Graphic design is one of the most popular degree paths in college education. This is because it is the intersection of art and business. It appeals to extremely fundamental instincts in human perception, meaning that a good graphic designer is not only highly skilled, but indispensable and valuable.
This has many people wondering about where they can get the best graphic design certifications online. Most times, a degree is not as important to a graphic designer’s career as a portfolio. A certification program can help you build that portfolio, while also giving you a document proving your commitment.
But before we talk about which online graphic design certification programs are the best, let’s talk about what it takes for a graphic design program to be the best. They have to be held to a standard, after all.
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People will approach graphic design from many different angles. Some people are artists who started with painting and want to develop their skills to be more business-oriented. Others come from the business side of things and want to learn how to communicate their message more effectively.
No matter who you are or where you come from, there are three essential things you need to learn in order to get started on developing your graphic design skills. And therefore, there are three things that an online graphic design program needs to teach if you are going to trust it with your time and money.
Anyone who comes from an artistic background will show up to their first day of class already having some artistic skill. But sometimes this can be its own obstacle, as the artistic skills a graphic designer needs to cultivate are very different from the skills a painter or animator needs to cultivate.
Most artistic disciplines have the goal of expression or storytelling. You are painting to evoke an emotion. But graphic design treats art as a language, and languages communicate messages.
There are seven tools that graphic designers use in their work:
These are the absolute basics of how images are constructed. These fundamentals are important to graphic design because they are all layers of meaning that can carry your business’ message.
And notice that things like “emotion” and “creativity” are absent from these tools. This is because the artistic skills of a graphic designer are much more technical than the artistic skills of a painter.
On the other hand, online graphic design courses should also teach you how to operate within a business (though not necessarily how to operate the business itself). This is because while graphic design uses artistic skills, it is far more situated in a business setting than an artistic one.
Think back to what we said when we brought up painting, animation, and drawing. All of these can be done for their own sake. They will usually be done for the individual artist that is doing them.
Even if that individual artist dedicates their work to someone or something else, they are still the ultimate decider of what purpose their art serves. Graphic design is not so individualistic.
A graphic designer has to know how to serve a business. This means creating artistic designs that are scalable to different mediums. It also means making sure that their designs incorporate only the elements that they intend. Graphic design has little use for loose artistic interpretation.
You are probably wanting for an example, so consider this: Imagine that you design a logo for a company. This logo is rich with detail, highly intricate in its color scheme, and drawn at an extremely high resolution. This makes it a good work of art, but not a good work of graphic design.
From a business perspective, you want a design that can be scaled down to a business card. You also want a design that can be scaled up to be projected onto the side of a building.
As discussed before, many people will show up to a graphic design program with either art or business skills. But rarely does anyone show up with skills in the tools that graphic designers use on the job.
This is because the programs which graphic designers use tend to be slightly different than the ones that artists use, and completely foreign to those that a businessperson would use. The most obvious of these is Photoshop, though that has become so well-known that many people start training in it early.
The less commonly used graphic design program is Illustrator. The differences between it and Photoshop are ultimately small. But when you compare it to other art programs, like Gimp and Paint Tools Sai, the difference becomes a lot bigger in both the interface and the tools that it gives you.
No one is going to get much graphic design work unless they can use the Adobe Suite of graphic design tools. You can have all the art knowledge in the world, and all the business knowledge to apply it, but if you are ignorant to the limitations of the technology used to make it, then you will get nothing done.
Now that you know what a graphic design certification program should teach, let’s go over the best programs out on the internet right now. We have looked over a ton and boiled it down to the best.
|1. Graphic Design Specialization – Best Overall Program|
|2. Graphic Design Elements for Non-Designers – Best for Beginners|
|3. Udemy’s Graphic Design Boot – Best On-Demand Program|
|4. Graphic Design Masterclass – Best Downloadable Resources|
|5. Become a Graphic Designer – Best Individual Lessons|
CalArts is the California Institute of the Arts, one of the most well-known art schools from the state with the most art schools in the country. But while CalArts is known as a university, they still provide educational tools to people that do not require you to attend the school as a student.
The Graphic Design Specialization program that CalArts offers will have you walking away with a certificate of mastery from an accredited university. It is available online, meaning that you can take it anywhere with an internet connection. But perhaps most importantly, it is taught by CalArts teachers.
One of the things that CalArts offers that sets it apart from many other art institutes in California is the industry veterans that they have to teach their classes. Due to their prestige, budget, and reputation, CalArts is able to get the best talent from around the world to work with them in making their program.
The Graphic Design Specialization is taught as a beginner’s program. You need at least four hours per week to spend on it, and it will take around six months to complete.
These six months will see you go from an absolute upstart to someone with the skills to get a job. Because you are learning from industry veterans, you get feedback based on industry standards.
This means that you are not just learning the theory of graphic design, but the practice of it. This is the mistake many programs, even fancy university programs, make: Teaching theory that is so abstract that it falls apart once it actually runs into the circumstances of the real world.
