How to Become a Graphic Designer
The Professional Association for Design defines the field of graphic design as “the art and practice of planning and projecting ideas and experiences with visual and textual content.” In a nutshell, graphic designers create the eye-catching images that define the world around us using a variety of multimedia resources.
Designers don’t just have an artistic penchant or superior computer skills, they have an eye for detail, a keen sense of observation and a love of all things beautiful.
Most employers require you to have at least a bachelor’s level online graphic design degree for entry level jobs. The most common online graphic design degrees are Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Fine Arts, and the actual title of each school’s design program varies.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics listed the median salary for a graphic designer as $44,150 per year, or $21.22 per hour, as of 2012. The most recent information on glassdoor.com lists the average national graphic designer salary as $46,196 per year.
What is a Graphic Designer?
Designers love concepts and objects, messages and experiences and are infinitely curious about how messages and objects work, what they do or could look like and what they mean. Designers constantly observe, analyze and wonder. They look for ways to improve on existing images and messages and, like many of us who want to excel in our craft, ways to make the otherwise mundane come to life.
If you can look past the technical to the verbal, conceptual and visual side of things, you will likely do well as a designer.
It is important to keep in mind that designers are lifelong learners. As technology and the culture and trends of mass media change, designers must adapt. That means you should continuously stay abreast of the latest methods, techniques and tools of the trade.
As a designer, you will hone your craft through creating designs and using the constructive criticism of peers, professors and employers to make those designs better. Practice makes perfect, and the ability to accept and learn from criticism from peers and even the consumer at large are crucial for success in this field.
More specialized graphic design careers include:
- Computer animation
- Video game design
- Multimedia specialist
- Interior design
- Production design
- 3D animation
How to Become a Graphic Designer
Although there are no hard and fast education requirements, there are some general steps most individuals follow to become a graphic designer:
- Earn an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree OR go down the self-taught path via online instruction;
- Acquire the required software;
- Build your portfolio.
Graphic design is, of course, a technology-based field, one that is centered on doing and creating. It is more lab-oriented and less lecture-driven. However, there are different paths you can take to learn graphic design.
If you are a self-starter, are familiar with online learning, have pretty savvy computer skills and want to explore the graphic design field as a whole before selecting a more narrow focus, you should do fine with self-taught graphic design training, like Lynda or NetTuts.
However, if you are new to online learning, learn better with step-by-step guidance and advice or have specific career goals requiring a more advanced level of expertise, you may want to seek out a more structured, instructor-led program like an online graphic design degree.
Graphic Design Education
According to a joint statement by AIGA and the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD), graphic design students should “make informed decisions about the match between their own educational goals and what programs deliver in actual preparation for performance in the field.”
However, the joint statement warns that “the presence of graphic design content in college courses or curricula, or even its designation as an area of emphasis or concentration, does not automatically indicate that the degree program adequately prepares students for professional practice.”
Compare Online Graphic Design Degrees
Online Graphic Design Degree Programs
Wondering how to become a graphic designer with online education? There's no one hard and fast pathway to success. Depending on your background, a number of different online graphic design degree programs can help you cultivate competency in graphic design and put you on the road to securing a lucrative and satisfying job.
Graphic design certificates are usually geared toward professionals already working in the field or a related discipline but want to learn more about a specific skill set, such as animation or advertising design. Certificates are also a great way to learn how to use new software.
Associate's degrees give prospective design students an opportunity to focus primarily on the skills needed to get an entry-level position in the field without needing to take many of the non-major electives required for a bachelor’s degree. You can complete full-time associate’s degree programs in two years or less.
- Sessions College of Professional Design Associate of Occupational Studies in Graphic Design
- Penn Foster Associate of Science in Graphic Design
Although working toward a bachelor’s degree takes longer, usually about four years for a full-time student, and is a more expensive option, it is important to keep in mind that a majority of employers want you to have this degree.
If you have already earned a bachelor’s degree, especially if you have some experience in the field, you may look to expand your craft with a master’s degree. Master’s candidates usually focus on a specific area of their chosen field and explore that area in-depth. This increased expertise is attractive to potential employers and boosts earning potential.
Online Tutorials & Courses
There are also options if you’d like jump into learning graphic design before enrolling in a formal online graphic design program. These options may also be a better fit for students already working in graphic design or related fields who want a refresher course or more in-depth study in a specific aspect of the field.
Individual online graphic design courses or small series’ of courses are available and tend to be inexpensive and, in some cases, even free. These courses are usually categorized based on experience level, from beginner to expert design offerings.
Finding Graphic Design Software
You will find that computer and software requirements for students in online graphic design programs are often more specialized and more expensive than in many fields that simply require you to have an online presence.
Before you start any online program, be sure to check out the technical prerequisites to get an idea of what software you will be expected to use, what type of computer is needed and what level of computer training or expertise must be demonstrated.
Macintosh computers have been preferred by designers for decades. In addition, you will need everyday access to design and typesetting programs, such as InDesign, Photoshop and Corel Draw, to name a few examples.
Before you go computer shopping, contact your school to get a complete list of system and software requirements. Also, ask your school if discounts are available through specific companies to purchase the hardware and software you’ll need.
