What are the top graphic design school programs in Illinois for 2020?

Top 5 Illinois Graphic Design School Programs - 2020 College Rankings
1School of the Art Institute of ChicagoChicago
2University of Illinois at ChicagoChicago
3Columbia College ChicagoChicago
4University of Illinois at Urbana – ChampaignChampaign
5Northern Illinois UniversityDeKalb

Our 2020 ranking of the top 5 graphic design school programs in Illinois. For an explanation of the ranking criteria, click here.

1. School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Founded in 1866, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) is one of the oldest accredited independent schools of art and design in the country. Serving nearly 3,700 students from 78 countries, SAIC offers more than 50 areas of study from Animation and Costume Design to Visual Communication Design and Writing. Programs for aspiring graphic designers are offered through the Visual Communication Design Department. Options include a BFA, MFA or Certificate in Graphic Design.

The BFA program has two major areas of focus including Physical Media (print, objects, and environments) and Virtual Media (interactive and time-based media). The MFA program offers the opportunity to explore other related departments at SAIC such as Printmedia, Writing, Photography, Architecture, Interior Architecture, and Designed Objects, and Film, Video, New Media, and Animation (FVNMA). The purpose of this opportunity is to “extend students’ design work into new territories,” says the school. The Graphic Design Certificate is designed for “students with an interest in exploring graphic design with an emphasis on print media.”

Other Graphic Design Program highlights include an active AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) student chapter, Exploratory Languages (a lecture series featuring leading designers and design educators from across the country), and CIPB (Chicago International Poster Biennial), which is an international competition representing leading designers from throughout the world. Internship and optional study abroad opportunities are also available.

2. University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
University of Illinois at Chicago

University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) was formed in 1982 “by the consolidation of two U. of I. campuses: the Medical Center campus, which dates back to the 19th century and the comprehensive Chicago Circle campus which replaced, in 1965, the two-year undergraduate Navy Pier campus that opened in 1946 to educate returning veterans.” Today, with more than 31,600 students enrolled in 250 degree programs and 53 certificate programs across 15 colleges, UIC is the largest university in the Chicago area. 

The College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts (CADA) houses the School of Design, which offers a Bachelor of Design (BDes) and a Master of Design (MDes) in Graphic Design. The four-year BDes program highlights studio-based instruction, while the two-year MDes focuses on an independent master’s research project. In the BDES program, “emphasis is placed on perfecting hand skills and in developing proficiency with digital technology,” says the school. “Through exposure to design practice, design culture, and critical observation, students experience Chicago as a global design center.”

The two-year MDes program focuses on an independent master’s research project that offers students the opportunity to explore a topic of inquiry with the potential to inform and shape disciplinary knowledge. Course examples include Advanced Graphic Design, Research Seminar, Documentation Studio, and Research Studio. During the final year of the program, students will participate in the Book Design Masters Project Exhibition.

A third option is the MDes Prelim Program. Offered to applicants who do not hold a bachelor’s degree in design, the Prelim Program is a customized yearlong program that prepares students for the two-year MDes.

3. Columbia College Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
Columbia College Chicago

Established in 1890, Columbia College serves more than 7,300 students from nearly every state and more than 60 countries. The school has over 100 academic majors or programs across several schools and more than 20 departments. Schools include the School of Media Arts, the School of Fine and Performing Arts, and the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Programs for aspiring graphic designers are offered in the School of Fine and Performing Arts. Options include BA and BFA degrees in Graphic Design. A second BA in Graphic Design is also available for students who have already earned a bachelor’s degree.

BA students take fewer credit hours in the major and are encouraged to choose a minor or double major in another program such as Fine Arts, Photography, Advertising, or Motion Graphics. BA students choose a concentration in one discipline such as Web Design, Publication Design, or a general concentration.

The BFA requires more advanced courses in graphic design than the BA. Students in this degree track do not choose a concentration and take courses across disciplines including Web Design, Publication Design, and Visual Identity. A second BA in Graphic Design is available if a student has already earned a bachelor’s degree.

Students in both programs have the opportunity to intern at firms such as Leo Burnett—one  of the largest advertising agencies in the world, and with clients like Procter & Gamble and Foote, Cone & Belding—a global advertising agency with clients around the world. Students have also interned at Pivot Design-an award-winning branding, marketing, and advertising agency, Pressley Johnson Design—one of the premiere design communications firms in the Midwest, and 50,000feet,Inc.—a firm that has worked with some of America’s top brands.

4. University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign, Champaign, Urbana
University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign

Established in 1867 as Illinois Industrial University, University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign is one of the original 37 public land-grant institutions created after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act. The school serves nearly 48,000 students through 15 colleges and instructional units. The College of Fine and Applied Arts, School of Art and Design offers a 122 credit hour Graphic Design program that leads to a BFA. A 64 credit hour MFA in Graphic Design is also available.

The Graphic Design BFA prepares students for entrance into the professional practice of design visual communications. The school says, “studio work addresses graphic design fundamentals (typography and image making), design history and contemporary practices, research methods, user experience, and social responsibility.” In addition, “students have the opportunity to develop their personal interests by taking advantage of a highly interdisciplinary selection of elective courses offered by the School of Art + Design, including Photography, Video, Traditional Printmaking, Sustainability, Advanced Interaction Design, and the design of Ninth Letter, a nationally-distributed and award-winning literary arts journal.”

The MFA prepares students to contribute to the field of design by entering into practice, academia or both. Specialized tracks of study for the program include Sustainable and Regenerative Design, Urban Sociology and Critical Race Design, Visual and Cultural Studies, and (student-proposed) Applied Research in Responsible, Innovation, Social Impact, and Engagement.

Students also have the opportunity to “explore responsible futures through research in traditional print media and emergent technologies including, but not limited to, data visualization, digital interaction, information design, systems thinking, and visual narrative.” Other program highlights include the opportunity to take courses at Siebel Center for Design, collaboration with PhD students in Informatics, who specialize in design, and networking through “world-class” Programs across campus. Students will also develop partnerships at the Research Park—a leading technology hub that cultivates start-ups and accelerates corporate innovation at companies such as Abbott Laboratories, ADM, Ameren, Capital One, and State Farm.

5. Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois
Northern Illinois University

Chartered in 1895, Northern Illinois University (NIU) serves just over 16,600 students from the U.S. and 77 other countries. The school offers nearly 400 majors, minors, emphases, graduate programs, and specializations through seven degree-granting colleges. The College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA) consists of three schools—the School of Art and Design, the School of Music, and the School of Theater and Dance. The School of Art and Design offers a BFA in Studio Art with a Major in Visual Communication.

The program “provides an intellectually-based, professional education that focuses on graphic form and communication, cultural factors and design processes,” says the school. The core requires 78 semester hours of study. Coursework highlights include Advanced Typography, Advanced Visual Communication, Image in Visual Communication, Interaction Design, Professional Practices in Design, and User Experience Design. A senior project worth three credits is also part of the program.

Students graduate from the BFA program “with creative, theoretical and interpersonal skills necessary to enter the graphic design profession.”