Earning a Master’s in Visual Communications Online

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According to the American Institute of Graphic Arts, schools offer a much wider selection of programs related to visual communication and graphic design than they did 20 years ago. This increased variety means modern learners can choose degrees that strongly complement their career goals. In particular, specializations related to careers as graphic designers, photographers, and media coordinators are available to students. A visual communication degree can also prepare learners for some careers outside of visual communication.

This page explores possible careers for graduates, along with common program elements, professional organizations, financial aid, and certifications related to visual communication.

Student Profile: Who Earns an Online Master’s Degree in Visual Communication?

Professionals with a bachelor's degree can pursue a master's in visual communication online to qualify for advanced positions. Candidates with unrelated undergraduate degrees can sometimes enter these programs. Master's degrees may also provide concentrations that explore particular areas of the field, preparing students for specific careers. Schools and other organizations may also offer certificates related to visual communication.

In general, visual communication master's students should be able to think creatively and excel at learning new technologies.

Why Get a Master’s Degree in Visual Communication?

Pursuing Specialization

Earning a master's in visual communication online may allow students to specialize in areas like web design, user experience, or motion design. These specializations relate to visual communication careers but also prepare students for professions in non-arts fields. For example, many companies benefit from user-friendly websites and may hire applicants with expertise in this area.

Career Advancement Opportunities

Earning a master's in visual communication design online can help candidates obtain advanced positions within a company. For instance, communications directors have an average salary of nearly $70,000 per year, and many of these workers hold a graduate degree. Candidates with expertise in visual communication -- particularly those who also hold software certifications -- stand out from others in the field.

Online Learning Technology

Visual communication involves digital tools and processes to complete two- and three-dimensional projects. Learning online teaches students how to navigate digital platforms and use tools effectively, encouraging exploration of the latest technologies, trends, and software in the field.

Prerequisites for Online Visual Communication Programs

Admission requirements for visual communication master's programs vary among schools, although colleges and universities typically require many of the following admission elements.

    • Work Experience: Enrolling in a master's in visual communication program does not usually require work experience. However, programs may award credit based on previous professional training.
    • Exams and Test Scores: Applicants may need to submit scores from the GRE, MAT, or GMAT. Scores are typically good for five years. However, many master's in visual communication online programs do not require exam scores.
    • Coursework: Students need a bachelor's degree for admission, and some departments may insist that degrees come from a related field, like graphic design. Colleges and universities may also require a minimum GPA -- often between 2.5 and 3.0. Some schools allow students who do not meet these criteria to earn conditional admission.
    • Recommendations: Applicants usually need to submit two or three recommendation letters. These should be written by teachers and employers and address an applicant's work ethic, skills, and potential to succeed in a graduate program.
    • Essays: Schools may require statements describing an applicant's visual communication experiences, career goals, community service, and/or personal strengths. Essays illustrate an applicant's writing skills, values, and qualifications.
    • Interviews: Some programs interview candidates who pass an initial screening. These interviews may occur on campus, over the phone, or online, and they usually represent the final stage of the application process. However, many visual communication master's programs do not require this step.
    • International Students: International students may need to submit scores from English proficiency exams, such as TOEFL or IELTS scores. Schools may also insist on authorized reviews of international transcripts through organizations like Educational Credential Evaluators, Inc.

How Much Can I Make with a Master’s Degree in Visual Communication?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the average pay for a U.S. worker in 2018 was almost $52,000. Candidates who earn a master's in visual communication online can assume some high-paying careers. For example, the mean annual wage of art directors exceeded $104,000 in 2018. Directors earning a 10th-percentile salary took home $52,160, while candidates in the 90th percentile earned over $172,000; this was more than three times the national average.

Traditional Careers for Master's in Visual Communication Graduates

Careers Stats Description

Graphic Designer

Median Pay: $50,370

Job Growth: 4%

Graphic designers create layouts for brochures, advertisements, logos, and overall project designs to address company needs. Detail-oriented individuals can excel at these positions because minute factors like font type or color scheme can have a large impact on final products. Candidates should also be able to alter products based on feedback.

Art Director

Median Pay: $92,780

Job Growth: 5%

Art designers oversee promotional projects for different forms of media. These directors may brainstorm designs that other artists bring to life and approve final products. Additional tasks may include communicating with departments to obtain project information, tending to budgets, and arranging times for meetings and deadlines.

Photographer

Median Pay: $34,000

Job Growth: -6%

Photographers take pictures in regular sessions or at significant events. These artists may focus in areas such as news photography. Candidates should be able to design sets, capture unique images, and create photographic memorabilia.

