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How to Become a Graphic Designer | A Career Thumbnail Sketch

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The American Institute of Graphic Arts defines graphic design as “the art and practice of planning and projecting ideas and experiences with visual and textual content.” Therefore, graphic design takes an idea and creates an engaging image that communicates the intended message. This field could be a good career fit for you if you are interested in using visuals to communicate. This article will explore what it takes to become a graphic designer, the earning potential in this career, and what doors an education in graphic design can open.

What is a Graphic Design?

Graphic design, or communication design, is a broad field that uses visual communication to explore new ways to show thoughts, concepts, and ideas through art and media. Graphic Designers look for ways to improve existing images and messages to create something interesting out of the mundane. Designers are curious about interpreting visuals and are keen to observe and analyze how these images work.

Skill Set of a Graphic Designer

Graphic designers have artistic talent and computer skills. They also have an eye for detail, excellent problem-solving skills, and a thirst for learning. Graphic designers are also excellent communicators, both speaking and in writing. While a college degree is not always a requirement to be a graphic designer, it helps you learn the related software and build a unique portfolio. It can also teach you more advanced art techniques.

Communication & Problem Solving

Graphic designers communicate with clients, employers, and potentially a team to solve problems, communicate visions, and plan projects. You must make your ideas known and listen to others while solving issues creatively. If you are a good communicator and like working with others, this career would fit your skills.

Ongoing Learning

It is crucial to keep in mind that graphic designers are life-long learners. As technology, culture, and trends change, designers have to adapt. They have to stay updated on new technology, methods, and techniques. These change continually, and staying up to date is necessary to stay ahead of the trends and give you an advantage in your career.

Graphic Design Fields

Graphic design is a broad field with many applications. It is a vital tool for many careers and work environments. Therefore, it is a highly adaptable career path. For example, book designers design how the pages will look, design the book cover, and work with photographers and illustrators to get the author’s vision right. A brand designer comes up with a brand’s look. They use color theory and fonts to create a color palette and images representing a brand’s personality and product or service. Environmental signage designers create signs that point people where they need to go and help us orient us in unfamiliar places. These are a few examples of how versatile and critical graphic designers are to our modern world.

Other specialized careers in the design field include:

  • Video game design
  • Book design
  • Film and video graphics
  • Web design
  • Production design
  • Illustration

How to Become a Graphic Designer

Because there is no degree requirement for becoming a graphic designer, there are more options in pursuing your education. However, here is a general path that most people take:

  1. Get Educated
  2. Acquire the required software
  3. Build and develop a portfolio

1. Graphic Design Education

When selecting a graphic design program, it is essential to match your educational goals, what a program delivers, and your long-term career goals.

Graphic design students should “make informed decisions” about their education according to the AIGA and the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD). However, the 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.”

Be sure to research the schools you are looking into, and consider reaching out to alumni to hear about their experience. Meeting with a school counselor could also clarify what their institution offers or what resources they have for you.

Online Graphic Design Degree Programs

There isn’t one set road to success if you pursue graphic design through online education. Depending on your experience and background, there are several programs that can give you the skills needed to be on the road to a lucrative, fun, and satisfying career.

Certificate

Graphic design certificates are for individuals looking to break into the field. They provide courses on software and techniques to prepare you for an entry-level job. They can also give professionals in related careers more training and specialty in design-related skills. More specialized certificates are also available for professionals in the field who are looking to venture into more specific skill sets, like animation or advertising design.

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Associate’s

While a certificate gives a general overview of graphic design, an associate’s degree offers more in-depth training. This training helps you learn software and build your portfolio. You can also get hands-on training and experience, depending on the institution. An associate’s degree can give you an advantage over a certificate when negotiating pay and looking for jobs. You can get your associate’s degree in two years or less.

Bachelor’s

A bachelor’s degree dives deeper into more specific skills, project work, and more advanced software and technology. It takes around four years for a full-time student to complete and is a more expensive option. And it will also give you an advanced skill set. Many affordable options exist for an online bachelor’s degree in graphic design.

