I’m trying to help my son select the best school to get his graphic design bachelor of arts degree. He has narrowed the field to Academy of Art University and Art Institute of California at San Francisco. which do you think is best and why? Maybe there is even a third choice to consider. Would like to hear ideas from you.

I contacted a prominent Bay Area graphic design artist (who wished to remain anonymous) to ask for her insight. Here’s her breakdown:

Academy of Art University: While she’s impressed by students’ portfolios, our anonymous graphic designer (I’ll call her A.G.D.) is “utterly repulsed by the expense (about $100K?!), time required (four years for an MFA!?), and lack of selectiveness (everyone gets IN?!) at Academy of Arts University.”

Art Institute: Our A.G.D. is “skeptical” of the institute, “because they have a campus in almost every major city in the country (seems a little too formulaic!).”

CCA (California College of Art): Our A.G.D. thinks “this is another strong option for anyone to consider who is looking into getting an art degree in San Francisco.” However, she’s heard from some design students there that CCA “doesn’t offer enough structure to their students work so, while students have the opportunity to explore to their hearts content, they have difficulty finishing work and creating grounded, practical solutions.”

Since our A.G.D thinks there are “definitely pros and cons all around,” she also added some guidelines for those checking out Art Schools:

Portfolios: The portfolios and student work presented by a school are the main factor for me when I look at whether a school would be a good fit. When making the decision to select a program, you should see the student work and say, “Wow! I’d like to do work that looks like that!” It’s also a good idea to look into the faculty of the design department. Are they working in the industry? Are they involved in the local design community? If not, did they USED to be but now devote all of their attentions to teaching? There should be a balance of these people in a design department.

Focus: Graphic design is an ever-expanding area of study. Some schools focus more on web design or game design and have lagging print design or illustration programs. If you know which field you’d like to focus on, study the work and curriculum in that field for a given school. If you’re not sure, make certain that you pick a program that will expose you these different options and presents strong work in all of your areas of interest.

Art vs. Vocation: The issue of whether the program has a Fine Art focus or a vocational focus is important for me. I strongly feel that a solid basis in Fine Arts (drawing, photography, printmaking, etc. etc.) is important for graphic designers. Some programs have these “core” curriculum requirements while others focus more on learning software and using technology. While the computer angle of doing graphic design DOES turn out to be important, I think it’s far more important for students to get a strong understanding of composition and how to THINK like a designer and EXPLORE like an artist.

Degree: The above issue can be hard to determine when looking at programs and curriculum. The degree offered (B.S., B.A. or B.F.A) is often an indicator. The F is the FINE in Fine Arts. If you’re more analytical and don’t see yourself as a “creative” person, you might have more success in a program that focuses less on the Fine Art side of things and more on technology and vocation (for instance, I saw that the AI degree is a B.S. … I’m not sure how graphic design would be considered a “science” over an “art” but that distinction is something to be considered). I’ve always been into art. It was my favorite class all through elementary school and I took as many art classes as I could in high school. For me, a B.F.A. program with a lot of art foundation was essential.

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  • Leanna Yip

    It’s Academy of Art. Singular. Although I’m not sure what this one art is since they’re spread so thin. I had to guffaw when they started teaching drama. It’s not a bad school, and I had some good experiences there — but I can’t defend the accusations that it’s all a real estate company masquerading as a school.

    I was kinda jealous the first time I ever set foot at SF State (my sister went there) because there actually is something of a physical cohesion. The fact that the Academy IS all over the city means there isn’t a central location to hang out, and it can be a headache commuting from class to class. This may not be a huge factor in choosing a school, but it’s something to think about.

    – Academy of Art class of 2002, graphic design.

  • Leanna Yip

    It’s Academy of Art. Singular. Although I’m not sure what this one art is since they’re spread so thin. I had to guffaw when they started teaching drama. It’s not a bad school, and I had some good experiences there — but I can’t defend the accusations that it’s all a real estate company masquerading as a school.

    I was kinda jealous the first time I ever set foot at SF State (my sister went there) because there actually is something of a physical cohesion. The fact that the Academy IS all over the city means there isn’t a central location to hang out, and it can be a headache commuting from class to class. This may not be a huge factor in choosing a school, but it’s something to think about.

