How to Become a Graphic Designer: Career Advice from Creative Pros
Some career paths are straight and narrow. Doctors go to medical school, lawyers go to law school. But what’s the first step for aspiring graphic designers?
Creative careers like graphic design don’t really come with step-by-step instructions. You know that becoming a doctor or lawyer isn’t for you, but it’s hard not to be envious of friends who are embarking on such straightforward career paths. You just want to know what to do next to begin your graphic design career!
We spoke with graphic design professionals and rounded up the latest data to bring you advice about how to become a graphic designer. Read on to learn about the skills and education needed to become a graphic designer, and what steps you can take to get started.
How to become a graphic designer: Tips and advice for success
Unless you’re including the time between submitting a resume, interviewing and getting hired, there’s no true linear, step-by-step path to becoming a professional graphic designer. That said, there are still plenty of things you can do to build your standing as an aspiring graphic designer. These tips from the pros will get you headed in the right direction to begin your graphic design career.
1. Work on personal design projects
It’s not surprising that most people with a passion for design have plenty of ideas for their personal design projects—but it may come as a shock that these passion projects can be a step toward launching a graphic design career!
“Surveying our team of more than fifty artists, one thing stood out among all their stories: they all started out with personal passion projects,” says Nick Avola, content manager at Visuals By Impulse. Looking for a starting point? Try playing around with redesigning the cover of your favorite magazine or creating digital promotions for an online community you participate in.
These types of projects lend themselves to “experimenting, testing, pushing your boundaries and making the inevitable mistake(s),” Avola says. These are valuable experiences for a budding graphic designer to bring to the career field. Even if this work ends up being something that never makes it into your professional portfolio, it’s still valuable practice and tinkering time—and that experience can come in handy when the time comes to take on paid work.
2. Build your portfolio
A well-rounded portfolio is essential to becoming a professional graphic designer. This digital portfolio showcases your best work for potential clients or employers. Aspiring designers have plenty of options for creating a graphic design portfolio today, even if they don’t have any official clients yet.
“Create a professional portfolio and fill it with passion projects, personal designs and even unpaid work,” Avola says. “Or better yet, make up a potential client brief, then showcase your creative process for the world to see.”
“I recommend having five to seven strong pieces in your portfolio,” says graphic designer Bekah Beckman. “A great way to build out your portfolio is to do some rebranding work for your favorite local business. Even if they don't use your designs, you have some killer pieces for your website.”
3. Assign yourself creative challenges
Passion projects are a fun place to play around with your creativity, but graphic designers in the workplace have to meet specific guidelines set by their clients. Meeting clients’ expectations is a skill even experienced designers need to develop.
Aspiring graphic designers who can show employers that they already have this skillset can be well on their way to launching a professional career. Just because you don’t have paying clients yet doesn’t mean you can’t gain some career practice by assigning yourself projects with creative limitations.
“Start small and come up with a few imaginary, but restrictive, briefs,” says Andrew Kenny, graphic designer and owner of the digital design agency Distortion. “This way you get used to building your design within constraints—which is an extremely useful skill to employers.”
4. Brush up on relevant skills
Of course, every professional graphic designer needs the right skills for the job. “Learning design software is a great place to start,” Beckman says. “You can also gain these skills just by practicing. There are tons of tutorials you can watch for free that will teach you specific skills that employers look for.”
We’ve examined the latest job posting analysis data from Burning-Glass.com to bring you the most in-demand skills graphic design employers are looking for. Brush up on these skills and design tools, and you’ll be preparing for a real-world graphic design career:
Technical skills needed to become a graphic designer1
- Adobe Creative Suite®
- Social media
- Website design
- Project management
- Marketing materials
- Art direction
- Digital design
Transferable skills needed to become a graphic designer:1
- Attention to detail
- Meeting deadlines
- Problem solving
- Microsoft Office®
5. Gain real client experience
There are plenty of benefits to gaining real-life client experience. Not only will this work add to your portfolio, it also gives you professional connections and references that you can leverage as you begin your career search.
Real client work “teaches you so much,” Kenny says. “Your design work will become so much better and you'll build a flexible toolset—making you much more employable,” Kenny says.
Even beginning designers can land projects working for real clients. “It can be the local business across the road, or some intern work, it doesn't matter.” You could even volunteer your services to a nonprofit you’re passionate about as a way to give back to the community and get some real-world experience under your belt!
6. Earn a degree
You’ve probably been wondering about the education needed to become a graphic designer. Not all graphic designers hold a degree—in fact, the lack of a degree requirement is a big part of what makes it so tricky for some to determine how to become a graphic designer!
However, there is some evidence that a college education gives you a leg-up in the job market. Our analysis of graphic design job postings found that 79 percent of listings preferred candidates with a Bachelor’s degree.2
Earning a degree will also help you acquire the fundamental knowledge and training that can help you find success. “The why of graphic design is just as important as the how,” Avola says. He advises new designers to invest time up front understanding the theory and principles of design.
A Graphic Design degree program can help you do just that, helping you create a solid foundation to build your design career on. Not only will you refine your technical skills in industry standard software, but also develop your transferable soft skills. Being able to communicate, plan ahead, and think critically about your design assignments (both for school and work) is a key part of career success.
Find your path to a graphic design career
You can see that there’s more than one answer to your questions about how to become a graphic designer. One way to get started is to enroll in a degree program that will help you gain the graphic design principles and skills employers are looking for.
Not all graphic design programs are created equal, however. Learn what you should look for in our article, “5 Things Good Graphic Design Programs Have in Common.”
Adobe Creative Suite is a registered trademark of Adobe, Inc.
Microsoft Office is a registered trademark of Microsoft, Inc.
1Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 55,954 graphic designer job postings, Dec. 01, 2018 – Nov. 30, 2019).
2Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 27,316 graphic designer job postings by education level, Oct. 01, 2018 – Sep. 30, 2019.)
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2013. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2020.