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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

Everything You Need to Know About Being a Graphic Designer—So You Can Decide if It’s the Right Career for You

graphic designer drawing on a tablet while looking at laptop screen, with a plant in the background
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Every day, we’re surrounded by intentionally designed visual art—from movie posters and magazine ads to billboards and cereal boxes. The goals of these graphics are to capture attention, convey information, and inspire action. And the people who create these eye-catching combinations of images, colors, and typography are graphic designers.

“The most important qualities of a graphic designer are passion and creativity,” says June Escalada, a graphic designer and founder of IllustratorHow. A graphic designer creates compelling visuals for companies, organizations, and other entities that help promote and sell their products and services; share their messaging; and establish a recognizable brand aesthetic through their website, marketing materials, packages, and logos.

If you’re a creative type and like to change things up, you might enjoy being a graphic designer since your tasks and projects will vary and you’re encouraged to bring your artistic side to each assignment. But here’s a bit more about this career so you can decide if graphic design is the right path for you

(And if you’re looking for open positions, you can search for graphic designer jobs on The Muse!)

What Is a Graphic Designer and What Do They Do?

As a graphic designer, you’ll create visual images that clarify a message, convey a mood, or simply delight and grab attention. Milton Glaser, who designed the iconic “I ♡ NY” logo, famously put it this way: “There are three responses to a piece of design—yes, no, and WOW! Wow is the one to aim for.” But creating a logo is only one possible task you might work on as a graphic designer. Daily responsibilities might also include:

  • Collaborating with coworkers, clients, or other stakeholders to understand the goal of an ad campaign or design assignment, brainstorm ideas, and share feedback at every stage of a project
  • Developing visual concepts for advertising campaigns, websites, packaging, or other business cases
  • Designing visual assets for a company or organization using computer design software, such as Adobe Creative Suite (which includes InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop) and/or physical art supplies, such as pencils or paint
  • Developing the aesthetic designs for websites, which might include page layout, color palette creation, and image selection
  • Overseeing visual branding for a company to ensure all logos, colors, and design styles match the organization’s aesthetic
  • Presenting concepts for approval and sharing visual strategies with colleagues, bosses, and clients
  • Presenting design drafts to companies or clients, and incorporating feedback into the project
  • Finalizing designs before they move to the production stage

What Do Graphic Designers Create?

Graphic designers develop a variety of visuals for marketing, business advertising, branding, and other communication purposes including:

  • Billboards
  • Book jackets
  • Bus wraps
  • Emails
  • Infographics
  • Logos
  • Magazine covers
  • Newsletters
  • Newspaper and magazine layouts
  • Packaging
  • Print, video, and web ads
  • Social media graphics
  • Web pages

Key Facts About Graphic Designers

There were nearly 255,000 graphic design jobs in the U.S. in 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)—so graphic designers’ work lives and environments vary widely.

Where Do Graphic Designers Work?

Graphic designers work for companies and organizations across industries and business types. Tech giants, major retailers, entertainment conglomerates, small restaurant chains, and even mom-and-pop shops likely need to advertise or create an appealing logo or website—which requires support from graphic designers in some capacity.

Here are the main types of roles you can pursue as a graphic designer:

  • In-house graphic designer: In this position, you work directly for a company, often in its marketing department. You collaborate with other designers, copywriters, marketing specialists, and additional colleagues to help develop the visual elements of web pages, advertising campaigns, and social media posts to attract customers, share information, and meet business goals.
  • Agency graphic designer: In this role, you work for an agency that sells marketing or design services to other companies. Rather than producing visuals for a single company, you create them for multiple clients that hire your employer.
  • Freelance graphic designer: You run your own graphic design business and are your own boss as a freelancer. This route involves developing project pitches and acquiring clients yourself.

How Much Do Graphic Designers Make?

Graphic designers earn a range of salaries, depending on their experience and skills. BLS lists median pay for the profession at $53,380 per year. According to PayScale, the average annual salary for a graphic designer is $46,638, with entry-level graphic designers making an average of $39,535 and more experienced graphic designers making an average of $52,991.

There’s also room to grow into other roles with higher earning potential. Senior designers and creative directors earn more because of their experience working with clients and deeper portfolios that demonstrate clear results—averaging $62,992 and $89,566 respectively. (Find open senior graphic designer and creative director jobs on The Muse!)

What Is the Career Outlook for Graphic Designers?

According to BLS, growth in graphic design jobs is slow, projected at just 3% between 2020 and 2030 (compared to 8% on average across all occupations). However, the career outlook for digital designers and web developers (which can include website and similar tech-focused graphic design roles) is stronger, with expected job growth of 13% between 2020 and 2030 as companies continue to expand their web and social media presence.

Can Graphic Designers Work Remotely?

Graphic designers can share their work easily with cloud-based design tools and other virtual work applications, making working remotely a viable option. Some graphic designers worked remotely even before the historic 2020 shift to work-from-home (WFH) across fields and industries caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, many graphic designers work in-office or on a hybrid schedule that mixes remote and in-person hours. For some designers, face-to-face collaboration can spark greater creativity.

What Career Paths Can I Take to Become a Graphic Designer?

Becoming a graphic designer requires a combination of creativity and technical know-how, but there is no single path to acquiring these skills or landing your first job or clients.

