How to Become a Graphic Designer


Learn the Fundamentals of Graphic Design

A graphic designer takes simple and sometimes complex ideas and turns them into images and text that inform, captivate, convey a message, and motivate viewers to take action. Graphic designers, who are somewhat different than graphic artists, typically use a variety of computer software, such as Adobe Creative Cloud (InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator) to communicate clients’ ideas into brochures, reports, websites, printed ads, sales sheets, posters, etc. Graphic Designers must also be adept in color theory, typography, animation, and photography.

The field of graphic design allows individuals to take their artistic talents and apply them for general use. However, the field of graphic design is not for everyone. Even if you choose to freelance, this is not a career where you will often work alone. Graphic designers collaborate with creative teams of artists, writers, producers, art directors, advertising managers, and their clients. You must be able to take criticism, make creative design decisions, meet deadlines, compromise, communicate, and learn new software and graphic design techniques.

Most importantly, your artistic talents will only take you so far. Most successful graphic designers will earn a college degree in graphic design or closely-related field, especially if you intend to seek a corporate position in this competitive field.



Although creativity and artistic ability is a prerequisite to succeed as a graphic designer, attending a college or university, enrolling in a private design school or studying online and earning a degree is required by most employers. The National Association of Schools of Art and Design currently lists about 300 accredited colleges, universities, and private institutes across the US. Students may opt to explore a Bachelor’s of Art (BA) in graphic design or a Bachelor’s of Science (BS) in graphic design. Individuals who wish to teach or complete research may want to check out earning a Master’s of Art (MA) or Master’s of Fine Arts (MFA) in graphic design.

Graphic design utilizes a variety of electronic and print media, layout, and color theory, photography, and animation to effectively communicate a concept or message to an audience. So, coursework learned in a college program is essential to staying on-top of new techniques, software, and advances in the industry. Coursework in most graphic design programs includes introduction to visual arts, foundations in 2D and 3D, digital photography, graphic design concepts, graphic design history, art orientation, collaborative process, new media, package design, and many more core courses related to this major, along with all liberal arts classes.

Students will also be exposed to software programs, which may include Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, Quark Xpress, InDesign, and other painting and graphic design tools. Although coursework varies from one school to another, additional classes to delve into that are also found in most graphic design programs include typography, environmental and exhibition design, and publication design.

Of course, keep in mind that the kind of job a designer has his or her eyes set on will probably determine whether or not a degree is necessary. If a designer is opting to freelance, a degree may or may not be necessary, as a body of work and strong portfolio are usually all that matters. However, if a designer is planning to enter the corporate world, a large company or in-house design team, or work for many (most) advertising agencies, a degree will prove beneficial, and many employers in these settings will require a designer to have a degree. Unfortunately, without a degree in these situations, you may be disqualified for a job without ever getting the chance to interview.


Develop Essential Skills & Knowledge


Graphic designers are keen observers and advocates of all things new and emotionally-charged. They are drawn to objects, messages and experiences that inspire the message, ‘why didn’t I think of that.’ They possess an awareness of the visual world around them, ask questions, and continually design in their minds. Curiosity is at the core of nearly all great designers, and individuals who enjoy conceptual and visual images and messages, and don’t mind working long hours towards a solution usually have successful careers in this field. Even so, there are skills and abilities outside of innate inquisitiveness and artistic talent that ultimately become the roadmap for design.

Every design starts with both verbal and visual conceptualizing, which serves as the underlying purpose, and therefore the first step in flushing out the reasoning and thinking behind a project’s direction. Visualizing a concept will lead a designer to sketch out ideas prior to logging into his or her computer. Conducting research and jotting down thoughts and ideas can springboard a designer’s imagination and lead to the choice of which colors to use, which typeface/font is best, if photography is appropriate or if an image would work better, etc. Graphic artists must also have an understanding of color, shape, line, texture, balance, movement, proportion, and scale, and the relationship between each design concept. It is also during the concept stage that a designer will determine which media platform to use; print, digital or online.

