The Vanishing

Shedding light on the declining number of graphic arts students
March 12, 2023

Carol Jensen Jones views any talk about a declining number of graphic arts students as a case of the proverbial squeaky wheel gets the oil.

From where Jones, Senior Lecturer Emeritus College at Clemson University, sits, if you want something, you not only have to ask for it, but also put in the work. To keep the wheels turning, she believes there must be a willingness of professionals from the graphic arts community to sit on boards, steering committees and provide support through professional associations/organizations.

"Undergraduate students in our curriculum are required to take courses preparing them to communicate effectively with the creative community."

— Bruce Leigh Myers, Ph.D.,
Associate Professor, Department of Packaging and Graphic Media Science, RIT

Pick one, any one: Flexographic Technical Association (FFTA); Printing Industry of the Carolinas (PIC); Print and Graphics Scholarship Foundation (PGSF); National Association for Printing Leadership (NAPL); Association for PRINT Technologies (APTech); Printing Industries Alliance (PIA); Technical Association of the Graphic Arts (TAGA) and IDEAlliance.

“If industry doesn't let educators and associations know what their needs are, the programs aren't looking to meet an unknown demand,” Jones says.

According to the "Occupational Outlook Handbook" by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, employment of graphic designers is only expected to grow 3% through 2031—slower than the average for all occupations. Despite limited employment growth, about 24,800 openings for graphic designers are projected each year, on average, over the next decade, the handbook says.

More than anything else, Jones and her higher education peers believe that graphic arts programs must have the support of the industries seeking future graphic design professionals. This means that financially, industries should be assisting high school STEM programs, technical colleges, four-year colleges and universities through grants, scholarships, paid internship opportunities, current technologies and equipment, and consumables. Graphic arts programs with printing as a large or primary part of the program at any level are very costly to run. In recent years, many have disappeared because they are not financially feasible and do not get any greater support than other disciplines.

“Digital design doesn't have near the demand on space and equipment that print design programs have to be effective,” Jones says. “Successful and effective print design programs have current technologies in both software and heavy equipment such as flexographic, offset lithographic, screen printing and various digital printing systems where students get to test out their designs and see the impact of poor, good or great design. Programs with industry support work toward developing curriculum and experiences to meet the needs expressed by and supported by industries.”

One of the worst things she has seen during her time with Clemson's Graphic Communications program as an instructor and internship coordinator is companies thinking they are going to get a great student to do an internship for no pay and little or no other support.

graphic arts student looking at color swatch

The scenario goes back to her aforementioned statement: If you want something, you not only have to ask for it, but also put in the work. “An industry must see that the investment made with today's employee/intern pays off in both getting the best out of the intern/employee as well as developing a relationship with the entire program. This shows the prospective employees that you are a great company to work for—one that values its employees' contributions and supports their professional development.”

The bottom line: Even if the intern does not go to work for you, the recognition of your company for having supported the program and providing positive experiences draws other great candidates to your organization.

Bruce Leigh Myers, Ph.D., an Associate Professor for the Department of Packaging and Graphic Media Science at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) believes the continual communications component between the higher education and print production communities is vital. He says that all designers should have required exposure to print production and should speak to recent graduates about their career trajectories.

And while Dr. Myers does not believe every student enrolled in design programs has a realistic chance of a career as a designer, having design skills can lead to other opportunities. “Not everyone has the aesthetic skills necessary to become a successful designer. Many would be better served by supplementing their creative abilities with technical acumen. In my experience, these conversations rarely happen. Poorly performing students simply get passed along, which is a disservice to the students and the industry at large.”

"If industry doesn't let educators and associations know what their needs are, the programs aren't looking to meet an unknown demand."

— Carol Jensen Jones, Senior Lecturer, Emeritus College, Clemson University

RIT’s College of Engineering Technology offers a bachelor’s of science degree in Print and Graphic Media Technology, and a master's of science degree in Print and Graphic Media Science.

The focus is on applied science, not the aesthetic nature of design. They teach printing technologies at an industrial scale.

“Our graduates benefit from the robust career opportunities in those areas, largely working in leadership positions on the production side of the industry and for the vendors that serve them,” Dr. Myers says. “Undergraduate students in our curriculum are required to take courses preparing them to communicate effectively with the creative community. We have no problems placing our graduates in meaningful careers.”

Talking about the future

No matter how you ask the question, there also will be a need for print design, even if print systems go totally digital. The variety of substrates, colorants, and types of printed products, especially in the packaging sector, will always need to be considered when designing successfully for print.

Jones believes that as more industries focus on sustainability and recyclable materials, reducing waste and the carbon footprint will become a challenge the graphics industry can help fight. “It is critical to have the emphasis within graphic arts programs that support this ongoing need. Clemson University is fortunate to have both a Graphic Communications and Packaging Science program and degrees. While these departments are separate entities within separate colleges, we share the Sonoco Institute of Packaging Design and Graphics.”

At RIT, from Dr. Myers’ perspective, the future of print design will require it to be integrated into high school, community college and bachelor's degree programs. “Today, the superstars in the design field are more like fine artists than commercial artists. If one aspires to be a fine artist, the intricacies of print production will likely hold little interest. There is always room at the top, but there are thousands who need to make a living for every one superstar in any field. Meaningful careers abound in print, from creative to production positions, for those with the right skill sets.