Visual and graphic communication uses visual language and arts to communicate ideas and messages. Through the visual organization of information, professionals in this field create powerful user experiences across industries – from healthcare to politics. Using design elements, such as lettering, color, symbols, and images, visual communication can be used to influence, entertain, inform, and even persuade audiences.
A cross-disciplinary field, visual communication brings together typography, motion design, branding, design strategy, and information design to create mass communication and media products in both digital and printed mediums. Examples include magazines, newspapers, books, catalogs, and websites. A master’s in visual or graphic communication and design can help prepare graduates for senior- or director-level careers in multimedia, printing (e.g. lithography, print marketing, color reproduction), creative management, art direction, and more.
Classification of Visual Communication and Graphic Communication Master’s Programs
It is generally recommended that applicants to master’s in visual communication programs possess a bachelor’s degree in graphic design, media arts, or industrial design. However, many programs accept students with educational backgrounds in related fields such as business and science.
Through master’s-level studies, students in visual communication programs develop advanced knowledge of the foundational concepts of visual language design, its history and theory, and technical design processes. A blend of specialized coursework and studio-based instruction helps students build the skills they need for careers in academia or professional practice as leaders in design and mass communication. Students can select from several different degree tracks within visual communication and graphic communication, including the Master of Arts (M.A.), the Master of Science (M.S.), and the Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.).
M.A. and M.S. programs in the field are typically industry-oriented, with curricula that introduce students to theoretical concepts of design and coursework in the visual arts. Students develop technical skills in traditional subjects such as commercial printing or print production management, as well as cutting-edge fields like new media and emerging design technology, all of which can be applied directly to professional roles in visual communication. These programs are offered by a variety of different schools and colleges, through departments such as design and the arts, professional studies, or communication studies. Examples of M.S. and M.A. programs can be found at the following institutions:
- Arizona State University: Master of Science in Visual Communication Design
- Clemson University: Master of Science in Graphic Communication
- Pratt Institute: Master of Science in Communications Design
- Hodges University: Master of Arts in Visual Communication
The third option, the M.F.A., is a terminal degree program that focuses on design theory and research in specific visual and graphic communication areas, such as interactive design, 3D design, typography, graphic design, motion graphics, or emerging media. Through advanced classroom and studio-based courses and seminars, students are exposed to subjects like visual rhetoric, ecology of design, social awareness and design, and more. M.F.A. students develop their own approach to design methodologies and real-world application of their chosen specialty (e.g. user experience, interactive design). Program options vary, but are often found in schools of art and design or institutes of technology. Examples of M.F.A. programs include:
- Kutztown University of Pennsylvania: Master of Fine Arts in Communication Design
- Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis: Master of Fine Arts in Visual Communication Design
- Rochester Institute of Technology: Master of Fine Arts in Visual Communication Design
- Texas State University: Master of Fine Arts in Communication Design
Depending on the degree type and institution, students may have the option to focus their coursework around an academic concentration specific to their desired professional field. Common visual communication specializations include:
- Web and digital media
- Design reproduction technology
- Communication design
- Interaction and interactive design
- User experience
- Motion design
- 3D digital design
As discussed, programs may vary by name (e.g. visual communication, communication design) and degree type (e.g., M.A./M.S., M.F.A.) at different institutions. As such, students should be sure to carefully review core curricular requirements, academic concentration options, and elective classes in order to find a master’s program that meets not only their academic needs, but future professional goals as well.
Curriculum Details for Master’s in Visual Communication and Graphic Communication Programs
While the different master’s in visual communication degree tracks described above often have overlapping curricula, they are distinct academic programs. Modern design is interdisciplinary in nature, combining the study of digital, graphic, and interactive design, with related disciplines such as technology, data visualization, psychology, and marketing. Lecture-based classes and hands-on studio work introduce students to the foundational concepts and competencies of design, as well as their relationship to applied fields like user experience, sustainability, and product development.
M.A. and M.S. in Visual Communication and Graphic Communication Programs
M.A. and M.S. degree tracks in the field generally entail between 30 and 36 semester credit hours, and require completion of either a thesis or professional project to graduate. Depending on the institution and area of study (e.g. graphic communication), curriculum and coursework may vary. Some programs have a greater focus on business strategies and design leadership, covering subjects such as strategic design leadership, executive management, and design finance, while others concentrate more on the graphic communication process, with classes in design systems, print production, quality management, and design documentation.
In an M.S./M.A. program, coursework is divided between core design courses, academic specialization classes, electives, and either a thesis or professional project. In the first year, students are introduced to the fundamentals of graduate research, along with core concepts in visual communication, applied design theory, the history of design, and more. This three-to-six-class core curriculum prepares students for advanced specialized study in their academic concentration.
After gaining a foundational knowledge of design and business practices, students transition into concentration courses and electives in the second year of the program. These classes are specific to the student’s area of interest, such as design sustainability, packaging design, visual design systems, or design methodologies. Depending on their specialization, students may complete courses in contextual research, design visualization, prototyping and production, typography, visual perception, or other topics. At the conclusion of the second year, students should have a well-rounded knowledge of both visual and graphic communication design principles, practices, and processes, as well as how to implement them in their particular concentration.
Below is a list of some course topics often found in an M.A. or M.S. program in visual or graphic communication:
- Typography: In this course, students examine the forms of visual language used in both digital and analog media, studying the history of typography, typographic principles, and how the use and arrangement of words, letters, and symbols impact communication.
- Communication Design Methods and Practices: This course explores modern working methods in communication design, focusing on digital product design, its processes, and concepts related to ethics, copyright, and marketing.
