Academics Graphic Design

Master’s Programs

MFA | 2- and 3-year programs

RISD's graduate program in Graphic Design prepares students for professional practice by emphasizing the roles of social context, media and aesthetics in the production of visible language systems. As a reflection of the discipline itself, the program encourages a nimble and intelligent response to constant change and burgeoning technology, while building a strong foundation of formal, aesthetic and analytical knowledge. MFA candidates choose between two program tracks: a two-year option for students entering with undergraduate degrees in graphic design or other visual communication, and a three-year option for those with degrees in liberal arts, the sciences or fine arts. Built on a sequence of required courses, the curricula for both allow candidates to tailor individual courses of study through cross-disciplinary electives.

Learning outcomes

Graduates are prepared to:

  • interrogate the use of contemporary and historical tools, software and theory while contributing innovative and critical formal responses to the field of graphic design.
  • produce visual form as proof of concept and demonstration of theory.
  • contribute, evaluate and critique visual communication work at an advanced strategic level.
  • participate effectively in a professional graphic design studio environment.
  • initiate an individual or collaborative studio practice.
  • convey their expertise through teaching and/or mentoring.
  • curate exhibitions of their work and that of others.
  • conduct original research and convey it through appropriate modes of writing, publishing, curating and/or exhibiting.

Graduate student work

MFA | 2-year program

MFA candidates with a BFA or BA in Graphic Design or an equivalent degree such as Visual Communications enroll in the two-year program. Since these students typically also have at least two years of professional experience in the field, the program is designed to offer an opportunity for a more sustained and intensive investigation of critical graphic design thinking and making.

The Graduate Studio sequence explores the range of skills and activities within the design process, from an initial visual/verbal response to content, to the narrative shaping and communication of messages. Students in both tracks meet in the Graduate Seminar sequence, which initially builds a sophisticated sense of context through discussion of design history and contemporary critical issues, and later helps develop individual approaches to the exploration, investigation and construction of a well-designed thesis proposal.

MFA first year

Fall
Graduate Seminar 1
Graduate Studio 1
Graphic Design Studies or open electives
Graduate Education Seminar
Wintersession
Graphic Design Studies or Graduate Education Seminar or open electives
Spring
Graduate Seminar 2
Graduate Studio 2
Graphic Design Studies or open electives
Graduate Education Seminar

MFA second year

Fall
Graduate Thesis 1
Graphic Design Studies or open electives
Graduate Education Seminar
Wintesession
Graduate Thesis Open Research
Spring
Graduate Thesis 2
Graphic Design Studies or open electives
Graduate Education Seminar

MFA | 3-year program

MFA candidates with the visual/verbal aptitude to enter the field but who hold undergraduate degrees in majors such as architecture, biology, computer science, history, journalism, literature and so forth need a foundational year of study to gain the requisite skills in typography, color, theory, image and design application to move on to a thesis investigation in the subsequent two years. After successful completion of the intensive first year, three-year track students merge studies with two-year track candidates, taking one more typography course but otherwise sharing the same increasingly open curriculum.

MFA first year

Fall
Graduate Form 1
Graduate Seminar 1
Graduate Typography 1
History of Graphic Design
Graphic Design Studies or open electives
Wintersession
Graphic Design Studies or open electives
Spring
Graduate Type Design
Graduate Form 2
Graduate Typography 2
Graphic Design Studies or open electives

MFA second year

Fall
Graduate Studio 1
Graduate Typography 3
Graphic Design Studies or open electives
Wintersession
Graphic Design Studies or Graduate Education Seminar or open electives
Spring
Graduate Studio 2
Graduate Seminar 2
Graphic Design Studies or open electives

MFA third year

Fall
Graduate Thesis 1
Graphic Design Studies or Graduate Education Seminar or open electives
Wintersession
Graduate Thesis Open Research
Spring
Graduate Thesis 2
Graphic Design Studies or Graduate Education Seminar or open electives

Inspiring community

Each year approximately 40 highly motivated and engaged graduate students at various stages in the program work together, inspiring and supporting one another through open discussion and an exchange of perspectives from the wide variety of backgrounds and interests they bring to campus. The department's accomplished professors and critics extend the energy and ideas students bring to the studio and foster generative thinking and making. In addition, visiting designers offer varied models for critical practice and introduce students to a wide range of resources in the larger design world.

