How to Become a Graphic Designer
Updated By Josh Weekes on March 25, 2020
I’ve been a graphic designer for more than a decade, and I get asked all the time, “How do I get a job in graphic design?” I’m going to do my best in this article to talk about what skills a designer needs, how to get those skills, and even cover a little about the realities of working as a designer.
Popular depictions of designers are frequently inaccurate, so let’s begin by discussing what a graphic designer is and what a graphic designer isn’t; and then we’ll move on to ways to become a graphic designer, and what it’s like to work as a graphic designer.
Here is a short breakdown of what we’ll cover and links to each section.
- What a graphic designer is
- What a graphic designer isn’t
- Steps to becoming a graphic designer
- Build skills and competencies
- Build a portfolio
- Get experience
- What it’s like to work in graphic design
- What designers get paid
- Jobs within graphic design
- Related careers outside of graphic design
What a Graphic Designer Is
Graphic designers are visual communicators. It’s our job to take content surrounding an idea that our client wants to communicate, and arrange it in such a way so as to communicate the idea of a message through the use of aesthetic appeal. Usually this takes the form of text and sometimes images which are typically created by someone other than ourselves. Now this definition could include other areas that a graphic designer doesn’t normally handle, so it’s useful to include a list of the types of work that is most commonly performed by a graphic designer:
- Direct mail pieces
- Vehicle wraps
- Posters, signs, and banners
- Letterhead and business cards
What a Graphic Designer Isn’t
Popular depictions of a graphic designer often include a hip thirty-something dressed in Vans, a classic rock t-shirt, and skinny jeans. However, this depiction is seldom true; designers are an eclectic group coming from many different backgrounds and circumstances.
Here are several types of design that are sometimes given to graphic designers, which aren’t always inside the average designer’s experience or training:
- Animated video ads
- Landing pages
- Website or interface design
- Interaction design
- User experience
Designers as a whole are pretty adaptable people, and have been known to take on things way outside of their training and experience, and they usually do an admirable job of putting something together that looks nice. But if you’re really passionate about videography, user experience, or another adjacent field, you may want to consider how much training in each of those fields you’re likely to get along the way. You may need to either pick a pathway that leads more naturally to those outcomes or be prepared to learn some additional skills if you want to branch out into these areas.
Steps to Becoming a Graphic Designer
There are three things that you must do to get into graphic design. First, you need to build the skills and competencies of a designer; second, you have to develop a solid portfolio; and finally, you have to get experience in the field. We’ll cover each of these in turn as well as talk about the logistics of each.
1. Build skills and competencies
Most designers will tell you that your portfolio is without a doubt the most important thing a designer needs in order to get a job. But in order to create a solid portfolio, you must first build the skills and competencies necessary to create the kind of high-quality projects that you’re going to want to display inside that portfolio.
There are two primary ways to get the necessary skills; the first is to get a degree in graphic design, and the second is through an individual study effort. We’ll discuss the pros and cons of each throughout this article.
There are many different graphic design degrees available from Associate’s degrees, to Bachelor’s degrees, and even Master’s degrees. These degrees teach the fundamental building blocks of good design, cover several of the key software programs that designers use, and many even provide you with internship opportunities that will enhance your knowledge and give you work experience to add to your resume. A degree also excels in helping you build a basic portfolio which in turn helps you market yourself to potential employers.
Pros and Cons of Degrees
The degree pathway is by far the simpler of the two, usually leads to a more well-rounded designer, and affords opportunities to network and find internship more easily. Another benefit of going this route is that you can usually command a higher starting salary and find jobs more easily if you have a degree. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that having a Bachelor’s degree is usually required for designers. The biggest downside of this option is that it’s the more expensive pathway; but overall, the benefits are usually worth the expense. You can check out IU’s fully online graphic design degrees here.
Individual Study Path
The other method you can use to get into design is through independent study on the subject—learning on your own and developing the required skills without the aid of professors or fellow students to help you in your journey. This includes reading a lot of books on design, typography, color theory, etc. and then putting what you’ve learned into practice through self-assigned projects that help you learn what works in practice, and building a portfolio.
