputable sources (like personal blogs) or were already aggregated lists from other sources because they would be redundant. This left me with rankings from all kinds of sources with all kinds of data—trade magazines, alumni rankings, student satisfaction, and so on. US News and World Report does not rank undergraduate graphic design programs; however, they do have data on Freshman retention rates, which was also factored in.

All of the rankings were preliminarily averaged. Then schools were ranked based on average score, how many lists they appeared in (so a school that appeared in spots 5 and 6 on two lists but appeared on no others didn’t necessarily beat a school that appeared in spots 7, 8, 7, 8 on four lists). Freshman retention rates were used to break ties in close calls. Overall, the rankings reflect a fairly holistic measure of prestige/name recognition, student satisfaction, alumni valuation of the program, and return-on-investment.

 

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Was this layout designed by a master graphic design student? You decide.

 

The Best Graphic Design Schools

Here are the 20 top graphic design programs. I’ve linked to our admissions requirements pages for all of these schools, but these pages are mostly focused on GPA and test scores. Keep in mind that when applying to a graphic design program, a strong portfolio of your past creative work will likely be more important than grades or GPA.

 

Best Overall Programs

These are programs with high name recognition, consistently high rankings, and notable faculty and alumni.

 

Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) - Providence, Rhode Island

RISD is essentially the Harvard of art schools in terms of name recognition and famous alumni (including, but not limited to, the founders of Airbnb, animator/comedian Seth MacFarlane, actor James Franco and fashion designers Nicole Miller and Jill Stuart). Alumni have also received a number of MacArthur “genius” grants. If you attend RISD, you can expect well-funded programs and faculty in the very top of their disciplines.

It’s unsurprising, then, that RISD was consistently at the top of school rankings for graphic design. It’s one of the most competitive schools on this list and has a strongly-established, well-known graphic design program. Students apply to RISD overall and do not select a major until midway through the first year of study. Graphic Design is one of the largest undergraduate departments at RISD, with about 165 students. Students graduate with a BFA degree.

 

Parsons School of Design - Manhattan, New York

Parsons is another school with a lot of name recognition and top-notch faculty, and they consistently appear at the top of best-program rankings. The school overall was named the best design school in the United States by Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings and the second-best in the world, largely in recognition of their interdisciplinary focus on the nuts-and-bolts technical and the design-functional. Their four-year BFA program in Communication Design (their graphic design equivalent) has placed alumni at Google, Facebook, and New York Magazine, in addition to producing a healthy crop of entrepreneurs and freelancers.

 

The Pratt Institute - Brooklyn, New York

The Pratt Institute is another prestigious program located on a historic campus in Brooklyn, NY. They are invested in a philosophy of “poetic pragmatism,” in which artistic vision is married with practical skills. Many faculty are working professionals in their fields who teach part-time.

The Pratt Institute offers a BFA in Communications Design—an interdisciplinary program focusing on advertising, illustration, and graphic design (you will choose to focus on one of the three areas). Alumni praise the program for preparing them for careers in their fields and for its innovative and boundary-pushing focus.

 

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Hey, maybe you'll cross this bridge to get to Pratt!

 

Highly Regarded Programs

These programs are well-resourced and well-known in the industry. Many offer their own unique spin on graphic design or have a special focus not found at many other institutions.

 

Art Center College of Design - Pasadena, California

Art Center’s undergraduate program in Graphic Design gives extensive training in both old and new media, creating well-rounded practitioners with skills spanning all areas of graphic design as a discipline. Art Center encourages an experimental and socially conscious approach. Art Center offers a great return-on-investment, with alumni making higher salaries than graduates from peer institutions. Graduates end up in a variety of industries and fields; alumni currently work for such diverse companies as Nike and NASA.

 

Carnegie Mellon School of Design - Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

You might be surprised to see a big research university known for its engineering program on a graphic design list. But don’t be! Carnegie Mellon has an innovative approach to the study and craft of graphic design; alumni praise the program’s integration of the artistic points of design with advanced technologies.