Learning environment

Graduate students in Graphic Design share individual workspaces in a large design studio on the 5th floor of RISD's Center for Integrative Technologies (CIT), home to several graduate programs along with the campus-wide graduate student gallery. This facility downtown separates grad students from undergraduates in the program—who are housed in the Design Center—but allows for ready interaction with grad students in Digital + Media, Teaching + Learning in Art + Design, Interior Architecture and Textiles. The center is also adjacent to the Fletcher Building, which offers graduate studio space for MFA candidates in five fine arts programs.

Thesis project

Individual thesis investigation is central to the final year of MFA study and culminates in the comprehensive presentation of work representing an original voice for visual and verbal expression of design thinking. The thesis should be equal parts exploration, explanation, provocation and contribution. Guest critics participate throughout the year and in the year-end thesis review, which offers a forum for critical dialogue focused on each student's contribution to the field of graphic design. All MFA candidates also submit a written thesis and as a group participate in the annual graduate thesis exhibition, a large-scale public show of work by students graduating from RISD's advanced degree programs.

Application requirements

  1. Submit your RISD application form, and all other credentials, through the RISD Applicant Portal. The application fee is $60.

  2. Initially, you must provide unofficial transcripts of all undergraduate and/or graduate study indicating satisfactory completion, or evidence of anticipated completion, of an undergraduate degree program from an accredited college or university. You can upload your unofficial transcripts within the RISD Applicant Portal. If your academic credentials are prepared in a language other than English, they must be translated into English by an approved translator before submitting. Enrolling students will later be required to submit official transcripts.

  3. Graduate applicants to studio programs are required to submit 10–20 examples of visual work, with certain programs suggesting more specific ideas or portfolio requirements.

    Use SlideRoom to submit your graduate portfolio here.

    Specific program instructions:

    Digital + Media: Your portfolio should contain 10 samples total, which can be a combination of media (e.g., images, video, sound). You may submit up to five videos as project documentation or excerpts of time-based media. In your portfolio you are encouraged to submit at least one video that clearly demonstrates your research and/or work process. Total runtime for all videos should be no more than five minutes.

    Please do not submit multi-page PDF files. Each sample should be accompanied by text identifying the medium and year, and a four-sentence description explaining the concepts that inform your work (50 words maximum). If collaborative projects are presented, you must clearly identify your individual contribution.

    Furniture Design: In the MFA programs, students often make their own work as a means to understand complex ideas. The idea is that critical making combined with critical thinking leads to innovative objects. This experimental approach applies to tests and models as well as to full-size objects at human scale. Material experimentation includes traditional, new and hybrid materials as appropriate to individual student interest. Choose your strongest work for your portfolio presentation—and it doesn't necessarily have to be furniture. If possible, you should aim to show finished photographed work and minimize the number of process images you include. ​

    In addition to your portfolio materials uploaded to SlideRoom, we ask you to include a self-made video (no more than 20 seconds duration) of you making something. The committee is not looking for video with professional production values, but rather is interested in seeing you making something: small, large, modest or complex, any making action can work—the choice is yours. This option shows the committee more about your interests. Please title your video.​

    Jewelry + Metalsmithing: The rigorous studio-based orientation of the graduate program leverages traditional skills and fabrication techniques to critically approach new territories and ways of making.

    In addition to your portfolio materials uploaded to SlideRoom, you are encouraged to include a self-made video no more than 20 seconds duration of you making something. We are not looking for video with professional production values; we are interested in seeing you making something – small, large, modest or complex, any making action can work, the choice is yours. This is an option you might enjoy adding to your submission for us to learn more about your interests. Please title your video.