Pros and Cons of Individual Study
The biggest benefit to this path is the cost. It’s usually far cheaper than getting a degree. Unfortunately, it’s also much harder to get your skills to a professional level with this pathway. You are also at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to demonstrating your credentials. Most businesses these days are less open to considering self-trained professionals of any type and this holds true for designers, so be prepared for that challenge with this pathway.
Can You Really Get a Job without a Degree?
The answer to this question is a firm yes, but with the following caveat, it is without doubt the more difficult path. I followed a variation of this path; I had a degree in the adjacent field of 3D art, and used self-study to transition to graphic design. I was able to make the transition and ended up working as a designer for more than a decade, so it can be done! That said, there will likely be long-lasting areas of challenge for you if you don’t have any credential at all. This can also be the case if you earn an Associate’s degree and never finish your Bachelor’s.
To illustrate the type of challenges you may encounter if you decide against getting a degree, I offer the example of a very talented friend of mine. He earned an Associate’s degree in graphic design after retiring from the military, worked for years as a designer, and became a creative director. Eventually, however, his company went through layoffs which affected him.
One would likely assume that a talented designer with good experience and a strong portfolio would be able to find another position quickly. Unfortunately, he struggled to find an equivalent position and eventually left the field. Why does this happen? There may be many reasons, but I find that many companies use a secretary or someone in a similar role to screen applications. Many times, these individuals will screen out talented designers who don’t have degrees before their portfolios are even viewed by the hiring manager.
2. Build a Portfolio
One of the biggest benefits of earning a degree in a graphic arts field is the ability to build a portfolio. This typically consists of a few of the many different school projects that you’re assigned as part of your curriculum. These projects get critiqued by your professors and other students, and end up being of decent quality by the time you graduate.
One note of caution: put only your best work in your portfolio! It’s better to have a few really good samples than lots of low-quality work. Hiring managers will assume that your best work is in there, and may assume that the lowest quality work you show could end up being what you design for them.
Building Your Portfolio Using the Non-Traditional Path
If you’re getting into design the nontraditional way, I found that one of the easiest ways to build a portfolio is to go to a site like 99Designs, and set yourself up as a designer. Then simply peruse the open contests to find some that you’re interested in. Choose a few projects and build designs following the design briefs provided, and then submit them.
Let me pause for a moment to say that sites like this are exploitative of designers, and I DO NOT recommend them for finding freelance work. You get paid for your work ONLY if the client picks your design, and you’re usually competing with dozens, or even hundreds, of aspiring designers. The bottom line is that you can do an awful lot of work for nothing. On top of that, the people hosting these types of contests are usually trying to bootstrap a small business or have a personal design project, so you’re unlikely to get repeat business this way even if you win.
So why compete in these contest at all? Remember, this is about building your portfolio, so if they don’t pick your design, you still own it and you can use it for portfolio purposes. You definitely wouldn’t be paid for personal projects, so if they don’t choose your design it’s not really a loss for the portfolio-building future professional. Besides that, it can help you learn presentation and bidding skills that you will need if you want to pursue a freelance gig later in your career.
3. Get Experience
In terms of experience, again, the college route for graphic design has huge advantages. One of those advantages is the opportunity to get an internship. Many schools work with employers in their area to help their students get internships. If you have the opportunity to do this, take advantage of it! I cannot stress this enough as it’s perhaps the single easiest way to get your first experience in a professional setting. Not only that, but a decent percentage of the time internships lead to full-time jobs. But be wary of companies that seem to use interns as free disposable labor.
For those following the atypical path, getting experience is the single most difficult part of getting into the profession. Brace yourself for this to be tough! Try using any connections you have to get freelance work, or check with local businesses that don’t have a designer to find projects to cut your teeth on. If you don’t have any connections, try looking for a part-time design job. Part-time work is usually offered by companies that can’t afford someone full-time, and the skill expectations can be a bit lower.
If you already have a job, another good tactic is to volunteer to do graphic design projects for the company where you work. I did this and it worked! The occasional graphic design project that came along as part of my 3D animation job helped me prove my ability to design well and transition into a full-time graphic designer role. As previously mentioned, you’ll very likely need to do some contests and freelance work before you can build enough skill and credibility to get that first job.
