Graphic Design

What Is Graphic Design?

Graphic design presents ideas through visual and textual content.  It is a form of communication that includes images, photos, words, shapes, or graphics and can be in physical form (printed) or virtual (online).  Graphic design is found everywhere and can be as large as a company’s billboard, or as small as the design on a cereal box.  Graphic design is used for commercial, cultural, political, and educational purposes.  Common uses include logos and branding for corporations, editorial design for magazines, newspapers and books, advertising, web design, packaging, and signage.

Founded on five design principles – balance, hierarchy, contrast, repetition, and alignment – graphic design merges creativity with strategy to find a balance between aesthetics and function.  Graphic design can help sell a product or idea. It is used to identify products or elements of a company’s identity or brand using colors, images, packaging and text.  Graphic design can be found in the entertainment industry in the opening and closing credits of a film, and in Broadway programs. Graphic design can be seen on t-shirts, as the background to news stories, in newspapers and on the covers of books and magazines, and in digital or physical museum displays.  Graphic design is art with a purpose and involves an artistic way to achieve specific objectives or solve a problem.

What Does a Graphic Designer Do?

Graphic designers produce manual drawings and manipulate computer software programs to send a specific visual message to the public. The motive for their work is to use their creations to reach potential customers at an emotional level while also providing immediate information about their client’s product. You see the work of graphic designers every day when you view an online or print advertisement, read a magazine or brochure, or review the menu at your favorite restaurant.

A graphic designer must have strong artistic talent as well as a command of technology in order to communicate with others visually through print or electronic content. In this role, the designer has the option of choosing from a range of design elements to achieve the decorative or artistic effect that he or she desires. Some of the specific job functions of a graphic designer include: 

  • Obtain a broad overview of a project by meeting directly with the client or the art director in charge of the project
  • Create designs, illustrations, and logos by using photo editing software, layout software, and electronic illustrations
  • Select the font, images, and color to use with design layouts
  • Meet with the client or art director to present the design concept and incorporate requested changes into final proof
  • Complete a quality control process before submitting the graphic design for publication 

You will use both images and text to communicate the intended message to your audience. Depending on the scope of the project, you may choose the color, font, and size of the text included in headings, headlines, and the body of the written work. It’s your job to determine how the text and images will appear once the website goes live or your client releases the print media. This includes deciding on spacing issues. 

When a project involves the placement of text, graphic designers work closely with copywriters who create the content that will appear on the final project. Part of your collaboration involves taking the information provided by the copywriter and creating visual diagrams and graphics that make it easier for people who skim written material to find the information they need.

Graphic design is an essential part of any marketing effort. In addition to working on specific projects to promote products and services, clients depend on you to help them with their branding. A major part of branding involves creating a logo that communicates your client’s purpose and message. Since graphic designers are often heavily involved in sales and marketing, some people refer to them as communication designers or graphic artists. You can expect to work closely with advertising, marketing, and public relations professionals in your everyday work.

A career in graphic design is flexible enough to allow you the option of specializing in a specific industry or with certain categories of clients. Whether you choose to specialize or offer a broad focus, it’s essential to remain up-to-date with computer technology and utilize the most recent software programs. In a rapidly changing industry, you risk losing out to the competition if you fail to do this. Some people with a degree and experience in graphic design choose to teach the skills to others at a post-secondary level.

What Are The Education Requirements for Graphic Designers?

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.

Due to the collaborative nature and marketing aspect of the work, you can increase your marketability by completing courses in business administration, marketing, and writing. If you are still in high school, it’s in your best interest to take introductory level art and design classes if your school offers them. This is because many colleges require a minimum of one year of basic art classes before admitting students into a graphic design program. Many colleges require students to submit several sketches and other types of artwork as part of the admissions process. 

As you evaluate potential college degree programs, look for a school that provides you the opportunity to build your professional portfolio while still a student. This gives you a competitive edge because employers evaluate the contents of your portfolio when determining whether to hire you. In fact, it often holds more weight than all of your other credentials. 

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. 

Graphic design is a competitive field to enter, so any type of experience you can show in additional to your college degree will help you stand out. Completing one or more internships is an integral part of your education. An internship gives you the opportunity to apply the knowledge you have acquired thus far to real-life graphic design projects. You work under the supervision of an experienced designer while being involved with a project from the initial concept phase to final completion. Volunteer work and part-time or temporary jobs are additional ways to earn valuable industry experience.


Graphic Design Jobs – What to Expect

Graphic designers work in advertising, industrial design, media, publishing, public relations, and a variety of other industries. According to a 2010 report published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), approximately one-third of people in this field are self-employed and two-thirds traditionally employed. 

