Building a Career in Graphic Design

Think of those massive billboards on the highway or the snazzy designs on your favorite soda cans – that’s graphic design at work! As a graphic designer, your mission is to grab people’s attention, inform or tell a story with your designs.

Are you interested in graphic design? The good thing is, it’s a marketable skill – meaning, you can make it a career so you can earn while enjoying what you do. Graphic design is fun, and if you’re interested in this field, you’ll want to learn about the necessary skills, potential salary, and requirements and discover why a career in graphic design is a rewarding choice.

What are Graphic Designers?

a graphic designer at work in his laptop

Graphic designers are the visual storytellers of the creative world. They use images, words, and graphics to convey information and grab attention. Using elements like shapes, colors, lines, and textures, they create a wide range of materials – from posters and product packaging to logos and animations. 

Graphic design is ever-present in representing a brand or company’s marketing and advertising materials. Graphic designers, also known as communication designers, create visually appealing designs that amplify a brand’s message and evoke emotions in consumers.

They combine art and technology and use various design elements and techniques to produce unique visuals for clients and organizations. Whether it’s through manual art or computer software, graphic designers leave their creative mark on both print and digital media. 

Graphic designers can create all sorts of things – from company logos and app interfaces to books, magazines, flyers, banners, print ads, posters, signs, product packaging, and even video games. They are the creatives who make sure we see, understand, and remember the messages all around us.

Many designers have shifted their focus to web-based projects, tackling tasks like crafting captivating landing pages, perfecting UI/UX design for web and mobile apps, and diving into the world of data visualization. Recently, motion graphics, featuring cool skills like 2D animation and 3D design, have emerged as a hot trend in the design world. Being updated with the latest technology and design trends keeps this dynamic industry both exciting and challenging for those who choose it as a career path.

Graphic Designers vs. Digital Designers and Graphic Artists

Graphic designers can sometimes be confused with digital designers and graphic artists. While they use the same software tools, the projects they tackle and their career paths can be quite different.

Before we differentiate them, let’s first say that all of them create some form of digital art. Digital art is a broad term that covers a wide range of creative endeavors. Digital art incorporates digital painting, illustrations, 3D graphics, 3D sculpting, pixel art, fractal and algorithmic art, and more. However, when artists casually refer to “digital art,” they often mean digital painting. Just take a peek at Instagram search results for “digital art,” and you’ll see that most of them show digital paintings.

Digital Designers

a digital designer making a digital drawing

Designers who specialize in these newer digital realms often go by the name “digital designers.” However, it can be challenging to draw a clear line between a graphic designer and a digital designer. For instance, both a graphic designer and a digital designer can create banners for digital advertisements.

Digital designers focus on creating content for digital platforms. Their content is meant to be displayed on screen. On the other hand, graphic designers create visual content for both print and digital media. Also, digital designers require expertise in user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) design, which is not always required of graphic designers unless they are also working on such media.

Graphic Artists

a graphic artist making art on her iPad

Graphic designers and graphic artists are sometimes used interchangeably, but they have distinct job descriptions. Graphic designers focus on creating visual content with the aim of conveying specific messages to a target audience with application to communication, marketing, branding, or advertising. Meanwhile, graphic artists are usually more focused on the artistic and creative aspects. They create visual arts, illustrations, paintings, and drawings, whether digitally or traditionally. Their output may not always have a functional or commercial purpose.

In terms of skills, graphic artists need strong artistic skills and creativity. On the other hand, graphic designers need an understanding of design principles like layout, color theory, typography, etc. Graphic designers don’t need to be good at drawing, sketching, or painting – which are necessary skills for a graphic artist.  

On top of that, while graphic artists can sometimes share the same workplace as graphic designers, artists often go the freelance route. Designers, on the other hand, may find themselves working within creative teams alongside copywriters, editors, and creative managers, all united in executing marketing strategies. Graphic artists, however, are more likely to work independently.

What Kind of Projects Do Graphic Designers Create?

Graphic designers have a wide variety of creative tasks on their plate. Here are some examples of projects they dive into:

  • Crafting logos, letterheads, and business cards.
  • Designing products, packaging, and merchandise.
  • Creating magazine layouts, book covers, brochures, and eye-catching banners.
  • Developing digital advertising materials.
  • Shaping web designs that captivate online visitors.
  • Turning data into engaging infographics and visualizing information.
  • Perfecting user interfaces and experiences (UI/UX) for apps and websites.
  • Exploring the exciting world of motion graphics, including 2D and 3D animations.

