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By: Noel Dahl on April 20th, 2017

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Illustration vs. Graphic Design: Which one is the best major for you?

For Undergraduates | Graphic Design | illustration

Every student comes to art school with different abilities, perspectives, and passions. No single course of study could be considered "the best" for everyone, but there are some popular programs that have common appeal to the artistically inclined.

Two of the more popular art school concentrations are illustration and graphic design. While these majors have some similarities, they also have differences in their curriculum and job prospects. To help those trying to choose between these distinct art school programs, we've compared them in a few key areas to see how they stack up against each other.

What you'll study

Graphic design programs teach students the principles of communicating information and emotion through visual art. You'll learn about graphic design in all sorts of mediums, from traditional print formats to cutting-edge digital and mobile. Graphic design students learn to make art that combines with text, animation, and other elements of design to create a cohesive message.

Illustration majors use their art to tell a story. Where graphic designers focus on a piece's entire look, including colors, fonts, and layouts, illustration majors are more concerned with learning to create specific images. Illustration programs teach students to use both drawing and digital art tools to make works that reinforce the message of a book, article, story, or website.

Job descriptions

Graphic designers work on a range of different projects, from print ads to product packaging. Their task is to give a campaign or product a particular feel or brand that comes across visually. Graphic designers are very team-oriented – they often interface with clients, art directors, marketers, executives, and other designers. There's also a large freelance market for graphic designers – about 20% in the U.S. are self-employed.

Like graphic designers, illustrators can work in many different environments, but are traditionally employed by publishers: businesses that produce magazines, newspapers, books, journals, etc. There is also an increasing need today for digital illustrators who can create graphics for websites and software. Specialty illustrators who create designs for fields like medicine, biology, and chemistry are also in demand.

Pay and employment outlook

According to government data from the BLS, both fields are similar in terms of compensation and job opportunities. The median pay for graphic designers was $46,900 per year in 2015, and between 2014 and 2024, employment in the field is expected to grow by 1%. Illustrators are grouped in with craft and fine artists, who earned $45,080 per year in 2015 and can expect 2% job growth from 2014 to 2024.

Illustration or graphic design majors – which one should you pick?

Like most concerns about what to study, the answer to this question ultimately depends on you. If you're skilled at drawing and sketching and like the idea of creating art that reinforces the message of an accompanying article, story, or essay, illustration might be the choice for you.

On the other hand, if you enjoy working in a team and want to create more comprehensive designs that use color, layout, lines, and space to convey a brand or feeling across a variety of mediums, graphic design could be your better choice.

The two fields aren't mutually exclusive: there are plenty of graphic designers with illustration skills, just like there are illustrators versed in graphic design. Both fields have a similar outlook when it comes to pay and job opportunities, and they're both good decisions for an artist who desires self-employment. To decide which major is best for you, learn as much as you can about both, talk to professors and professionals in each field, and choose the one that speaks to your artistic vision and passions.

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About Noel Dahl

Noel Dahl is director of graduate admissions at California College of the Arts, where he oversees the recruitment, admissions, and enrollment functions of the school's graduate programs. He received his MFA in Fine Arts and has worked in higher education for the past 15 years.

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