In 2014, the BLS reported that 10 percent of graphic designers worked with clients or companies that offered specialized design services, making it the largest specialty in the field. Other top graphic design specialties include: 

  • Advertising
  • Public Relations
  • Book Publishers
  • Newspaper Publishers
  • Periodical Publishers
  • Printing Support
  • Wholesale Trade

Whether an independent contractor or employed by an organization, graphic designers typically work in a studio and produce their work on a drafting table. A computer with all of the required software programs to complete the job would be in your workspace as well. When you’re not working on a project independently, you are typically part of a design team. Therefore, the ability to work in creative collaboration with others is an essential skill for career success.

Careers Related to Graphic Design

People who work in the careers indicated below use many of the same skills as those used by graphic designers. This is helpful to know as you consider your degree options. 

Art Directors

Working as an art director typically requires several years of experience as a graphic designer. In this role, you oversee a creative team that is responsible for the visual design of a project for movies, video games, product packaging, advertisements, or anything else that the client specifies. Learn more about Art Directors Careers

Craft & Fine Artists  

Someone who works as a craft artist makes objects by hand, such as glassware and pottery. Fine artists, which includes sculptors, painters, and illustrators, design pieces for aesthetic rather than practical value. Both types of artists earn a living by selling their original work. Learn more about Craft Art Careers

Desktop Publishers  

People in this role design the layout for various types of print and electronic media using specialized computer programs. These may include newspapers, magazines, brochures, and client websites.


Drafters work closely with architects and engineers to convert their paper and pencil designs to technical drawings. Individuals in this occupation can choose to offer their services to all industries or specialize in mechanical, engineering, civil, or architectural drafting work.

Industrial Designers  

Industrial designers work in teams to create initial design concepts for everyday products like automobiles and household goods. They need to have an artistic nature as well as strong business and engineering skills to create safe and useful products. Some of the factors that industrial designers take into consideration when developing and designing a new product include appearance, function, usefulness, and cost of production. Learn more about Industrial Design Careers

Multimedia Designers  

People employed in this industry produce visual effects and computer animation for movies, television shows, and video games. Animation brings cartoon characters to life while special visual effects enhance the viewer or user’s experience by making it seem more realistic to them. Learn more about Multimedia Design Careers

Web Developers  

Website developers plan and create images to place on a website in addition to planning for the placement of text. Clients also rely on web developers to ensure the ongoing performance of their website once it has gone live. This includes gathering user metrics, monitoring access issues, and ensuring a fast connection speed to enhance user experience. Learn more about Web Development Careers

Graphic Designer Salary & Job Outlook

The median income for full-time graphic designers was $48,700 in 2017, and includes both traditionally employed and self-employed individuals. The range for those with the lowest and highest earnings was $27,950 to $82,020 annually.With an average yearly salary of $47,640 in 2016, graphic designers who work with specially designed services earned slightly higher than the median income for the entire field. Graphic designers who worked in advertising and public relations had earnings on part with the industry average. The specialties of wholesale trade, publishing, and printing support averages slightly less than the industry averages with annual salaries ranging from approximately $38,000 to $44,000.An important thing to keep in mind if you decide to pursue freelance work as a graphic designer is that it requires more flexibility in scheduling. You need to be available to meet with potential clients on their timetable, which may include evenings or weekends. Keeping an updated list of potential leads and budgeting your money wisely to cover slow periods are also essential skills when you work as an independent contractor.In 2016, 266,300 people worked as graphic designers. The BLS anticipates this number to increase to 300,000 by 2024, representing a change of approximately one percent. This means that the demand for skilled graphic designers is expected to hold steady.As people rely less on the printed word and more on information they can obtain electronically, the demand for graphic designers in newspaper, periodical, book, and directory publishing is expected to drop by 35 percent. However, the demand for graphic designers to produce work on the Internet is anticipated to increase by 21 percent. The need for people with website layout and design skills is presently strong and will only get larger as we move into the next decade.


FAST FACTS: Graphic Designers
2016 Median Pay

$48,700 per year
$23.41 per hour

Recommended Level of Education

Bachelor's degree

Number of Jobs in 2014


Expected % Change in Employment (2014-2024)

4% (Slower than average)

Expected 10 Year Employment Growth (2014-2024)


Source: BLS - Occupational Outlook Handbook

Graphic Design Salaries by Industry


Federal Executive Branch (OES Designation)


Aerospace Product and Parts Manufacturing


Semiconductor and Other Electronic Component Manufacturing


Legal Services


Wireless Telecommunications Carriers (except Satellite)

Source: BLS OES - Industry Profile
Mean Hourly Wage Mean Annual Wage

Top Paying Metropolitan Areas for Graphic Design

  1. New York-Jersey City-White Plains, NY-NJ
  2. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale, CA
  3. Chicago-Naperville-Arlington Heights, IL
  4. Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA
  5. Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV
  6. Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI
  7. San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco, CA
  8. Seattle-Bellevue-Everett, WA
  9. Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX
  10. Dallas-Plano-Irving, TX
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics OES

Helpful Resources

Graphic Design Jobs