What are the top public illustration schools in the U.S. for 2020?

Top 10 Public Illustration Schools in the U.S. - 2020 College Rankings
RankingCollegeState% of Schools Considered
1Fashion Institute of Technology New York 2%
2Massachusetts College of Art and DesignMassachusetts 4%
3California State University-FullertonCalifornia 5%
4Virginia Commonwealth UniversityVirginia 7%
5San Jose State UniversityCalifornia 9%
6California State University-Long BeachCalifornia 10%
7University of Colorado-DenverColorado 15%
8California State University-NorthridgeCalifornia15%
9University of ArizonaArizona15%
10Ferris State UniversityMichigan 20%

Our 2020 list of the Top 10 public college illustration programs in the US. For an explanation of ranking criteria, click here.

1. Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), New York, New York (Top 2% of schools considered)
Fashion Institute of Technology

Founded in 1944, Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) is a member of the State University of New York (SUNY) system. The school serves around 8,850 students at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Programs are offered through the Schools of Art & Design, Business & Technology and Liberal Arts in the areas of Art, Business, Communications, and Design. Serving approximately 3,322 students, the School of Art & Design houses the Illustration Department, which offers AAS, BFA, and MFA Illustration programs.

Department highlights include a close affiliation with the Society of Illustrators—the industry's top professional organization, 50 award wins by students in highly competitive student art exhibitions, including the prestigious Society of Illustrators Annual Scholarship Competition, and the mentoring by art directors or illustrators who analyze students’ work and offer professional advice and support. Illustration students also have the opportunity to gain an international perspective on the global world of illustration through a study abroad course in Italy.

Course highlights for the program include Applying Color to Illustrate the Written Word, Book Illustration, Comic Book Illustration, Fantasy and Science Fiction Illustration, Illustrating the Male Figure, Illustrating the Written Word, Illustration Rendering Techniques, Stylistic Illustration, and Watercolor Comps and Illustrations.

The Illustration Portfolio Thesis is a final preparation for students entering the illustration business. The three-credit, six lab hours course highlights guest speakers from the industry that provide students with insight into business practices, entrepreneurial strategies, and freelance and staff employment. Students present and defend their visual thesis before faculty and peers.

FIT graduates have gone on to build successful careers at Advertising Agencies such as Ogilvy & Mather, Young & Rubicam, DDB, BBDO, and J. Walter Thompson, at corporations such as American Greetings and Hallmark, Magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and entertainment companies such as Walt Disney, Warner Brothers, DreamWorks SKG, and LucasArts Entertainment.

2. Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Boston, Massachusetts (Top 4% of schools considered)
Massachusetts College of Art and Design

Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt) was founded in 1873 as a training institution for aspiring drawing teachers, architects, artists, and designers. Today, the school offers more than 20 undergraduate art programs, nearly a dozen graduate programs, and around seven certificate programs to a population of nearly 2,100 students. The Illustration Department at MassArt offers a BFA in Illustration that the school says, “emphasizes the understanding of character development and narrative techniques.”

Students in the program take a variety of illustration and liberal arts courses taught by instructors who are freelance illustrators or illustrators who have their own businesses. Sample liberal arts courses include Introduction to Western Art, Literature/Writing/Film, and Thinking, Making, Writing: Using Words with Clarity and Flair. Sample major courses include Color for Illustration, Digital Illustration, Form Study, Human Figure Illustration, Media Techniques, Studio for Drawing, Technical Illustration, Visual Language, and Word and Image.

During their senior year, students will complete 18 major credit hours consisting of Studio Electives, a Thesis Project, Senior Illustration, and the Illustration Portfolio. Students will present their portfolio to invited professionals from advertising, corporate, editorial, institutional, and publishing markets.

3. California State University Fullerton, Fullerton, California (Top 5% of schools considered)
California State University Fullerton

Founded in 1957, California State University Fullerton (CSUF) serves nearly 40,000 students enrolled in 110 degree programs across eight colleges. The College of Arts is home to the Department of Visual Arts, which offers three programs for aspiring illustrators. Options include BFA, MA, and MFA programs in Art with a Concentration in Illustration.

The BFA program is designed for students interested in developing skills in a focused area and to prepare for graduate study. The Illustration Concentration requires preparation courses such as 3D Computer Animation, Lettering and Typography, and Life Drawing. Major courses include Cartooning and Caricature, Digital Narrative Illustration, Elements of Sequential Art, Special Studies in Illustration, and Visual Development and Background Painting. All students will have the opportunity to complete an internship.