    Landscape Architecture: All applicants to the Master's of Landscape Architecture degree programs are required to submit a portfolio and an additional video essay. Your portfolio should contain 10 individually produced and carefully chosen images of work that reflects your interests in landscape and the discipline of landscape architecture. Applicants to the MLA-1 program who have no prior design training may include photographs, sketches or written work that conveys their ability to observe, identify and explore spatial conditions within the landscape. All other applicants should include a selection of work that best represents the development of their interest in this field of study. All work should be labeled to indicate if it is academic, professional or personal. If team projects are presented, your individual contribution must be clearly identified. The portfolio should include a minimal amount of text.

    Prepare a short video of yourself telling us:

    • The most important reason you are motivated to study landscape architecture 
    • At least one goal you hope to achieve in your graduate education 
    • Why you think RISD is the best place to achieve your goals

    You are encouraged to be authentic and heartfelt in your response. This essay will function as the beginning of a conversation you will continue to have if you enter the program at RISD and it does not have to be the same information provided in your written essay. Cell phone videos are accepted as well. Maximum length: 2 minutes.

    Master of Arts in Teaching: Your portfolio should consist of 20 images exhibiting the depth and breadth of your studio experience. Ten images should represent work that reflects your investigations within a single medium; seven images should represent your confidence in handling a variety of media; and three images need to be samples of drawings.

    Master of Arts in Art + Design Education: Submit a portfolio of 20 images that most clearly represent your creative practice as an artist or designer.

  4. Graduate applicants must submit a written statement (500–750 words) outlining their interest and goals in pursuing graduate study. Several programs suggest more specific ideas or written requirements as outlined below.

    Specific program instructions:

    Digital + Media: Within the statement of purpose, the committee seeks a clear explanation of the applicant’s goals for both their time in school and afterwards, and how the MFA in Digital + Media is specifically suited to support these goals. This statement should address the following questions: What are you interested in exploring conceptually? What outcomes do you hope to get from the degree? Where do you see yourself after graduation? In addition to the statement of purpose, applicants should outline their working methodology or practice from initial research to project realization.

    Global Arts and Cultures: Applicants to the master’s program in Global Arts and Cultures must submit an academic statement of purpose of 1,000–2,000 words. The object of your statement is to introduce yourself to the Admissions Committee as a thinker, scholar and writer, and you should address in detail your intellectual interests and proposed topic(s) of graduate study. Be as specific as possible in describing your prior college-level experience in areas encompassed by Global Arts and Cultures and how this work has contributed to your professional and personal goals in pursuing a master’s degree. Your statement should also reflect your understanding of the contours and demands of graduate study in Global Arts and Cultures at RISD.

    Illustration: In 750–1500 words, please describe how you hope to engage your values as a critical thinker and maker within the context of your illustration studio practice and as a citizen of the world. Your statement should also reflect your understanding of the Illustration MFA course of study and what you hope to gain by completing the program.

    Landscape Architecture: Your essay should describe how your interest in landscape developed, how the work in your portfolio is indicative of that development and why the landscape architecture program at RISD seems well suited to your goals.

    Master of Arts in Teaching: 

    Submit a statement (500–700 words) describing why you desire to become a K-12 art educator and to enter the TLAD MAT program specifically. Please be sure to address the following questions within your statement:

    • Why do you want to become an art educator and enter the TLAD MAT program specifically?
    • How do you feel your academic, studio, and work experiences have prepared you for RISD’s graduate program in art teacher education? 
    • How will your own identity as an artist/designer contribute to your practice as an art educator in the classroom?
    • What, in your opinion, is the purpose of art education in K-12 schools?
    • What do you believe high-quality K-12 art education looks like?

