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Graphic Designer Career Guide

What is a graphic designer?

Graphic designers mix creativity with tech to make cool visuals that grab your attention and communicate messages clearly. They’re super important in our digital world, where visuals are key for businesses to stand out. These designers create stuff like website graphics, social media posts, and ads that make ideas and words pop, making them easier to understand and more fun to look at.

Duties and responsibilities

Graphic designers talk to clients to figure out what they need and then come up with designs that match those goals. They pick colors, images, and text styles to make designs that catch your eye. They also make sure everything looks right before anything goes out to the public and stay updated on new trends to keep their work fresh.

Work environment

Graphic designers usually work in modern studios filled with all the tech they need, but some work in PR or advertising. The job can get hectic with tough deadlines and juggling multiple clients, but it’s also exciting and always changing. Thanks to tech, many designers can now work from anywhere—like from home or a coffee shop—which is great for freelancers or people who want a more laid-back schedule.

Typical work hours

Most graphic designers work regular business hours, but sometimes they have to work extra when deadlines are tight. Freelancers have more control over their hours, but they need to be good at managing their time to keep up with all their projects.

How to become a graphic designer

Becoming a graphic designer is all about building your creative skills, making a killer portfolio, and getting the right experience. Here’s how you can get started:

Step 1: Finish high school

Start by getting your high school diploma or a GED. High school is a great time to take art classes and learn the basics like color theory and digital design, which will give you a solid base to build on.

Step 2: Earn a bachelor’s degree

Most have a bachelor’s degree in graphic design or something similar. In college, you’ll learn all about creating unique designs on computers, how to make stuff for businesses, and web design. Plus, you can start putting together a portfolio with help from your teachers.

Step 3: Gain practical experience

While you’re studying, try to get real-world experience. This could be an internship, a part-time job, or volunteer work that involves designing. This hands-on time is super important because it helps you apply what you’ve learned and gets you ready for a job.

Step 4: Build your portfolio

Your portfolio is key. It’s a collection of your best work, like projects from school or jobs you’ve worked on. Nowadays, having your portfolio online is a must because it lets potential bosses check out your skills easily.

Step 5: Maybe get certified

You don’t need certifications to be a graphic designer, but they can show you’re good with certain programs like Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator. These can make your resume stand out.

Step 6: Apply for jobs

Once you’re done with school, start looking for jobs. You can work at ad agencies, design studios, or even go freelance. Make sure your resume shows off your passion for design and includes your education, experience, and the best bits from your portfolio.

How much do graphic designers make?

Graphic designer salaries will vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Compensation might also be influenced by their portfolio of work, mastery of digital tools or software proficiency, and reputation in the industry.

Highest paying industries

  • Motion Picture and Video Industries: $80,860
  • Software Publishers: $79,890
  • Other Information Services: $74,520
  • Advertising and Public Relations: $70,600
  • Specialized Design Services: $67,400

Highest paying states

  • New York: $79,800
  • Massachusetts: $72,400
  • California: $70,950
  • Connecticut: $69,100
  • Washington: $68,900

Browse graphic designer salary data by market

Types of graphic designers

Graphic designers can specialize in different areas depending on what they like to create. Here’s a look at some of the coolest graphic design jobs:

  • Brand identity designer: As a brand identity designer, you help create what a company looks like to the world. You’ll design logos, choose color schemes, and pick the fonts that match the company’s vibe and help it reach its marketing goals.
  • Layout and publication designer: If you like making things look neat and stylish, this might be your thing. Layout and publication designers make awesome layouts for magazines, books, and brochures.
  • Packaging designer: Packaging designers combine creativity and practicality to make products look appealing on the shelf. Your job would be to design the packaging that not only looks great but also fits the product and represents the brand well.
  • Digital media designer: This is for those who love the online world. Digital media designers create cool designs for websites, social media, and apps, often using animations and interactive elements to catch people’s attention and provide a great digital experience.
  • Art director: Art directors are the bosses of the creative world. They oversee the whole look of projects, like magazine spreads, TV shows, or video games. 

Top skills for graphic designers

If you’re thinking about becoming a graphic designer, here are some key skills you’ll need to be excellent at the job:

  • Creative thinking: Graphic design is all about making things that catch the eye and get people interested. You need to think outside the box and come up with fresh ideas that match what your clients need and make your designs stand out.
  • Technical skills: Knowing your way around design software like Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign is super important. These tech skills help you turn your creative ideas into real designs you can share.
  • Communication: You’ve got to be good at sharing your ideas, both in pictures and words. Graphic designers often talk a lot with clients and their own team to make sure everyone understands the project and why certain design choices are made.
  • Problem-solving: Sometimes, things don’t go as planned. You’ll need to be quick on your feet and come up with solutions that keep the project moving forward.
  • Understanding design principles: No matter what kind of graphic design you do, there are some basic rules about layout, colors, and how to arrange things so they look good and work well. Knowing these principles is a must.
  • Time management: These designers often juggle several projects at once, all with different deadlines. Being able to manage your time well is crucial so you can deliver great work on time without losing your mind.

Graphic designer career path options

As you get better and gain more experience in graphic design, there are several exciting directions you can take your career:

Creative director

If you like leading and making big decisions, you might aim to become a creative director. This job usually starts with becoming a senior designer, where you’ll manage other designers and work with different teams to keep the company’s style consistent across all projects.

Freelance designer

Fancy being your own boss? As a freelance designer, you get to pick your own projects, set your own hours, and choose who you want to work with. It offers lots of flexibility and the chance to work on a variety of stuff. It might take some effort to get going and build a network, but if you love freedom, this could be perfect for you.

