Few career paths are as customizable as graphic design. Nearly every aspect can be adjusted to fit your lifestyle and interests—from education and experience to specialty and work environment.
“Every person I know who has gone into graphic design has had a very different experience,” says Ashley Schwartau, creative director of The Security Awareness Company. Creating your graphic design career path is like plugging a destination into a GPS and having the option of taking different routes. Choose the route you like best, or mix and match parts of the trajectory to fit your life and schedule.
Whether you decide to earn a design degree, prefer to teach yourself or if that part of the journey is already behind you, wouldn’t it be nice to have a bird’s eye view of the options unfolding ahead? We gathered some graphic design pros of all kinds to help you begin planning your custom-made graphic design career path.
Customizing your creative career path
1. Training & education
Every graphic designer has a different opinion on the training and education needed to launch a successful career. It’s true that a formal education is not necessary, but a foundational understanding of design is imperative, according to Schwartau. There is no shortage of design tutorials online that can teach you software tricks, but your designs will be mediocre without the knowledge and theory to support your creative decisions.
"No matter what school you go to, though, they can't teach you everything."
There are a handful of often-overlooked advantages to earning a graphic design degree, such as getting expert feedback, honing your presentation skills and gaining perspective from your peers. Having a degree also gives you instant credibility, making it easier to land a job interview, according to Josh Rubin, art director for The Bourbon Review.
“No matter what school you go to, though, they can’t teach you everything,” says freelance designer Jonathan Eitel. He agrees that a formal education is vital, but it’s more important to have the drive and initiative to learn on your own. The design industry is constantly evolving, so you must be a curious, lifelong learner in order to survive and thrive.
2. Finding a job
After you feel confident in the training and education you’ve acquired, it’s time to find a job. Our graphic design gurus agreed that your portfolio – both physical and digital versions – carry a lot of weight when job searching, according to Eitel.
“These need to have some of your greatest assets as a designer: your digital portfolio will get you the interview and your physical portfolio will get you the job,” Eitel explains.
So how do you start finding jobs to apply for? The days of sending out paper resumes and scouring the classified ads for job postings are long gone. You probably know how to search for positions on websites like Monster and Indeed. But there are several sneaky ways you can leverage the social media sites you know and love to find jobs. (Check out these tech-savvy tips!)
You’ll also have to decide which graphic design work environment you’d prefer: in-house, agency or freelance. Many designers will experience a combination of all three throughout their career, according to Mitch Dowell, creative director at Branding Experiences. He adds that each setting has its own pros and cons, it’s all about finding an opportunity that aligns with your skills and interests.
3. Career advancement
At this point on your graphic design career path, it is extremely important not to stagnate. As mentioned above, it is extremely important to always continue learning and developing your skills as a designer as new trends and technologies are always emerging.
“For a digital industry in a digital age, it’s very important to stay up-to-date with advancing software and to continue honing your craft, whether you’re getting paid for it or not,” Eitel says. He adds that graphic designers who prove they can learn on their own and branch out will be much more valuable from a hiring perspective.
Remember that landing that first job isn’t the final destination; it’s only the beginning of your professional journey. Start thinking about what your long-term goals are. For graphic designers, advancement typically comes in three forms, according to Jennifer Ayotte, Rasmussen College School of Design dean.
Ayotte says these options are usually directly tethered to personality traits. If you are outgoing and enjoy interacting with people, you may choose to move into a management position such as a creative director or art director. This would allow you to coach and mentor a team of designers.
If you’re a bit more introverted and aren’t fond of the business side of the field, you may opt to hone in and master a specialized skill such as user experience (UX) design or motion graphics. Lastly, if you have an entrepreneurial mind and have a knack for the business side, you could open your own design agency and call the shots.
Each of these avenues is a way to take your graphic design career to the next level.
Start designing your journey
Now that you’ve seen the numerous directions a graphic design career path might lead, it’s time to start designing your customized road map. Your journey will likely be different than that of any other designer’s, but it will lead you to your dream destination.
Learn why earning a graphic design degree is the perfect first step on your graphic design career path!
*This article was originally published in August, 2012. It has since been updated to reflect information relevant to 2015.