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Career Guides

Graphic Designer

BrainStation’s Graphic Designer career guide is intended to help you take the first steps toward a career in graphic design. The guide provides an in-depth overview of the graphic design skills you should learn, the best training options, career paths in graphic design, how to become a Graphic Designer, and more.

Graphic Designer
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What Is a Graphic Designer?

Graphic Designers create visual concepts with the goal of attracting the interest of clients through digital and physical designs that typically use graphics, images, art, and other visual elements. Although Graphic Designers may use a variety of tools to create their designs, all Graphic Designers must be able to use their hands at least occasionally to create designs, even if they prefer to rely on their digital skills and graphic design software.

Graphic Designers come with different educational and professional experiences, with some possessing a four-year bachelor’s degree in graphic design or communication design and others succeeding despite having no formal training in graphic design.

There are plenty of bachelor’s degree programs and even master’s degree programs in graphic design, digital media design, and communication design. AIGA, the professional association for design, issued a joint statement with the National Association of Schools of Art and Design stating graphic design students should “make informed decisions about the match between their own educational goals and what programs deliver in actual preparation for performance in the field.”

The statement continued that someone who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communication design should be qualified – although there are no guarantees – for many entry-level positions in the field of graphic design. However, the statement continued that one with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts or liberal arts would not be considered ready for entry and later upward mobility within graphic design.

There are also plenty of online certificate courses teaching graphic design skills that require varying degrees of commitment to complete. These certificate courses are a great idea even for established Graphic Designers, who would benefit from polishing their skills and learning new graphic design software.

What Does a Graphic Designer Do?

Although specific Graphic Designer job tasks vary depending on the company and how far a designer is into his or her career, Graphic Designers use graphics and art to communicate messages and ideas that resonate with clients.

Depending on how many years they are into a career and the scope of a project, Graphic Designers are typically tasked with the following job responsibilities:

  • Collaborate with clients, Art Directors, and creative team members to determine project scope

  • Use digital graphic design software to create graphic images and design layouts that communicate company messaging and achieve artistic or decorative effects, including a selection of colors, images, and fonts

  • Communicate designs and concepts to clients or Art Directors before incorporating their recommended changes into revised designs

  • Review final graphic designs for errors before publishing

What Are Graphic Designer Duties and Job Responsibilities?

Although the job duties of a graphic design role would vary depending on where they work, most Graphic Designer postings would include the following responsibilities:

  • Studying design briefs and determining requirements

  • Planning concepts and ideas by studying relevant information

  • Illustrating concepts by designing rough drafts of art arrangement, font size, and style, and submitting for approval

  • Scheduling projects and defining work budget constraints

  • Developing a wide range of graphics and layouts for product illustrations, company logos, websites, and other designs using graphic design software or by hand

  • Selecting and using the appropriate colors and layouts for each graphic

  • Preparing finished art with necessary graphic design software

  • Collaborating with Copywriters and Creative Director to produce the final design

  • Coordinating with outside agencies, art services, Web Designers, marketing departments, printers, and colleagues as needed

  • Communicating with clients about design and layout

  • Testing graphics across various media

  • Amending designs based on client and stakeholder feedback

  • Ensuring final graphics and layouts are visually appealing and on-brand

  • Reviewing final layouts and making improvements when necessary

Where Education Do You Need to Become a Graphic Designer?

Graphic Designers come with different educational and professional experiences, with some possessing a four-year bachelor’s degree in graphic design or communication design and others succeeding despite having no formal training in graphic design.

There are plenty of bachelor’s degree programs and even master’s degree programs in graphic design, digital media design, and communication design. AIGA, the professional association for design, issued a joint statement with the National Association of Schools of Art and Design stating graphic design students should “make informed decisions about the match between their own educational goals and what programs deliver in actual preparation for performance in the field.”

The statement continued that someone who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communication design should be qualified – although there are no guarantees – for many entry-level positions in the field of graphic design. However, the statement continued that one with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts or liberal arts would not be considered ready for entry and later upward mobility within graphic design.

There are also plenty of online certificate courses teaching graphic design skills that require varying degrees of commitment to complete. These certificate courses are a great idea even for established Graphic Designers, who would benefit from polishing their skills and learning new graphic design software.

Characteristics of an Effective Graphic Designer

Great Graphic Designers have more in common than a knack for creating compelling visuals. Here are the characteristics that every effective Graphic Designer seems to share.

