Creativity is a way of life…but making creativity into a living can seem daunting — particularly when you don’t have an educational or professional background in art. If you are a non-professional artist who is eager to turn your artistic talents into a career in graphic design, you’ve come to the right place. Together, Artrepreneur and Creative Circle have put together this comprehensive article series to support budding artists in the early stages of their art careers. In this article series, you’ll find valuable information on building and maintaining a career in the creative space, including learning graphic design. We cover topics including career paths, preparing for interviews, using social media to grow your footprint, networking, and much more. Both Creative Circle and Artrepreneur are committed to being here for you throughout your career.
No matter where you look, graphic design is there. From license plates to subway maps, from book covers to printed duvet covers, from bottles of lotion to wine. Graphic design is the reason why we choose certain foods over others, why we play certain games, why we wear certain clothes, and sometimes why we align with certain organizations.
In an increasingly visual world with increasingly savvy consumers, the role of good, smart graphic design has become that much more important. As apps and programs make the process of graphic design more accessible, without a background in arts or the standard software, learning graphic design is easier than ever.
What does a graphic designer do?
Graphic design is the cross between storytelling and problem-solving, and art. Graphic design is art that serves a specific purpose, whether that’s communicating function, values, location, or even philosophy. Often, graphic designers combine image and text to tell a narrative for a range of purposes, which is what makes it such a challenging and interesting career choice. Graphic designers convey complicated ideas in the most efficient and simple ways that immediately connect to consumers or audiences.
Milton Glaser, the man behind many iconic designs including I [heart] NY, said, “The most important thing in design, it seems to me, is the consequence of your action, and whether you’re interested, fundamentally, in persuading people to do things that are in their interests.”
The Nike Swoosh (designed by Carolyn Davidson) communicates speed, motion, and fluidity and also represents the wing of the brand’s namesake, the Greek goddess Nike.
The poster Saul Bass created for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Vertigo is jarring and disorienting—a visual representation of vertigo.
The meditation and wellness app, Calm’s, user interface, from its gentle color gradients to natural imagery is pleasant and inviting.
Graphic designers can design logos, websites, book covers, magazine layouts, brand identities, presentation decks, movie posters, billboards, wayfinding signage, marketing brochures, email templates, apps, zines, product labels, and more. They can work across industries. After all, every company needs some kind of visual branding, whether a pharmaceutical or a small mom-and-pop bakery or a public transportation stop. It really comes down to what the clients need.
Specializations can include advertising/marketing campaign design, branding/identity design, editorial/print design, environmental design, motion design, and packaging design.
Qualifications: What does it take to be a graphic designer?
You don’t necessarily have to have a degree in graphic design to become a graphic designer. However with any creative pursuit, there are fundamental principles that are crucial to the form. Being good at drawing really helps. Understanding certain design principles (like balance, rhythm, proportion, dominance, and unity), color theory, and typography is just the tip of the iceberg.
You may not have gone to school for graphic design, but graphic designers swear by certain textbooks like:
Grid Systems in Graphic Design by Josef Müller-Brockmann
Thinking With Type by Ellen Lupton
Designing Brand Identity by Alina Wheeler
How to be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul by Adrian Shaughnessy
And if you’ve read these before, it’s never a bad idea to brush up on these texts, and look for something new in them.
The tools you use to create designs are just as important. Obviously, you’ll need a computer, and a pen tablet is nearly standard. Adobe Creative Cloud (specifically Illustrator, Photoshop, and In Design) is the most commonly used software for graphic design and although they are very user-friendly, they require a lot of time and effort to master. Luckily, there are plenty of classes, tutorials, and other resources to learn how to use Adobe and other graphic design programs.
Portfolios are essential in graphic design and are much more than simply compiling all your best or favorite work. Provide context: what was the brief, and what was your approach? What inspired you, and why did you make certain choices (In roughly 100 words)? Another helpful aspect to include in portfolios is case studies or client testimonials (with the permission of your clients). Add a personal touch. What is the passion project that you are working on for yourself? With these in mind, you’ll be on your way to building a client list.
Level Up: What does it take to be a better graphic designer?
In a world where plenty of folks can hop on graphic design websites or platforms and throw together assets based on a template, it really helps to have a strong sense of style, voice, or general approach to your work. More sage advice from Milton Glaser: “If you’re more serious about it, you have to be more concerned about durability and ideas that go beyond the moment, so I think the best designers around are always designers that have had a kind of broader look and don’t change with the prevailing wind.”
Having said that, being a graphic designer is all about listening, collaborating, and adapting, whether it’s to suit client needs or to suit a changing audience. Collaboration often requires the ability to take critique and listen to the needs of your client. Communication is key because every design is a dialogue—and that goes both ways. If your client is asking too much of you, it’s important you push back on the requests that are out of scope as early as you can.
Like with any creative career, graphic design is all about practice. Practice designing logos, posters, or even simply drawing. Practice giving yourself limitations that a client might. Practice adapting. Practice making mistakes. Graphic designer Paula Scher said, “To get good, you have to get really bad. You have to make some terrible, horrible mistakes.”
What do you think are the most important things to keep in mind when considering a career in graphic design? Share your thoughts in the comments.
This article was co-created by Creative Circle. Creative Circle is an award-winning recruiting and consulting company representing digital, creative, and marketing professionals. Our job is to make your job easier, whether you’re hiring, building a team, or searching for your next role. Together, we can solve your biggest challenges. Special thanks to Melissa Rogers, Senior Brand Manager of Creative Circle.
Sam Mani writes about work, creativity, wellness, and equity — when she’s not cooking, binging television, or annoying her cat.