The 7 Steps to Becoming a Graphic Designer

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Victoria Smith-Douglas115
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April 16, 2024 at 2:13AM UTC
  • Earning an associate's or bachelor's degree can help you learn key skills for the role and gain access to tools that will help you excel.
  • Find internships and assistant roles to help you develop an online and print portfolio.
  • Stay up-to-date with industry trends by signing up for newsletters, attending workshops and completing online courses.

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Are you fascinated with logos and brand packaging? Do you have ideas for new t-shirt designs in your sleep? Do you love to communicate visually? If so, you might have wondered how to become a graphic designer. 
These are the people who create the images and messages that surround us every day, from advertising for a new brand of toothpaste, to public information posters on road safety, and the layout of a rock band’s webpage. It sounds exciting, creative and maybe even glamorous. So, how do you get into this field? Experience and a strong portfolio are key.

So, what qualifications do you need to become a graphic designer? Officially, no specific degree is required, but in practice it’s recommended to get at least an associate’s, or preferably bachelor’s, degree in graphic design or a closely related art and design field.
If you’ve already been to college and can’t afford, or don’t have time for, another degree, don’t despair! It’s possible to gain a lot of the required skills through online  classes and workshops, and even by teaching yourself; but if you go down this route, be prepared for an even greater pressure to demonstrate a large amount of work experience. At the end of the day, whether it’s prospective employers or freelance clients you’re trying to impress, it’s the practical work you can show you’ve done that’ll earn success.
If this seems like the career for you, follow these key steps for becoming a graphic designer.

7 steps for becoming a graphic designer

The following are not necessarily in chronological order. Most need to be continuously worked on or regularly revisited. But all are essential parts of the process of becoming a graphic designer.

1. Try it out.

Before committing to pursuing a career in graphic design, make sure it’s a good fit for you. The best way to find this out is by doing it! Experiment with your own designs. Take a logo or product packaging design, and see if you can improve on it. Learn about the different areas in which you’ll need to be proficient to become a graphic designer, including use of color, typography and logo design. 
Develop not just your artistic skills, but also communication and technological skills, either by taking classes or self-study. There are many online classes, YouTube video tutorials and books available to help you. One hurdle is that it can get expensive to obtain all the necessary software and other peripherals, but free software is available for when you’re starting out. 
If you know or can make contact with someone who works in the field, they will be a valuable source of information and should give you insights into what working as a graphic designer is really like. It’s never too early to start networking! If you can get some work experience, either with a company, volunteer group or school publication, so much the better. The work you produce will contribute to the portfolio you’ll likely need to get into a college program. 

2. Pursue a related degree.

If this is a possibility for you, it’s by far the best option. Gaining a degree in graphic design allows you to cover all the aspects of the job that you’ll need to understand. The key areas are art and design, communications and technological skills. Depending on the course, you may be able to choose to concentrate on your preferred area of graphic design, such as advertising, illustration or web design. 
A great advantage of following a degree program is that you’ll have plenty of opportunities to develop your portfolio, with expert guidance from your professors and room to explore and experiment. It’ll also give you a great resource for making contacts, and you’ll benefit from the support of your classmates. 
Another great advantage to belonging to a university or college is that it should give you access to all the necessary software that you’ll need to master. Familiarity with Adobe Creative Cloud software is a must, particularly InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop. You may also need proficiency with other software, such as CorelDRAW. 
While in college, you may want to take the opportunity to develop a broader range of skills, in addition to the core graphic design principles. Classes in marketing, general communications, fine art, photography, multimedia and video editing, for example, could all help you stand out when looking for jobs and give you useful insights into the design arts. Gaining additional computer skills is highly recommended; HTML is often a requirement of employers, and learning JavaScript and other programing languages could give you a step up. Make sure you’re familiar with both Mac and PC environments.
Accreditation for programs is provided by the National Association of Schools of Art & Design (NASAD); although it isn’t required to follow an accredited program, it could give you an edge. Online degrees are also available, if you need more flexible arrangements.

3. Develop your portfolio.

As with many creative careers, the graphic designer needs to maintain a portfolio. This should be both online and physical, for presentation at interviews or viewing by potential clients. The portfolio should showcase your best work, demonstrating either your broad range or your specialism. Just as with a resume and cover letter, it’s a good idea to tailor your portfolio to each job application. As already mentioned, you can and should begin creating an initial portfolio before going to college. Your coursework from any classes you take will develop it further. 
As soon as you can, begin looking for freelancing opportunities. Anything you do for a client, either paid or unpaid, is great for your portfolio. Look for volunteer opportunities with charities or local organizations and small businesses. As a budding and cheap/free graphic designer, you’re potentially valuable to anyone who needs to produce communications materials but can’t afford to hire an experienced professional. Always approach these opportunities with professionalism, as one day you may rely on these contacts for references or for paid work.