The focus of the MA program “is to deepen the students understanding of craft and visual problem solving skills demonstrated in a portfolio that prepares graduate students to reenter the workforce,” says the school. Students will study “contemporary and historic issues in illustration with an emphasis on story concepts, design, color theory, perspective, theatrical composition and lighting, stylization, further development of the drawing and painting process, visual problem solving, and portfolio presentation.”

The program consists of nine units of required studio courses, as well as at least 12 units in Illustration. Students may also take an additional three to six units in Illustration or other electives. All students will complete a project to exhibit in one of the Department of Arts graduate galleries. Graduates will have the skills needed to reenter the workforce, or enter a program leading to the terminal degree.

The MFA is a “rigorous” studio program that requires 60 units to graduate. Students in the program must take 24 units in the Studio Area of the Illustration Concentration, at least 12 units of electives, and independent study. Students must pass the semiannual comprehensive portfolio review and a studio project is also part of the program. The project “constitutes a professional one-person art exhibit. It is installed in one of the department’s graduate galleries and announced for public view by the student as the final phase of the MFA program requirements.”

Graduates of the Illustration programs at CSUF have found employment at major entertainment and publishing companies such as the Cartoon Network, DreamWorks SKG, Lucas Films Ltd. and Walt Disney Company.

4. Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia (Top 7% of schools considered)
Virginia Commonwealth University

Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) was established in 1838. The school serves more than 31,000 students enrolled in 225 academic programs across 13 schools and one college. An additional four programs are offered at VCU’s Qatar campus. The School of the Arts (VCUarts), which serves more than 3,000 students, offers 25 degree programs, including Illustration.

Administered by the Communication Arts Department, the VCUarts Illustration Program has two options: the BFA in Communications and the BFA in Communications with a Concentration in Scientific and Preparatory Medical Illustration. The BFA in Communications focuses on three areas including drawing, illustration, and visual studies. The school says, “new elective courses are designed to reinforce and expand the drawing, design, and illustration components of the curriculum. Students will have the opportunity to develop projects in illustration.”

Course highlights include Digital Drawing, Fundamentals of Typography, Illustration: Drawing and Painting, Sequential Imaging, and Visual Studies.

The BFA with a Concentration in Scientific and Preparatory Medical Illustration requires 32 credits in the biological sciences and chemistry, in addition to communication major and illustration courses. Sample courses for the program include Business of Communication Arts, Concept Drawing, Drawing Studies: The Figure in Context, Scientific Illustration, Time Studio, and Visual Communications.

All communications students have the opportunity to complete an internship and/or study abroad.

5. San Jose State University, San Jose, California (Top 9% of schools considered)
San Jose State University

Founded in 1857, San Jose State University (SJSU) is “Silicon Valley’s Public University.” The school serves approximately 36,000 students enrolled in bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in 250 areas of study, with an additional 108 concentrations, across eight colleges. The Department of Design in the College of Humanities and the Arts offers several programs for aspiring illustrators including a BA in Design Studies Specializing in Animation/Illustration, a BFA in Animation/Illustration, and an MFA in Digital Media Art.

The BA in Design is a Liberal Arts degree that provides “basic preparation for entry-level jobs in the entertainment industry.” Optionally, students “can later apply to a graduate program in Animation/Illustration or similar fields of study.”

The BFA curriculum combines traditional and innovative educational strategies, including color design, conventional and digital painting, theory, and perspective. Students will also study the principles of traditional and 3D animation, character design, modeling, physics of motion, storyboarding, and visual development. Upper-division classes offers students an opportunity to specialize in their area of choice.

The MFA in Digital Media Art is offered in collaboration with the CADRE Institute which “reflects the innovative atmosphere in Silicon Valley,” says the school. Academic programs here emphasize artistic experimentation within a context of historical, cultural, and theoretical study. The program is intended for students with interest in contemporary research. CADRE's diverse community of faculty and graduate students produce artworks involving visualization, simulation, hypertextuality, information, mapping, telepresence, networks, and interactive systems.

Technical facilities include a wide range of computing resources. Students work across the boundaries of computer visualization, animation, digital video, multimedia, electronic sculpture, sound and virtual reality. CADRE supports its own networking environment and offers excellent opportunities to produce internet-based artworks.

Graduates of the illustration programs at SJSU have worked on films from A Bug’s Life and Finding Nemo to Monsters, Inc. and Shrek. Graduates have also been hired at more than 135 animation studios, game design companies, film studios, and academic institutions. Just a few include 20th Century Fox, Animation Mentor, Blue Sky Studios, Blizzard Entertainment, Cartoon Network, Cogswell Institute, Disney Interactive, Electronic Arts, Lucasfilm Animation, NBCUniversal Studios, Nickelodeon, Pixar, Sony/Columbia, The Art Institute of Las Vegas, Disney Animation, and Zynga.

6. California State University Long Beach, Long Beach, California (Top 10% of colleges considered)
California State University Long Beach

California State University-Long Beach (CSULB) was established in 1949. One of the 23 campuses of the California State University System, CSULB serves around 36,850 students enrolled in more than 300 programs across eight colleges. The College of the Arts houses the School of Art, which offers a BFA in Art with an Illustration/Animation Option, an individualized MA or MFA, and a Certificate in Biomedical Art.  

Students in the BFA program may choose the Animation or Illustration Track, but they may take courses in both tracks and work with students in both tracks in the digital lab. Course highlights for the program include Advanced Illustration, Advanced Life painting, Costumed Figure Drawing, Experimental Animation, Special Studies in Illustration, Storyboarding for Film and Television, and Visual Development. Workshops presented by faculty and visiting artists are part of the program as well as courses taught by resident illustration faculty comprised of experienced professional artists currently working in the fields of illustration and animation. Internship and study abroad opportunities are also highlighted.

The graduate individualized MA and MFA programs are “dependent on the student’s preparation, interests and talents,” says the school. The programs center “on each student developing a strong personal and independent creative vision.” Students will “create a focused body of work in the form of an exhibition as the culminating experience of the degree.”

The interdisciplinary Certificate in Biomedical Art is sponsored by the Art and Biological Sciences Departments. The program is available to students who are presently enrolled in a degree program in the Biological Sciences or in Art at CSULB. Students in the program will take courses such as Anatomy for Artists, Foundation Computer Art, Biomedical Rendering, Computer Animation, Special Studies Illustration, Human Anatomy, and Experimental Animation.

Graduates of the Illustration Programs at CSULB are prepared for professional positions as an artist or designer, and for teaching studio art within a selected specialization. Alumni “work in a variety of fields such as film and entertainment (gaming, animation and live action film), advertising, textiles, biomedical illustration, the gift market, educational illustration, architectural illustration, print publications (newspapers, magazines, graphic novels and books) and more.”

Many alumni have also “distinguished themselves in visual journalism, in storyboarding for film and television, and in all aspects of editorial art as well as gallery exhibition.”

7. University of Colorado Denver, Denver, Colorado (Top 15% of colleges considered)
University of Colorado Denver

University of Colorado Denver (CU Denver) originated in 1912 as an extension of the University of Colorado Boulder. Part of the CU System, which serves 59,560 students at Boulder, Colorado Springs, Anschutz, and Denver, the campus serves approximately 11,876 students enrolled in more than 100 degree programs in eight schools and colleges. The College of Arts & Media houses the Illustration Program, which consists of a BFA in Fine Arts with an Illustration Emphasis and a Minor Illustration.

Students in the BFA program “receive instruction in conceptual illustration, digital illustration, rendering, perspective, painting, exhibition preparation, professional practices and the use of various artistic and illustration techniques,” says the school. Sample courses for the program include 2D and 3D Design, Digital Painting, Digital Photography, Graphic Novel Workshop, Illustration I (Image Making), II (Digital Media), III (Investigative Methods) and IV (Thesis Development), Life Drawing, Drawing & the Printed Image, and the Business of Art.

"In preparation for a professional illustration career, the coursework allows students to master numerous essential digital and traditional tools and work to successfully bring the two together in ambitious and innovative illustrative work.” In addition to coursework in a range of areas, students will complete studio courses and lectures, along with an internship and a Capstone course.

Graduates of the program are prepared to pursue a freelance illustration career or positions in advertising, design, entertainment, publishing, and more.

8. California State University-Northridge, Northridge, California (Top 15% of colleges considered)
California State University-Northridge

Founded in 1958, California State University-Northridge (CSUN) serves more than 40,000 students enrolled in more than 140 programs. The school consists of nine colleges, including the Mike Curb College of Arts, Media, and Communication, which houses the Department of Art. Here, students can earn a BA, MA or MFA degree in Visual Arts with a Concentration Illustration.

