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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.
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.
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.
Summary of Steps
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.
Earn a Degree in Graphic Design
Pursue a formal degree in graphic design to gain in-depth knowledge and credentials in the field.
Network in College
Apply for Jobs
Create Your Own Learning Plan
Start with the Fundamentals
Master the Software
Choose a Speciality
Build a Portfolio
Learn Business Basics
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.
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 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 (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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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