How to Become a Graphic Designer

Dive into the world of graphic design with our step-by-step guide. Uncover the secrets to becoming a successful graphic designer and turning your creative passion into a thriving career.

Perhaps you’ve loved art and design all your life and want to pursue it as a career, but you’re also practical enough to wonder if you can make a living doing it. Fortunately, the answer is yes – many people with artistic talent have found that graphic design offers a career path with the perfect balance of creativity and practicality.

To become a graphic designer, you need to build marketable skills that employers and clients value, including strong drawing skills, mastery of design software, and a comprehensive understanding of design principles and concepts. You need to know how to execute projects from beginning to end, including generating ideas, creating detailed designs, tracking projects through the delivery and installation of assets, and more.

What Is a Graphic Designer?

Graphic design is the art of visual communication. Graphic designers specialize in the creation of visual content, using typography, photography, color, illustration, and other visual elements that communicate messages or present information. They convey ideas to stimulate, instruct, and attract customers through physical art or visual arts, which include photographs, words, animation, or pictures.

Graphic designers are problem-solvers. They take complex information and turn it into easy-to-understand visual messages. Good graphic design is about much more than making things “look pretty” – it’s about finding the most effective way to communicate ideas and information in a visually appealing and engaging way. Graphic designers are often thought of as “creative types,” but the reality is that the best ones are also highly analytical and strategic. They must be able to take complex information and turn it into easy-to-understand visual designs.

What Does a Graphic Designer Do?

Graphic designers work in various industries, conceptualizing and creating visual concepts, and developing layouts for print media, websites, digital media, and more. Depending on their specialty or area of focus, they might design logos, create designs for social media campaigns, develop marketing collateral, craft point-of-sale materials, design page layouts, or create digital ads.

Companies need graphic artists to help them stand apart in a crowd of similar products. Having a cohesive and well-designed visual identity allows businesses to build trust with their potential customers and communicate information to their target audiences clearly and effectively. Graphic designers accomplish this by creating art and visuals that are consistent with the company’s messaging and on-brand.

Graphic Designer Job Description

  • Using specialized graphic design software to create designs, layouts, artistic or decorative effects, animation, custom illustrations, logos, and other design elements
  • Creating rough illustrations by hand, using pencils, pens, markers, and other traditional art supplies
  • Selecting photos and images, hand sketching product illustrations, or creating other visual elements to represent ideas in a design
  • Work closely with other graphic designers and members of the design team to generate new ideas and brainstorm concepts
  • Researching current design trends and competitor products for a particular category or market
  • Meeting with clients or account managers to discuss the client’s needs and requirements, pitch concepts, and receive feedback on initial designs
  • Reviewing and editing final images and designs to ensure that they achieve artistic or functional objectives and meet client specifications
  • Balancing multiple projects simultaneously and managing deadlines

Summary of Steps

Two Paths to Become a Graphic Designer

The best way to become a graphic designer – whether on your own or by earning a degree – is to build a strong foundation of essential skills, learn through practice and experimentation, and create a large body of your own creative work. To help you get started, we explore two different paths: a) earning a degree in graphic design or b) creating your own learning plan.

1

Earn a Degree in Graphic Design

Pursue a formal degree in graphic design to gain in-depth knowledge and credentials in the field.

2

Network in College

Take advantage of college to connect with peers, professors, and industry professionals to build valuable relationships.

3

Apply for Jobs

Begin your career journey by applying for internships or entry-level positions in graphic design to gain practical experience.

1

Create Your Own Learning Plan

Begin by setting clear goals and a structured plan for your graphic design journey.

2

Start with the Fundamentals

Establish a strong foundation in design principles, typography, and color theory.

3

Master the Software

Become proficient in industry-standard design software like Adobe Creative Suite.

4

Choose a Speciality

Explore various design niches, such as web design, illustration, or branding, to find your passion.

5

Build a Portfolio

Showcase your best work to demonstrate your skills and style to potential clients or employers.

6

Learn Business Basics

Acquire essential knowledge in marketing, client communication, and project management for a successful design career.

Option A

Earn a Degree in Graphic Design

We’ve all heard the stories about people like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg who dropped out of college and went on to create companies that changed the world we live in. These stories reinforce the idea that a college education isn’t necessary – all you really need is natural talent, a strong portfolio, and a lot of hard work… right? Wrong.

While it’s true that not every job in the design industry requires a graphic design degree, it is also true that some skills are very hard to learn on your own. Earning a graphic design degree can help you develop skills, techniques, and knowledge of best practices that go far beyond what you can learn by reading blog posts and watching tutorials online. Attending college also helps you build a network of industry connections that can help you find your first job and advance your career.

