What Can You Do with a Graphic Design Degree? Exploring Your Options
The road to career success looks different for everyone. After some thought, you’re starting to consider pursuing a graphic design career path. But before you commit the time and money it takes to acquire the formal training many employers require, you want a better idea of the potential job prospects will look like after graduation.
So what can you do with a Graphic Design degree, anyway?
You might think there is just a single answer—become a graphic designer—but the options are much more varied than that.
“One of the beautiful aspects of studying Graphic Design is the wide variety of jobs one can pursue after receiving a Graphic Design degree,” says graphic designer and art director Amy Lewin. “I never wanted to be too specialized in my career. I crave variety in design and love switching up my style and working on a range of projects.”
Graphic Design education imparts useful skills you can utilize in a variety of creative careers. Take a minute to learn a bit more about what Graphic Design majors learn and you’ll see what we mean.
What do you learn in a Graphic Design program?
Motion graphics, animation, design theory, project management and portfolio development are some of the main learning objectives in Rasmussen University’s Graphic Design program. Courses like the Business of Digital Media, Interactive Publishing and Digital Effects teach a broad base of knowledge that would be useful all across business and marketing fields.
Advanced Typography and Advanced 3D Modeling are examples of specialized courses that provide more specific skills valued in the industry. Overall, students in these programs should be equipped with technical design skills as well as useful project management and general business knowledge.
“I remember I learned a bit of [Adobe] Flash in design school, because I wanted to broaden my skill set,” says Gabe Ruane, co-founder of Turn Agency. “I also picked up basic animation skills and found myself more marketable going after my first job because I had a bit more than the baseline Graphic Design education.” Ruane says the digital aspects of Graphic Design education are extremely important.
“Everything happens on screens,” Ruane says. “I'd like to think most Graphic Design programs these days focus time and energy on the digital side of design.” While being a generalist in this sense can be super versatile in many careers, students who prefer to focus in on a special area can also make use of that passion.
“If you see yourself enjoying a niche area of design in branding, package design, environmental design, UI/UX, web design, textiles, illustration or photography, etc., then go for it!” Lewin says. She advises students to pursue what they actually want to be doing on the job. For example, it took Lewin some time and experience to realize she wasn’t interested in UI/UX or web design and didn’t need to scramble to learn additional coding skills.
If you don’t see yourself specializing in one area, Lewin suggests remaining open to all types of graphic design jobs to get experience and learn more about what you like and what you’d rather not spend your time on. The industry is versatile enough to give you plenty of choices.
10 Popular graphic design career opportunities
But what are some of those choices specifically? We used real-time job analysis software to examine over 30,000 job postings seeking graduates of Graphic Design programs from the past year.* This is definitely not a comprehensive list of what you can do with a Graphic Design degree—only a representation of graphic design degree jobs out there.
1. Graphic designer
Graphic designers develop graphics and layouts for product illustrations, company logos, websites and more. This job title can cover a huge range of duties in a huge range of industries.
So what does that look like in practice? Ruane worked as a graphic designer at a technology magazine, creating magazine layouts, some advertising, print production and a bit of web design.
Lewin worked as a senior graphic designer at a video game publishing company, designing and art directing video game titles. “I worked on everything from designing the campaign art used on packaging to concepting and art directing the ‘Just Dance 2019’ commercial.”
2. Creative director
Creative directors determine the creative vision of a project. They make sure the overall aesthetic and cohesive look stays on track by leading their team through the steps to create something, whether that is a tangible product like a video game, film, magazine or something more abstract like an advertising campaign or brand identity.
The job involves managing skills, leadership and often budgeting and time management abilities as well as creative vision.
When Ruane worked as an associate creative director at a digital ad agency, his work involved concepting with a copywriter partner, pitching and presenting ideas and leading a team of designers and art directors while still taking part in the visual design.
3. User experience (UX) designer
UX designers work to make products, processes and services seamless, enjoyable and intuitive for users. They think about how the product feels, how users will use it. They ensure the product flows from one step to the next. UX designers might run user tests, refining any bumps or confusions in the process. This career involves tons of out-of-the-box thinking, creative intuition and a natural appreciation for smooth design. This design discipline is often found in web design, where organizations are placing an increased emphasis on ensuring their website designs are both visually appealing and simple to use.
While user experience design has been around for much longer, Ruane notes that the role of UX designer really started to grow in popularity around ten years ago. When that happened, many of his fellow graphic design classmates transitioned into UX careers. This is an excellent role for technology-savvy designers as it often requires a blend of design and web technology skills
4. User interface (UI) designer
UI design is often considered a subset of UX design and has similar overall goals. User interface designers focus on how the product is laid out. They design each screen and each page, ensuring that the layout visually works with the overall path a UX designer has charted.