1. They Know How to Get a Message Across

It’s the job of a Graphic Designer to communicate a client's story and brand identity. It takes a real knack for communication and an understanding of what makes humans tick to be able to create a design that conveys those complex ideas and emotions. That's a skill Graphic Designers need.

Before they can communicate ideas and information through their design, Graphic Designers also have to be talented communicators to secure that work. To present, persuade and negotiate in professional situations, a Graphic Designer must be able to communicate ideas with confidence and authority while listening carefully (and actively) to the needs of the client.

Further, a Graphic Designer creates and works with a wide variety of stakeholders including experts in web design, user experience (UX) design, web development, public relations, sales and marketing, product and information technology, and navigating all of those interactions smoothly will again require having a way with words.

2. They Have a Genuine Love of Design

Graphic design is a creative industry, and you need passion to thrive in a creative industry. Great Graphic Designers have a love of art and an interest in beauty wherever it can be found. Graphic Designers take time to gather inspiration from great design whether it’s found on social media, an art gallery, or a subway platform.

That passion sees good Graphic Designers through the trying times when they might be clocking long hours, trying to pull off a big edit, or working through design elements for a tricky client. A good Graphic Designer will eventually develop the time management skills necessary to carry a balanced workload, but especially early on in a graphic design career, you might rely on that passion to see you through.

That passion should come through in a Graphic Designer’s portfolio. A stellar portfolio will cause employers to potentially overlook a lack of experience or not having exactly the right educational background. Conversely, a portfolio that doesn’t show a Graphic Designer’s versatility and talent could prompt employers to pass on an otherwise strong candidate.

3. Openness to Ideas and Criticism

To be an innovative Graphic Designer capable of crafting fresh and eye-popping designs, you’ve got to be open-minded. This means both that you don’t fall into a rut by repeating the same design ideas because they’ve worked in the past, and it also means trying out different tools, graphic design software, photo editing software, and layout software constantly to see if it’s possible for computer software to take your design game to the next level.

It’s also crucial that Graphic Designers learn how to take criticism, whether it’s constructive or not. It’s easy for a Graphic Designer to feel attacked when people point out flaws in their designs, but it’s a necessary part of life in a graphic design career.

Try to grow a thick skin and learn how to use criticism from colleagues and clients to your advantage. If you can put your pride aside, you’ll likely learn something from the information they provide you, which will really improve your designs.

4. They Never Stop Learning

Further to the point about learning new computer software, good Graphic Designers understand that thriving in design requires that one become a lifelong student.

That education can come in plenty of different shapes. Most Graphic Designers picked upon design concepts and fundamentals like color theory in school, so as professionals, they make a routine out of making sure their skills are adequately sharp by watching YouTube tutorials, reading graphic design blogs, or listening to graphic design podcasts. Other Graphic Designers use online courses to brush up on their graphic design skills. There are plenty of ways to take in new information about graphic design.

Other great Graphic Designers step out of their comfort zone and attend a bootcamp or part-time course in a different but related field – user experience (UX) design or web design, for instance – to make their design skills more well-rounded.

Whichever way they pursue it, continuing education is a way of life for a top Graphic Designer.

5. Clients Can Count On Them

Whether Graphic Designers are working or consulting on a self-employed, freelance basis, or they work as part of a larger company or design agency, it’s crucial to be consistent, sturdy, and reliable.

Good Graphic Designers must prove themselves to be trustworthy by consistently meeting (and managing) client expectations and delivering quality work on time and on budget.

For freelance Graphic Designers who are self-employed, this means having the business side of your work in order. It's important that freelance Graphic Designers create a diligent routine that clients can rely on. Making sure that you are billing on time and managing your schedule so that your workload is manageable will help ensure that you never let any client down.

Types of Graphic Design

Examples of graphic design are everywhere, both in the physical and digital spaces. These are a few of the different types of graphic design, each of which might require different skills from a Graphic Designer:

  • Visual Identity Graphic Design. This type of graphic design is all about the visual elements of a brand. To properly communicate a brand’s identity, style guides are often developed with specifications around which colors, images, graphics, and shapes should be used.

  • Web Design. Although a Graphic Designer would typically work within a much larger web design team, these job responsibilities would be based on creating visual elements, images and graphics that help to create attractive website layouts, structures, and designs.