Instead of a BFA, the Carnegie Mellon school of design offers a BDes—a Bachelors in Design. They also offer an interdisciplinary degree in design combined with another course of study of a student’s choice, which should be very appealing to students with multiple interests. It’s also a great choice if you want an art-school education but a big research university experience. Overall, Carnegie Mellon provides a cutting-edge, strong foundation for design careers.

 

School of Visual Arts - Manhattan, New York

The School of Visual Arts offers a BFA in Graphic Design, with the option to specialize within graphic design in fields like package design, website design, book jacket design, and so on. Alumni praised the school’s amazing networking opportunities—SVA has a robust internship program, holds professional-level exhibitions of student work, and sends compilations of graduating student work to industry giants every year in the Senior Library. SVA is a good choice for you if your primary concern is being commercially marketable and networking during school; it may not be the school for you if you are interested in the practice of design on an artistic and/or theoretical level.

 

Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) - Savannah, Georgia

Savannah College of Art and Design is unusually large for an art school, with over 11,000 students enrolled. You can get a BA in Visual Communication (with a focus on graphic design) or a BFA in Graphic Design, so your options are flexible. Professors have significant industry experience, and you’ll have a chance to study abroad at SCAD’s global campuses in Hong Kong or Lacoste, France. Overall, SCAD is a solid design school that offers lots of opportunities to the motivated student.

 

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At SCAD, you could have access to these trees all the time!

 

Virginia Commonwealth University - Richmond, Virginia

This is another great choice if you want the art-school chops with the big university experience: VCU is a large public university with over 30,000 students. US News and World Report ranked VCU as the #1 art and design program at a public university in the US.  VCU offers a BFA in Graphic Design—but you do have to complete the “Art Foundation” sequence first and then apply into the major.

 

Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) - Baltimore, Maryland

MICA has a modern, urban campus in Baltimore and offers a craft-focused BFA in Graphic Design that aims to develop both your creativity and your skill with technology. MICA also offers liberal arts minors like Gender Studies and Critical Theory. Additionally, they have a unique interdisciplinary BFA program in humanistic studies—so you can combine your graphic design education with an interdisciplinary focus on the liberal arts and humanities.

 

California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) - Valencia, Santa Clarita, California

If you dream of attending an art school founded by Walt Disney, CalArts is for you. Disney envisioned CalArts as a place where students from all artistic disciplines could develop in a collaborative, workshop-centered environment. The BFA Graphic Design program is fairly small, with only about 12-20 new students each year. Many alumni go on to work for film, television, and major tech companies. If Hollywood’s calling you, CalArts could be a great choice!

 

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Is Hollywood beckoning?

 

Well Regarded Programs

This section includes some big-name art schools whose graphic design programs aren’t quite as well established as their other programs and some up-and-coming graphic design programs that are just now gaining steam.

 

Otis College of Art and Design - Los Angeles, CA

The BFA program in graphic design at Otis is located within the Communication Design department, which also houses programs in Illustration and Advertising Design. Otis primarily prepares its graduates to work in the professional sphere; past graphic design graduates have worked for Apple, Anthropologie, Conde Nast, Disney, Interscope Records, Mattel, Sony, and Target. It’s a good choice for students who’d like to do design work for major companies and are interested in some of the more commercial aspects of graphic design.

 

University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning - Cincinnati, Ohio

If you’re looking to combine the experience of attending a large NCAA division-1 school with a high-quality design program and want to have a chance to take courses in many different disciplines during your undergraduate career, University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning may be a good fit for you! Unlike many other programs, which offer a BFA, University of Cincinnati offers a BS in Communication Design as their graphic design degree. Many students go on to work in the healthcare industry, for governments, or for NGOs, so if you’re interested in design within those fields, University of Cincinnati is a great choice.

