How to Become a Graphic Designer

When I first met a graphic designer, I asked him to please fix my computer. He told me that he had no idea how to do that, and I was very surprised, thinking to myself, so what does this guy do?

The reality is, I am not the only one with this impression. Graphic designers are not programmers, and while they do spend a lot (or most of their time) in front of a computer, their job is similar to that of any artist. They envision an image in their mind and then create it, but they use technology instead of paintbrushes, canvas or clay. It is also true that they usually have to respond to the vision of their client, understand their brand, motivation and the audience they are targeting.

Don’t think graphic design is a static industry where you will spend all day behind a computer making banners. It is a constantly evolving field that moves as fast as technology changes. At the same time, there are many ways to become a graphic designer:

“…you don’t have to take this prescribed road that many kids do. Not in this field. You have to be really good at what you do, committed, resourceful and many other things, but you don’t have to take step A, B, C, D.” – Brad Eller, who works in interactive design for CA Technologies, told us.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Gerardo Robinson

Freelancer

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
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  • Years in the industry:
  • Company:
  • Gerardo Robinson
  • Panama City, Panama
  • 7
  • GRaphico

I went to a private university in Panama City. During a class visit, I got my first job opportunity: I had to design an invitation card for an NGO. I didn’t know what an NGO was at the time (It’s a not-for-profit, by the way.). I did it anyway to build my portfolio and continued to work with them for almost 2 years as a volunteer. Then I went to an advertisement agency. I wanted to grow faster. After a short while it hit me that I didn’t feel happy with what I was doing. I was growing as a professional but not as a person. So I chose to continue exclusively with GRaphico, my own company, left the agency, and went back to working with not-for-profits. There are also great opportunities in the field. Today, depending on the client, I do paid or pro-bono work.

I love my job because I am able to help. My goal is to help someone. I love it when a client does not know what they want, and I can deliver something that exceeds their expectations. Their face, to see that they are really happy with my work, makes me happy. But it would be nice to have some more time for me.

I think I will be more oriented towards the strategy side, rather than production. I’d like to have a family, and I don’t think I’ll be able to keep up with my current routine at the same time. And it’s very important for me to continue with the social work that I do, as well as share my knowledge with others and teach.

Advice

Have an eye
Everyone thinks that you have to know how to draw in order to be a graphic designer. I don’t think that is true. Nowadays technology is changing everything. But you do need to have that artistic eye that will allow you to have the right perspective.

Meet people
For someone who is just getting in to the field, get to know other graphic designers. Talk to them. Understand the industry before you get in it, and try to meet with people from different levels of expertise. This way you can project.

Combine education
For education, I would recommend them to combine formal education with practical experience. Even if you can’t sell your work, do it for free; you will have a head over other students because you will be able to enter the industry sooner.

Read this book
If you are thinking to enter the field, read this book: History of Graphic Design by Philip B. Meggs; one of the best learning experiences for me.

Matt Soriano

User Experience

Quick Look Bio

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  • Matt Soriano
  • Toronto, Canada
  • 9
  • User Experience / UI Designer
  • @emesstyle

I used to work as a designer for all sorts of advertisement and marketing firms before I began working with user experience. What I do exactly is design how someone will use a website or an app. So let’s take a simple example such as Twitter, which I didn’t design, but think about how you log in, where you click to write your tweet. How do you find the feed or your own profile? Where do you search? That’s what I think about. Plus, I watch for the general look and feel of the product once the designers are done with it.

I always knew I wanted to do this and have played around with art and creating things since I was in my early teens. I went to college and took some very technical courses on the Adobe Suite and web-related classes.

In the future, I’d like to continue doing what I do now. I think the very important part is to keep up with the changing technology, especially at the pace that it’s going. I see myself working with a company that dabbles in emerging technologies in a leadership role.

Advice

Art vs. design
Don’t think that by becoming a graphic designer you are necessarily becoming an artist. Of course, there is a big creative part in it, but you are really bringing forth someone’s vision. For me, this is very rewarding being able to realize what they are really looking for, but it takes some letting go at first. You don’t always get to do work you personally love.

Choose for yourself
I do think there is a certain value to getting a bachelor’s degree in design or fine arts to get that really well-rounded education. It really depends on the individual.

Read and follow
Do a Google search for books that are trending in the field and read them. Also, look up people in the industry; who’s profiles interest you; who you want to become. Study their LinkedIn pages; see how they got there. This way you’ll be able to learn what you can do to do it.

Brad Eller

Interactive Design

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
  • Location:
  • Years in the industry:
  • Freelance:
  • LinkedIn:
  • Brad Eller
  • Austin, Texas
  • 14
  • Interactive Design
  • bradeller

Right now I work for an enterprise software company here in Austin, and I help design their apps. I make interface for apps. I am very much in the trenches of graphic design, and to be honest, this is where I want to be. I am getting into more leadership roles, but I get to do a lot of the direct work. I really don’t want to spend the whole day writing e-mails. I always want to continue doing design work.