Formal Concepts are the ideas that ultimately become the roadmap for your design. They serve as the underlying purpose, and therefore the first step in flushing out the reasoning, concept, and thinking behind a project's direction. Formal concepts help you choose which colors to use, which typeface/font is best, if photography is appropriate, etc., and consist of both verbal and visual conceptualizing. A graphic artist must also have an understanding of color, shape, line, texture, balance, movement, proportion, and scale, and the relationship between each design concept.

Design Methods support design work and are the systematic framework for determining what, how and when things happen, and in what order. Design methods typically include research, deliberation, prototyping, rationalization, and reasoning. Therefore, it is not uncommon that two people can use the same methods and arrive at different outcomes. Managing the process, redefining expectations, and applying critical thinking through qualitative (i.e., focus groups) and quantitative (i.e., polls, surveys or questionnaires) methods can also be part of the overall methodology of design.

Design Theory tries to answer basic questions like: What is design? How do designers think? Why are designs necessary? Design theory examines the different elements of design that are considered when producing a layout, conceiving a website, or other design project. Design theory may include the various elements of design; i.e., line, texture, shape, color, and space, and principles of design, such as balance, contrast, repetition, and movement. It examines the proper use of typography, controlling the hierarchy of information, and designing grid systems.

Graphic Design Technique is the “how” in design. How to create print or digital designs using computer software, how to use templates, how to manipulate images and make use of various fonts, and how to perform basic programming, such as HTML, CSS and Javascript. Technique also establishes a project’s intent, while ensuring the design has the required impact.





Whether online or printed, building a strong portfolio can quite possibly be the most important step in a graphic designer’s career. And, as first impressions count, creating a top-notch portfolio can make the difference between getting an internship, landing a job, selling your work and building your reputation, or being shown the door.  Students who have earned a degree have a leg up on aspiring graphic designers who chose not to go to college as most design programs offer a portfolio class.  

But, whether you earned a degree or not, there are a few tips to remember when assembling your portfolio.  Remember to show only your very best work. Start your portfolio with a wow piece and end with a wow piece, one that leaves a lasting impression. Make sure your portfolio includes a variety of work that highlights your creativity and include any original designs.  Most importantly, as a graphic designer, it’s definitely wise to think about creating an online portfolio (in addition to your printed portfolio) using sites like Square Space, Cargo Collective, or Tumblr.  According to a 2013 Forbes article, more than 50 percent of all hiring managers said they were more impressed with an online portfolio than any other form of marketing tool. An online portfolio that can be viewed on a number of different platforms (iPad, tablets, phones) is probably even more important today. 

Although branding is most commonly thought to relate to a company or product, a personal brand is individual and identifies “you” and “your career” as a marketable product or company – a reflection of who you are.  In essence, self-branding is a process to differentiate yourself from the crowd by highlighting your talents and accomplishes. 

For many graphic designers, personal and business success depends on making industry connections. Yet, many graphic artists don’t know where to start, how to transform a “first meeting” into a meaningful and long-term relationship, or what it means to have quality industry connections over a large handful of superficial connections. Internships offered in college or available through many companies can be a great way make connections and form mentorship relationships. Joining associations, clubs and local or national organizations can keep you up-to-date on new techniques and may even get you an introduction with a professional in the industry who can help lead you in your career.  Join LinkedIn and other social networks. Blog.  Help out someone else by offering your services for a small fee, or no fee at all.  Think of networking like a checking account. You have to make a deposit before you can write a check – sometimes giving can cultivate lasting relationships.

In addition, designers should attend as many workshops and conferences that focus on design as possible. They are great opportunities to surround yourself with like-minded individuals and discuss topics you have in common. Plus, presentations by professionals in the field can provide designers with fresh perspectives on topics in the field of design, present tips and information on how to improve, and fill young designers, as well as seasoned professionals with inspiration and encouragement. 


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