CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become a graphic designer.
Is becoming a graphic designer right for me?
The first step to choosing a career is to make sure you are actually willing to commit to pursuing the career. You don’t want to waste your time doing something you don’t want to do. If you’re new here, you should read about:
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While in high school, aspiring graphic designers should take classes in art history, drawing, photography, graphic arts, computer graphics, and website design. They can put their emerging skills to use designing and producing the school newspaper or yearbook.
Some early study of graphic design on the internet is also recommended. Search ‘graphic design course syllabus’ online and review the student learning objectives and textbooks used to meet these objectives. Select, find, and read one or more of these textbooks.
To learn some of the basic computer skills used by graphic designers, consider watching online tutorials on YouTube, Hack Design, Tuts+ Design and Illustration Guides, and other websites.
There was a time when graphic designers could get hired strictly on the strength of their creative portfolio. Today, however, most employers seek job candidates with a more complete and well-rounded education – the kind only a university degree can provide.
A certificate in the field or an associate degree may be sufficient in some cases, but the U.S. Department of Labor reports that designers are much more likely to land a quality position with a bachelor’s degree. Approximately sixty-two percent of practising graphic designers hold a Bachelor’s Degree in Graphic Design from a degree program accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.
Components of a bachelor's degree typically include the following:
- Concepts and applications of design elements and relationships
- Design applications for lines, colors, textures, shapes, values, and white space principles applicable to most graphic design projects
Introduction to typography
- Study of typography – the art and technique of arranging type – as it applies in design and how it affects meaning, brand, or personality
- Baseline skills in type styles and fonts used in text and logos
- Study of how visual details may be perceived by an audience
- Immersed study of color, how it impacts cultural or psychological levels, and the effects of color interactions
- Focus on color design in print, web, multimedia, and hand-held devices
- Graphic design applications in online and multimedia publishing
- Technical environments and elements of navigation, usability, and web best practices
- Top-down understanding of graphic design methods for digital projects
- Focus on technique and theory; not on specific code or interface design software
Production for digital and print and environments
- Focus on delivering production-ready graphics as well as files for print and mobile devices
- Hands-on experience creating design concepts and delivering files using industry-standard project management protocols and design software
Media management in digital design
- Advanced course integrating print and digital techniques for creating and managing visual communications across a range of channels with distinct timelines
- Instruction in coordinating staff and overseeing a series of processes
- Introduction to project management software and design development tools
Graphic designer as entrepreneur
- Study of the history, change, and contemporary impacts on communication tools
- Focus on how to build a successful enterprise
- Real world application of theories and best practices
- Business, marketing, and promotion techniques specifically for design entrepreneurs
- Compilation of previous design work into an effective portfolio, typically a graduation requirement for seniors
- Design and development of a portfolio of projects that demonstrate growth of skills and creativity
- Instruction in presenting a portfolio and clearly discussing one’s skills and abilities
Not all college programs in graphic design require internships, but those that do offer students an exceptional opportunity to gain practical experience, to form professional relationships in the design community, and to complete work suitable for presentation in their portfolio or design book.
A Compelling Portfolio
While a solid resume is an important aspect of any job search, the greatest asset to someone looking for a job in graphic design is an impressive portfolio. The only way for a prospective employer to understand an applicant’s abilities is through a portfolio demonstrating a range of work and growth as a designer.
There was a time when a graphic design portfolio was a simple collection of a designer’s best newspaper and magazine advertisements. Professional portfolios today are much more sophisticated, consisting not only of print ads, but also including online advertisements, website graphics, and even a television commercial reel and animation demo.
It is not uncommon for job seekers today to carry fully digital versions of their portfolio on CD or DVD with them to interviews, along with the more traditional paper version. Many designers also maintain their own up-to-date design portfolio website.
For those just starting out, presenting a large and varied portfolio is difficult given the limited amount of work they will have completed. These designers should focus on quality instead of quantity, presenting only their best design samples and a portfolio arranged to meet a prospective employer’s specific needs.
Here are some keys to creating a compelling portfolio:
Select your best pieces of work.
Avoid including everything you have ever created. Instead, pick the pieces you are most proud of, pieces that showcase your abilities and confidence.
Include a variety of work samples.
Pick pieces that demonstrate your range of skills, from typography to web design to logo design and more. Include self-initiated work, as well as projects that you have completed for specific clients.
Contextualize your work.
For each piece of work that you include in your portfolio, write one or two paragraphs articulating the client’s objective and how your design met that objective. Explain your inspiration for the design and your creative process. Include accolades received form clients and describe how your design increased sales activity for your client.
