How to Become a Graphic Designer

When graphic designers create excellent work, it almost becomes invisible. We take for granted that we owe the enjoyability and solid user experience of websites and apps we use each and every day to people in this position. Graphic design sits at the intersection of art and technology; this profession uses images, words and other visual elements to communicate information and evoke emotion from consumers. Increasingly in the tech field, they are called upon to work with a variety of complex tools to craft unforgettable experiences for a company’s consumers.

This article will help you take the first steps toward a career in graphic design, as we go through the skills, salary, career paths and requirements of the position.

Here are 6 concrete steps you can take towards becoming a graphic designer:

  1. Understand Design Fundamentals
  2. Choose an Educational Path
  3. Explore Career Specialties
  4. Master Industry Tools
  5. Craft a Winning Portfolio
  6. Build Your Network and Seek Mentorship

Read on to learn everything you need to know about this phenomenally growing and fulfilling career path! 

Job Description for a Graphic Designer

Graphic Design is an extremely versatile role, with the ability to work across multiple mediums. The core responsibilities of the job is to create visual communications, which could include print (magazines, newspapers, pamphlets), digital (websites, apps, social platforms) or anywhere else you can spot design (television, portable devices, video games etc.)

The graphic designer is well versed in principles like design, typography, and color theory in order to meet client needs. Depending on their place of employment, they might also know web design and best practices, and/or take into account UX/UI design principles. Graphic designers can be found in-house at large organizations and tech companies, but also have the option of seeking employment at a specialized design agency, or build a brand for themselves and work freelance.

A career as a graphic designer might mean that each day looks different than the last. Over time, they gain experience with and master multiple different tools and softwares, including Sketch, Figma, Procreate and the Adobe Creative Suite of products, matching each product’s strengths with the needs of a given task.  The role requires a high level of communication and collaboration, and the ability to translate the words and ideas of external stakeholders into beautiful and unique visuals.

Infographic summarizes the main points of this page on how to become a Graphic Designer

Graphic Design vs. UX/UI Design

Within the growing tech industry especially, there are several types of design roles that often collaborate with each other. UX Designer and UI Designer are two such roles that are often slightly broader in scope, but no more important.

The UX Designer is more user-centric than the Graphic Designer, spending their time studying the interactions between the user and the product. They play a large role in the research process, with a focus on the wireframing and prototyping process for products. While a graphic designer’s daily focus is on creating assets like logos, images and illustrations, the UX Designer works to craft user personas and journey maps that identify users needs, goals and behaviors.

Similarly, a User Interface Designer focuses solely on digital products, specializing in interactive elements such as buttons, icons and responsive designs. They work alongside the graphic designer to ensure products are interactive and adaptable to all devices.

Qualifications for a Graphic Designer

If you’ve always been a creative spirit, or had a good eye for compelling visuals, graphic design may be for you. But unfortunately, that’s not nearly enough to land the role. Here are the top hard and soft skills you need to possess as a graphic designer:

  • Design Principles – alignment, repetition, contrast, hierarchy and balance
  • Color Theory and Typography
  • Computer-Aided Design (CAD) Software – Adobe Photoshop & Illustrator, Dreamweaver, Indesign etc.
  • Computerized Sketching Software
  • Web Development Skills – Understanding of HTML/CSS language
  • Strong Client Management and Communication abilities
  • Ability to ideate and work collaboratively to translate stakeholder’s ideas into visuals
  • Familiarity with UX/UI principles, including prototyping and wireframing

Graphic Designer Education Requirements

Earning a degree is a great way to build foundational skills for any career, but it’s far from the only option for a graphic designer. As we mentioned earlier, more than 300 colleges and universities offer a Graphic Design related bachelor’s program that is accredited by the National Association of Art and Design. However, other programs to consider enrolling in include associate’s degree programs or bootcamps. A number of highly-respected art schools also offer graphic design certification courses, for those looking for a more flexible and cost-efficient learning path. If you choose to forgo the bachelor’s, you might consider exploring certifications from Adobe, that communicate to clients your proficiency in these industry standard tools.


How Long Does it Take to Become a Graphic Designer?

The answer here ultimately depends on YOU! On average, you can enter this field in anywhere from six months to five years. It’s possible to learn all the skills you need to thrive in an entry-level graphic design position with half a year of self-taught modules or through a bootcamp. Some budding professionals might prefer to learn all the fundamentals over a four-year degree program, and even progress to a Master’s in Fine Arts and Design. Regardless, there are always opportunities to continue your education and set off on this lucrative and rewarding career path!

Steps to Become a Graphic Designer

1. Understand Design Fundamentals – Before you dive into any of the technical skills, you must have a deep knowledge of the principles of all successful designs. The eight basic principles of design are Alignment, Hierarchy, Contrast, Repetition, Proximity, Balance, Color and Space. You can seek out free resources online to enhance your understanding of these ideas, but the best way to comprehend them is to practice incorporating them into your own work. Mastering these early will allow you to take on increasingly complex projects and roles as you build off your base skillset. It’s a good idea to also take a deep dive into color theory and typography, and how both are used to build brands and evoke emotion in consumers. These basics will come up again and again, no matter where you land professionally.