Master’s

Suppose you have already earned a bachelor’s degree and have experience in the field. In that case, you may want to expand your craft with a master’s degree. Master’s candidates usually focus on a specific area to explore in-depth. You will get the opportunity to become a specialist in an area like video design or web design. This increased, specialized expertise is attractive to employers and boosts earning potential.

Online Tutorials and Courses

If you’d like to start learning graphic design without enrolling in a formal online program, there are other options. Online courses may better fit students already working in this or related fields. They can also be helpful for those who want a refresher or more in-depth study in a specific area.

Individual online graphic design courses or small series of classes are available. They 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. They are self-led, and you can go at your own pace. There are various options, and depending on the program, they may offer specific training without an overview of graphic design as a whole.

2. Finding Graphic Design Software

Computer and software requirements for students in online graphic design programs are often specialized and expensive. Before starting an online program, course, or college, check out the technical prerequisites to know what software and type of computer are required.

Designers have preferred Macintosh computers for decades, but any computer that can run your software will work fine. In addition, you will need everyday access to design and typesetting programs, such as InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator, to name a few examples.

Before going computer shopping, contact your school to complete a list of system and software requirements. Also, ask your school if any discounts are available to purchase the hardware and software you’ll need.

If you can, talk to other designers, professors, or computer professionals and do your research to learn which computers and software programs are the best buys for graphic designers. They can also help you determine how much the technical requirements will cost you.

Keep in mind that you won’t use these purchases for the program. Although computer hardware and software are constantly updated, look for products that will help you produce quality designs when you first hit the job market. The software you buy at the beginning of your career will be updated and improved as your career develops and will pay itself off over and over.

3. Building a Graphic Design Portfolio

Unlike other fields that require internships or job shadowing to gain real-world or on-the-job experience while in school, graphic designers usually rely on a portfolio of work. Most, but not all, graphic designers start their portfolios before college. They use examples of their best work to show their ability to work with different techniques. It also indicates artistic and creative ability. Potential employers and college admissions officers view the portfolio to see your skills and style.

Purpose of a Portfolio

Your portfolio represents your work overtime, as well as your ability to bring variety to your work. When working with clients, you must have the ability to bring their vision to life, and adaptability shows that you will be competent to do just that. Creating the client’s vision and intended style is vital. Therefore, variation in technique and aesthetics will give you an advantage in college and job applications. It also shows how your skills develop and your growth as an artist. Your portfolio works as an art resume of sorts and can change over time. Your portfolio should have your most updated work showing various work and styles. You can tailor your portfolio for specific clients and projects or scrap it and start over when it doesn’t meet your needs.

A strong and diverse portfolio is vital. Clients and employers must see your work and skill level. It is the leading job requirement in any artistic field, and in your best interest to have a portfolio. While time-consuming, building and editing your portfolio is a labor of love and will benefit you in your school and job search.

What to include in a Portfolio

If you do not have any graphic design work to showcase yet, don’t fret! Begin building your portfolio based on what interests you and what you think your strong suits are. Colleges and clients like to see your design process. You can include multiple ideas and sketches for a project and your strategy to develop and create the best one. Be sure to include some graphic design mockups if you submit a portfolio to a client. However, this is not necessary when submitting a portfolio to a college. It is ok to include sketches or drafts that haven’t been seen by anyone yet. Refrain from including designs that you have recreated; clients and college admissions want to see your original ideas and designs. If you create and include designs inspired by other artists, be sure to make it your own and have their work as a reference.

How to use Social Media in your Portfolio

Social media is an excellent way to get feedback on your work before putting it in your portfolio. Many graphic designers have social media to promote their work, get informal feedback from peers in the field, and get seen by or contact potential clients and employers. Social media allows you to network and makes you more accessible to a broader clientele if you choose to be a freelance graphic designer.