The most traditional route to a graphic design career is getting a college degree in graphic design or pursuing a similar major. You can seek an internship to gain experience during school or after graduation and then either search for an entry-level position in your field or launch a freelance business.

But a graphic design degree is not a must for success. At any stage of your career, you could study art and build technical design skills through a structured program or take the self-study route by completing courses or certificate programs (online or in-person) or even watching YouTube tutorials to learn design theory and software and to build a portfolio.

Once you’ve entered the graphic design field, you’ll find a wide variety of career development possibilities. You might move into roles including (click on each title to search for open roles):

  • Art director: Oversees the broad visual aesthetic of ads, websites, packaging, logos, and more to ensure they align with organizational branding
  • Creative director: Guides teams of graphic designers and copywriters to develop ad campaigns, websites, logos, packaging, and more
  • UX/UI designer (a.k.a., user experience or user interface designer): Ensures the design of a website or app is simple and clear and helpfully guides users toward next steps, whether the goal is sales, entertainment, or information sharing
  • Multimedia designer: Combines static and moving images to share messages on behalf of companies and organizations
  • Illustrator: Creates traditional or digital images using tools such as paint, paint brushes, pencils, charcoal, or digital pens, pencils, and paint brushes for marketing, product, and publishing purposes, among others

What Skills Do I Need as a Graphic Designer?

Creativity and the ability to convey ideas with images are must-have skills for graphic designers. But you need more than a strong artistic flair for a successful graphic design career. A well-rounded graphic designer will have a blend of technical knowledge, design experience, and people skills. 

Valuable hard skills for graphic designers include:

  • Coding languages such as CSS and HTML
  • Company branding principles
  • Data visualization through charts and graphs
  • Design principles
  • Design collaboration platforms (such as InVision)
  • Digital design software/applications (such as Adobe Creative Cloud or CorelDraw Graphics Suite)
  • Infographic creation
  • Marketing strategies
  • Product design
  • Social media expertise (such as knowledge of popular TikTok and Instagram design styles)
  • Typography
  • Website design

Valuable soft skills for graphic designers are:

Keep in mind that you must continually update your skills throughout a career in graphic design as it’s a fast-evolving field. “Stay up to date on the newest trends and design breakthroughs in the industry so you can improve your designs and develop fresh avenues of experimentation in your ideas,” suggests Michael Knight, who hires graphic designers for his company, Incorporation Insight.

What Job Search Tools Can Help Me Land a Job as a Graphic Designer?

Remember, you don’t need extensive experience or a fancy degree in graphic design to land a job. Companies will hire you if your work speaks for itself, especially if you demonstrate professional curiosity and eagerness to learn new skills on the job. But there are still elements you’ll need to land your first graphic design job, including:

A Resume

Like all job hunters, you’ll need a resume that shares your education, work experience, and technical skills. In addition to conveying why you’re the right fit for a job by writing a strong graphic design resume, this document is a good way to demonstrate your design skills. Just be sure every design element you use is applicant tracking system (ATS) friendly so it’s readable by the computer programs that scan most resumes. You don’t want to design yourself out of a graphic design job.

A Portfolio

A portfolio is a selected sample of past work that graphic designers show prospective employers and clients to give them an idea of their skills, experiences, and aesthetics. Today, this usually comes in the form of a graphic design portfolio website that you can easily share and link to right on your resume. 

When you’re building your general online portfolio, include only your best work and make sure to feature designs that show a range of capabilities. But if you’re asked to send samples with your application or bring them to an interview, you should choose whatever work you’ve done that best aligns with the type of work you’d be doing in the role as well as the company’s brand aesthetics and visual style. 

A Network

It’s important to build relationships and connections with people as you work in the graphic design field. You can join associations for marketers and graphic designers to keep up with changes in the industry, share design inspiration with peers on social media, and even find mentors to help you on your path.

Professional connections are also invaluable for graphic designers when they launch their careers. A strong network can alert you to job openings or give you referrals, as well as recommend you to possible clients.

If you’re a graphic design grad, get involved with your college alumni network, says Matt Weber, founder of web design and marketing agency, Weber & Co, who has hired graphic designers. “Most of these organizations will provide you with job postings and internship information for companies they have a strong relationship with.”

Graphic designers who take an alternate route to their careers can network with peers and teachers in their training programs, join professional associations not associated with schools, and engage on professional social media sites such as LinkedIn.

Should I Become a Graphic Designer?

If you love the visual arts, have a knack for compelling design, enjoy learning digital design technology, and thrive on collaboration, a career in graphic design might be for you.

“I’ve been working as a graphic designer for almost 10 years and love what I do because I can explore my ideas and express my thoughts through visuals,” Escalada says. “If you like to learn and do new things, graphic design is a good option because you get to work on many different projects.”

But because the graphic design coin flips back and forth between art and business, your ability to adapt and take constructive feedback and criticism are as important as your design chops. “You need to be flexible and adapt to change,” Escalada says. “Your clients or boss won’t agree with your ideas every time, so you should be flexible enough to listen to their opinions and suggestions, and to make changes to your work accordingly.”

So if you’re a visual communicator who is able to adapt on the fly and loves to learn and grow, you’ll likely soar as a graphic designer.

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