Option B

Create Your Own Learning Plan

In many fields within art and design, employers and clients place more emphasis on your portfolio than they do on where you went to school. As a result, the option of skipping college altogether and learning graphic design online is becoming more popular every day. What’s more, there are free resources online for learning just about anything, including how to become a graphic designer. Most online courses offer great value for the money, allowing you to study at your own pace and at a fraction of the cost you’d pay for traditional college courses.

1. Start with the Fundamentals

If you want to become a graphic designer on your own, you should start with the fundamentals:

Basic Drawing

Before you start experimenting with various types of media or try mastering digital tools and Photoshop, you need the basic ability to illustrate your ideas on paper. Some people have a natural talent for drawing, while others struggle to produce even the simplest line drawings. Either way, if you want to design things like websites and logos, it’s important for you to know how to draw.

Many graphic designers begin every project with a series of “thumbnails” (small sketches that illustrate basic layouts and concepts) before turning their top selections into “roughs” (detailed layouts that illustrate the concept). They show these rough sketches to other professionals at their firm, including art directors, creative directors, and account managers, and to clients. To express your ideas concisely, you need basic drawing abilities and practiced clarity in your sketching that allows you to express your point of view.

Graphic Design Theory

Graphic design is not simply slapping a fun font and a few images into a design. Instead, good design and strong layouts can be approached in a scientific manner. You must put a lot of effort into determining the correct imagery, layout, spacing, visual structure, and appropriate typography, to create an appealing design.

Graphic designers must consider the white space around the design elements in the layout – clients don’t like paying for empty space! – or how headers and subheads can be a consistent size while fitting the space on the page. Designers must know how color and imagery impact individuals and how to manipulate them effectively to direct users (and buyers) where you want them to look.

User Experience

User experience (UX) is an integral part of graphic design. UX has evolved from user-centered design, an approach to developing websites and applications based on the needs of the people who use them. User experience designers must understand what motivates people and how they behave online.

Understanding the basics of UX is important for designers because it emphasizes a human-centered approach to the design process, which is especially relevant for graphic designers who work with websites and other digital platforms. A website, for example, must be designed in a way that visitors can navigate it easily. If user experience (UX) isn’t considered, visitors may become frustrated and quickly leave when they are unable to find the content they want.

Web Design Best Practices

Users spend only a few seconds to determine if your digital ad or website holds their interest or meets their needs before deciding to explore further — or bounce. Understanding best practices for content, structure, layout and visual aids helps increase engagement time, click-through rates, and visitor retention. You also need to know how to ensure quick page loading times, optimize designs for mobile, and the responsive elements that personalize all aspects of the UX.

Professional Copywriting

Graphic designers, especially those working as solo entrepreneurs, often need strong writing skills to ensure the client’s message is clear and appealing. Since visitors often skim content to determine if they want to spend time reading it, graphic designers frequently play the role of copywriters by writing descriptions, text blocks, headers, article titles, CTAs, and even meta descriptions for brochures, point-of-sale, collateral, websites, and digital ads.

Writing should be grammatically correct, concise, and remain consistent with the voice of the brand in an effort to increase engagement and promote interest and visibility. If the company does not have a developed voice, then the graphic designer likely helps determine the voice best suited for the target audience of that brand.

2. Master the Software

Learning the basics of graphic design is only the beginning. Graphic designers are constantly working to maintain their proficiency, update their abilities, stay up-to-date on industry developments, and utilize new tools in the creative world. To be successful, you need a high degree of skill in the industry’s standard software programs.

Knowing how to use Adobe Creative Cloud software is a bare minimum for any graphic designer, but you should also learn how to use other software programs that are specific to the industry. How well graphic designers know the software relates directly to how quickly they can produce materials and the degree of creativity available for their work.

Learn Adobe Photoshop

If you need to edit or adjust an image, Photoshop is your go-to program. Photoshop works with rasterized images that allow manipulation of individual pixels. This ability makes Photoshop suitable for photographic imagery, but not for website design, logos, fonts, or any other type of graphic design work. You can use Photoshop to swap parts of images to change out a face, for example, or to insert a background or edit flaws in a photo.

From healing brushes, lasso tools, feathering, and burning, you need to understand and be able to use the numerous editing tools that Photoshop offers to edit images at a true professional level for your client. A good designer will not rely on stock images, since they are often generic and do not promote the brand.

Learn Adobe Illustrator®

When a client needs a logo or an illustration, you will likely use Illustrator to complete the project. Illustrator works with vector graphics, which means that each line and curve is a mathematically precise point. Vector images can be scaled to any size, unlike raster images, which you can only scale up. Illustrator is a good fit for website design and for any graphic work that requires clean lines and shapes.

