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How to Become a Graphic Designer in 2021

October 4, 2021 | Staff Writers

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If you want to become a graphic designer, you may already have started building your skills. Using tools like tablets, Wacom, Photoshop, Lightroom, and other products, you can create amazing artwork, ads, and more.

To become a graphic designer, you don’t necessarily need a degree in graphic design. However, having a degree in graphic design is an excellent way to show that you have the skills it takes to do the job right in a corporate or small-business setting.

Graphic design fluctuates and changes over time, so there may be some additional training and education required over the years.

Finally, remember that you will need to complete internships, complete an amazing portfolio that shows your talent, and have an idea of the industry that you want to work in before you begin.

What a graphic designer does

A graphic designer creates the imagery that you likely see every day. This includes all kinds of work, from ads on social media to the layout of a planner you use to schedule your day. In fact, graphic designers work in industries such as:

  • Television
  • Social media
  • Gaming
  • App design

You’ll find that graphic designers are in demand in a variety of workplace settings, because graphic design has permeated almost every industry there is.

Graphic designers create compelling imagery. They may create documents such as brochures, advertisements, and marketing material. They may also work on projects such:

  • Desktop publishing
  • Branding and advertising
  • Email blast campaigns
  • eNewsletters
  • Logos
  • Book design
  • Print and web publication
  • Product packaging
  • Branding and advertising
  • Typography

Designers tend to work with one favored type of media, but specialization isn’t necessary. You can enjoy working with all kinds of different clients to keep your options open. Additionally, by specializing in multiple areas of graphic design, you’ll have more flexibility when working with your clients.

To put it simply, graphic designers use visuals to communicate ideas to customers. As a result, they usually work in consumer-facing industries. Interestingly, not all graphic design is done on the computer, as many people would assume. Some visual concepts are created by hand.

What are the most common career options for graphic designers?

There are several different career opportunities that are popular among graphic designers. Trained graphic designers may go on to work as art directors, freelancers, production artists, or product developers. They may work in UX design or as a multimedia artist or animator.

What kinds of work are graphic designers qualified for?

Graphic designers are qualified to work in a variety of fields. What you can do with your degree will depend on the specific classes and specialties you have focused on. For example, you may opt to work in branding, package design, web design, UI/UX design, environmental design, animation, logo creation, and more. You may find that you want to work as a creative director, user experience designer, or production artist.

It’s also possible to work as a marketing specialist or to create your own niche as a freelance graphic designer. Freelancing gives you the opportunity to work as your own boss, which can be excellent for graphic designers as a main career or as a side-gig to work from home for extra cash.

What industries will graphic designers work in?

The graphic design community is diverse. Some people work in industries such as the oil and gas industry, the news media, or in science. Others will work with medical teams, the health department, the motor vehicle industry, or others. Since all different kinds of industries need graphic designers to complete product designs, safety manuals, book covers, and more, a graphic designer can work with people in almost any industry at all.

Who employs graphic designers?

Graphic designers are often employed by the advertising, publishing, public relations, specialized design, and other service-related industries. These industries tend to select designers who have a degree in the field, but a degree is not necessarily a requirement if the designer has a strong portfolio and history of work with references.  

Is it worth becoming a freelance designer?

The average hourly pay for a freelance graphic designer is around $29.49. Freelance graphic artists have a few benefits that they tend to appreciate. For example, a freelancer doesn’t always have set hours. They may be able to work at times when it suits them, like in the mornings and evenings or while their kids are at school.

Freelancers are their own bosses, which means that they don’t have an employer. They work with clients on projects. Some will work as third-party vendors for a specific client many times, and others will work on one-off projects in a variety of industries.

Freelancing gives you an opportunity to work with a variety of clients instead of a single company, but it does require you to search for your own leads and to focus on building your portfolio. Unlike working with a company, freelancers also have to pay higher taxes and may have other business requirements to meet independently.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that in-house designers earn a range of salaries, but they average slightly lower than freelance graphic artists.

Career outlook for graphic designers

Graphic design is an exciting career, but it has been declining. Between 2019 and 2029, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the total number of freelance jobs to decline by 4%. That will mean a loss of around 10,700 jobs.

While this industry is already flush with professionals, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to break in. There are still an estimated 281,500 jobs available in this field.

What is a graphic designer’s average salary?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a graphic designer has an average salary of $53,380 per year as of 2020. This is the average salary with a bachelor’s degree. Those with higher schooling could earn more.

Graphic design pays slightly more, on average, when the designer is freelance, but it can take longer to build up a freelance career. The hourly pay for an employed graphic designer is approximately $25.66, on average, while freelancers earn around $29.49 hourly.

How much you’ll make as a graphic designer really depends on what kind of work you do. The lowest 10% of graphic designers earn under $31,720. The highest 10% of graphic designers earn over $93,440.

The amount you’ll earn may depend on the industry you work in. For example, in advertising, graphic designers may earn around $55,800. In specialized design services, the average is $54,840. This is compared to printing and related support activity, which has an average salary of $41,490, or newspaper and directory publishing, which has an average salary of $45,170.