But the magic doesn’t stop there. Graphic designers are also creative problem-solvers. They use their design skills to simplify complex issues. For instance, they might be tasked with creating an easy-to-read metro system map or designing a user-friendly interface for a mobile or web app.

How to Become a Graphic Designer

1.Master the fundamentals

Becoming a graphic designer starts with a solid grasp of the basics. Good design is a carefully crafted art that involves meticulous planning and a deep understanding of design theory and principles. Graphic designers must consider elements like lines, color, shape, space, texture, typography, scale, dominance, emphasis, and harmony. All these components have a profound impact on a design and can influence how an audience perceives it.

If you’re naturally creative and have an eye for visually captivating design, you might be cut out for a career in graphic design. Here are some key skills to nurture on your journey:

  • Audience targeting: Understanding who your design is meant to appeal to and why.
  • Color theory: Applying rules and guidelines to create aesthetically pleasing visuals, including selecting the right color palettes.
  • Communication skills: Listening actively, problem-solving, and grasping the needs of clients and collaborators.
  • Computer-aided design (CAD) software: Using tools like Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, and others for complex design work.
  • Computerized sketching: Leveraging digital sketching software for creative flexibility and quick design changes.
  • Layout: Mastering the art of effectively arranging visual elements on a page or screen to engage readers or visitors.
  • Typeface design: Selecting the right fonts and typefaces to tell engaging and readable stories.
  • Website development: Acquiring knowledge to design on various content management platforms and possibly even delving into programming languages like HTML and CSS.

2.Enroll in a graphic design course

a graphic design class

To learn more, consider enrolling in a graphic design course. These courses will not only teach you the fundamentals of design but also help you hone your skills through hands-on projects. You’ll also have the chance to connect with mentors and fellow aspiring designers, building a valuable network. Most graphic design courses cover essential topics like the ones listed above. Some courses may delve deeper into graphic design history, user experience (UX), and web design principles, depending on their depth.

Graphic designers should have a strong grasp of design principles and proficiency in the latest industry-standard software. Besides that, pursuing an Adobe Certified Associate (ACA) certification can be beneficial. This certification demonstrates your expertise in Adobe’s Creative Cloud apps, including Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Animate, After Effects, Illustrator, Premiere Pro, and InDesign. It’s a valuable credential to showcase your software skills to potential employers.

There’s a variety of options available, from getting a formal graphic design education to flexible online courses. Choose the one that aligns best with your schedule and preferred learning style. While it’s not necessary for a graphic designer to have a bachelor’s degree, it gives you an edge to land a job, especially in the corporate field.

3.Get acquainted with essential graphic design tools

Graphic designers have a toolbox filled with various tools, and most of them rely on graphic design software. Adobe Creative Cloud stands as the go-to choice for many graphic designers. It’s essential to become familiar with Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and InDesign, as these tools cover the majority of design work. If you find these apps intimidating – don’t worry, you’ll find an abundance of user guides and training resources readily available. To kick off your journey, consider exploring Adobe’s extensive collection of tutorials.

4.Polish your graphic design skills through personal projects

Once you’ve armed yourself with the knowledge of graphic design principles and tools, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get some hands-on practice. The most effective way to enhance your skills and become a maestro with graphic design software is by working on your own projects.

To start, you can create mock advertisements and logos for real businesses or invent your own companies. Another valuable exercise is to take existing designs and reimagine them – this is excellent practice for understanding and designing for specific target audiences.

5.Hone your graphic design skills

While earning your degree and gaining experience in graphic design, be sure to sharpen the skills that employers value. One of the most frequently referenced skill among graphic designers is proficiency in Adobe Creative Cloud. Other essential skills include typography, brochure design, and PowerPoint.

Here are two effective ways to stay updated on the skills that are in high demand:

  • Research career websites and read job descriptions to identify the skills employers are seeking.
  • Stay informed about industry trends by exploring graphic design news sources such as WIRED, PrintMag, and Graphic Design USA. These platforms can introduce you to the latest developments, like how graphic design is utilized in NFTs, cryptocurrency, and sustainability movements, as well as the growing importance of motion graphics and AI-driven designs. Consider how these trends may relate to the skills you need to cultivate.