UI designers design each screen or page a user interacts with, ensuring that the UI visually communicates the path a UX designer charts. They might decide where content should go on an analytics dashboard or what tools make the most sense for the user navigating a page. They also pay close attention to style coherence and ensure the product remains consistent.
5. Production artist
Production artists take over the hands-on steps of production—whether that’s in graphics, film, art or other formats. They upload and ensure the accuracy of design files throughout the last stages of development. The job is equal parts design and computer applications skill.
Production artists might suggest improvements to the work they are finishing as well as making final touches like scaling, cropping, retouching and repositioning.
“If you start as a junior designer at an agency, or as a production artist, you’ll get to work alongside a dozen people in strategy, technology, development, animation, data, UX, analytics and more,” Ruane says.
He emphasizes that positions like this can really help you get exposure to the variety of jobs out there. You might find that you really enjoy a particular part of the process. “Or if you stick with pure visual design, you'll be a stronger designer for having worked alongside these related specialists.”
6. Product developer
Product developers ideate, lead and manage the creation of products. They can work on so many different things that their job duties will vary widely, but general tasks include performing industry research, creating illustrations, presenting the product to employers or stakeholders and contributing to the development process.
This role might go hand in hand with graphic design. Damien Cunningham is a senior graphic designer and product developer at Find Me a Gift. “It’s my favorite because the role is varied, allowing me to work across various departments and on several different tasks,” Cunningham says. “I could be creating digital marketing material one day and then producing packaging for print or designing a new product another.”
7. Art director
Art directors take charge of the visual style and content in magazines, newspapers, product packaging and movie and television productions. They create design and direct other artists to develop each contributing piece. They work closely with their employers or clients to cast an artistic vision that meets objectives, the available budget and desired impact.
Ruane worked as an art director at a few digital advertising agencies doing visual design for websites and online advertising campaigns. This role was a highlight in his career path.
“It was so exciting and inspiring at the time,” Ruane says. “Big brands, high-profile work, lots of energy and, as it turned out, a great networking frenzy that has led to relationships that I now rely on for my own agency business.”
8. Marketing specialist
Marketing specialists collect and analyze data on target customers, initiate marketing campaigns, measure effectiveness of marketing attempts and create strategies to promote their company and its goods or services.
As you’ve probably noticed, many of these graphic design careers fall under the larger umbrella of marketing. Cunningham says more graphic designers should consider job titles in the marketing category with the unique expertise they offer.
“The role tends to require someone that is multi-skilled, that can work across many areas of design and someone that will push themselves and learn new skills,” Cunningham says. “A marketing career allows designers to apply their skills to a huge assortment of tasks like digital and print graphics, branding and social media. This keeps things exciting and also offers many options for future careers.”
9. Multimedia artist or animator
Multimedia artists and animators design complex graphics and animation using computer animation or modeling programs. They think about story development, visual impact and platforms to create media content that will meet their employer’s objectives. More brands and organizations are looking to increase their online video presence—and that’s been a boon for graphic designers with animation and motion graphics skills.
While it’s not a unique design job in its own right, but most of the job titles mentioned above can be performed as a freelancer. Designers who have some experience on their resume, a stunning portfolio of work or expertise in niche areas of design, marketing and graphics could build a career finding freelance projects.
But freelancing is also excellent as a side-gig that can bring in some extra cash—and boost your expertise. Ruane says he worked on side projects with small clients throughout his career on a huge range of project types. “There’s lots of ‘figure-it-out-as-you-go’ in freelancing, and the continuing education is hugely beneficial,” Ruane says.
In Ruane’s case, working in many different areas built up to him co-founding his own design agency and becoming a business owner. Designers who spend time freelancing will likely learn valuable skills in communication, attracting clients and managing time and budgets. These things can one day apply to even bigger entrepreneurial ventures.
Start on your graphic design career path
Graphic design is so profoundly versatile, that your imagination and your passion for the work can take it almost anywhere. “As an undergrad, I never would have imagined my trajectory would provide me with so many opportunities,” Lewin says. “I’ve worked on package designs for video game titles, branding projects for small businesses, print collateral for pharmaceutical companies, online and retail marketing advertisements, organized photoshoots and art directed TV commercials.”
Lewin’s biggest piece of advice for aspiring designers is to never settle in a role if you are unhappy. There is more out there, so keep trying and keep looking for what inspires you!
“You can take your graphic design foundation and apply it to any creative project, on any platform, using any media or technology,” Ruane says. “The principles of design are always top of mind, and the educational background can serve you well in any number of specialties.”
So does a Graphic Design degree sound right for you? Learn more about your learning options by visiting the Rasmussen University Graphic Design degree page.
*Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 33,170 graphic design degree job postings, Apr. 01, 2019 - Mar. 31, 2020).
Adobe Flash is a registered trademark of Adobe, Inc.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in September 2014. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2020. Insight from sources remains from original article.