2. Choose an Educational Path – There is no “correct” educational route towards a dream graphic design job. Many will choose to earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in graphic design, or a related field, but this is not mandatory. If you do embark on this path, look for schools with accreditation from the National Association of Art and Design (there are more than 300 such post-secondary institutions in the U.S.). Students interested in a more autonomous path have their choice of resources and courses available online. If this describes you, you can start with a free massive open online course (MOOC) from popular providers, like edX or Coursera, or even browse YouTube tutorials to master the basics. From there, you might consider a graphic design or UX/UI bootcamp or certification. These programs are a bit more rigorous (and costly), but provide deeper instruction into industry tools and often offer a full suite of career services to give you a boost on the job hunt.


3. Explore Career Specialties – Given the versatile nature of the design field, it can’t hurt to start thinking about what areas of the job you like best. If you find yourself drawn to the digital side, now is the time to strengthen your knowledge of front-end web design and the accompanying tools. Also consider if you want to be in-house, agency or freelance. While in-house offers a steadier paycheck and more traditional work environment, an agency allows for more collaboration and deeper levels of specialization, while freelance is great for those who want to be their own boss. These diverging paths will ultimately provide direction to your job search. Of course, there is always room to pivot to multiple options over the course of a career!


4. Master Industry Tools – Graphic Designers find themselves in some combination of computerized sketching and computer-aided design (CAD) software platforms almost all day. The first ones most applicable to any role are Adobe’s suite of creative products: Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign and Dreamweaver. It’s critical to become an expert in this software as early in your career as possible. The level of knowledge you need for other web design tools you come across will vary based on the role, but the more you know, the stronger a candidate you will become. Here are a few to familiarize yourself with: Figma, Sketch, InVision, Paintshop Pro, Corel Graphics Suite, Procreate


5. Craft a Winning Portfolio – Before you make it to a first-round interview, a hiring manager will expect to see a portfolio of your work; this is becoming an increasingly common part of the job search across the tech industry as a whole. Your portfolio will likely take the form of a personal website that displays information about you and your passions, alongside a “best of” of your past work and experiences. Tweaking your portfolio to perfection is an extremely important way to bring the skills listed on your resume to life and differentiate yourself from other candidates. In fact, we’ve created a complete guide to getting started with this process, specifically geared towards designers! Check it out if you’re interested in learning more.


6. Build Your Network and Seek Mentorship – There’s no one better to learn from than those who walked the path before you. Set aside time throughout your educational and professional journey to reach out to mentors who can offer you guidance on your skillset, portfolio and projects. Current, past and potential clients, and even friends and family can all play a part in growing your business and getting your name out there, especially if you’re on the freelance side. If you’re looking for a place to begin with this process, start online.  Join design communities like Behance and Dribble or connect with others on specialized  forums or Slack channels. You never know where your next job opportunity might come from!

Explore schools offering Graphic Designer Bootcamps.

Job Outlook for a Graphic Designer

The graphic design industry is not only growing, but also rapidly evolving alongside technology trends and how people consume media. Overall the profession is expected to grow by seven percent over the next decade according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. But let’s look a little deeper. The share of specialists working in newspapers, periodicals and books is expected to decline by 16 percent, but professionals in computer systems design will increase by 35 percent. There is strong demand for web-based graphic designers, especially those with knowledge of designing for mobile apps and with a UX/UI background. Overall, it’s projected that more than 17,000 roles are expected to open in this area, as companies compete with each other and level up their online presence.


Best jobs for a Graphic Designer

This profession offers multiple opportunities for advancement, as well as opportunities to specialize in various subject areas of your choosing. The typical graphic designer will begin their career as a junior designer, either in-house or at a creative agency. From there, the possibilities are endless. An average career progression might see the designer go from junior to senior designer, to art director, to creative director and beyond.

With the industry, specialized positions include digital designer, UX/UI designer, Web Developer, Animator, 3D Designer, and more. As you can see, there are ample opportunities to lean into either the art or technology side of the field. You’ll also find specialists in brand building and sales and marketing.

Salary Expectations for a Graphic Designer

Using data from Indeed.com, we’ve compiled the average salary of a graphic designer for top cities across the U.S. The national average is $50,407, although your mileage may vary widely, especially in the freelance space.  These in-demand and highly skilled positions can command competitive salaries, with many organizations also providing additional on the job perks and benefits packages.

CityAverage Graphic Designer Salary
New York City$52,085
San Francisco$59,916
UT Austin$57,282

Browse bootcamps for Graphic Designers.

Explore some of the top schools offering Graphic Designer bootcamps and find the right fit for your needs and schedule.