 

California College of the Arts (CCA) - Oakland, CA

CCA offers a BFA in Graphic Design that prepares students to work in multiple design disciplines. They also have a robust internship program for fourth-year students that guarantees you’ll graduate with hands-on, real-world professional experience. Additionally, CCA as an institution has a focus on social justice-oriented and socially conscious design practice. Essentially, students get a little bit of everything: a wide skill set, professional experience, and social consciousness.

 

Yale University School of Art - New Haven, Connecticut

If you want an Ivy-league education as well as excellent preparation to work as a graphic designer, Yale is the dream school for you! Students major in Art with a specialization in graphic design and receive a BA degree. Interested students should be aware that they will need to apply for admission to the major in their sophomore year.

As with many other programs at Yale, the graphic design program is very focused on the craft and theory of design as opposed to its most practical and commercial applications. This program is best for students whose interests are academic and artistic as opposed to technical and/or commercial.

 

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Plus, Yale also has snowy New England winters.

 

College for Creative Studies - Detroit, Michigan

College for Creative Studies offers a BFA in Graphic Design. They have a unique focus on “experience design,” or immersive, multimedia design experiences. If this interests you, CCS is the place to go, as programs focused on experience design are few and far between. CCS also has an institution-wide focus on community engagement. Graphic design alumni have worked for Dreamworks, Google, Nike, Disney, Fox, Microsoft, and universities and libraries. Many have founded their own design firms.

 

School of the Art Institute at Chicago (SAIC) - Chicago, IL

School of the Art Institute is the school associated with Chicago’s notable Art Institute museum. SAIC offers a BFA in Visual Communication Design, with a focus on both physical and virtual design mediums. The department facilitates student freelance work and internships to ensure that students graduate with real professional experience. The department also hosts an annual lecture series of visiting designers doing innovative work in the field. And of course, the campus is located in the heart of downtown Chicago, a city home to many cultural and art institutions.

 

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Also, Chicago has the bean—I mean, Cloud Gate.

 

Solid Programs

At these schools, name recognition is on the lower side, but you’ll get a solid educational foundation from which to launch your career.

 

Ringling College of Art and Design - Sarasota, FL

Ringling doesn’t have quite the name recognition of many schools further up on this list, but they do have a solid, well-rounded program. They offer a BFA in Graphic Design that aims to turn students into “visual storytellers.” Students have the opportunity to study abroad in Europe during their time at Ringling if they so desire. Alumni have won prestigious industry awards and work for Instagram, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Birchbox, Trader Joe’s, and leading design firms.

 

University of the Arts (UArts) - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The BFA program in Graphic Design at UArts trains students in both old and new media. Students have the chance to work on real-world, practical projects based in the wider Philadelphia area as part of their coursework. The department also hosts an annual Spring Workshop with renowned guest faculty on design topics. This is another program whose focus is more on the practical and commercial than the artistic and theoretical.

 

Academy of Art University - San Francisco, CA

Academy of Art University’s BFA in Graphic Design is focused on the “intersection between art and commerce.” There’s also a focus on professional preparedness and creative and marketing competencies. Overall this school is more about giving you actionable workforce skills and connections than developing your refined artistic sensibilities as a designer.

 

Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) - Rochester, NY

The Graphic Design BFA at RIT is broad in skills education and interdisciplinary in scope. Students have unique opportunities to collaborate with other departments and disciplines on projects, particularly in technical and engineering departments. Students are also encouraged to consider “the social, ethical, and environmental impact of design.” RIT is a good option for students who are interested in the intersection between tech and design but may not be competitive applicants for Carnegie Mellon.

 

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Admire this very important and cutting-edge piece of graphic design.