Media Coordinator

Median Pay: $39,000

Media coordinators explain and endorse a company's products or services to customers. This task may involve conducting marketing research, building marketing campaigns, writing advertisements, and seeking promotional opportunities. Coordinators may also assign these tasks to other employees. Additionally, these professionals need to consider budgets and maintain records. Candidates should boast strong communication, organizational, and marketing skills.

Source: BLS/Projection Central/PayScale

Nontraditional Careers for Visual Communication Graduates

Obtaining a master's in visual communication online equips students with strong communication, organizational, and research skills that can also be applied to less traditional careers. For example, learners can use their knowledge of photo editing software to write instructional manuals.

Careers Stats Description

Writer or Author

Median Pay:$62,170

Job Growth:8%

Skills Overlapped: Strong research, organizational, and communication skills; creativity

These individuals write fiction and nonfiction pieces, such as articles, books, advertisements, and scripts. This process may require extensive research and editing skills. Individuals can work as regular employees or freelance for multiple companies.

Technical Writer

Median Pay: $71,850

Job Growth: 11%

Skills Overlapped: Attention to detail, communication and research skills

Technical writers explain complicated processes and ideas in clear terms by creating instructional manuals, pamphlets, and articles. These writers may use visual elements, such as illustrations, pictures, and charts, to help explain ideas.

Managing Editor

Median Pay: $60,682

Skills Overlapped: Ability to work well with others, attention to detail, organizational skills

Managing editors supervise publication by creating topics and approving final works. Candidates may also handle office responsibilities and help deliver marketing pitches.

Source: PayScale/BLS

Paying for an Online Master’s in Visual Communication

Tuition rates vary widely between schools, but certain guidelines can help students find less expensive options. For example, private institutions often charge higher tuition than public schools. Candidates can also choose learning formats that better fit their budget. Part-time pathways may take longer but can allow students to pay less each semester. However, part-time learners without tuition guarantees may ultimately pay more for their degrees since tuition typically increases each year.

Degree seekers should apply for financial aid to try and avoid accumulating massive amounts of debt. Aid opportunities include student loans, tuition reimbursement programs, and field-specific scholarships.

Scholarships for Online Visual Communication Master's Students

Students can obtain scholarships based on financial need, academic or athletic accomplishments, family history, location, and/or their field of study. These scholarships may come from schools or private organizations. Although, scholarships that specifically target visual communication are not common, learners can also search for funding related graphic design, photography, and the broader field of general communication.

What to Expect from a Master’s-level Online Visual Communication Program

Students earning a master's in visual communication online may participate in discussion boards and submit assignment and papers online. They can also expect to encounter certain milestones while progressing through their course of study. For instance, some programs require students to complete a thesis and/or exhibition before graduating.

Major Milestones

  1. Admission Portfolio

    Departments may ask aspiring graduate students to submit portfolios that illustrate an applicant's visual communication skills. Portfolios often include 10-20 pieces, such as brochures, web designs, and posters, along with written explanations for each piece.

  2. Graduate Assistantship

    Students may complete paid assistantships in positions related to visual communication. These experiences provide practical experience and can lead to resume-enhancing projects and professional connections.

  3. Design Exhibition

    Some programs may require students to participate in a visual communication exhibit to showcase their work. Learners may need to plan and host these exhibits individually or in groups. Exhibits may occur in person or online.

  4. Thesis

    Participants who complete a thesis conduct research and write a lengthy paper on a visual communication topic. Theses may require two courses: one for preliminary research and one for writing.

  5. Apply for Graduation

    Students may need to fill out an application and pay a graduation fee before graduating. Departments may also ask candidates to submit surveys or portfolios as part of the graduation process.

Coursework

Each visual communication master's program features its own specific curriculum, especially if it offers specialization tracks. However, many programs share common courses, such as the ones described below.

Introduction to Visual Communication

Candidates explore basic visual communication elements, such as color, design, and typography. Coursework may address audience perception for various visual communication forms, including logos and posters.

Typography

This course examines design elements for print. Covered topics include using grid systems, spacing, and letterform to deliver accurate messages. Students may explore historic and contemporary concepts related to typography, learning to build projects by hand and with relevant software.

Digital Imaging

Students explore software used to build and edit professional projects, such as Adobe Photoshop. Learners may explore color, filters, effects, and spacing for image alteration and creation, along with output options.

Interaction Design

Coursework may cover strategies to create user friendly, interactive projects, such as websites and games for mobile devices. This process may include sketch-building, prototyping, and project revising.

