Are you torn between your love for creating art and your drive to learn every new technology that comes down the pike? Have you never been satisfied working on a single project, favoring instead many varied projects to keep your interest? If so, those interests might just lead you to a career in graphic design.
First things first, here’s the general job description of a graphic designer: Graphic designers combine their creativity and artistic talent with their mastery of technologies to create text and images for a variety of clients—from the designing of one small logo to the creation of an entire branding package.
Read on to explore the whole range of what a graphic designer does, from education and training to work environments, job responsibilities and average salaries.
These are the duties of a graphic designer
So, what does your day to day look like when you’re a graphic designer? The daily work life of a designer will vary significantly from designer to designer as most designers have a fair amount of control over the kind of work they take—one of the benefits of the profession—which means hours, workload and responsibilities will differ for each individual.
But there are some commonalities throughout the profession, of course. Graphic designers create the visual versions of brands, messages and communications. They help people and businesses get their messages across in ways that are memorable, effective, and aesthetically pleasing. To do this, they work with clients to help translate their goals and ideas into design concepts. Graphic designers transform client needs and ideas into the visual.
Despite variations, there are some common threads. Here are some of the things you are going to find yourself doing as a graphic designer:
- Meeting or communicating with clients to understand what they want out of a project, and helping them get those ideas out in a workable way;
- Designing advertisements, annual reports, artwork, books and their covers, brochures, logos, magazine covers, signs, stickers, tee shirts, web pages and other branding and communication materials;
- Revising a design brief so it fits a client’s budget and ideas more closely;
- Creating designs by hand, drawing or painting—or using computer software to achieve similar ends;
- Pitching an idea of how to actualize a client’s project;
- Revising a design or project deliverable to meet specifications;
- Learning how to use a new software or program;
- Working as part of a team to create a larger design, or to complete a small portion of a big project, such as perfecting a unique font;
- Finding other creatives like photographers, writers or illustrators for a specific project;
There are many other examples, but hopefully this gives you a taste of what a graphic designer’s day might look like.
Work environment and wages: where will you be?
According to the United States Department of Labor (DOL), as of May 2016, about 210,710 people in the US were employed as graphic designers. That was a rise of 0.9%. The average hourly wage was $25.14, with the lowest-paid 10% making $13.44 and the highest-paid 10% making $39.43. The annual salary of graphic designers was $52,290 on average, with a low of $27,950 and a high of $82,020.
Breaking down graphic designers’ employment by industry, we see something interesting: As of 2016, 21.16% of graphic designers worked in specialized design services, which includes graphic design firms. More than 4% worked in each of the following industries: advertising and public relations; printing and related support; and newspaper, periodical, book and directory publishers. Almost 3% worked in other miscellaneous manufacturing, which can include things like in-house package design, for example. About half of one percent worked in computer systems design and related services. And less than 0.1% worked in several other areas, including for the federal executive branch, for legal services and for wireless communications services.
This adds up to just under 38%. So, where is everyone else? Most of them are self-employed, working freelance! As more and more industries move online and outsource design work, more and more graphic designers (and other creatives) work freelance. They find and take on clients and work for them independently. Freelance graphic designers have very flexible schedules and variable workloads; there are times when they are working on many projects at once, and other times when they may be waiting for something new to come up.
Education and training
Many graphic designers go to school to further their careers. They finish with a bachelor of arts degree with a major or concentration in graphic design. These are available from both art institutes and traditional liberal arts colleges.
However, if you already have a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated area, you may not need to reinvent the wheel and go back to school. You may be able to get the skills and training you need to work as a graphic designer through a technical training program and through software training courses. You can also seek out specialized graphic design courses, and graphic design internships. Another option is completing freelance work as you build your skills and experience.
Some graphic designers are completely self-taught and don’t have any kind of formal training. However, these few designers usually possess an advanced level of talent in computer-aided design (CAD) and/or a high level of natural artistry that somehow translates directly into design work. They are also good at demonstrating their skills to hiring managers—something all designers must be able to do.
The National Association of Schools of Art and Design accredits about 300 institutions that have art and design programs, including universities, postsecondary colleges and independent institutes. Most of these programs include principles of design, studio art, commercial graphics production, computerized design, website design and printing techniques. While they might not be required, it’s also a smart idea to take courses in marketing, writing and business. Think back to your day to day (above), and you’ll realize that you need to be able to sell your own ideas, create marketing material for others, communicate ideas effectively and if you’re a freelancer, run a successful business.
One of the biggest advantages to completing this kind of educational program is the opportunity to build up a fantastic looking professional portfolio of your designs. Gather examples of your very best work from internships, classroom projects, freelance work and other experiences for your portfolio. Remember, sometimes less is more; don’t put everything you’ve ever done in there, just your very best designs for when you’re competing against others for projects. A standout portfolio is frequently the deciding factor that lands you that project.
If you think you want to enroll in a graphic design program, take any design and art courses offered in high school. Some BA and BFA programs require that applicants complete a year of design and art courses before they can be accepted into a formal degree program. Some programs require that applicants provide examples of their artistic ability, including art and design work.
And when you’ve graduated with your degree and you think you’re all done, boom! You realize that “done” is a not a word associated with graphic design. That’s because graphic designers need to stay current with the latest design and computer graphics software, through a formal program or on their own. You can also get certified in graphic design software programs to prove a high level of expertise that can give you an advantage as you compete in the market. Belonging to a professional association for graphic designers such as the Graphic Artists Guild or AIGA can help you access courses for better prices.
Essential graphic design skills
So, after all is said and done, what are the actual skills you need as a graphic designer?
The skill sets of graphic designers vary somewhat based on their specialty areas, but as a basic matter, they all need hard skills and demonstrated mastery in these areas:
- 3D design
- art history
- color theory
- communication design
- design theory
- fine art
- graphic design
- printing techniques
- visual art
Some roles might focus more on portfolio work, but remember: the vast majority of graphic designers have far more impressive skill sets than just these basic qualifications.
The rest of the story: soft skills and graphic design
Even the most artistically gifted and technically well-trained graphic designer isn’t as useful on a major corporate project if they don’t have people skills, namely the ability to get along with anyone or collaborate effectively. That’s why people who are looking to hire graphic designers often look closely at portfolios, education, training and experience—and then take a final look at soft skills.
These types of skills are tough to qualify, but they’re really important; they are all about how you are able to interact productively with others and thrive within your environment. In fact, most experts agree that careers that emphasize soft skills will continue to employ humans, even in the age of artificial intelligence. That’s how important it is to exhibit your soft skills!
Successful graphic designers have many, if not all, of these soft skills:
- high level communication skills to interpret client briefs, negotiate designs with clients and be part of a team
- artistry and creativity
- analytical skills
- time management skills
- teamwork, ability to collaborate and flexibility
- passion and enthusiasm for design
- confidence and presentation skills with the ability to pitch ideas to coworkers and clients alike
- the ability to multi-task
- attention to detail and a commitment to accuracy
- open-mindedness and a willingness to accept feedback and make changes to designs
- effective networking skills
Make sure you create a list of your soft skills with a way to “prove” each one. Don’t create a situation where you sit and rack your brain in an interview; be ready for this set of questions.
Tying it all together
So, are you ready to take up the career that blends old school art and creativity with current technological advancements to create mind-blowing new designs every single day? That may sound like an exaggeration, but it’s really not! We hope this graphic designer job description has inspired you to go for it, because there’s not such thing as too much great design.