Graphic designers may have more or less work to do in any one of these industries. The workload and deadlines required do play a role in how much a graphic designer earns.

Self-employed freelancers may need to meet with clients in the evening or on weekends, whereas employed designers tend to work a 9-to-5 role.

Necessary skills for a graphic designer

Graphic designers need to have excellent design skills to work in this field. In terms of education, graphic designers usually have a bachelor’s degree in a related field or in graphic design. Candidates also need to put together portfolios of their work. There are many graphic design programs aimed at training candidates for a future in graphic design.

People who have a bachelor’s degree in another field can work in graphic design, but many choose to obtain technical certificates and training to meet the hiring qualifications. For example, certification programs are available through some vendors, like Adobe or Microsoft, so that graphic designers can prove that they know how to use a program or suite of programs well. Certifications in graphic design software of various types show that the designer has a good understanding of the specific program the certification is for as well as giving them a competitive advantage over others who do not have a certificate.

Graphic designers should be able to work well with others, because they are often put into design groups or face-to-face meetings with clients who want work done. They need to be capable of developing concepts as well as creating a final image or piece of work. It is helpful for a designer to have a “type-A” personality, being driven to complete projects on tight deadlines.

Many graphic designers go through internships while attending their school’s design program. The point of these internships is to give them time to work with other designers and to learn how to take a design from concept to its final appearance.

What are some qualities that graphic designers should possess?

Some important qualities that graphic designers should have include:

  • Good communication skills, so that they can communicate clearly with customers, other designers, and clients about the designs they’re creating. They must make sure that a design accurately conveys information to the intended audience.
  • A good graphic designer is able to think about new ways to market ideas to customers. They must create unique designs that don’t cross intellectual property lines and that still get their clients’ opinions or ideas across to their customer bases.
  • Analytical skills. Though graphic design is creative, a good graphic designer will be able to think about the project from their client’s point of view. This allows them to come up with unique designs for that client, so that the client has all of their ideas addressed. Additionally, good analytical skills are needed to convey the right message to the intended audience.
  • Computer skills. While most graphic designers learn the elements of design on paper and on the computer, most graphic design is digital today. Graphic designers should be familiar with the major imaging and design programs, such as those in the Adobe suite, so that they are able to prepare their designs to a high standard. Specialized programs may be used in some cases, so designers need to be able to adapt. Knowing just one group of programs may help them do so swiftly, as many use similar layouts and tools.
  • Artistic ability. You don’t have to be a great artist to be a graphic designer, but it does help to have some artistic abilities. Understanding color, form, and function is what makes sure that the designs are appealing to consumers and clients. A graphic designer must produce sketches and rough illustrations, so it helps to be able to do this by hand or with computer software.
  • Time management skills. Graphic designers, especially freelancers, have to work within the constraints of a client’s project. Some will receive short timelines to produce high-quality work. Others will work on longer-term projects but need to keep the project moving on time. Many graphic designers handle multiple projects at once, and those projects may all have different deadlines. Those who cannot multitask may find this to be a difficult field.

These are just some of the qualities that a good graphic designer has. From being creative to having the ability to communicate clearly, they all help the designer work well with clients and produce better end results.

How can you strengthen your resume when becoming a graphic designer?

There are many things you can do to strengthen your resume as a graphic designer. The first thing you can do is to start freelancing as soon as you can. Even if you’re in high school or beginning to consider graphic design as a career option, you should put yourself out there.

You can take certification courses from major software companies like Microsoft and Adobe without being in school, so you can begin on the right path long before you enter a graphic design career program. Whether you want to be an art director, designer, or are just an aspiring graphic designer now, you will find that seeking out those certifications is valuable and will help you land the roles you’re interested in.

With freelancing, you choose the clients you want to work with. This is beneficial because you take on projects that are at your skill level. You might take a few projects for logo design, for example, or draw up brochures for local businesses. Doing these one-off projects can help you build up your portfolio, and it will assist you in showing that you are committed to working in the industry. Even if the jobs you take now aren’t what you want to do in the future, having those happy clients as references will help propel you ahead of your peers.

Another thing you can do to strengthen your resume is to be detailed. In your resume, make sure you go over your education. Talk about specific classes that you feel were unique or especially difficult to get into, so that the employer realizes that you have specialized knowledge. You will want to describe your experience and schooling in detail, but make sure you don’t make your resume too long. Most resumes should be no longer than two pages, and most employers prefer if they aren’t longer than a single page.

Writing a cover letter also helps strengthen your resume, because you can specifically talk about why you want the job you’re applying to. Bring up specific sections of your resume that you feel the employer or client would be interested in, such as where you went to school or specific awards or accolades that you have.

On your resume, include a section with your certifications. These may be best as a list, but if you have additional details, add those next to the bullet points. For example, if you passed a marketing test or received a specialized certification, let the company know your score (if it was higher than average) or point out what kind of specialist knowledge you had to have to achieve that accolade.