CalArts’ program avoids this. Not only that, but they also provide you with connections by having you learn within a community that includes both people who are up-and-coming, as well as those who are established. But perhaps the best part of this course is that it is free.
The biggest issue with the Graphic Design Specialization program is its length. Four hours a week for six months is quite a commitment. Remember, most university courses are separated into three-month semesters. But those same university courses will also be twelve to eighteen hours a week.
With almost any other program, the amount of commitment required would be something to think about. Your average professional is only going to have four hours of free time a week if they do not have a family to take care of. But in this case, it is a lot easier to justify due to being free.
It cannot be stated enough that graphic design is a field that welcomes people who do not show up with artistic talent. Many people who need graphic design skills worry that because they didn’t get any drawings put on the refrigerator when they were kids, they can’t possibly learn how to graphic design.
This is very much not the case, and nowhere is that more obvious than Colorado Boulder’s Graphic Design Elements for Non-Designers program. This is a program, as the lengthy name implies, that not only teaches the basics of graphic design but does much of its teaching without relying on art skills.
As a result, the program is great for people who come from other disciplines. It is also free and focused on a hands-on approach. That means your teachers will be guiding you through making designs from beginning to end. We won’t promise that you can avoid art entirely, but we can promise it is well taught.
Colorado Boulder’s Graphic Design Elements for Non-Designers is separated into four distinct courses. Each course will take a little less than a month to complete.
While the program is online and does feature some top-of-the-line teachers, it also comes with a suite of different lectures and side lessons, should you find yourself with extra time or in need of a refresher.
The teachers of the program are certainly good, but they cannot be accessed all that easily. The program also lacks the community tools that you might want from an online course. In many cases, people are taking programs like this in order to get placed in jobs after finishing them.
While you will still get those skills, you will miss out on the networking opportunities offered by other programs here. This means that if people you took the class with getting jobs, it will be far harder to reach out to them. It is not impossible, as you can use other platforms to keep in touch.
While the program does not take more than a semester, it is known for being a bit more demanding as a result. While the class times are about three hours, the time you have to study and work on projects is known for being higher than other courses out there.
Still, it is free, fast, and accredited. This means that as long as you complete the program, you have something you can show to future employers to prove you have a formal education.
Not everyone’s circumstances are created equal. Some people have the time and the schedule to attend lengthy live classes. Others are not so fortunate. Whatever your reasoning, it is entirely possible that you are one of the many people whose schedule does not allow you to attend a class at ordinary hours.
But just because you are chronically busy, working several jobs, or taking care of your family, that does not mean you are any less deserving of education in a discipline of your choice. Udemy offers an on-demand Graphic Design Bootcamp for people in exactly these circumstances.
What exactly does that mean? Well, it simply means that rather than a class happening with a particular teacher at a particular time, you instead are given access to all of the lessons within the program to listen to at your leisure. Do you commute to and from work in the early morning? Listen to them there.
Or maybe you only get home from work when all the teachers of the world have gone to bed? Now you can watch them before bed yourself. This makes them perfect for passive listening, though they also have assignments that will help you develop your skills as well if you can find the time to do them.
Being recordings that lack direct tutelage from teachers only changes the content of the lessons slightly. They still stick to the fundamentals of graphic design theory, as well as how to apply that theory. Because they are recordings, however, they reserve less time for talking about the programs you use.
The reason for this is simple: Most people listen to these recordings; they do not watch them. As a result, while visual aids are often used (they have to be, it is a graphic design program) the programs themselves are used sparingly and never without commentary detailing what you are seeing.
An important component of this program that some other programs lack is their networking and community tools and instructions. Getting the program gives you access to a private Facebook group of around 14,000 users. These are teachers, students, and users of the programs that can help you.
This help will likely be focused on completing and learning from the program itself. But it can also extend to career help; finding a job, building a portfolio, and writing a resume are all skills that this group can help with since most people in it have some experience with the graphic design industry.
While some people will enjoy it, most people will find the lack of lessons from teachers a bit alienating. Even if it’s your only option, learning from recordings is definitely not as good as learning from teachers.
The program is also not free. Technically, it costs $30 a month with a seven-day free trial. Though many people have found ways around that (such as recording every lesson before the free trial ends).
Most people are comfortable with at least paying for the first month, however. One of the advantages of the program being on-demand is the fact that it is not “time-gated”. That means you can complete the program within that first month. In fact, you can complete it within that first week.
Getting hands-on experience is one of the most important parts of any graphic design program. This lesson plan from Udemy offers this through tons of different downloadable projects, as well as project files by other graphic designers that you can analyze to help better understand their process.
This means that you do not just look at the graphic design itself, you look at how that graphic design was constructed in the designer’s program of choice. Take Photoshop, for example. One of the main reasons anyone (whether they are a graphic designer or a photographer) will use Photoshop is for its layers.