Ad agencies, publishing houses, printing companies, service bureaus, newspapers and magazines, TV and movie studios are among the potential employers of graphic designers. Freelancing is also an option.
Generally, graphic designers must work in an entry-level role for one to three years before advancing in the field. Typeface designer, environmental designer, or identity designer are possible intermediate steps leading to the position of chief designer, art director, production director, or graphic design instructor at a post-secondary institution.
Specialization is certainly not a requirement in the graphic design field. However, designers who choose to specialize often consider concentrating on one or more of the following:
- Desktop Publishing
- Branding and Advertising
- E-mail Blasts and eNewsletters
- Interface or User Experience Design
- Web Design
- Product Packaging
- Book Design
- Print or Web Production
Successful graphic designers incorporate fundamental formal knowledge of artistic communications theory with a fluency in using contemporary design tools. These tools are many and varied. Which the graphic designer uses will be dependent on their area of specialization in the field.
For the print designer, key graphic programs include:
- Adobe FrameMaker
- Adobe InDesign
- Adobe PageMaker
The digital designer uses software including:
- Adobe Illustrator
- CorelDraw Graphics Suite
- Adobe Fireworks
- Adobe FreeHand
Digital designers who work in the online environment can benefit by using:
- Adobe Flash Player
- Adobe Dreamweaver
- Macromedia HomeSite
Among the key software tools for motion graphics designers are:
- Autodesk Maya
- CINEMA 4D
- 3D Studio Max
- Adobe After Effects
Of course, generalists may have a foundational skill set in a number of print and digital environments, or they may choose to specialize in just one or two key programs.
Graphic design is a constantly changing and developing field. Designers must keep up with the commercial and artistic trends in the industry, or they may find themselves quickly left behind. They must also remain current on new and updated computer graphics and design software programs, which are in a near constant state of evolution. This is particularly true for designers working as freelancers, and for those interested in advancing to higher positions within their companies.
Several professional organizations, such as the ones listed below, offer tools and resources and provide members with educational updates on new technology, software, or methodology. Design industry vendors may also provide certification programs specific to their software and other products.
- AIGA – American Institute of Graphic Arts
- ICOGRADA – The International Council of Graphic Design Associations
- Graphic Artists Guild
- Society of Illustrators
- Association of Registered Graphic Designers
- International Society of Typographic Designers
- SIAD – Society of Illustrators, Artists, and Designers
- Society for Experiential Graphic Design
Master’s Degree (optional)
There are two graduate degrees for students of graphic design: the Masters of Arts (MA) and Masters of Fine Arts (MFA). The MA is a theoretical and academically advanced degree, while the MFA is the pinnacle professional degree for graphic artists and related professionals.
Another distinction is that the MA student focuses on a singular academic specialization, sometimes in preparation for teaching; while the MFA student is free to explore a wide range of skill applications and elective fields. Degree requirements include completion of a research or theoretical study for the MA, and a creative dissertation or portfolio for MFA students. Both degrees take from two to three years to complete, depending on the programs and graphic design schools.
MFA graduates use their portfolios or graduation projects to address real world communication challenges or to demonstrate newly integrated advanced skills. Here are six skill takeaways from an MFA degree program:
MFA graduates have built upon a foundational knowledge of design and graphics production. They demonstrate advanced knowledge on topics such as composition, color theory, and typography in order to create a persuasive final product.
At the graduate level, students learn to solve creative or business problems holistically. MFA graduates also typically build upon practical experience in the field, demonstrating creative flexibility and proficiency in turning concepts into client deliverables.
MFA students learn to develop their own creative expressions. They are aware of the tools at their disposal, but are not bound by a single solution or style. They have the knowledge to originate and develop a signature style and the skills to express their own aesthetics.
An MFA program is not completed in isolation; even online graduate students work in teams. Knowing how to collaborate with design and technology teams and how to work effectively with demanding clients can spell the difference between success and failure. Graduates have the communication and leadership skills that get the most out of a creative team.
Whether they work independently or with a creative firm, graphic designers are dependent upon skills in sales, marketing, and customer relations. MFA grads have experience in business, entrepreneurship, and marketing. They know how to sell designs to clients, pitch to their creative managers, and how to successfully and effectively navigate professional and business relationships.
Graduates demonstrate competence in the theory and application of motion graphics often used in the creation of entertainment, broadcast, web, and emerging media. They also have advanced knowledge of software and industry-standard tools.