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How to Become a Graphic Designer in Practical Steps

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How to Become a Graphic Designer

Learning how to become a graphic designer is a unique experience that looks different for everyone. When you decide to pursue a creative career path, many questions will come up. Do I need a formal education? Where do I start? Should I work for an agency or for myself?

The best part is there are no right or wrong answers to these questions. Choosing to grow your career in the graphic design field is the first step, and this article can help you with all that comes after.

What Does a Graphic Designer Do?

As a graphic designer, it’s your job to use digital tools, graphic design software, and your unique design skills to be a visual communicator for brands and professionals.

As a designer, you can choose to specialize in a particular field. Some work with businesses and entrepreneurs, creating logo concepts, brand patterns, or social media designs. Some designers choose to work with individuals creating book cover designs, posters, or other fun visual projects.

Graphic designers often can either work for an agency or for themselves as independent contractors. This leaves endless possibilities!

From personal projects to large design concepts for a big company, the opportunities as a graphic designer are infinite!

Education and Qualifications

Creative Live

Although it’s useful to have a college background in your career field, it’s not always necessary. Developing your skills and showcasing them professionally is more effective than obtaining a formal education.

Learning graphic design fundamentals is easier than ever with the infinite amount of resources we have online. Online design courses are a great way to gain real-world experience without a college degree. Sites like Skillshare, Creative Live, and Domestika offer a wide variety of graphic design courses that can help you build a solid understanding to launch your design career.

If you want to work for a large design agency, check their requirements and expectations, as some may require you to complete a four-year degree program.

How to Become a Graphic Designer

Starting your career in graphic design can look different for everyone, but the fundamentals remain the same. By knowing the basics, building your visual communication skills, and dedicating yourself to becoming an expert in your field, you’re bound to succeed! Here are a few steps to get you started.

Graphic Designer at Work

1. Learn the Basics of Graphic Design

You can use one of the many online design classes, study articles, or academic courses to learn graphic design basics. By understanding the key skills and elements of design, you can learn how to present your skills to potential clients in a clean and professional way.

Creativity comes naturally to most of us, but it’s important to learn the basics of design theory and to grow your technical skills in the field. Using digital design to communicate messages is a unique form of art that needs to be practiced. Most online programs will cover the principles of design and give you the graphic design skills needed to really impress your potential employers.

2. Learn the Necessary Tools

As a designer, it’s crucial to stay up to date with different graphic design tools. Programs such as Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop, and Adobe InDesign are just a few examples of programs that are important to have a basic understanding of.

Although Adobe Creative Cloud is one of the most prominent services for designer programs, there are others, such as Canva, Figma (recently acquired by Adobe), Procreate, and more that are great to have expertise in. The more background you have in different programs, the more employment opportunities you can have.

3. Get Some Experience

When you’re just starting your search for entry-level positions, your priority is to gain practical experience to add to your professional portfolio. Volunteering your services for free or at a discount is a great way to break into the graphic design industry. Reaching out to businesses or non-profit organizations and offering your services at no charge or at a drastic discount can help you build a solid clientele and give you a taste of your design process when doing graphic design jobs.

Another great way to gain experience when you’re struggling to find paying clients is to do personal projects. You can use graphic design sites or find the online portfolio of a designer that you like to find some great inspiration.

4. Build Your Portfolio Website

Squarespace Portfolio Sites

Building a strong portfolio is crucial for being a successful designer. The work you display on your online portfolio shows prospective employers or clients exactly what they can expect if they choose to work with you.

It’s important to update your portfolio a few times a year to show that you’re keeping up with design trends and growing as a creative.

Choosing the right place to build your portfolio site can decide your success. Squarespace or WordPress offer fantastic portfolio themes that make it easy to display your portfolio. You can read about some of the WordPress portfolio themes we recommend. 

5. Market Yourself

Being able to effectively market yourself as a graphic designer is a great way to build a solid foundation for your career path. Using different sites that are popular in the graphic design community, such as Dribbble, Instagram, or even writing for different design sites, you’re building a foundation for potential clients to find you. 

Even if your end goal is to work for an agency or to become an in-house graphic designer, choosing to take on individual clients can be a great first step to gaining more experience and showing your future employer what you’re capable of. (See these tips for promoting your design services.)

6. Grow Your Network

Networking and forming relationships with other designers and small businesses is vital for a freelance graphic designers and those looking for a full-time job. People talk, and when you’re the topic of conversation, it can open doors for new jobs and career opportunities.

There are many online communities for designers, small business owners, and other entrepreneurs that you can join to build a solid network that can prove to be a major asset for your career path.

7. Stay Up-to-Date with Current Trends

Design trends are constantly changing and morphing depending on what’s popular today and what might be tomorrow. By staying active in graphic design communities, you can stay in touch and even get ahead with current trends that can help with exposure and broadening your social reach.

