A picture is worth a thousand words — and maybe just as many dollars. Graphic designers work in a competitive but exhilarating and fulfilling field in which they combine their passion for art and love of technology to create compelling design work for logos, websites, flyers, brochures, infographics and more.
If you have been a lifelong artist and are looking for a way to apply your talents in your career, consider finding out how to become a graphic designer. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for graphic designers is $50,370, plus the benefits that come with working in a typical office role (paid vacations, paid holidays, sick leave, health insurance, etc.).
What can make graphic design an even more lucrative career choice is the flexibility to do freelance work. A common hourly rate for freelance graphic design work is $65 to $150, though as a freelance designer, you can set your own hourly or per-project rates above or below that range.
What’s the Day-to-Day Work Like for a Graphic Designer?
Parker Myers is a graphic designer at the Nashville, Tennessee, office of market-research firm Forrester Research, headquartered near Boston.
Myers told me in 2018 that he spends his days using software like Adobe Illustrator, Adobe InDesign, Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft PowerPoint to build presentation graphics, interactive tools for websites, infographics and similar materials. He also keeps an ongoing dialogue within his organization regarding branding (fonts, colors, etc.).
Aside from the actual graphic-design work, Myers’ role involves a lot of collaborative conversations with clients and the employees who interact directly with them, who are ultimately responsible for what he designs.
But it’s not just the 9-to-5 that consumes Myers’ design skills. “My free time is taken up by freelancing projects and volunteer work as a designer for the church that I go to. Freelancing very much comes in waves. Right now, I’ve got a consistent flow of work, enough that my evenings are really busy. That’s why the full-time work is a great combination with freelancing if you don’t mind spending 90% of your waking time on design stuff.”
Skills and Qualities of a Successful Graphic Designer
Myers has been in the design field for the past five years, long enough to achieve a fair amount of success.
The biggest driver of success is communication or, as Myers calls it, understanding and empathy.
“[You are] constantly putting yourself in someone else’s shoes,” he explained — meaning at times, you have to sacrifice your own personal aesthetic to create your client’s vision or to maintain your company’s brand. “The ability to see how others see — being able to get out of your own head — is really important.”
Of course, the more obvious skill that a successful designer needs in is what I, someone with no eye for design, would call a talent you are born with: a well-nurtured aesthetic sense. But in the 21st century, that artistic vision must be coupled with a thorough understanding of technology, including programs like Photoshop and Illustrator, as well as web languages; a lot of design work is web-based nowadays.
Myers also explained that minimalism is a helpful trait — “stripping down a solution to its core and making sure it functions perfectly, then dressing it up a little. That’s how I try to approach [design].”
How to Become a Graphic Designer
Graphic designers take varied paths to get where they are — and there’s no “right way.”
1. Consider Education in Graphic Design
Myers attended college to become a journalist and realized closer to graduation that he wanted to pursue design. He ended up graduating with a journalism degree with a concentration in design, which is definitely not the most common route.
“You can get there without [a degree],” Myers told me, “but if you’ve got the opportunity to go to school and study it, you’ll definitely be better off. School gives you a safe place to earn your wings and work out the kinks.”
If you intend to go the full-time route, an associate’s degree at the very least is recommended; coursework will cover the basics of typography, web design and color theory.
The more common and preferred route is a bachelor’s degree. In pursuing your bachelor’s, you will take courses in digital and print production, media management and entrepreneurialism. Some graphic designers even get a master’s degree.
2. Put Together a Portfolio
Perhaps just as important as the degree is the portfolio. Develop a portfolio that shows your special skills, your range and your understanding of core competencies.
If you need to build a portfolio and have no professional projects to include, volunteer your talents with a local nonprofit or offer to work for a reduced rate to start-up companies willing to give you a chance.
3. Create as Many Designs as Possible
Myers emphasized the importance of doing as much work as possible.
“Volume of work is essential to getting better,” he said. “In that sense, I like to think of it like a physical skill, like a jump shot in basketball. The more time you spend in the gym, the better you’ll be. Find ways to create every day. Put in the reps. Create random prompts for yourself. Take on any work you can find: brochures, posters, logos, flyers, programs, whatever. Do it all. Don’t turn down projects. And don’t be afraid to spend a lot of time on every project,”
“It’s very hard to fake your way into being good at design. It’s just something that gets sharper and sharper over time..”
The Challenges of Being a Graphic Designer
Communication can be a graphic designer’s best friend or ultimate downfall. Most of your work as a designer will be in translating someone else’s vision. Talented designers are able to listen and ask the right questions to successfully act on someone else’s ideas.
Hand-in-hand with this challenge is another: Sometimes colleagues or clients with no eye for design will push their ideas on you even when they conflict with your expert guidance. Designers must find the fine line between pushing back when novices try to influence the design direction and making clients happy.
“Resisting trends is very tough for me,” Myers said. “I get really wrapped up in what everyone else is doing and want to chase it.”
That’s fine now and then, according to Myers, but it’s your own unique methods and stylistic touches that will set you apart from the competition when going in for a job interview or bidding for a client.
Interviewing and bidding for work may be the biggest challenge of all; the field is highly competitive. While graphic designers are in large demand, the field is saturated by artists hungry for a challenge. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the career field should see only 3% growth between 2018 and 2028 (slower than the national average). If you decide to pursue graphic design, be ready to fight hard to earn work, whether full-time or freelance.
The Rewards of Being a Graphic Designer
If you can develop your talent and land a full-time job or a long list of freelance clients (or both!), graphic design will treat you pretty well. But it’s not just competitive pay, great benefits as a full-time designer and flexible hours as a freelancer that make graphic design such a rewarding field.
According to Myers, graphic design is rewarding because he gets to spend his days “just making beautiful things. The aesthetic side of design is so easy to fall in love with and is so fun to chase and spend hours on little details that nobody else will care about.”
But Myers also loves graphic design because he gets to blend creativity with problem-solving. “Design is really just an elaborate form of problem-solving, focused on figuring out how people will see things and interact with them, and then designing to that experience,” he said.
Timothy Moore is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder.