How to Become a Graphic Designer in California?

California attracts people from all over the nation. It’s a dynamic, diverse state that promises to fulfill one’s dreams, and it promises many opportunities for aspiring graphic designers who want to grow in the industry.

For some, California may seem like an overwhelming state to study graphic design. With so many people working, living, and studying there, it may seem like it’s too competitive to really gain a footing in the industry. And while that may be true for some careers, graphic design is not one of them.

This is because virtually every industry in the state needs graphic designers, and the demand for people who are good at what they do only continues to increase.

What You Need to Become a Graphic Designer in California

Pursuing a career in graphic design doesn’t necessarily require a degree. Plenty of people learn on their own time or through small, affordable classes and go on to be profitable freelancers or secure jobs with companies of various sizes.

But in a place like California, known for being a “dog eat dog” competitive state, it’s essential to set yourself up for success. In the case of graphic design, that means checking out a degree program, whether you decide to go with a bachelor’s, master’s degree or even a certificate.

College and university-run programs can get you on the right path quickly, working closely and networking with faculty and staff who already have an “in” in the industry.

Career Outlook for Graphic Design

The graphic design industry is integral for places like California, where tourists gather, and advertising & marketing plays a huge part in day-to-day life. The state is looking at an increase of about 5.1% over the next decade when it comes to job availability for graphic designers. That said, you have options: choosing to work with a company or freelance.

The Best Graphic Design Schools in California

While it may be hard to find art colleges in some states, California is definitely not one of those states. In fact, art seems to often take center stage in CA. For students who want their graphic design program to be a priority instead of just an add-on, California is an appealing option for academics.

ArtCenter College of Design

ArtCenter is at the top of the list, and for good reason – they get right to it with a page on how to become a graphic designer for students in the program.

Located in Pasadena, CA, ArtCenter was founded by Edward “Tink” Adams, who wanted to set student artists up with real-world skills so that they could prosper when they left their academic life behind. The college has an impressive history of faculty, with photographer Ansel Adams, author Bruce Sterling and artist Keith Haring all teaching at some point. Many of their alumni have also gone on to create popular and well-known ad campaigns and designs.

Made up of roughly 2,000 students, there’s a 60% acceptance rate and a 78% retention rate after freshman year. Unfortunately, ArtCenter doesn’t provide on-campus housing, but they have the Center for the Student Experience to help prospective students find off-campus housing options in Pasadena and Los Angeles.

The Graphic Design program at ArtCenter has “left the page,” and students will be challenged to imbue each project with meaning and life. The college looks beyond graphic design as “just” a career choice and focuses instead on the importance of using it as a tool to communicate.

Joining the program at ArtCenter requires an application to the college, transcripts, essays and a portfolio specifically geared toward graphic design. The program includes courses such as Materials of Art and Design, Narrative Sketching, Communication Design, Package Design, Transmedia and quite a few studio electives.

Otis College of Art and Design

A private college, Otis College of Art and Design is located in Los Angeles. Otis takes pride in being the “original,” the first professional school of the arts established in LA. Roughly 1200 students a year attend Otis and go on to work for companies like Apple, DreamWorks, Nike, Netflix and more.

87% of students attending the college receive scholarships and financial age, and 36% of students are from outside of California, so you don’t need to be a native to thrive here. In 2016, the college tracked a 92% success rate of employment among its graduates.

For students interested in living on campus, Otis has a few options; residence halls are available for first-year students and apartments are located close to campus. The college also connects students to off-campus housing options with rentals and property listers as well as a roommate finder. 

Otis College offers an MFA in Graphic Design, available as a follow-up for students seeking an undergrad degree in Communication Arts (where graphic design is a focus area). The MFA curriculum includes courses such as Life Drawing, Writing in the Digital Age, Form and Space and more. Otis even goes so far as to list out careers linked to this degree as well as select employers.

Students who want to start in the BFA program via the Communication Arts and work their way up through the focus of graphic design will be introduced to website and app creation, fine art, motion graphics, branding and more. The BFA from Otis College is definitely enough to get students started on their career path to graphic design, with a focus on researching and developing projects that result in meaningful communication.

California College of the Arts

The California College of the Arts, or CCA, has roughly 1,600 students spread across two campuses – one in San Francisco and one in Oakland. CCA is a private art school with an 85% acceptance rate. Their focus is on learning through making.

Unlike some of the other colleges on our list, CCA provides residence halls either on or near campus for student housing. Nearby in both San Francisco and Oakland are art galleries, museums and thriving communities for students to explore.

Among the 23 undergrad and 11 graduate programs is the BFA in Graphic Design. The student-to-teacher ratio is 8:1, so classes are usually very small and intimate. 96.9% of classes have less than 20 students in them.

Students participating in the graphic design program will be tasked with practical problem solving as well as conceptual design and craft. There will also be opportunities for an internship with companies in the Bay area. CCA provides their undergrads with access to studio space, various printers, guillotine cutters, binding equipment and more.

Requirements for gaining entry to the program are pretty standard: an application, transcripts, personal essay, letter of recommendation and portfolio. CCA doesn’t require SAT or ACT scores.

Laguna College of Art and Design

Located in Laguna Beach, the Laguna College of Art and Design has an acceptance rate of 79% and a student-to-teacher rate of 12:1. With two campus locations, students interested in the Graphic Design BFA program will likely be attending the Big Bend area campus.

LCAD has a residence hall that houses just over 50 students, located about a mile from the main campus. With an average enrollment of around 600 students a year, the remainder will have access to college resources to help find housing options.

The BFA in Graphic Design program is designed to roll out over the course of four years. Students will participate not only in the basics but in 3D, motion, iPad development and action sports design. By taking a multidisciplinary approach, LCAD ensures graduates are flexible in their career choices. Sony Music partners with the program, and Nike chose LCAD’s graphic design program as one of the top three in the world.

To help with the cost of tuition, LCAD provides both scholarships (automatic and otherwise) and financial aid. They require a preliminary portfolio review but don’t require a high GPA from incoming students.

San Diego State University

Founded in 1897, San Diego State University boasts over 400,000 alumni. The average enrollment is 35,000 students a year, so those interested in a large community will find it here. SDSU has over 203-degree programs, 17 athletic teams, and 300 student organizations. It’ll take some searching, but you can find your niche here.

About 7000 students a year live on campus in the many residential buildings. Housing is divided up by academic year, and there are quite a few dining halls on campus as well, with over 34 restaurants and markets in the area catering to SDSU students.

The college offers a BA in Applied Arts and Sciences with an emphasis in Graphic Design. Aside from graphic design-focused courses, other courses in the curriculum include History of American Art, Jewelry and Metals, Introduction to Woodworking, Artists and Designers in Real-Time and more. The program focuses on creating communicative content based on audiences and context.

Applying to SDSU may seem a bit more complicated than the other options on the list. The process includes completing the 15-unit college preparatory courses, called A-G courses in California, with a C- or higher. Students are also required to meet a minimum high school GPA. There are no requirements specific to the graphic design program.