 

How to Choose the Right Graphic Design School for You

With so many choices, it can be overwhelming to try to narrow down the field into a few programs you are really interested in. I highly recommend visiting schools if you can, taking advantage of information sessions that may be near you, and talking to current students and recent alumni—if you don’t know any personally, try the Reddit graphic design forum! Additionally, here are some questions to consider as you assemble your list of programs to apply for:

 

1. How Strong Is My Portfolio? Can I Get Into a Competitive Program?

To get admitted to more competitive programs, you often need a strong art and design portfolio. Have you been taking art classes since you could hold a pencil, or is graphic design a relatively new interest for you? To get feedback on your portfolio, I advise you to take it to any portfolio review sessions that you can find. Sometimes art schools send representatives across the country to review student portfolios at portfolio review fairs, and you can get feedback from many schools in one day on how your portfolio stacks up and how you can strengthen it. Otherwise, you can contact your local art and design school to try to get portfolio feedback and a sense of how competitive your portfolio might be.

 

2. Am I More Interested in the Artistic Side of Design or the Commercial Side? 

Some programs, like Yale, are concerned more with the lofty and artistic side of graphic design and its theoretical applications. Other programs, like the School for the Visual Arts, are very much focused on turning you into a commercially-prepared practitioner. One isn’t necessarily better or more useful than the other—but one may align more with your goals. Do you dream about doing experimental installations in an art museum or of designing ads for Target? If the former, a more artistically-oriented program might be for you; if the later, a more commercially-focused option would be better.

 

3. Do I Want to Attend an Art School?

Graphic design programs tend to fall into two categories: those housed within specialized art schools, like RISD, and those housed within larger universities, like Carnegie Mellon. If you have your heart set on a more “traditional” college experience, you may be better off going to a larger university with a graphic design program. If, however, you’re interested in a smaller institution with other arts-and-design-minded folks, you may want to attend a dedicated art school.

If you don’t necessarily need a typical university experience but you don’t want to attend a super-small institution, consider a larger art school, like SCAD.

 

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This seems like a very real and official art-school lecture. 

 

4. Am I Interested in Interdisciplinary Studies? How About Cutting-Edge Technology?

Some programs offer more flexibility to explore your other interests than others. Carnegie Mellon, MICA, and RIT, for example, offer more flexibility in investigating other interests (particularly technological ones at Carnegie and RIT) than other, more rigid programs. You should also consider if you want a program that’s explicitly focused on training students in new media and the most cutting-edge graphic design technologies, like the College for Creative Studies.

 

5. Are There Particular Faculty I Want to Work With?

Check out the faculty bios of the professors and lecturers at all of the programs you are interested in. Who’s doing the work that interests you most? Be sure to mention any faculty you’re impressed by and want to work with in your application, too!

 

6. Do I Want to Study Abroad?

If you have your heart set on studying abroad, you may have limited options. SCAD and Ringling both have established study abroad options, but you may need to do more investigation to find out if this is even possible at other schools.

 

7. Do I Have Geographic Preferences?

Last but certainly not least—where do you want to live while you attend college? There are myriad options in California and on the East Coast (NYC in particular), but you’re not necessarily limited to that. There are programs on this list in as far reaching-areas as Sarasota, Florida, Chicago, and Savannah, Georgia.

 

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If you want to go to the Big Apple, you have a lot of options.

 

Key Takeaways

Graphic designers are involved in pretty much all of the ways we consume information: they design publishing layouts, book jackets, album art, websites, app interfaces, advertisements, event posters, company logos, and so on and so forth. Being a graphic designer involves creativity, tech-savvy, and professional acumen.

If this sounds like a career you’d be interested in, go to graphic design school! There are great graphic design programs housed in art schools, large public universities, tech schools, and even the Ivy League! With this handy list, you’ll be sure to find a program that’s right for you.

 

What's Next?

If you're not sure about college yet, see our article on whether or not you should go to college

If you're still picking schools, check out the best way to do college research

Need more help narrowing down your final list of schools? See our guide on how to choose colleges to apply to, and how many schools to apply to.

Considering what to study and worried about your future income? See our list of the highest-paying college majors and if you should study one of them.

 

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Ellen McCammon
About the Author

Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.



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