Digital media is an expansive field that is open to interpretation. In the most basic terms, it involves using various digital and electronic media technology to create works of arts. These works of arts may be a website, mobile application, interactive fan installation at a sports stadium, or even a conceptual digital display screen in a museum. Academically, digital media is a multidisciplinary program of study that allows individuals to explore their creative potential while also pushing the boundaries of technical innovation.
The Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Digital Media combines instruction in technology with research in the arts and practice of artistic abilities. These degree programs are designed to provide students with the critical tools necessary to use technology to tell engaging stories, produce cutting-edge works of art, and become innovators across every industry touched by digital media – from entertainment to software development. It is a terminal degree path, primarily for those interested in becoming digital media artists or teaching in the field.
NOTE: Master of Fine Arts programs are diverse and offer numerous academic specializations, such as theatre, dance, and writing. This page is dedicated to MFA programs with specializations in digital media, media arts, and design.
Classification of MFA Programs in Digital Media
Generally considered interdisciplinary degrees, MFA programs in digital media are often collaborative efforts between related departments like art and design, film, communication, and information technology. Because of its broad nature, students pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in digital media typically narrow their studies to a specific area of expertise, such as digital arts or media arts production.
While there are many different specializations within digital media, the following are common concentrations available to students at the master’s level:
- Digital games and animation
- Interactive design
- Data visualization/information graphics
- 3D animation and visualization
- Publication design
- Digital media strategy
- Web and interactive media
MFA programs can be found at both traditional private and public four-year institutions, as well as schools of art and design (for example, the Rhode Island School of Design). They are most often offered by design or media departments, which may also go by names such as design media arts, media studies, or digital communication. Unlike more traditional subjects like English or mathematics, there is no singular naming convention used by colleges and universities for digital media MFA programs. Therefore, students should be sure to carefully review each program’s curriculum, electives, and academic concentration classes to ensure they align with their particular academic and professional goals.
Below is a snapshot of a few different MFA programs within the field of digital media:
- University of Connecticut: Master of Fine Arts in Digital Media and Design
- University at Buffalo: Master of Fine Arts in Media Arts Production
- Ohio University: Master of Fine Arts in Communication Media Arts
- Rhode Island School of Design: Master of Fine Arts in Digital + Media
- University of Denver: Master of Fine Arts in Emergent Digital Practices
- Alfred University: Master of Fine Arts in Electronic Integrated Arts
Curriculum Details for the MFA in Digital Media
While the MFA in digital media is designed to foster a student’s independent creative process, it is not typically designed for inexperienced artists, designers, or media professionals. These programs are for students who have an academic background in digital media and the arts (or a related field), or possess career experience in the industry. The MFA serves as an advanced program of study, giving students the chance to develop their artistic voice while also honing technological skills relevant across multiple industries.
Whether it is in communication media arts, digital media and design, or digital arts, the MFA is typically a customizable, two- to three-year degree program. In most cases, students must complete around 60 credit hours of study, in addition to a thesis and/or project/presentation in order to graduate. Although academic theory and research are a part of the instruction, the overall curricular focus of MFA in digital media programs is professionally focused. Curriculum is spread across core media coursework, seminars, electives/concentration classes, experiential learning, and thesis research and writing.
Core curriculum varies by individual institution, however, MFA programs generally share similar instructional frameworks – blending in-class lectures with studio-based learning sessions. Examples of foundational course subjects include digital media art, business management, media theory, digital cultures, audio/video production, design fundamentals, and more. Through this coursework, students are exposed to the central concepts involved in making creative digital products; learn about design techniques and processes used in digital, social, and other creative spaces; and gain familiarity with studio work, all while becoming more proficient in their chosen concentration (e.g. modeling, game design, web design, etc.).
Electives, studio/lab work, and concentration coursework help students refine their creative talents for their chosen professional field. These courses are typically based on one’s individual specialization, and cover career-or artistic-specific interests. For example, motion graphics helps students develop skills in design and animation techniques, while digital imaging teaches students how to manipulate digital images using creative suite software.
Below is a broad list of courses students might take while enrolled in a digital media or arts MFA program:
- Research Methods in Digital Media: Examines the cultural, artistic, and technological frameworks of digital media research, applying theoretical methods to real-world applications in the creation, writing, and production of digital media and art.
- Programming for the Arts: Covers core concepts behind computer programing in digital art projects, teaching practical skills in programming for use across digital media types, including web-based, video installations, digital presentations, and more.