Illustrator has a wide range of advanced line, gradient, and coloring tools that allow the user to create complex graphics that can then be manipulated, resized, and colorized to fit any purpose. A logo created in Illustrator, for example, can be used on both a business card and a billboard without losing resolution or clarity.

Learn Adobe InDesign®

InDesign is a cross-platform desktop publishing program – meaning it can be used on Windows or Mac computers – that allows the user to plan for print output from the beginning of a project. While you can do basic page layout and design with Photoshop and Illustrator, InDesign allows for complete control over the text and graphics of a publication.

InDesign combines controls to create each page, including specifying the bleed area (the edges where color bleeds off the page), placing images, setting up columns of text, inserting special layouts such as cross-heads or callouts, and adding interactive components such as links and buttons.

3. Choose an Area of Specialization

Graphic designers often choose between two paths: the generalist who is familiar with many different types of design work, or the specialist who focuses on one area. Many designers choose to specialize because they find that they enjoy one type of work more than another, and they want to dedicate their time to building expertise. Others choose to specialize because they find that it is more lucrative or enables them to build a better client base.

A few popular areas of specialization include:

Brand Identity and Logo Design

A brand identity is the visual representation of a business, person, organization, product, or service. Aspects of brand identity include logo design, color schemes, fonts and typefaces, and visual style such as illustration. A brand identity should be memorable and distinctive – a clear representation of what the business or person is about.

The graphic designer who specializes in brand identity design is concerned with building a consistent image from the beginning of a project to make sure that colors, fonts, and images work together as a cohesive whole.

Layout and Print Design

Layout and print design include the composition of text and images (type and artwork) on a page or screen. It involves what you might see on the front and back of a business card, as well as flyers, brochures, posters, booklets, magazines, menus, packaging designs such as product boxes, and labels for bottles and cans. The designer will have to balance artistic creativity with readability and function. For example, a flyer that is too crowded may be difficult to read, while one that is too sparse may not grab attention.

User Interface Design

A user interface is a collection of controls and indicators that enable people to interact with a machine, especially computers and home appliances. These include computer desktop icons, software buttons, and windows, as well as touch screens on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.

A user interface designer will work closely with computer programmers or other technical staff to ensure that the design and the computer code work in tandem to meet user objectives (which may include gaining and maintaining attention, increasing brand awareness, increasing sales conversions).

Web and Mobile Design

A web or mobile designer creates the look and feel of websites and apps. The designer’s focus is on designing an aesthetically pleasing user interface that includes graphics, text, sound, animation – anything that a user might see on a screen when using a website or app. The designer will also focus on the way the user navigates through a site or app by determining where important elements such as navigation, logo, and search bar should appear.

4. Build a Stand-Out Portfolio

At some point during your design career, you’ll need to show potential employers or clients examples of your work. Your portfolio is your opportunity to shine and gain an edge over other candidates by showcasing the breadth and depth of your skills, along with your aesthetic sensibilities.

In the traditional sense, a portfolio is simply a presentation folder that holds items such as samples of designs that you produced for previous clients or employers; copies of awards and design publications where your work has been featured; letters of recommendation from former collaborators; and documents showing evidence of your skills using certain design software applications.

5. Learn Business Basics

There are entire books devoted to the topic of business basics, so it’s impossible to cover all of these subjects in a short article. However, there are some basic guidelines that you should follow if you want your business to be successful.

Your ability to make smart decisions about how your business (or you as an employee) is managed will likely determine whether you thrive or fail. It’s important that you learn how to write up a business contract, create fees for services rendered, work with clients to meet deadlines, and manage marketing efforts.

Contracts

Contracts have an essential place in any designer-client relationship – they spell out what each party will deliver, when it will be delivered, and what the cost of your services are. Contracts help to protect both you and the client by explicitly establishing expectations on both sides. But more importantly, a contract helps you to avoid misunderstandings that may lead to conflict down the road.

Pricing

Pricing is another area where many designers struggle – how much should I charge, and how should that rate be determined? Should I charge hourly or by the project? There are no clear-cut answers to these questions. However, the best advice we can offer is to make sure your price reflects the quality of work that you produce, and that it’s competitive with other designers in your local area.

Marketing 

Marketing is a topic that doesn’t get nearly enough attention. The problem with this is that many new designers think they’re marketing when really what they’re doing is sharing content or establishing a social media presence. Marketing is about building and managing relationships, so it’s something that you should be thinking about from day one of your career.
24 K+
Job Openings Per Year
$ 64500
Average Per year
$ 100920
90th Percentile

Graphic Designer Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a graphic designer was $64,500 in May 2022, which is the equivalent of $31.03 per hour. Graphic designers in the top 10 percent nationally earned an annual mean wage of $100,920 or $48.52 per hour.

