How to Become a Graphic Designer: 3 Things You Need to Succeed

male senior designer collaborating with female designer  

When you picture your future in the graphic design industry, you’re probably not dreaming of becoming a mediocre designer. You aspire to be a successful, well-known designer. So rather than just going through the motions, you’re looking for the recipe for success in the design world.

The truth is that there are multiple paths to becoming a graphic designer. Anyone can learn a few tricks in Photoshop and call themselves an expert. But there are certain steps you can take to help you develop into a true professional.

If you want to know how to become a graphic designer that’s going to make a splash in the industry, here’s an inside look at the courses, skills and experience you need to elevate your game to the next level.

Graphic design courses you need to succeed

Graphic design courses are a great way for those just starting out to build a foundation of knowledge before beginning a long and illustrious career. It’s also important to have a good grasp on the theory and purpose behind basic graphic design concepts before playing around with the newest piece of design software.  

While YouTube tutorials can help introduce the software you’ll eventually need, graphic design courses will provide you with crucial skills that are difficult to learn independently.

Here is a short list of graphic design courses that will give aspiring designers an idea of the dynamic skills that can be gained from a formal design education.

1. Design Foundations:

This course covers the basic theory and fundamentals of graphic design. You will be introduced to design software and learn how to use the computer as a graphic design tool. You’ll also leave this course with an understanding of desktop publishing.

2. Digital Illustration:

This course prepares you for the workplace by familiarizing you with new technologies in the field. You will gain hands-on experience in digital illustration rather than just pencil to paper drawing. The course will also instill techniques necessary for storyboarding and project thumbnails.

3. Digital Media Production:

This course teaches the integration of components used in multimedia applications using authoring software. You will study basic animation techniques, special effects and user interactivity to help produce interactive projects.

4. Career Development:

This course prepares you for the workforce by outlining the personal and professional characteristics necessary for obtaining and maintaining employment in the design industry. You will learn how to market yourself as a designer as well as interview and resume tips.

5. Portfolio Development:

This course allows you to craft your portfolio with your instructor, who is likely an industry professional. You will walk away with a professional caliber portfolio that is ready to present to potential employers.

Most graphic design programs also incorporate courses unrelated to design, but that provide general knowledge that will help you evolve as a designer. These courses will teach you general business knowledge, professional communication, time management, project planning and documentation. If you're wondering how to become a graphic designer, these courses are a great place to start!

graphic design technical skillsSkills needed to be a graphic designer

Developing your skills is an obvious component of becoming a successful graphic designer. It doesn’t matter how much you know about color palettes or design theory if you don’t have the ability to execute your ideas. Without the latter, the former are essentially useless.

Graphic design is an attractive profession to many because they assume it’s all about matching colors and playing with shapes. The truth is that there are a lot of technical skills needed to be a graphic designer.

We identified the top five technical skills employers are seeking by analyzing more than 35,000 graphic design job postings over the past year.* Focus on these five if you're interested in honing a particular set of skills.

There are many other skills necessary for graphic designers besides the technical skills. Organization, communication and time management are all obvious skills that lend themselves well to the profession. Many designers also share some natural qualities like punctuality, attention to detail and an eagerness to learn.

The importance of graphic design experience

Your job isn’t quite finished after taking the required courses and learning the technical skills. Gaining hands-on experience is instrumental in your development as a graphic designer, according to Jacob Cass, an Australian graphic designer whose design clients have spanned five different continents.

If anyone knows how to become a graphic designer it's Cass. He is now based in New York City and has designed projects for world-renowned companies like Nike, Red Bull, Disney and Coach. While it sounds cliché, he believes that practice really does make perfect when it comes to graphic design.

“Experience helps hone your skills, build your confidence and, over time, establishes your reputation as an expert,” says Cass.

The most valuable thing a rookie designer can do is to put your skills to work for real clients. Real-world work experience will help you develop your design skills while also providing invaluable knowledge on client relationships, personal branding and working under pressure.

Success in the design field, like many industries, is based heavily on networking. The more designers you meet and the more clients you work for, the more industry contacts you’ll gain. If you do great work for someone, they may refer you to others, which slowly builds your portfolio more and more.

Here are a few creative ways you can gain experience as a design newbie:

  • Volunteer your services to a local school, church or non-profit organization
  • Help out a family friend by designing their wedding invites
  • Design your own greeting cards instead of using store-bought ones
  • Make some extra cash by selling your designs on Etsy

Make a plan…

Be sure to design your plan of attack before expecting to become the next world-renowned graphic designer. Just as there are multiple recipes for chocolate chip cookies, there are several paths that can lead to a career in graphic design.

For the most part, these three ingredients—design courses, technical skills and hands-on experience—are found in every recipe for success in the graphic design industry. Planning your journey without one of these elements would be like baking chocolate chip cookies with no chocolate chips.

So if you’re ready to start your journey, start exploring different graphic design career paths by downloading our Design Career Outlook. Once you’ve determined a position that interests you, you can start collecting the ingredients you need to succeed!

* (Analysis of 35,020 graphic design job postings, 11/5/2012 – 11/4/2013)

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Callie Malvik

Callie is the Content Manager at Collegis Education, overseeing blog content on behalf of Rasmussen College. She is passionate about creating quality resources that empower others to improve their lives through education.

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