- Introduction to Data Visualization: Serves as an introduction to working with data for informational graphic creation, showing students how to find patterns and create interactive visualizations for both print and the web.
- Visual Programming: A study of visual programming used in artistic contexts (e.g. art installations), using multiple visualization software tools and editing effects to explore real-time modeling and animation.
- Introduction to Virtual Spaces: This course introduces students to the idea of virtual spaces and their accompanying communities, covering subjects such as identity in online technology and social regulation in cyberspace.
The table below outlines a sample plan of study for a three-year MFA program in digital media with a concentration in web design that requires 60 credit hours of study and a thesis to graduate. This curriculum plan should be used for example purposes only.
MFA in Digital Media versus Master’s in Digital Media Programs
The MFA is not the only master’s degree within the field of digital media and design. Other options include the Master of Arts (M.A.), Master of Professional Studies (M.P.S.), and Master of Science (M.S.). Examples of these programs include the Master of Science in Digital Media at Georgia Tech University, the Master of Science in Digital Communication and Media Arts at DePaul University, and the Master of Professional Studies in Digital Media at Northeastern University.
Although the MFA and related master’s degrees (e.g. M.A., M.S., M.P.S.) may share a common curricular focus, they are distinct in their design and academic instruction. The MFA is a terminal degree with a curriculum structure designed to allow students to explore and develop their artistic and creative skills in a very refined practice or art form (e.g. animation, interactive installations, web design). It is more geared towards students working as or with career aspirations to work as digital artists, or those who wish to teach in the field.
Because the MFA tends to concentrate less on digital media theory and more on professional skills that can be directly applied to artistic projects, students participate in experiential- and collaborative-based workshops, lab sessions, and studio work. The core coursework in the MFA exposes students to contemporary practices and methods in digital arts, media, and culture. Electives explore singular topics (e.g. modeling, 3D animation, digital anthropology) through both practice and theory, and eventually lead to the student’s selected thesis subject.
On the other hand, the M.A., M.P.S., and M.S. generally offer greater flexibility, preparing students to either continue their studies at the doctoral level or advance in their career field. These programs are traditionally more focused on coursework than hands-on training, and emphasize the study of theoretical and strategic practices in the digital media industry. They may share overlapping course topics with the MFA, such as digital media theory, principles of interactive design, and creative processes, however these programs usually require less time honing skills in a studio or lab environment.
Foundational and core coursework in M.A., M.S., and M.P.S. digital media programs generally focuses on how technology is reshaping art, design, and communication practices across different mediums. Instead of a deep-dive into a singular field or art form, electives in these programs tend to introduce students to a broader array of subjects, such as computational design, media production and communication, online marketing, media art direction, and media project management. As opposed to graduates of MFA programs, who generally go on to become digital media artists, instructors, or practitioners in a specific medium, M.A., M.S., and M.P.S. programs help prepare students for digital media careers in a wide range of industries.
Career Paths for Graduates with an MFA in Digital Media
The digital medium is a powerful storytelling tool, whether its online advertising, video displays in an airport, or an interactive computer screen at a museum. It spans an array of professional areas, from data visualization and web design to lesser known fields such as computational media and media archaeology. Graduates with an MFA in Digital Media can use their creativity as professional artists and media design professionals to forge their own path as an independent artist, or find career opportunities in any number of related fields, including business, entertainment, education, science and technology, or communications.
Outside of working as an independent digital artist, here is a list of potential career paths for graduates with an MFA in Digital Media:
- Art Director: Art directors oversee the visual style for publications, businesses, and products. Calling upon their leadership and design skills, they manage artists who develop the look and feel of marketing concepts, branding materials, and more.
- Interactive Exhibition Designer: Interactive exhibition designers plan, develop, and create innovative interactive designs and displays used in professional exhibitions in places like museums, galleries, conferences, and trade events.
- Video Game Designer: Video game designers use computer software and their artistic abilities to fully flesh out the initial idea for a video game by designing and experimenting with characters, settings, storylines, user interface, and other elements that make up these interactive entertainment and educational experiences.
- Professor of Digital Art and Design: Digital art and design professors are artists who teach digital media classes, advise students, manage arts studios, conduct research, and produce original works of art and media.
- Visualization Specialist: Visualization specialists use analytical software to manipulate large data sets to create visual representations that can be used in a variety of formats, such as brochures, quarterly reports for business leaders, or interactive tables on a website.
- Front-End Designer: Front-end designers work with HTML and CSS to outline and implement the design elements of websites and applications, developing the look, feel, and user experience, while working with back-end developers to integrate the designs into site functionality.