    – Academy of Art class of 2002, graphic design.

  • Katie Baker

    Oops, change noted. Thanks!

  • Katie Baker

    Oops, change noted. Thanks!

  • nicole

    I received my MFA from the Academy in 2 yrs. It should take no longer than 2-3 yrs max… 4 yrs would only be if you took classes part time.

  • nicole

    I received my MFA from the Academy in 2 yrs. It should take no longer than 2-3 yrs max… 4 yrs would only be if you took classes part time.

  • bennyinsf

    Is it also important for you to have the option of pursuing an advanced degree or transferring to an another school? If it is important, you’ll need to investigate whether credits and/or degrees from the schools you list are accepted at other programs. I participated in an orientation for one of the programs you mention where I was informed (and have been told by former students) that neither their credits nor their degree was accepted at other accredited schools when they tried to transfer or tried to enter an advanced degree program. They had to start all over. Just because a school claims to be accredited doesn’t mean a whole lot — there are various agencies that will accredit a school’s program, but many are not recognized by other schools. If you’re trying to get an advanced degree or even transfer to some place like SFSU, your degree or coursework from one of these programs may or may not be accepted. Check it out. Ask other schools if they would accept credit from XXX program if you wanted to transfer or get an advanced degree. Here’s a bit of info about accredidation: http://www.ed.gov/admins/finaid/accred/accreditation_pg6.html#NationallyRecognized.

  • bennyinsf

    Is it also important for you to have the option of pursuing an advanced degree or transferring to an another school? If it is important, you’ll need to investigate whether credits and/or degrees from the schools you list are accepted at other programs. I participated in an orientation for one of the programs you mention where I was informed (and have been told by former students) that neither their credits nor their degree was accepted at other accredited schools when they tried to transfer or tried to enter an advanced degree program. They had to start all over. Just because a school claims to be accredited doesn’t mean a whole lot — there are various agencies that will accredit a school’s program, but many are not recognized by other schools. If you’re trying to get an advanced degree or even transfer to some place like SFSU, your degree or coursework from one of these programs may or may not be accepted. Check it out. Ask other schools if they would accept credit from XXX program if you wanted to transfer or get an advanced degree. Here’s a bit of info about accredidation: http://www.ed.gov/admins/finaid/accred/accreditation_pg6.html#NationallyRecognized.

  • Leanna Yip

    Also, if you’re transferring FROM another school (as I did), keep in mind that unless you want to burn out and die by taking 3 or 4 major classes in one semester, you’ll end up spending much more time at AAU/AAC than anticipated due to having to space out your classes and not fill them up with prerequisites in between. Community college is great for saving $, but time… not so much.

  • Leanna Yip

    Also, if you’re transferring FROM another school (as I did), keep in mind that unless you want to burn out and die by taking 3 or 4 major classes in one semester, you’ll end up spending much more time at AAU/AAC than anticipated due to having to space out your classes and not fill them up with prerequisites in between. Community college is great for saving $, but time… not so much.

  • sfresident

    When I’ve gotten into discussions with my art/design friends about this topic the general consensus seems to be CCA > AAU and that one “shouldn’t bother” with anything else in the bay area.

  • sfresident

    When I’ve gotten into discussions with my art/design friends about this topic the general consensus seems to be CCA > AAU and that one “shouldn’t bother” with anything else in the bay area.

  • ser49

    I have worked in Art Education for a long time, and I know the graphic design program at the Academy of Art University that Mary Scott directs. You will not be sorry if you choose to go there. Mary Scott is highly regarded by Graphic Designers all over the US, and all her graduates get jobs. But don’t just take my word for it…Contact AIGA–the professional organization for graphic designers and ask them….they will tell you what they think about Mary Scott and her program at the Academy of Art University. I guarantee it will be worth your time and money.

  • ser49

    I have worked in Art Education for a long time, and I know the graphic design program at the Academy of Art University that Mary Scott directs. You will not be sorry if you choose to go there. Mary Scott is highly regarded by Graphic Designers all over the US, and all her graduates get jobs. But don’t just take my word for it…Contact AIGA–the professional organization for graphic designers and ask them….they will tell you what they think about Mary Scott and her program at the Academy of Art University. I guarantee it will be worth your time and money.