    Master of Arts in Art + Design Education: 

    Submit a written statement (500-750 words) describing your interest in art and design education and your desire to enter the TLAD MA program specifically. Please be sure to address the following questions within your statement:

    • Why do you want to become an art educator and enter the TLAD MA program specifically (especially as opposed to a MFA program)?
    • What are your specific interests related to art and design education?
    • How might these specific interests contribute to the thesis research you would engage in within this program? 
    • Our MA program is unique in that students customize a program of study. How you would customize your MA program to maximize the resources of RISD, Brown and Providence, and that would support your potential research interests at the same time?
    • How do you imagine the MA will support your future goals and interests after graduation (i.e., where do you see yourself in the future and how will the MA help)?

    Nature–Culture–Sustainability Studies: Applicants to the master’s in Nature–Culture–Sustainability Studies must submit an academic statement of purpose of 1,000–2,000 words. The object of your statement is to introduce yourself to the Admissions Committee as a thinker, scholar and writer, and you should address in detail your intellectual interests and proposed topic(s) of graduate study. You should be as specific as possible in describing your prior college-level experience in the areas of Nature–Culture–Sustainability Studies and how this work has contributed to your professional and personal goals in pursuing a master’s degree. Your statement should also reflect your understanding of the contours and demands of graduate study in Nature–Culture–Sustainability Studies at RISD.

    Photography: Please submit each of the following: a clearly written statement of purpose (max. 750 words) that explains why you need to attend graduate school now, why you want to attend RISD, and what you believe that you and your practice needs that RISD and its community can offer; and an accessible artist’s statement (max. 750 words) that elucidates the work you’ve included in your submitted portfolio, its aims, forms, development, trajectory, possibilities, meanings and relevance as you construe these things.

  5. Applicants to the MA programs in Global Arts and Cultures and Nature–Culture–Sustainability Studies are required to submit an example of critical and/or analytical writing. See below for all program-specific instructions.

    Global Arts and Cultures: Applicants are required to submit a writing sample that represents your strongest critical and/or analytical writing on a topic clearly related to Global Arts and Cultures. Please indicated if your writing sample is excerpted from a longer work. If it is, please make sure it forms a coherent argument and is framed such that the Admissions Committee understands its function as part of a longer work.

    Nature–Culture–Sustainability Studies: Applicants are required to submit a writing sample that represents your strongest critical and/or analytical writing on a topic clearly related to Nature–Culture–Sustainability Studies. Please indicated if your writing sample is excerpted from a longer work. If it is, please make sure it forms a coherent argument and is framed such that the Admissions Committee understands its function as part of a longer work.

  6. Applicants are required to submit three letters of recommendation. Recommendation letters should be written by teachers or other professionals who have firsthand knowledge of your art or academic achievements and can comment on your potential for graduate study. You may invite your recommenders to upload their letters through your Applicant Portal. If your recommenders are unable to submit using this method, their letters may be emailed to admissions@risd.edu or mailed to the Graduate Admissions Office.

  7. English language proficiency test

    All applicants who speak English as a second language, including US citizens, must submit results from any one of these three options: TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), IELTS (International English Language Testing System) or Duolingo (an online English test). Since proficiency in English is a prerequisite for acceptance, applicants must attain an acceptable score on their chosen test; RISD requires a minimum result of 93 on the TOEFL or a 6.5 on the IELTS.

    Duolingo is changing its scoring system beginning with tests completed on July 15, 2019 and beyond. If you took this test prior to the change, we require a minimum result of 63. Applicants who completed the Duolingo test on or after July 15, 2019 must achieve a minimum score of 115, which is the equivalent of 63 in their prior scoring system.

    Plan to take the TOEFL or IELTS well in advance of the application deadline since it may take three weeks for your scores to be sent to RISD by the test agency. Duolingo test results may take up to four days to be received by RISD.

    The language test requirement may be waived for applicants who have studied in an institution where English is the language of instruction. You must contact the Admissions Office to explain your school history and determine if you are eligible.

    Graduate Record Exam (GRE)

    Results from the Graduate Record Examination are not required as part of the application process.