For creative types who enjoy making visual art, a career in graphic design makes sense. It offers the opportunity to combine work with play and turn a talent into a career—a very lucrative career if you're a standout in the industry.
Graphic design can be a tough field to break into. The industry is flooded with graphic designers looking to make names for themselves and get a foot in the door. Standing out takes more than talent; it takes diligence, patience and an understanding of what graphic design is all about.
Not only do designers use visual artistry to convey a message that inspires an idea or action, they do it in accordance with a client's specific goals. It takes time and effort to build expertise in a field that combines art theory, typography, programming, marketing and communications. And while there's no set path to success in graphic design, there are steps you can take to increase your chances of getting work and getting known. First, you should understand there's a lot you don't know about graphic design.
1. Do the coursework
Accomplished designer Timothy Samara described the process of graphic design as
seeing (and understanding) how the qualities of visual material—shapes, images, color theory, typography, and layout—work, and work together… and then being able to decide which qualities of each are relevant and engaging and useful for visualizing a particular idea or solving a certain problem.
Graphic design combines a vast range of skill sets into one role. Successful graphic designers are masters of not only color, shape and typography but also a wide and ever-evolving range of software, programming languages like HTML and CSS, branding, marketing and client communication. Knowledge of animation, 3D and VR (virtual reality) concepts is becoming more common. Graphic designers who have at least a basic understanding of UI/UX (user-interface/user-experience) design principles are even more in demand.
It can be difficult to assemble that body of knowledge and skill on your own, so while structured learning isn't strictly necessary to succeed in the industry, it helps a lot.
A formal design education could mean a comprehensive design program, typically a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, or individual, well-chosen courses. Design programs cover topics like basic theory and fundamentals, digital-illustration technologies, programming languages, multimedia integration, multi-platform design techniques, branding, self-marketing and portfolio development, providing a well-rounded basis for a career in digital design. It may also offer opportunities for networking and real-world experience, invaluable assets for an aspiring designer (more on that later).
Check out Animation Career Review's list of the top 50 U.S. design programs in 2018 to get a feel for what's out there. But remember, guided coursework can form the basis of a career in graphic design. What it can't do is replace real-world experience.
2. Social media: Know what's out there
Successful graphic designers know what other graphic designers are creating. In the hierarchy of jobs requiring an of-the-minute mindset, graphic design is up there. It's a fast-paced industry that reflects and sets visual trends, and if you don't know what's getting attention right now, you're losing ground.
Social media is a critical tool in the design field, and no less so if you're just starting out. Keeping up with today's noteworthy designs and designers can keep you versed on the latest trends, successes and failures in the industry. It can up your own game, too, suggesting tweaks or entirely new avenues of experimentation in your designs.
Do a hashtag search or find one designer and see who[sic] they're following, suggests digital-marketing expert Sawaram Suthar on Canva.
[Y]ou're sure to discover works and artist[s] that can inspire you.
There are countless ways to keep track of the latest work in graphic design. Various experts mention Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Pinterest, design blogs and portfolio sites as worth exploring. Lots of design sites have recommendations to get you started: Try Creative Bloq's 32 graphic designers to follow on Instagram, Creative Market's 10 Brilliant Graphic and Web Design Pinterest Boards, the Art Institutes' 5 Famous Graphics Designers to Follow, Shillington's 50 Best Design Blogs You Have to Read in 2018 and Adobe's 20 Creatives to Watch in 2018.
3. Join the community
Following great designers is just the beginning, though. If you really want to make it in the field, engage with them.
[I]f you're looking to leverage your design skills, writes Suthar,
you need to put yourself out there.
Like most creative fields, graphic design thrives on the constant exchange of ideas, opinions and critiques. Networking is a key aspect of launching (and maintaining) a successful design career: It's a highly competitive industry, and when you're low on experience, getting your name out there and building a reputation can help open doors. Designer communities offer a way for you to interact with other designers, experienced and novice alike. They provide a forum for you to share your work and get feedback from other designers in the field. Your skills will undoubtedly benefit from posting your work—and commenting on the work of others—on portfolio sites like Dribbble and Behance.
Also, check out forums like Graphic Design Forum and Reddit Graphic Design. Follow some threads, join the discussion and ask questions. A lot of experienced designers will be happy to provide guidance and offer new avenues of experimentation that can help you solve a problem or develop your personal style.
4. Don't be afraid to fail
Generally speaking, get as much feedback on your work as you can. By all accounts, it's essential to your development as a designer. Negative feedback can be the most valuable, according to Paula Scher, whose work includes the Citibank umbrella logo (which she reportedly designed on a napkin in five minutes) and the 2012 Windows 8 logo redesign.
You have to fail in order to make the next discovery, she told Psychology in 2009.
It's through mistakes that you actually can grow. You have to get bad before you can get good.
One of the best things you can do as a new graphic designer is consistently share your work in places where you'll receive honest feedback. In addition to Behance and Dribbble, Digital Arts Online recommends Adobe Portfolio, Wix, Fabrik and FolioLink as some of the top places to share design work. (Check out the complete list.)
In lieu of a large portfolio, build a body of work on social media. Nothing compares to real-world experience, but it can reflect your skill level, range, commitment and following.
5. Get real-world experience
Still, definitely be building that portfolio.
It's not easy when you're just starting out. In graphic design as in most fields, without experience, it's hard to land job, which makes it hard to build the experience you need to land jobs. But experience is everything. It shows what you can do in a real-world design setting, for clients.
Internships are great experience-builders. Interns learn on the job, working with professional designers on client-driven projects. (Plus, the firm might hire you if they like your work.) But there are a lot more graphic designers than there are internships, so competition can be fierce. Design programs can be helpful here, as they often offer assistance securing an internship with a design firm during the course of study. You don't need to be in a program to apply, though. You can usually find ads for internships on job-search sites and the sites of the ad agencies and design studios offering them.
There are other ways to gain experience, you just have to get creative. Maybe a relative's business website could use a redesign. Suthar suggests offering to design a friend's wedding invitation or selling designs on Etsy. Creative Bloq offers an extensive list of online design marketplaces.
Also, try volunteering your design skills. Organizations like schools, religious organizations and charities may be open to a new online look. A lot of nonprofits post ads requesting free graphic-design services on both volunteer- and job-search sites.
According to Designrfix, you could even show spec work in your portfolio: Find a local company that could use a new logo or website, design it and present it to the owners or marketing team. Whether or not they like it,
the experience with the organization will earn you credible work and enhance your portfolio.
In conclusion, find clients. As many as you can.
Graphic designer, blogger and podcaster Lauren Hooker put it this way:
[T]here's no greater teacher than first-hand experience. You can study design, you can plan for the future, and you can seek wisdom from other experienced designers, but you can't gain an accurate picture of what this industry truly looks like until you jump in head-first.