Motion Graphics

This class provides information on communicating with audiences through animated creations. Learners may explore relevant software, such as Adobe Edge Animate, and gain insights into theming and timing for graphics that can be used to reflect a company's brand.

Degree Timelines

Online learners may have the option to earn their degrees on a part-time, full-time, or accelerated basis. Candidates should explore all of these opportunities to determine which option best fits their schedules.

Enrollment Status Time to Complete Description

Part-Time

3-5 years

Part-time graduate students often take six or fewer credits each semester. This format allows learners to concentrate on one or two classes at a time and makes earning a degree easier for candidates with busy schedules. However, part-time enrollment often extends the program timeline to 3-5 years.

Full-Time

2-3 years

Full-time graduate students take at least nine credits per semester. This degree plan requires more time commitment each semester but allows students to graduate faster -- often in less than three years.

Accelerated

1-2 years

Accelerated programs may allow students to take heavier course loads each semester. Alternatively, some programs feature a greater number of shorter terms throughout the year, helping students move through coursework rapidly. Learners who select this option should have a strong work ethic and sufficient free time to complete a large amount of coursework each week.

Licenses and Certifications

Licenses and certifications demonstrate a candidate's expertise in a particular area. These credentials can help applicants stand out from the competition when looking for work and/or advance into higher positions.

For visual communication, credentials can verify that an individual has mastered common software for digital image creation and manipulation. Adobe, for instance, offers several certification exams for its products in areas such as video editing, motion graphics, web design, and print design. Students interested in earning these credentials can consider the following options.

    • Photoshop CC 2015: This certification requires individuals to score at least 550 on the Adobe Photoshop CC exam. Candidates must complete this multiple-choice exam in 90 minutes, answering 57 questions and a survey. To register, individuals must hold at least two years of Photoshop experience.
    • Adobe Illustrator CC 2015: Earning this certification requires passing the 60-question Adobe Illustrator CC ACE exam. Candidates must complete the assessment in 90 minutes and earn a minimum score of 550. Test-takers must hold at least three years of Illustrator experience. This certification prepares individuals to work as Adobe Illustrators.
    • Adobe InDesign CC 2015: Candidates must pass the multiple-choice Adobe InDesign CC ACE exam with a score of 550. This exam includes 60 questions on topics related to graphics management and print output. Individuals must complete the exam in 75 minutes. Registration requires at least two years of InDesign experience. Certification may prepare candidates for professions related to graphic design.

Professional Organizations and Resources

Professional organizations often host conferences, seminars, and meetings that address new visual communication ideas; these events also encourage networking between seasoned professionals, recent graduates, and current students. These organizations often provide job boards and connect members to visual design resources. Organizations may also provide programs that fulfill continuing education requirements, which may be necessary to maintain or renew credentials.

  • National Communication Association NCA hosts conferences, seminars, and a yearly convention. Members can access 11 NCA-published communication journals, including Communication Education and Critical Studies in Media Communication.
  • Visual Communications This group began in 1970 and focuses on helping individuals with ties to Asia and the Pacific Islands. The organization hosts a film festival with awards and oversees the $100,000 VC Film Development Fund.
  • International Communication Association ICA oversees regional meetings; a yearly conference; and six journals, including Communication Theory and the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. Members can browse job openings and submit articles for publication through the website.
  • Pacific Printing Industries Association This group provides a job bank and meetings like its Continuous Improvement Conference. The association also connects members to PrintROCKS!, which gives awards to candidates working in various categories, including graphic design, calendars, and marketing/promotional materials.
  • Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication AEJMC hosts a yearly conference and regional gatherings. It also offers resources on research and teaching. Members receive AEJMC News, which provides information on open job positions, and various AEJMC publications, such as Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.
  • The Visual Communication Guy This page provides resources on presentations, teaching strategies, citation formats, research, writing steps, and visual communication syllabus creation. The site's blog also offers information on visual elements of presentations, website design, and marketing.
  • Journal of Visual Communication and Image Representation This scholarly journal contains visual communication pieces that often focus on technology. The publication also connects viewers to illustration and translation assistance and allows writers to submit papers for publication.
  • Duke University Libraries Duke University offers advice on visual communication elements, such as color selection and format. The site also provides resources to help individuals create posters, including online workshop videos, and explores relevant software and chart construction.
  • Society for Human Resource Management This source addresses human resources, including information on visual communication. For instance, SHRM explores effective visual communication techniques that can be used to engage with millennials and visual learners.
  • Visual Communication Journal This journal examines various types of visual communication, including photography and graphic design. Articles address how various elements, such as setting and posture, impact visuals and their interpretation.