If you don’t have a credential to point to, be prepared for your salary to be a bit lower than you might otherwise expect in your first role as a designer. But don’t put up with low pay for too long either! Transition to a company that will pay the going rate if your current gig won’t or can’t.
What It’s Like to Work in Graphic Design
Now that we’ve covered tactics for getting into graphic design, let’s talk about what it’s really like to work in graphic design. Let me first note that there are different types of jobs out there ranging from positions at an agency, to positions in a company’s design department. The demands at each of these types of positions will vary, as will the work load.
Positive aspects of graphic design as a career
There are many positives of working in graphic design for your career. Some of these include personal fulfillment, interesting work, lots of variety in the types of things you can spend your time on, and for the introverts out there — decreased expectations for social interactions at work.
Negative aspects of graphic design as a career
Despite the many positives out there, no career is without imperfections. Some of the flaws of graphic design may include: potentially limited upward mobility in the management structure of your company, coworkers who sometimes don’t recognize your ability to take on things outside of design, repetitive tasks that may become monotonous over time, and occasional creative burn-out.
Whether or not to specialize within graphic design
When I was in college I was constantly hearing that you should pick a specific area and specialize. That sounds like good advice, and to be very clear, this works for a lot of people. But I’ve found that it’s not beneficial in every case. Ask yourself the following questions and any others that you can think of when making the decision of whether or not to specialize:
Do you prefer to live in a big city and work for a large company?
If you prefer to live in a very large city, specialization may be for you. As a rule, only very large companies employ specialists, and large companies tend to be located in very large cities.
What types of projects do you like to work on?
In addition to location, you will want to consider what types of projects you want to work on. Specialization by its very nature means that you are unlikely to do something outside of a very specific area of design.
What designers get paid
This can be a little more tricky to answer than you might think. There are many different factors that play a part in determining the pay of a particular individual, including: where the job is located, what types of projects the designer is expected to work on, experience level, size of the company, and a host of other factors. So we have to make some generalizations here.
Keep in mind that this is an average. As a rule, designers in big cities like New York or Los Angeles are going to be paid more, while designers in smaller markets may not have as many opportunities, and thus be on a lower pay scale. Also keep in mind that career level greatly influences salary. As an example, Indeed lists the average salary for a senior graphic designer at $61,007, which is quite a bit better than what you see for designers in the early stages of their career. Designers looking to get into the field are likely to be paid a lower wage, something more in the range of $30,000—35,000 in most areas.
Be sure to check the specific numbers for your area and career level to make sure you’re being paid fairly for your work.
Jobs Titles within Graphic Design
There are all kinds of permutations of titles in the design world, but here are some of the most common, listed from lowest to highest in seniority:
- Graphic Design Intern
- Junior Graphic Designer
- Graphic Designer
- Senior Designer
- Senior Graphic Designer
- Art Director
- Creative Director
- Chief Creative Officer
Related Careers outside of Graphic Design
Sometimes adjacent careers are lumped into graphic design, particularly by people with an incomplete understanding of the differences between these disciplines. Some of these include:
- User Experience (UX)
- User Interface Design (UI)
- Interaction Design
- Web Design
- Web Development
While there are many overlapping principles and concepts that graphic design has in common with these disciplines, they are separate fields, which means that a classically trained graphic designer would likely need additional education or study in order to do them well.
Graphic design is a great field to work in and can be very fulfilling. As with all potential careers paths, you should make sure you are going into it with your eyes wide open. Every career has its own pitfalls and graphic design is no exception. But all things considered, it can be a fantastic way to make a living. If you’re interested in taking the next step in becoming a graphic designer, Independence University has degrees that can help prepare you to be a success in the market. Click here to request more information.
Joshua Weekes holds a Master of Science degree in User Experience from Kent State University, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Computer Art from The Savannah College of Art and Design. A veteran of graphic design, he worked professionally in that industry for more than a decade, holding various roles. He is currently SEO Manager at Center for Excellence in Higher Education, Inc.