4. Network. 

All of the work you do to develop your portfolio has a dual purpose, enabling you to develop good relationships with potential clients. Remember that startup company that you designed a logo and landing page for? Perhaps one day they’ll be in a position to hire someone for regular assignments, and who are they going to turn to first? What about the local environmental group whose flyers you produced? Maybe they’ll recommend you to their contacts in the local business community.
In addition to developing a network of contacts through freelancing and volunteer work, many graphic designers also join local groups and professional organizations, such as AIGA. Finally, a vital part of any graphic designer’s networking strategy should include use of social media. This is a wonderful way for you to show off your skills as well as make contact with others.

5. Find internships and assistant roles.

Entry-level positions in graphic design typically ask for at least one year of experience. Your freelance and voluntary work can count toward this, but completing an internship will give you a big advantage. Whether paid or unpaid, this experience shows a potential employer that you can handle the various demands of the job, as well as demonstrating reliability, teamwork and communication skills. 
After an internship, you might apply for an assistant role within a design studio. In this position, you would be under the direction of a more senior graphic designer. When looking for internships or assistantships, try to identify companies that can give you plenty of experience in the areas of graphic design that most interest you. 
Although all experience is valuable, if you’re sure of the type of graphic design you want to focus on, such as publication or user interface graphic design, the sooner you can start specializing, the better. If, on the other hand, you want to keep your options open and maintain a broad skillset, look for companies that offer a wide range of graphic design services, and try to gain experience across the board.

6. Keep learning.

As with all technology-based careers, you’ll have to continually keep up-to-date with new software and the latest trends. Certifications are available from many software providers, that display your proficiency to potential employers. Beyond this, taking classes, workshops and online courses on a regular basis will keep you honing your skills. Graphic design can use a wide range of knowledge abilities, so there will always be more to learn, whether it’s in art, photography, web design, marketing, psychology, publishing or any number other areas. 
Over time you may want to develop a niche or specialism, and need to increase your depth of knowledge in that area. For instance, if you want to be an environmental designer and contribute to designing the look of physical spaces, you’ll likely need an understanding of architecture and interior design principles. If you aim to design packaging for products, you might benefit from classes in industrial design and learning more about printing and manufacturing processes.  
At some point, you might also consider taking business classes. This can help prepare you for a career as a freelancer and build your brand. 

7. Find the right job or start your own business.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that 22 percent of graphic designers were freelancers in 2018. Although some may be forced into freelancing while looking for a regular salaried position, many people choose to run their own business as a self-employed freelance. This option isn’t for everyone and it does have its challenges, but if it suits your personality there are a lot of freelance opportunities for graphic designers out there. 
If you’re committed to landing a job within an organization, make sure your online and physical portfolios are updated and adapted to each specific employer. While much general resume writing advice emphasizes simplicity and clarity above all else, for graphic designers the rules can be a little different. A graphic designer’s resume should show off their skills, while still presenting the information clearly for the reader. 
And as with any job, your cover letter should be adapted to the position you’re applying to. In graphic design, an employer isn’t just looking for creative people; they need good communicators who can understand a client’s needs and co-operate within a team. Your cover letter is your chance to show the employer you understand their needs, and explain how you’ll benefit their company.

Is it hard to become a graphic designer?

Becoming a graphic designer isn’t easy. You’ll need a number of technical skills and specialized knowledge, as well as creativity, just to get started. You should expect to invest a few years in training, including going through a process of formal educational programs, teaching yourself and gathering practical experience. How difficult it is to learn the necessary skills and develop your abilities, may depend on your personal qualities. It will help to be a creative and visual thinker, to have great communication skills and to have a facility for learning new technologies.
Beyond this, you’ll need a lot of persistence to gain work experience and either freelance or full-time job opportunities. For many, becoming a graphic designer includes all the work associated with setting up your own business, too. Graphic design is a competitive field and likely to become more so. 
According to the BLS, there’s a 3 percent predicted growth rate for graphic design jobs between 2018 and 2028, which is slower than the average growth rate for all jobs. In order to succeed, you’ll need a passion for design and excellent tech skills, as well as dedication. But if you’re armed with an excellent portfolio, relevant and up-to-date skills, and great self-marketing know-how, then you’ve as good a chance as the next designer! 

How much do graphic designers make? 

The median salary for graphic designers in 2018 was $50,370, according to the BLS, or $24.21 per hour. Overall, pay ranged from below $29,610 for the lowest 10% of earners, to over $85,760 for the top 10%. This varied somewhat by industry area, but a greater influence on your earning potential is likely to be your experience and reputation, and possibly whether you work for a large company, a small business or organization, or as a freelance. Looking further ahead, if you advance to the position of art director, you could be earning more than $90,000.

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