UX/UI designer

With your knack for design and understanding what users like, moving into UX (user experience) or UI (user interface) design could be really exciting. These areas are all about making apps and websites that are not only good to look at but also easy and enjoyable to use. Plus, these fields are growing fast, which means lots of opportunities to work on the latest tech.

Graphic design is always evolving, and here are some of the latest trends shaping the industry:

  • 3D graphic design: More and more companies are using 3D designs to make their marketing pop and engage customers better. This means if you’re good at 3D graphic design, there are more job opportunities for you.
  • Personalized and unique designs: Companies want to stand out with unique branding that speaks directly to their customers. Designers who can create these custom, one-of-a-kind designs are in high demand.
  • Minimalism: There’s a big move toward simpler, cleaner designs. This style focuses on less clutter while still getting the message across effectively. 
  • Sustainable design: More businesses want designs that aren’t just cool but are also kind to the planet. If you can make designs that show a brand’s green side, you’ll be ahead of the curve.

Employment projections

Looking ahead, the need for graphic designers is expected to grow by 3% through 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a bit slower than average, but with the right skills, especially in the latest trends, you can still find plenty of opportunities.

Graphic designer career tips

Build a killer portfolio

Your portfolio is your golden ticket in the graphic design world. It should show off your creativity and technical chops. Include a mix of your best work to show you can handle whatever comes your way. Always keep it fresh and ready to impress potential bosses or clients.

Graphic design is like fashion; it changes all the time. Stay in the know by checking out the latest trends through online articles, magazines, and webinars. Keeping your designs up-to-date shows that you’re serious about being top-notch in your field.

Know your tools inside out

Whether it’s Adobe Creative Suite or newer tools like Sketch and Figma, being a whiz with these is a must. The better you are with these tools, the quicker and better your work will be.

Network like a pro

Get to know people in the design world. Start by connecting with other designers online or at events. A good network can open doors to new jobs, projects, and cool collaborations.

  • The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA)
  • Graphic Artists Guild
  • Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
  • DesignThinkers Group

Never stop learning

There’s always something new to learn in graphic design. Whether it’s a workshop on a hot new trend or getting a certification in a must-have software, keep your skills sharp and your mind open.

Where the graphic designer jobs are

Top employers

  • Apple
  • Google
  • Nike
  • Pentagram
  • Microsoft

Top states

  • California
  • New York
  • Washington
  • Texas
  • Illinois

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • LinkedIn
  • Behance
  • Dribbble
  • Upwork


What skills do graphic designers need?

Adeptness in design software, such as Adobe Creative Suite, is a basic requirement. Creativity and a strong sense of aesthetics also play a crucial role. Other essential skills include time management, problem-solving, and the ability to work under tight deadlines, often while juggling multiple projects. Also, soft skills, like communication and teamwork, are beneficial as collaboration is often part of the job.

How essential is a formal education in graphic design?

A bachelor’s degree in graphic design is often preferred by many employers. In these programs, you’ll learn the language of design, how to apply design principles, and hone your abilities in using design tools. However, designers with a strong portfolio but no formal degree can also stand out in the market. For some, self-learning and gaining experience through internships or freelance work can lead to a successful career.

Is an online portfolio necessary for graphic designers?

Absolutely. An online portfolio is an essential aspect of being a graphic designer. It offers a platform where you can showcase your work to potential employers and clients. It helps demonstrate your style, creativity, and skills in a visually appealing format. Using websites like Behance or creating your own website using platforms like WordPress can be beneficial.

Do graphic designers only work in advertising agencies?

No, graphic designers can work in a variety of industries. While advertising agencies do employ many designers, they can also work in-house for corporations in a wide array of fields. They can work for publications creating layouts and visual content or serve in the tech field designing UI/UX interfaces for websites and apps. Graphic designers may also choose to freelance, allowing them to take on myriad project types.

How important is staying updated with new design trends for graphic designers?

Staying updated with the latest trends and technologies in the field of graphic design is imperative. Trends change continually, and designs that looked fresh and modern a few years ago seem dated today. Part of the job is to create designs that are current and engaging to the intended audience. Therefore, a successful designer will always keep a pulse on changes in design aesthetics and software updates.

Do graphic designers need to know coding?

Although traditional graphic design doesn’t require coding skills, it can be a significant advantage in today’s digital-first world. If you work in web or app design, knowledge of HTML, CSS, or JavaScript can be useful, as it allows for seamless collaboration with the development team and a better understanding of how your design translates into a functional interface. However, you can also focus on areas of design that don’t require coding.

What does a day in the life of a graphic designer look like?

A day in the life of a graphic designer can vary greatly depending on their specific role and the industry they work in. Generally, tasks include meeting with clients or team members to discuss projects, brainstorming and sketching out design ideas, creating digital designs using software tools, receiving and integrating feedback, and preparing presentations. They may also spend time keeping up with the latest design trends, technologies, and tools.

How is the work-life balance in the graphic design field?

Work-life balance depends on the job role and specific employer. In-house designers typically have more stable hours, while those working in agencies might experience longer periods of intense work, e.g., when preparing for campaign launches. Freelancers can generally set their own hours, but work availability may fluctuate. Establishing clear boundaries between work and personal life is important to maintain well-being.

What’s the difference between a graphic designer and an illustrator?

While both graphic designers and illustrators work with creating visual compositions, the main difference lies in the nature of the work. Graphic designers typically work toward conveying a particular idea or concept, and their work often involves a combination of text and images. Illustrators, on the other hand, focus more on creating original artwork. Their work is often more centered on a story or theme rather than a specific message or promotion.