Layers are a tool that Photoshop uses to separate out different parts of your image. Graphic designers will employ dozens of layers to make an image that seems simple on the surface. Only by analyzing one of these Photoshop files can you see how much effort went into making a simple-looking image.
This program is available through Udemy, meaning that it is one of the many graphic design programs (as well as other programs) that you can get for its $30 a month subscription fee. It also means that it is delivered on-demand, getting rid of the inconveniences brought by scheduled classes.
As the name implies, the Graphic Design Masterclass is taught by some of the best in the business. Not only that but it is updated with incredible frequency. This means that where other classes can get out of date (barring their teaching of graphic design fundamentals), this one is always ahead of the curve.
Because of its comprehensive project focus, the Graphic Design Masterclass is mostly geared towards people who are looking to master the programs themselves. That means it teaches you the Adobe Graphic Design Suite (Photoshop, Illustrator, etc.) using its up-to-date object lessons.
It is important for lessons such as these to be as recent as possible, as Adobe frequently updates their programs to add or remove functionality. All it takes is one year of updates to render some tutorials obsolete. But because this program is updated so frequently, it can adapt to serious changes.
They also teach fundamentals that go beyond programs. The essential elements of visual design are there, of course, but so are the trends of the given year. This means that you will have an easier time putting together a portfolio that gets you employed on projects that are chasing current trends.
This program suffers from being on-demand rather than utilizing its teachers. The resources they offer are great, and the projects can be highly informative. The problem comes up when you have an issue that the program itself does not cover. With Udemy’s limited community, it can be hard to get help.
And of course, it is neither free nor accredited. People from many industries recognize the help that Udemy offers, so the lack of accreditation is not critical. And as far as unaccredited work goes, it provides you with the tools to make enough portfolio pieces that it might not matter.
Like many technological industries, your portfolio and skills matter more than your licenses. As such, a lack of accreditation will not hurt you as a graphic designer as it would if you were a doctor. All the same, many people will find that lack of accreditation to be unnerving given the complexity of the work.
The last program on our list is actually a massive, collaborative project that you can find for free on LinkedIn. It is a series of lessons, each of them from a different industry professional, all of them teaching a particular skill, tool, or perspective of the graphic design pipeline.
This means that while one lesson might talk about how the thickness of different lines suggests different emotional responses, the next might be talking about the cost of using one type of printing method over another. It is a truly diverse set of lessons, meaning that you will learn more than just the basics.
Since the program has lessons that cover so much ground, it is highly practical and low on theory. What do we mean by that? Well, consider the process of making a sign. If you go through the process of making a sign, then you will come away with knowledge of many different tools and disciplines.
Obviously, you will learn about graphic design when it comes to what appears on the sign, but you can learn about strength in materials, manufacturing, or distribution from the actual production of the sign. In short, you are not just going through what graphic design is, but where and how it is done.
This makes it a great program for people who are already in the industry but want to expand to other jobs, as it gives you a window into how your skills can be carried over into other departments.
It is also ideal for anyone who finds themselves (or expects to find themselves) in a leadership position. By learning about the different facets of the graphic design pipeline, you might discover limitations (or optimizations) that you did know existed previously. These are critical to giving good instructions.
All of that talk of what the program can do to advance your career might have you noticed that it is not highly welcoming to new people. The program does try to help people who have no graphic design experience, but the deeper you go into the lessons the more specialized the lessons become.
This can also be seen in the length of each lesson. Some lessons can be hours long, with practical projects that go along with them the whole time. This can be hard to follow along with for anyone, whether you are a full-time student or a professional graphic designer already.
You can stop and start the lessons, obviously, but a six-hour lesson is hard to follow any way you slice it.
Still, these lessons are free, they are taught by the best of the best, and they are easily consumed on-demand. And since they are on LinkedIn, you can find all of the teachers of the lessons on that platform and ask them for help, connections, or portfolio advice if you want.
Let’s wrap this up with some tips on how to approach these lessons, as you have probably noticed a few trends among all of them. There are a few circumstances in which you will be building your graphic design skills, and which circumstances apply to you will greatly impact which program is best for you.
Many people have a job that is either related or adjacent to graphic design. That means you might work at a print factory that makes print media, or as a developer for a website, or something like that.
The defining trait of these circumstances is that you operate the systems that produce or distribute the graphic design, but you do not choose what graphic design is used in that production or distribution.
This means that you have an idea of how graphic design is made, you just need a few lessons on what to do to make it. If you are that close to a graphic design job already, then you can probably get by using an Udemy program that is unaccredited but helps you build a good portfolio of work.
If your job has absolutely nothing to do with graphic design, then you will need a more comprehensive education. Something beginner-friendly, like the programs offered by universities, would be best.
And since you have a job, these programs are also best due to how they are spread out over many weeks or months. This allows you to invest small amounts of time per day in a longer lesson plan.
In the end, you are the best judge of what graphic design certification program is best for you. Just remember that you might be closer to having a working portfolio than you think.
Remember to hone the art skills, business skills, and technological skills, and you will get a job in the industry in no time at all.
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