Using sites like Pinterest, Behance, Dribbble, and other online communities, you can check what’s trending daily and incorporate that into your work. Using these trends to update your portfolio a few times a year is also a great idea, showcasing your skills and adaptability. It’s human nature to want to see or create something new and interesting. Never be afraid to get creative and make your own trend!

8. Continue Learning and Improving

Like any other career path, you’ll always need to learn new things consistently and improve your skills. Practice your profession daily, enroll in a local or online graphic design program, or get some feedback from your graphic design peers.

The industry is ever-changing, so being adaptable and humble in your field can not only continuously help you find work but will also keep your career fun and exciting.

Optional: Specialize

Choosing to specialize in a particular type of work can help with marketing yourself as an expert in your field. For example, if you only work in logo design, you’re building an expertise and trust in that field. Doing this can help you pick up more clients and charge higher prices in the long run.

Ways to Work as a Graphic Designer

Freelance Graphic Designer

There are many job opportunities as a graphic designer, and choosing what works best for you is essential.

Do you feel you need the flexibility of being your own boss as an independent contractor? Do you want to work as an internal graphic designer for an individual company, or do you want to work a full-time job for an agency that finds all clients for you?

Sometimes it’s helpful to gain experience in all three areas to build a successful career.

Freelance Designer

Working as a freelance designer as opposed to an in-house graphic designer has its benefits and its drawbacks. You get to make your own schedule, pick your clients, and work from wherever in the world you want.

To work as a freelancer, it’s important to have discipline and self-motivation and to obtain the proper equipment for your career.

Pros of Freelancing

  • You have the freedom to choose how many hours you work and when you decide to work them.
  • You get to choose what type of projects you want to work on and what clients you work with.
  • The earning potential is limitless. The more time you put into your freelancing career, the more you can grow. 
  • You have the opportunity to work from anywhere in the world. This makes a great option for those who want to travel or have a lifestyle that moves around. 

Cons of Freelancing

  • You’re required to purchase and provide your own equipment required for the job. 
  • Being your own boss isn’t for everyone. Practicing discipline and staying organized is crucial and not an easy task.
  • You’re responsible for building your own client base. You don’t start out with an established business to back you up. You have to prove your skills through your own graphic design portfolio.

Work as a Graphic Designer for an Agency

The job of a graphic designer working for an agency is to not only focus on company goals, but to work directly with clients. By creating particular deliverables for each client, you represent your graphic design firm with each project you work on.

Pros of Working for an Agency

  • You don’t have the stress of finding and building your own client base, as most design agencies have a solid foundation built before you get there. 
  • You’ll have a diverse set of clients and projects that can help you gain the necessary skills and tricks for future graphic design positions. 
  • You’ll never have a boring day. Most agencies are in a fast-paced environment with a quick turnaround which keeps every day interesting. 

Cons of Working for an Agency

  • There’s the possibility of your workload becoming overwhelming.
  • There’s no guarantee of career advancement when working for a design agency, and your salary will typically be capped at a certain amount. 
  • You’ll be required to work on projects you’re not passionate about, whether you like it or not. 

Work as an In-House Graphic Designer

You’ll likely work with a small graphic design team or on your own as an in-house graphic designer. The main goal of an in-house graphic designer is to meet your company’s branding goals and build internal design elements, often as a long-term position.

Pros of Working as an In-House Designer

  • You’ll have a consistent amount of work coming in.
  • Since you’re doing design work for the same company every day, the workflow will become natural as you become familiar with what the brand expectations are.
  • You’ll work in a calmer environment compared to the fast-paced feel of working for an agency. 

Cons of Working as an In-House Designer

  • Growth may be limited since you’ll only be doing work for one company.
  • Most in-house designers work alone, so you may not have a creative team to brainstorm ideas with. 
  • The pressure can be heavy when you’re the only one in the company that knows the creative process for the brand. 
  • The work can become repetitive. There’s less variety in your projects as compared to freelancing or working for an agency.

How Much Do Graphic Designers Make?

According to reported salaries for graphic designers on Indeed, the average median salary varies from $54,000 for entry-level to $76,000 for senior-level designers, though these numbers can vary.

Although these numbers are the average for the United States, factors like your geographical location and years of experience in the design industry can impact them. For example, if you’re in San Francisco, California, your salary varies from someone who works in Boise, Idaho.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is graphic design a good career?

Since graphic designing is such a diverse career path, it makes a great option for those who want to work in the creative industry. 

Do you need a degree to become a graphic designer?

A graphic design degree is not required to have a successful design career. Many online courses and other resources can help you become a graphic designer without going through a formal degree program. However, some employers may require a degree for certain positions.

How long does it take to become a graphic designer?

Although many graphic designers complete a four-year degree program, it’s not required. You can become one by learning the basic skills and fundamentals of design in just a few months.

Is graphic design a growing field?

Although print and advertising design in the traditional sense is slowly decreasing as businesses focus more on their online presence, they project graphic design careers to grow 3% from 2021 to 2031, according to this U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics page.