Two years or three years for a master's in Design? Here’s the difference.

We get a lot of questions from students researching graphic design graduate programs that want to know what the difference between a two-year and three-year MFA program is, so we’re taking an in-depth look at both options to help you decide which is the right one for you.

CCA’s MFA in Design program takes students on a deep dive into contemporary design culture and tools through investigation, exploration, and experimentation in a heavily studio-based curriculum. We provide the tools, network, and collaborative environment for students to develop new hybrid territories while concentrating on one of our core design disciplines: Industrial Design, Interaction Design, and Graphic Design.

One of the most unique features of this graduate program isn’t the curriculum or the expert faculty or game-changing location: It’s the cadence of how the program’s MFA can be earned. We offer two options, allowing students to complete the program in either two years of study or three.

We’ll tell you why, but first, let’s talk about the two options.

MFA in Design 2015 Thesis Show

Work from CCA's 2015 MFA in Design thesis exhibition.

Which program accepts which applicants?

First and foremost: It’s not a matter of talent. If you’re accepted to join the CCA MFA in Design program—whether in the two- or three-year program—you’ve been hand-chosen from a large, highly competitive group of applicants because we see incredible potential in your work. We’re excited to help you refine your creative abilities, process, and voice.

So what does determine placement? It’s a matter of experience.

Two-year MFA

The two-year program is best for students who have the experience to dive right in.

  • Current designers who want to advance their careers: These students hold an undergraduate degree in Graphic Design, Industrial Design, or Interaction Design and are coming back to graduate school to study the same concentration area. They want to learn new expansive skills and increase their ability to create work across disciplines. Many have experience working in the design field and aim to reinvent their current practice.
  • San Francisco employment seekers: These are students trying to connect with the design and tech communities in the area. After all, San Francisco is the creative capital of the tech world, and CCA faculty, alumni, and programs all have deep ties with today’s most innovative tech companies located in the Bay Area.
MFA in Design 2015 Thesis Show

Work from CCA's 2015 MFA in Design thesis exhibition.

Three-year MFA

This option is intended for students who who could benefit from an additional year of experience in order to excel in the MFA’s two-year coursework.

The three-year program is best for students who hold unrelated undergraduate degrees, as well as those changing careers within design who may hold a design or peripheral degree.

  • Career changers: These students have an undergraduate degree in a different field altogether. These students have been successful in their career, but are interested in a graduate degree to change their profession.
  • Hybrid designers: These students have an undergraduate degree in a related design field but want to select a new area of concentration, or have a design background and undergraduate degree and have been in the workplace for a little while but want to find new territories in design. They seek a graduate degree to advance their careers or get excited about new territories of design, such as technology, hybrid practices, or new ideas.
  • International designers: These students are looking to build on their international degree with a graduate degree from the U.S., where they haven’t studied before.

Why offer two paths to an MFA in Design?

The MFA in Design curriculum at CCA is renowned for its studio culture. Focused, intensive studio sessions allow students to develop their skills. It’s a very hands-on making culture of learning and development. Students participate in a lot of independent work and have the freedom to try out different ideas to develop their own interests and perspectives, supplemented by courses in research practices, business models, design context, and technological exploration.

The final year of the MFA in Design is the thesis year, which further allows long-term research and design investigation. Mentored by faculty, students produce an individual body of work and present it at the end of the year as an exhibition and a book.

MFA in Design 2015 Thesis Show

Work from CCA's 2015 MFA in Design thesis exhibition.

If you’re lacking a design background, changing concentrations, or don’t have the ideal amount of experience working with certain tools and techniques, you won’t get the most out of that independent exploration and group critique time without an additional year of guided skill-building. That extra term allows each student to get a handle on the foundational and technical knowledge needed to do the more conceptual work that a thorough thesis requires.

This is how we ensure that, regardless of whether you do the MFA in Design in two years or three, you’ll successfully graduate and join our prestigious network of alumni, who work at a range of exciting companies—from Apple and Adobe, to IDEO and PARC; SFMOMA and MoMA NY, to their very own design studios that began as a seed of an idea at CCA.

Join a studio culture focused on innovation

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