  • Marketing and Advertising Graphic Design. This type of graphic design is aimed directly at potential clients, spanning digital creative like video advertisements or social media posts, as well as more traditional forms of physical advertising like newspaper ads or flyers.

  • Packaging Graphic Design. A Graphic Designer with the job of working on packaging must not only have mastered visual design principles, they must also understand industrial design and manufacturing to create functional and attractive projects.

  • Publication Graphic Design. Want to put your design skills to use in a more editorial setting? This type of Graphic Designer works on the images, graphics, and illustrations that fill books, magazines, digital sites or apps, and newspapers.

  • Motion Graphic Design. A growing subset of the overall design field, Graphic Designers who specialize in this understand how to make graphics that move, whether that’s an animation or trailer.

Find out more about the different types of graphic design.

Benefits of Graphic Design

Investing in graphic design can offer many benefits for a company, including:

  • Consistent, identifiable branding. Having a Graphic Designer create or select the right logos, images, graphics, or layout for your creative materials will create visual consistency for your company across all of the different channels it uses to interact with clients. Think of any successful company and how much graphic design plays into its branding and any forward-facing design choices.

  • Communication. Beyond establishing your brand, graphic design is a key tool in telling your target audience what you want it to hear. A photograph or text alone can’t convey all that good graphics can, so it’s the job of a Graphic Designer to find out ways to create emotionally resonant creative materials.

  • Boost sales and competitive position. Good graphic design will make a company more visible in the marketplace, which will translate to a boost in revenue. Given the link between smart graphic design and concerns like usability and user experience, there’s plenty of evidence to show that smart design has a major effect on customer behavior.

Graphic Designer Salaries

Graphic Designer salaries can vary wildly, even compared to the salaries of other designers, with the range of average salaries for the job title beginning around $55,000 and reaching all the way up to $83,250.

Those job candidates just starting a career in graphic design should expect salaries to begin around $40,000. After more than five years of job experience, salaries increase to roughly $60,000. With a more senior job title, Art Directors bring home average salaries of $76,600, and Creative Directors report salaries of around $110,000 annually.

The area of specialization Graphic Designers chose also affects their salaries. UX Designers, for instance, earn salaries of around just under $90,000 annually.

Find out more about the average salary of a Graphic Designer.

What Tools Do Graphic Designers Use?

Aside from old-fashioned pen and paper, Graphic Designers most commonly use an array of graphic design software to create their designs, including:

  • Photoshop. Graphic Designers use pretty much all the Adobe Creative Suite programs, and certainly, Photoshop is still an industry favorite for editing images and creating computer art.

  • Illustrator. Overlapping in some ways with Photoshop, Illustrator is all about vector design, so images can be quickly resized and rescaled.

  • Sketch. A great vector-based tool that Graphic Designers use to create icons, banners, and other images.

  • InDesign. Graphic Designers working in publishing will become very familiar with this page layout program.

  • After Effects. Anyone with a job in graphic motion design will become familiar with this visual effects software, which can also design in the 3D space.

Read more about the tools used by Graphic Designers.

What Skills Do Graphic Designers Need?

Although the specifics vary with each career, most Graphic Designer jobs demand the following skills:

  • Design Principles. A Graphic Designer needs to understand the theory underscoring why certain images, colors, shapes and texts work well together.

  • Ideation. Simply put, Graphic Designers need to be creative, and depending on the stage of production they’re working on, they need to understand how to generate creative design ideas. Many formalize this part of the production process with mood boards or thumbnails.

  • Brand. Whether a Graphic Designer’s job extends to actually creating branding for clients, they need to be conscious of what makes a brand unique, both visually and otherwise.

  • Typography. Text is a huge part of good graphic design, so Graphic Designers need to develop skills in the areas of typesetting, kerning, tracking, and leading.

  • Communication. The core of the job of a Graphic Designer is to create graphics that effectively communicate a message and make clients feel something. But a Graphic Designer needs to be able to communicate not just with people viewing their designs, but clients and stakeholders as well.

Read more about the skills Graphic Designers need.

Graphic Designer Career Paths

Graphic Designers tend to have a variety of career paths given the breadth of applications for visual design skills.

A linear graphic design career path might see someone eventually achieve a more senior title like Art Director, Brand Manager, or Creative Director.