The job market for graphic designers varies greatly depending on experience and skill level, which suggests that graphic designers have significant opportunities to earn more as their career progresses.

Highest Paying States for Graphic Designers

The salary earned by graphic designers can vary significantly by location, with some earning substantially more than others with the same job description in another state. For example, graphic designers in the District of Columbia earn over $83,000 on average, whereas a graphic designer in Wyoming earns just $40,200 per year on average. The states listed below represent the top-10 highest paying states for graphic designers.
StateHourly Mean WageAnnual Mean WageAnnual 90th Percentile Wage
District of Columbia$42.30$87,980$127,300
New York$39.12$81,370$128,740
California$38.58$80,240$131,050
Washington$35.16$73,130$107,410
Massachusetts$35.13$73,060$105,700
New Jersey$34.44$71,640$102,850
Virginia$33.03$68,700$105,650
Rhode Island$32.97$68,580$95,120
Maryland$32.79$68,210$101,110
Connecticut$32.50$67,590$99,950

Graphic Designer Jobs

Graphic designers work in various settings and top industries, including advertising, media, publishing, fashion, entertainment, public relations (PR), marketing, and retail. Many designers working within these fields are self-employed and work as freelance contractors, while others work for advertising agencies, design firms, or in-house design departments at larger companies. Some designers may also teach as professors or instructors at design schools.

The most popular job titles for graphic designers include:

Art Director

An art director is typically a talented designer with extensive experience and seniority who is responsible for developing the overall look and feel of a project or product. Art directors manage a team of graphic designers and typically oversee the design process from start to finish, from the initial client meetings and design brief to planning, reviewing, and approving designs created by their team members or outside designers.

Art Professor

Instructors at design colleges and universities typically have a Master’s degree in graphic design, fine arts, or a closely related field. They teach students about design principles, software, and design trends while also helping them develop the skills necessary to be successful in the field. They are also typically involved in curriculum development and may be called upon to contribute to the design industry through research and creative work. Many professors also have professional job experience as graphic designers and can share real-world insights with their students.

Creative Director

Companies that have a large creative department often employ a creative director to oversee all aspects of the department’s output. The creative director is responsible for managing a team of graphic designers, approving designs, working closely with the marketing team, and ensuring that the work meets the client’s objectives and satisfies their needs. Creative directors working in production design may manage the budget for their team’s projects and file annual reports.

Freelance Graphic Designer

Freelance graphic designers are self-employed contractors who work on a project-by-project basis for a wide range of clients. They typically have a diverse portfolio of completed projects to show potential clients and must be skilled in marketing, sales, and design. Freelance graphic designers often work from home or have a studio where they meet with clients.

Logo Designer

A logo designer (or brand identity specialist) designs company logos and branding materials for companies, products, services, and events. They work with their clients to develop a unique visual identity that can be used across various marketing materials and communications. This may include custom illustration work and carefully selected colors, typefaces, and complementary images. One brand identity specialist may be responsible for developing the visual identity for an entire company, or they may work on projects for a specific department or product line.

UI UX Designer

A UI UX designer is responsible for creating an online user experience that is easy to navigate and visually appealing. The focus of their job is on the overall ease and pleasure of use when designing screens, menus, buttons, graphics, navigation, and sample layouts for websites, applications, and software interfaces. Companies employ UI UX Designers to improve customer satisfaction and increase conversion rates by making their products more user-friendly.

Additional Resources

Graphic Designer FAQ

Yes, graphic design is a good career. Graphic design ranked as the second-best college major out of more than 200 possibilities for its high earning potential, a mid-career salary of more than $71,000 per year on average, and overall job satisfaction. The strong demand for graphic designers in various industries is also promising, with the projected number of job openings expected to rise by three percent between 2020 and 2030.
The number of years it takes to become a graphic designer varies depending on an individual’s capabilities and experience. A four-year bachelor’s degree is typically recommended for those interested in the profession because it offers the most comprehensive training in design principles, new software, and production techniques. However, self-directed learning and apprenticeships are also viable paths to becoming a graphic designer.
It is possible for a person to call themselves a graphic designer without a degree if they have significant experience and exposure to the industry. Many designers have ascended to their current positions with top companies without following a traditional educational path, learning through on-the-job training, self-teaching, skilled trades programs, or other artistic pursuits.
Many would answer yes to this question since graphic designers must have a broad range of artistic and technical skills. Thorough knowledge of the principles and elements of art such as color, form, perspective, and composition is required. Graphic designers must also be comfortable working with computers and complex software programs like Adobe Creative Suite.