Portfolio as a Living History

Once you get more college and professional experience, you will begin to see how your early style and influences have grown and changed with your experience. It is helpful to keep old work or keep outdated portfolios and look back on them. By looking back on old work, you can see where you have improved and how you have changed as an artist.

How to Create a Portfolio

If you are unsure how to get your portfolio started, many templates are available online. Creating a website to showcase you as an artist and your work is an excellent way to develop a kind of portfolio as well. Check out your options on sites like Pinterest, JUST Creative, and Adobe.

How to Change Careers to Become a Graphic Designer

Some graphic designers do not start in the field. Often, professionals in their 20s or 30s choose graphic design as a career change. It is a field some may become interested in after earning a degree and gaining experience in other areas. Computers and marketing tools are essential in today’s business world. As a result, professionals in most fields are introduced to graphic design in their everyday work.

Graphic design is an attractive field for those wishing to switch careers or branch out. The accessibility of online degree programs allows working professionals in other areas to go back to school. Gaining additional education can hone their existing skills or help them switch to a new career path. It is also a high-earning career with room to grow.

Since online graphic design programs are plentiful, completing your certificate or degree program is relatively easy while working full-time. It is even easier if you are already familiar with the field. You may even have some help or encouragement from your employer to pursue or further your education.

Still, you should evaluate your mathematical and computer skills before making a final decision to pursue graphic design. It requires much more than artistic flair. Graphic designers commit to lifelong learning in an ever-changing, challenging work environment.

Graphic Designer Jobs & Salary

The BLS states the growth in the Graphic Design field is projected to be 3% from 2020 to 2030, which is slower than the average of 8%. There were 254,100 graphic design jobs as of 2020. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income for graphic designers as of 2020 was $53,380/ year (25.66/hour). Glassdoor lists the average pay for a graphic designer at $54,538 a year.

Like other artistic or technical-based jobs, the employer’s pay for graphic designers varies significantly by the employer. It also varies based on experience, training, and job requirements or expectations.

Typically, designers are flexible in their careers, keeping their options open. They will move in and out of different work environments and arrangements throughout their careers.

Glassdoor.com lists the average national annual pay for many common graphic design jobs:

  • Assistant graphic designer — $47,570
  • Senior Graphic Designer — $68,560
  • Advertising —$55,800
  • Book designer — $60,911
  • Web designer — $58,517
  • Motion graphics designer —$65,691
  • Package designer — $59,901
  • Typeface Designer — $64, 307

Graphic Design Internships

While it is not a requirement, you may feel underqualified or unprepared to apply for a graphic design job. In that case, you may want to consider an internship. You can intern while you earn your degree.

Internships are generally temporary or part-time. You are expected to be proficient in related software. Therefore, it is good to look for an internship after you have a general understanding of the software and apply it to your work. Check the job requirements for the specific software you are expected to learn, as this will be a good baseline for expectations of most internships.

Employment Opportunities for Graphic Designers

You may find yourself employed in specialized design services, publishing, or advertising as a graphic designer. In 2020, about 19% of graphic designers were self-employed, working as freelance designers.

As a junior-level designer, your title may be graphic designer, user experience (UX) designer, visual designer, motion designer, digital designer, web designer, animator, production artist, or graphic artist.

One step up, 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.

Work Environment for Graphic Designers

You should not necessarily expect to work in a typical 9 to 5 or in an office environment. Designers generally work in studios, giving designers access to all needed equipment. Studios have equipment like drafting tables and computers with up-to-date software. Graphic designers usually work independently, but those who work with a specialized agency or firm will likely be a part of a design team. Designers will work alongside and with coworkers and work with clients. Work environments vary from small studios to large advertising agencies and other corporations. You may also have more flexibility to work from home because graphic design is computer-based.

Become a Graphic Designer Today!

Now that you know how to become a graphic designer, it’s time to decide on a path. Consider one of the many online graphic design degree programs if you want a structured learning environment that will prepare you for the challenges of your new career.

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