6.Craft a stellar portfolio to showcase your graphic design skills

For any graphic designer, having a powerful portfolio is a must. Your portfolio should showcase projects you’ve tackled in your courses, as well as personal or professional endeavors. Remember, it’s all about quality, not quantity. Your portfolio serves as the initial impression that potential employers or clients will have of your skills, so pick work that exemplifies your design talents and passions.

7.Dive into the graphic design scene

While you’re in a design program, make sure you’re building the right skills to boost your competitiveness when you start searching for graphic design gigs. Here are a few steps to consider:

  • Score an internship to gain hands-on experience and collaborate with experienced designers in a real-world environment.
  • Offer your design talents to local nonprofit organizations through volunteering.
  • Explore specialized graphic design courses like the University of Sydney’s Innovation through Design course or Google’s UX Design professional certificate.
  • Pursue certification in popular graphic design tools like Adobe.
  • Become a part of a design organization. Membership often provides access to networking opportunities and professional development resources. 

Different Types of Graphic Designers

a graphic designer working from home

Graphic designers can be categorized into distinct roles:

1.In-House Graphic Designers

In-house graphic designers are employed in a specific company or brand. Their work environment is often more conventional, with consistent paychecks and regular schedules. They must possess versatile skills suitable for the company or brand’s needs, and they must understand the company’s style and audience. 

Their tasks range from making marketing campaigns to compiling annual reports. They also focus on long-term design strategies and continuous improvement.

2.Agency Graphic Designers

Agency graphic designers collaborate with different clients and brands through agencies. Being employed by an agency means the designers often handle multiple brands simultaneously, making it a high-paced work environment. They tackle short-term short-term projects tailored to specific campaigns.

This work set-up is ideal for learning from experienced designers and gaining insights into their design processes.

3.Freelance Graphic Designers

If you prefer to work independently with more freedom, perhaps freelancing is the path for you. Freelance graphic designers are self-employed and are responsible for all aspects of their design business. They work with diverse clients on a range of projects, and the pay is project-based.

The perks of being a freelance graphic designer is you can enjoy a flexible work schedule, and you can work from home or anywhere you like. But you also have to be self-motivated and have business acumen to be successful. You must handle marketing, client management, and administrative tasks. 

Also, building a strong client base is crucial for starting a freelance business. The challenge is to be noticed, as the competition with other designers is a bit steep.

What Is the Average Salary for a Graphic Designer?

According to Payscale, the average annual salary for graphic designers in the United States is approximately $50,000, while in Canada, it’s around $49,000. Senior graphic designers in the United States tend to earn an average of $56,000 per year.

Why Choose a Career in Graphic Design?

Pursuing a career in graphic design offers a unique blend of creativity and technology, allowing you to shape how the world perceives companies, brands, and products. Here are compelling reasons to consider becoming a graphic designer:

1.Design is timeless

In the age of automation, graphic design remains a future-proof career. There’s always a demand for human creativity in visual communication, so you can be sure that graphic design will always have a place. Whether it’s websites, product packaging, or advertisements, graphic designers continue to captivate consumers and convey stories through images.

2.You can find continuous growth and inspiration

Graphic design is a field where growth and inspiration never stops. Endless examples of innovative ideas are readily available, keeping graphic designers constantly learning and evolving. If you thrive on a career that encourages ongoing skill development, graphic design is a great fit.

3.You can unleash your creativity

Graphic design provides a unique work environment where creativity reigns supreme. It offers the freedom to express your artistic abilities and be imaginative every day. For graphic designers, each day presents new challenges, ensuring that no two days are the same.

4.There are diverse career paths

Building a career in graphic design opens the door to numerous possibilities. You can work for a wide range of companies across various industries and locations—every business needs a graphic designer. Whether your interests lie in professional sports, hospitality, publishing, or any other field, the opportunities are limitless. Moreover, a graphic design background equips you to transition into various roles and industries, such as UX design, web development, product management, and more. Design skills are highly valued across the board.

5.You get opportunities for exposure and recognition

One of the exhilarating aspects of being a graphic designer is the chance to see your work prominently displayed. Imagine a design you created adorning a billboard, being displayed on the grocery aisle, or gracing the glossy pages of your favorite magazine. Graphic designers understand that their designs can reach countless viewers, which is a powerful motivator and a source of inspiration.

Embarking on a graphic design career allows you to harness your creativity, engage with new technologies, and leave a lasting impact on the visual world.