- Visual Perception: A foundational study of visual perception and how it has changed throughout history, providing students with an advanced awareness of how symbols and archetypes are used and conceptualized in the creative process.
- Motion Design: An advanced review of motion-based media, in which students explore how design attributes such as depth, shape, and color are blended with real-time elements like pace and rhythm to replicate movement in 2D or 3D artistic mediums.
- Graphic Communications Management: This course looks at the theories and practices behind effective management in the graphic communications industry, emphasizing organizational theory, leadership development, and management strategies that can be applied in real-world situations.
M.F.A. in Visual Communication and Design
The Master of Fine Arts is the most academically demanding program in visual and graphic communications, traditionally requiring two to three years of full-time study to complete. Generally, the M.F.A. includes 60 semester credit hours of study that culminate with the student completing an original thesis. These degree programs typically focus heavily on the central concepts in visual communication design history and theory, design research methodologies, contemporary design processes, and art direction, as well as hands-on experiential learning in the student’s academic concentration.
Much like the other degree paths, curriculum in an M.F.A. program is usually divided between required courses and electives, studio-based electives, professional practice courses, and a thesis. In their first year of study, students learn about the foundations of visual and graphic communication studies at the graduate level, including an exploration of the history of design (e.g. modernism, postmodernism), design research methods, creative process models, and modes of design practice (e.g. digital imaging, web design, typeface design, packaging design). This initial curriculum introduces students to the comprehensive scope of design research and practice, preparing them to develop the topic for their master’s thesis.
After gaining familiarity with visual and graphic communication methodologies and processes, M.F.A. students begin specialization and elective coursework in their second year of study. As with the other degree tracks discussed above, these classes are specific to the student’s professional interest area (for example, information design, graphic design, branding and identity, editorial design, social impact and sustainability design, or environmental graphics).
Once they finish these required courses and electives, students begin work on their thesis. The thesis is an opportunity for the student to conduct a deep dive into graphic and visual communication’s influence and impact on a specific field, such as education, typography, healthcare, marketing, 3D design, or business. They might consider how the design of supermarket layouts influence consumer buying patterns, how user-centric design changes consumer’s attitudes towards restaurant takeout packaging, or how the digital manipulation of photos impacts feelings on body image and self-esteem, to name just a few possible examples
The list below includes sample courses students might take in an M.F.A. in visual or graphic communication degree program:
- Art Direction: An advanced examination of the conceptual principles behind art direction, including a review of branding, design, and copy strategies used in various mediums such as print, digital, or film.
- Corporate Marketing Materials: This course introduces students to the various elements essential in corporate marketing and advertisement design and their effects on consumers, with study of typography, layout construction, illustration, photo imagery, and more.
- Design Language: In this course, students look at how design can be used as a communication tool, exploring how a variety of design strategies (e.g. image, sound, typography) might be employed to convey meaning in various mediums, such as digital media or print.
- Design Management: A review of contemporary management methods used in the design industry, providing students with an in-depth perspective on the realities of serving as a manager or leader in a design agency, consulting firm, or corporation.
- Design Writing: This course focuses on effective writing skills used in modern design, pushing students to consider how they can develop a voice through personal design research and analysis.
Length of a Master’s Program in Visual or Graphic Communication
The time required to complete a master’s degree in visual or graphic communication varies depending on the type of program (e.g. M.A., M.F.A.) students pursue and its particular requirements. In general, most programs require two to three years of full-time study to complete. However, there are programs that can be completed in as little as one year of full-time study.
The tables below are examples of how an M.S. in visual communication and an M.F.A. in communication design program might be structured for a student entering with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design. Due to the variance in program options, curriculum, and academic concentrations, these tables should be used for illustrative purposes only.
Master of Science in Visual Communication (with Fall and Spring classes)
Master of Fine Arts in Graphic Communication Design (with an Emphasis in Corporate Design and year-round classes)
Career Paths for Graduates with a Master’s in Visual Communication and Graphic Communication
Design innovation is critical in business today, whether it is in digital media, healthcare, public affairs, urban planning, education, or any other industry. A graduate education in visual and graphic communication helps prepare students for a wide range of career opportunities in a variety of professional fields, including graphic design, web development, publishing and printing, product development, project management, advertising and marketing, packaging, journalism, digital photography, and more. In addition, earning an M.F.A. can allow graduates to pursue careers in academia and higher education as a lecturer, researcher, or tenure-track professor in visual and graphic communication and design.
Below is a list of career paths both in and outside academia that graduates with a master’s degree in visual/graphic communication might pursue:
- Professor: Tenure-track professors contribute to visual and graphic communication scholarship by teaching classes (both undergraduate and graduate), creating and hosting art exhibitions, attending professional conferences, writing professional articles for journals, and more.
- Community College Professor: Community college professors are responsible for teaching courses, developing curricula, mentoring students, and contributing to the campus community.
- Illustrator: Working as either freelancers or full-time professionals, illustrators develop, design, and create sketches and illustrations to be used across a variety of mediums, from books and brochures, to websites and film.
- Art Director: Art directors handle the visual styling for businesses, magazines, products, media productions (e.g. television and film), websites, and more, monitoring brand styles, coordinating with company leadership on strategic design initiatives, and managing artists, graphic designers, and other staff.
- Design Strategist: Design strategists develop brand and design strategies for organizations and businesses, creating frameworks to guide product design and marketing efforts, such as portfolio and product naming.
- Design Researcher: Much like a market research analyst, design researchers use qualitative and quantitative research methods to identify audience attitudes, needs, and behaviors for use in product development, testing, and marketing.
- Design Engineer: Design engineers use a blend of technical knowledge and design skills to conceptualize, develop, and create project and product plans across industries, including software, construction, transportation, and more.