I have always wanted to do graphic design. My art teacher in high-school was sort of my “influencer”; he was a graphic designer. He really made me want to get into the field –huge influence on me, artistically, and just in general. So, I had every intention of studying graphic design when I got to college, but, I have a Bachelor of Fine Art in Sculpture from Drake University in Iowa. When I got there, we had these college prerequisites, and I just fell in love with creating art in three dimensions.

That changed my whole course, but I ended up coming back to graphic design. It was a lot of trial by fire. My learning style is trial and error. There is an expression I like to use, “Fake it, till you make it”. So I got a few temp positions through creative placement firms and learned as I went.

One of my favorite things in what I do now is I love to see a complex project come together because of successful team collaboration. But I would like to have a lot less meetings. About 25% are crucial, but the rest I feel waste my time.

In the future, I want to be doing the exact same thing, but better, and have the recognition that comes with it. I made a shift from the marketing and advertisement, and that was awesome, but now I’ve switched to product design, corporate enterprise stuff; it’s not as boring as people think. And I really want to stay in this niche.

Advice

Collect
Go to all the different sites and grab all the things you like. This is how you will develop your visual literacy. It’s as if you are a DJ and need to hear all the sounds that are out there. Collect. Before you even try to learn anything, collect these things, and you’ll be happy that you did.

Take it seriously
For me personally, I wish I had taken this more seriously. I didn’t really see that I could really go far in this and could really do amazing work.

Have a portfolio
Now I am at the point in my career where I interview people and have a say in who we hire. Sure, it’s nice to see a BFA and which school you went to, but as long as you can have a story behind why you decided to do graphic design, the passion, and most importantly, it’s the book. I want to see your portfolio –the work that you do.


What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Graphic Designer?

WHAT ARE MY STUDY OPTIONS?

First, you will have to decide whether you are going to invest in a college degree in graphic design or will learn at home. There are really four options you can choose from: a bachelor’s degree from a university, an associate degree from a college, self-study supplemented by college coursework and self-study only. Each has it’s benefits but downsides as well.

If you choose the more expensive bachelor’s degree option, the first and most obvious benefit is that you will have a degree once you are done. This will give you recognition when applying for jobs and can help you land internships and clients while you are still in school in order to build a portfolio. Additionally, your education will likely be better-rounded and can include interdisciplinary studies, such as business, marketing, sales or art. The downside: It is expensive and time-consuming. This is a great option for someone who does not yet have a bachelor’s degree and is looking to get one anyway. It can also allow you to switch careers in the future, since many others require some sort of BA.

You can also go to your community college, online college or out-of-state. In any case, it will be cheaper and shorter than a BA, will still provide you with a well-rounded but more targeted education, and your resume will have proof of accreditation in the field. Again, this will be time-consuming and will require a financial investment. Remember that both formal study options will also help you grow your network as you learn. Begin with your classmates, who can in the future be your colleagues, and include your professors, career fairs, events, etc.

Your other option is to study by yourself. In this case, you can either complement your personal studies with college courses, or simply use online tutorials, read related literature, and play around with the software. This, of course, is the cheapest option as well. For most of us, this is the harder path, because one will need patience and a lot of perseverance. Do not be fooled, however, this will still require some financial investment. Firstly, you will need a Mac or a higher end computer. Plus, Adobe Suite, the main graphic designer software, is not cheap, it will cost you about $75 per month. Remember that you can also take free courses on websites such as Lynda.com and Coursera.org.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

Portfolio. Portfolio. Portfolio! You can have a PhD in Graphic Design, but for all anyone really cares, your portfolio will be the one to sell you and not your accreditation. So how do you build one when you need it to land jobs? If you go through formal education, you will start building one through your courses. If you are at home, you can choose to build one based on possible assignments you expect in the future. On the other hand, there are a number of freelancing websites, such as freelancer.com, elance.com, and fiverr.com where you can sell your work for very cheap, but at least you’ll be making some money, and most importantly, growing your portfolio. Or you can do some charity work. Find a not-for-profit you are interested in (anywhere in the world) and do some work for them for free.

Then what? While you apply for jobs and look for freelancing projects, make sure to grow your portfolio. Design your own image. Print business cards. Remember, business skills can be very valuable in this career, especially if you plan to freelance. You will need to be Sales, Marketing, Finance, IT, CEO and the designer at the same time. Start with the network you already have, and build it from there. Have a LinkedIn page and a Twitter account. Contact experts in your field, ask them for a quick chat, buy them a coffee, and do not ask them for a job. Ask them about their experience and for advice. If they like you, they will be able to connect you to more people.

This will also help you understand where you can find yourself in the future and how to get there. We went to a few experts ourselves and this is what they told us.