Those with an interest in web development might apply their graphic design skills and follow the web development career branch. Depending on their specific skills, someone with a background in Graphic Designer jobs could lean more heavily on the design side and apply for jobs as a Web Designer or UX/UI Designer, or if they have programming skills, pursue a job as a Developer (likely focused on the front end).

Graphic design skills might also be coveted in jobs relating more closely to product development or software development.

If you’re considering a career in graphic design but aren’t sure it’s the exact discipline for you, here are some other roles similar to a Graphic Designer:

  • User Experience (UX) Designer: UX Designers are focused on creating the best possible user experience by ensuring products are usable, intuitive, and accessible. These insights are fueled by the user research UX Designers conduct, as well as the extensive testing UX Designers put every product through. UX Designers might work as part of a full UX design team or they might be the sole UX expert on a larger product team. Ultimately, UX design is about understanding people and putting the user first. UX design and web design roles go hand in hand.

  • User Interface (UI) Designer: UI and UX design are commonly confused. UI design follows many of the same principles and ideas that define UX design – putting people first, in other words – but applies those concepts to a website or product’s interface (a sitemap, layout, or menu, to name a few examples). UI Designers are also typically tasked with making sure products are responsive, accessible, and inclusive. A UI Designer tends to work closely with UX Designers and sometimes one role will span both UI and UX design.

  • Web Designer: A Web Designer is also about designing great-looking websites that function well, but web design might be more focused on the eye-catching visual properties of the website or app, and a Web Designer might not be as focused on either the code making the website work or the usability of the site.

  • Front-End Developer: Front-End Web Developers also work on the client-side of a website, but with more of a focus on the code. Sometimes, a Front-End Web Developer might simply implement what Web Designers have designed.

  • Art Director: Art Directors lead a creative team producing work to be displayed on TV, billboards, the Internet, or in magazines. These jobs blur the lines between advertising, marketing, and graphic design. A creative team usually consists of Graphic Designers, artists, photographers, copywriters, videographers, and production staff. Art Directors lead projects, create visual concepts and make sure work is finished on time and on budget to a client’s satisfaction.

Who Do Graphic Designers Work With?

Graphic Designers work in design teams, alongside photographers, content writers, videographers, and other creative people.

But a Graphic Designer could potentially work with many other levels of an organization. Depending on the company and role, a Graphic Designer could collaborate with experts in web design, user experience (UX) design, public relations, sales, marketing, and information technology -- it all depends on the work environment.

Reasons to Become a Graphic Designer

If you’re trying to decide if a career in graphic design is right for you, here are a few of the best reasons to become a Graphic Designer.

1. Design Will Never Go Out of Style

If you’re looking for a job that’s future-proof in the so-called age of automation, consider that graphic design will always require human creativity.

Visual communication will live on, and there will always be a need for Graphic Designers more broadly. From websites to packaged products to advertisements, there will always be a need for a graphic design expert to captivate consumers and tell stories with images.

2. Never Stop Growing

Good Graphic Designers never stop learning or being inspired. If the idea of a career that promotes constant growth and skill-building, graphic design is for you.

It’s a career where endless examples of good, new ideas that could be relevant to your work are literally everywhere.

3. Exercise Your Creativity

Most people with an affinity for design can’t imagine having to put on business attire and sit at a desk doing the same thing every day. Graphic design provides you with the opportunity to work in a unique work environment.

As a Graphic Designer, one has the freedom to lean into your artistic ability and to be creative every single day. For Graphic Designers, no one day looks exactly like another, and getting to express themselves through their work can be a rewarding thing.

4. Opens Up Many Career Paths

Once you start building a career in graphic design, you have so many options. First, there’s the fact that you can work for virtually any company in any industry in any city – everyone needs a Graphic Designer. Maybe you’re interested in professional sports, or the hospitality business, or publishing? There’s no limit to your options.

Then there’s the fact that a graphic design portfolio and resume would put you in a good position to transition into a number of different positions and fields. Many Graphic Designers may go on to work in fields including UX design, web design, web development, product management, and more.

Design skills are valued everywhere.

5. Your Work Might Get a Shot In the Spotlight

It’s definitely exhilarating for any Graphic Designer to see their work displayed prominently.

Imagine a design you created splashed across a billboard or in the glossy pages of your favorite magazine.

Graphic Designers know that there’s no limit to the number of people who could potentially see one of their designs. It motivates and inspires them.

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