If you can, talk to other designers, professors and computer professionals and do your own research online to learn which computers and software programs are the best buys for graphic designers and to find out just how much the technical graphic design requirements will cost you.
Keep in mind, these purchases won’t just be used for school. Although computer hardware and software is constantly updated, look for products that you believe will allow you to produce quality designs when you first hit the job market.
Building a Graphic Design Portfolio
Unlike other fields of study that require internships, student teaching and job shadowing experiences to gain real-world, on-the-job experience while in school, the key to your future employment after graphic design school will be a portfolio of your design work.
Most graphic designers start their portfolios before college and use the examples they have created of their artistic and creative prowess to impress not only potential employers, but also college admissions officers.
Your portfolio represents your body of work over time, a resume of sorts for those in any art-related field. For this reason, the portfolio is never complete. You will simply adapt the portfolio through additions and deletions to meet your needs over time.
The main graphic design job requirement is your portfolio therefore It is difficult to overstress it’s importance. The process of planning and selecting the perfect portfolio additions is a time-consuming one. However, it is a labor of love that will pay dividends in school and job searches for years to come.
If you do not have any graphic design work to showcase yet, don’t fret. Begin building your portfolio based on what interests you most and what is drawing you to the field. It is OK to include artwork and sketches or drafts that may never have been seen by a consumer or even a college professor. If you see a design or two you would love to recreate – go for it.
Once you get college and professional experience, you will see how your early style and influences have grown and made you the designer you want to be.
If you are unsure how to get started with a portfolio, there are myriad templates available online. Check out your options on sites like Pinterest, JUST Creative, and Square Space.
Graphic Design Certification & Licensure
No license or certification is required to become a graphic designer. However, a grassroots effort was launched in 2010 that proposed the formation of the Design Certification Counsel of America (DCCA) to administer certification when professionals became increasingly concerned with less-qualified individuals undercutting their rates for work in the graphic design arena.
According to the web site, the other core design fields, including industrial design, interior design, architecture and engineering do require proof that an individual is ready to practice professionally.
The grassroots effort feels that certification should be based on a combination of work experience, professional competency, business practice and education.
Although no professional certification is currently required or available for graphic designers, Adobe does offer training and certification validating your expertise in several design-specific software programs.
How to Change Careers to Become a Graphic Designer
Many designers do not start out in the field. Many professionals in their 20s or 30s choose graphic design as a career change. This is a field you may want to switch to after you’ve earned degrees and gained some work experience in other fields. Computers and marketing tools are essential in today’s business world. As a result, professionals in most fields are introduced to graphic design to some degree in their everyday work.
Those who develop a love for a field they may have never considered before often set their sights on becoming a graphic designer. The accessibility of online graphic design degrees allows working professionals in other fields to go back to school to hone their existing skills or seek a whole new career path.
Since online graphic design schools are plentiful, it is relatively easy to complete your graphic design certificate or degree program while working full-time. This is especially true if you are already familiar with the field and may even have some help or encouragement from your current employer to further your graphic design education.
Still, if you are considering a graphic design career, you should honestly evaluate your mathematical and computer skills before making a final decision. Graphic design requires so much more than just an artistic flair. Graphic designers make a commitment for lifelong learning in an ever-changing, challenging work environment.
Graphic Designer Jobs & Salary
Growth in the graphic design field was projected to be 7% from 2012 to 2022, which BLS said is slower than the average national job growth rate. There were 259,500 graphic design jobs in 2012.
Of course, pay for graphic designers varies from employer-to-employer, the level of seniority and the job description.
As a graphic designer, you may find yourself employed in specialized design services, publishing, or advertising and public relations. In 2012, about 24% of graphic designers were self-employed, working as freelance graphic designers.
As a junior-level designer, your title may be graphic designer, UI/UX designer, visual designer, motion designer, digital designer, web designer, animator, production artist or graphic artist.
One rung up on the career ladder, the title may be more focused, such as information designer, interaction designer, product designer, environmental graphics designer, information architect, package designer, exhibition designer, experience designer, or content strategist.
At the top, graphic design artists occupy positions like executive creative director, head of design or chief creative officer.
You should not necessarily expect to be working 9 to 5 in an office environment. Designers work in agencies, work for themselves or work with a partner, and work environments vary from small studios to large advertising agencies and other corporations.
Typically, designers often like to keep their options open and move in and out of all of these different work scenarios throughout their careers.
Glassdoor.com lists the average national pay for many common graphic design jobs:
- Senior graphic designer - $65,000
- Web/graphic designer - $49,874
- Junior graphic designer - $42,322
- Graphic design technical director - $132,913
- Motion graphics designer - $64,750
- Graphics designer/animator - $127,898
- Graphic design specialist - $55,000
- Association graphic designer - $53,602.
How to Become a Graphic Designer Online
Now that you know how to become a graphic designer, it's time to decide which path to embark on. Teaching yourself is a great option if you are a self-starter and are highly motivated. If you want a more structured approach that you can be sure will prepare you for the challenges in your new career, consider one of the many online graphic design degree programs listed here.
View All Online Graphic Design Degrees
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