Students in the program will “study illustration as both an art form and as a profession,” says the school. “Topics cover historical and contemporary illustration and its evolving styles and technologies.” Professional preparation topics include “portfolio and website development, goal setting, researching employment opportunities, self-promotion and business and trade practices.” Students will “learn methods for creating new ideas and for the effective visual communication of those ideas. Projects emphasize a wide range of technical skills in fine art and digital media, conceptual problem-solving abilities, composition and design, self-expression and the development of a personal artistic vision.”

Other program highlights include interaction with visiting artists, internship and study abroad opportunities, and the opportunity to exhibit illustrations at various showcases. In addition, all Curb College Department of Art students have the opportunity to participate in industry and studio events, organized studio tours, and ongoing collaborative educational partnering with DreamWorks studios and Seoul Institute of the Arts. Students also participate in industry events and internships with Nickelodeon, Disney, Film Roman, Warner Bros., and others.

9. University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona (Top 15% of colleges considered)
University of Arizona

Established in 1885, University of Arizona was the state’s first university. The school serves nearly 46,000 students enrolled in hundreds of bachelors, masters, and doctoral degree, first professional and specialist programs in dozens of colleges and schools. The College of Fine Arts houses the School of Art, which offers BFA and MFA degrees in Studio Art with an Illustration and Design (I+D) Emphasis.

Separate tracks in Illustration and Design are offered to undergraduates. The Illustration Track provides “rigorous education in constructive anatomy,” says the school. Students will “learn to describe the human form realistically and expressively and find personal methodologies in traditional and digital media.” Graduates will leave the program with a professional portfolio and “knowledge of the history of Illustration as well as, the guidelines for ethical professional business practices in the field.”

The MFA is a 60 unit terminal degree comprised of interdisciplinary, illustration and graphic design courses as well as seminars, and independent studies “developing a body of self-authored work that contributes to the broad and expanding field of illustration, design and art.”

“Focused studio and course structures explore the theory, philosophy, and making of contemporary illustration, design and art. The program provides a range of opportunities for focus in visual narratives, community engagement, social practice, environmental projects, and technology, with a firm grounding in contemporary and historical contexts.”

Students in all Art Programs have access to studio spaces, computer labs with Wacom Cintiq Touch screens and animation stations, a digital imaging lab with large format printing, mounting and other services, letterpress equipment, photopolymer platemaking equipment, metal and wood type collections, binding equipment, darkrooms, wood and metal shops, sculpture foundry, and ceramics labs.

Students also benefit from external resources such as the Center for Creative Photography, the University Museum of Art, and the Poetry Center, as well a library that houses an extensive book art collection.

10. Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University, Grand Rapids, Big Rapids, Michigan (Top 20% of colleges considered)
Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University

Founded in 1928, Kendall College of Art and Design (KCAD) is a college within Ferris State University. The school serves more than 1,000 students enrolled in around 24 BFA, BS, MA, MFA, and Certificate programs. Among these programs are two options for aspiring illustrators—a BFA in Illustration and a BFA in Medical Illustration.

Launched in the 1960s, the BFA in Illustration teaches students to master multiple illustration techniques in both traditional and emerging media. Sample courses for the program include Digital Illustration Painting, Illustration Life Drawing, Illustration Professional Practices, Illustration Techniques, Rendering, and Watercolor Techniques for the Illustrator.

Program highlights include focused study of illustration, participation in the KCAD Illustration Society, and access to KCAD galleries, labs, and the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA). Students also have opportunities to participate in summer travel/study experiences as well as internships during the academic year and summer.

Graduates of the program are prepared to pursue careers as a freelance illustrator, as well as art director, cartoonist, editorial illustrator, fashion illustrator, mural designer, storyboard illustrator, and many others.

The BFA in Medical Illustration is a three-year program that consists of classes from KCAD, Ferris State University, Grand Rapids Community College, and Michigan State University. Students in the program will take a combination of Art, Communication, and Science coursework. Students will study Anatomy, Biology, and Medical Terminology, illustration techniques such as include All-Digital Illustrations, 2D Animations, Traditional/Digital Hybrids, Traditional Drawing Methods, and 3D (Digital) Modeling, and Visual Communications.

Graduates of the program are prepared to seek intermediate to advanced positions in the field or for further graduate or professional level study.