Finally, don’t forget to include your portfolio. Many employers don’t want you to send a physical portfolio any longer. That said, you can include a link to your digital portfolio.

What should you include in your digital portfolio?

To help your graphic design resume, you need to have a good digital portfolio. For your portfolio, make it a unique website. Most designers use their first and last name or a business name with a .com. This makes it easier to remember the designer’s name and to link their name with their resume.

In your digital portfolio, make sure you have high-quality imagery. You need high-quality scans of physical work and clear images of all digital work. It’s helpful to include a watermark on these images, but make sure that the digital watermark does not obstruct the designs. If you want to protect your portfolio, you may want to consider using a password on your website. Then, only interested employers can access your portfolio with the included link and password that you provide.

Finally, when you use a digital portfolio, make sure it’s set up nicely. This website is a representation of you as a designer, so if it looks garish or disorganized, it’s unlikely to help you land the job. Many designers opt for a website with a gallery design and solid headers, so that it is easy to navigate the work and to view the images.

How much does it cost to become a graphic designer?

Depending on the program you choose, you may be able to become a graphic designer for anywhere from $3,000 at a community college to $30,000 or more at a four-year university. There is really no specific range of costs, so it is important to look at a variety of programs to see what they offer and if there is financial aid available.

A higher cost doesn’t necessarily equate to a better experience, so it is important to visit the campus and consider extra costs associated with each program. Remember, the software used in graphic design can be costly, as well.

There are online graphic design courses that some people prefer, too. Since graphic design is now largely online and remote, it may make sense to take an online course, too. Just make sure that the course has accreditation and is recognized as a good program. A quick search usually brings up a number of degree programs online, but not all of them are the same. Review not only the cost but also the employment/placement rates, certifications available through the program, specific coursework, and who is instructing the courses.

Degree options for graphic designers

Interestingly, you don’t need a graphic design degree to become a graphic designer. While you can branch out into other fields, like multimedia animation or web design, with a degree in graphic design, the same is true of those other bachelor’s degrees.

There are eight major fields in graphic design, which include:

  • Visual identity graphic design
  • User interface graphic design
  • Publication graphic design
  • Motion graphic design
  • Environmental graphic design
  • Art and illustration for graphic design
  • Marketing and advertising graphic design
  • Packaging graphic design

Many people who go on to work in graphic design first specialize in another field. For example, a degree in marketing can help a graphic designer learn how to market products and designs. A marketer with this degree may go on to get certified, and they can then apply that knowledge to working in the field.

Other degree options that you might want to consider include web design, animation, and special effects, digital arts, photography, studio arts, web development, commercial and advertising art, product design, architecture, illustration, marketing, writing, programming, and manufacturing. Degrees in any of these fields give you a good starting point to begin your career in graphic design in the future.

What should you look for in a graphic design degree program?

To start with, if you want to become a graphic designer, look for a good graphic design school that specializes in teaching the arts. The graphic design curriculum should cover how to use most in-demand programs, like Adobe Photoshop or Dreamweaver. The Adobe suite of programs is one of the most important, so be wary of any graphic design degree program that does not include these programs in its coursework.

Another thing to look for is accreditation. Accreditation simply means that the school has met the requirements of associations known for managing graphic design programs of a high level. For example, the National Association of Schools of Art and Design accredit many of the graphic design programs in the United States. At the moment, there are around 323 accredited institutions in the United States, and NASAD accreditation is extremely important. Accreditation helps guarantee that the program you take is up to date on the most current programs and tools needed to work in the graphic design industry.

You should also look at the school’s curriculum closely. The program should be thorough and cover the areas of graphic design that you are interested in. Make sure to check out the program’s specific guidelines and the electives, minors, and majors that you may be able to get on top of your degree. For instance, many graphic designers double major in other fields like business or marketing, which helps them get a leg up when applying for roles with major companies.

Time working as a designer is just as important as time in the classroom. That’s why an excellent graphic design program will also include internships, either paid or unpaid, as well as interactions with clients. Students need to gain as much training and experience as possible while they’re in school, so a good program will focus on having them work in a variety of mediums. They should learn to create illustrations, websites, advertising campaigns, brochures, and more for clients that the school brings in or for the school itself.

Try to find a program that encourages students to work in-house at a local company or that gives hands-on experience with Adobe programs like Flash, Dreamweaver, and Photoshop.

Finally, make sure you know what kind of program is being offered. Graphic design programs can be anything from a certificate program to an associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral program. Depending on how long you want to stay in school, the cost, and the percentage of students who go on to work in the field, you should choose a program that lines up with your goals and budget.

Are there similar degree programs that you should consider?

If you like the idea of working in graphic design, you may also like freelancing or being part of a web design degree program. You may want to think about adding marketing as a double major or minor, too, as this gives you an opportunity to work as a director of marketing, art director, or in advertising. Illustration, fine art, business, and marketing are all good options for secondary degrees (or starting degrees with graphic certifications added on).

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BestValueSchools.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.
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