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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