What is a Graphic Designer? A Career for the Creative
When you hear the term graphic designer, who (or what) do you picture?
Maybe you envision someone pushing the envelope with Microsoft Paint and sketching something a bit more complicated than stick figures and a sunny scene. It’s possible you think of someone with great drawing skills—or someone with excellent painting abilities. That muralist downtown was “designing graphics” on that brick wall by the river, wasn’t she?
None of these ideas is completely wrong, but there’s a lot more to it than simply being a talented artist. So what is a graphic designer, exactly? We polled the pros to get the simplest, more straight-forward answer we could. Keep reading to learn the truth about this creative career.
What is a graphic designer, anyway?
A graphic designer is essentially a visual communicator. Graphic designers take concepts and bring them to life using colors, typography, layouts and other graphics. They solve visual problems, helping clients achieve their goals and breathe life into their brands.
What kind of work do graphic designers do?
Put simply, graphic designers create graphics, logos and layouts using shapes, colors and photos to communicate a message for a client. Depending on where you work—and there are many types of graphic design jobs available—you may find yourself designing sports team logos, creating a magazine layout or bringing life to an otherwise boring website.
“Graphic design and web design are very similar in a lot of ways,” says Alex Caldwell, creative director at Brolik. “At their core, they are both about conveying information in a usable and aesthetically pleasing way.”
Even though we live in an online world, there are still plenty of opportunities for graphic designers to work on print projects as well. You may be required to collect photos and create images for different types of innovative assignments, such as ads, brochures, packaging and more, according to Allison Strickland, senior public relations manager at The Creative Group.
Designers are involved in every phase of the process, overseeing the style, design and layout of these pieces, Strickland says. Many graphic designers get to see their work through from idea to publication, which can be a satisfying way to spend your workday. Others work on very precise aspects of a much larger project, which is also fun to see how your work contributes to an initiative much bigger than yourself.
Where can graphic designers work?
Graphic designers are needed in nearly every industry. Depending on your interests, you can apply your expertise to a variety of career fields, such as marketing, film, web development, art direction, animation and more. There are also various work environments for graphic designers.
Some designers work in-house, meaning they are on a marketing, communications or design team within a company. Other are employed by an agency, which allows them to work on project for a variety of clients. There is also an option to be self-employed as a freelance designer.
“Designers can be generalists or they can specialize in one facet or another,” says Callum Beattie, a partner at Honest Agency. For example, some designers specialize in a particular medium, say package design or web design. Others work exclusively in a specific field, such as the music industry or designing type, Beattie explains.
All companies need designers in some way or another. With a little searching, you’re sure to find a graphic design opportunity that perfectly suits your skills and interests.
How do you become a graphic designer?
Graphic design is a profession in which it’s possible to educate yourself if you so choose. The Internet hosts countless resources and tutorials to help equip self-taught designers. But there are certain things that are best taught in a structured environment.
“The best way to become a graphic designer is to attend a reputable college or university with a solid program,” Beattie says. By obtaining a formal education, you can interact with the teacher and other students and have the opportunity to ask questions and gain valuable feedback in a controlled setting.
"From your kitchen pantry to your bathroom to the clothes you wear, there is some logo, typography or aesthetic element that was carefully crafted by a designer."
Graphic designers often use computer software like InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop to bring their designs to life, so being somewhat tech-savvy is definitely helpful. But there’s no need to worry if computers are not your strength! A good graphic design program will spend ample time teaching students the ins and outs of the design programs you’ll be using in the workforce.
It’s also important to make sure you have a variety of experience under your belt. Don’t limit yourself to one or two proficiencies. Once you’ve dabbled in various areas, you’ll have a better idea of where your skills and interests lie. Plus the more experience and knowledge you have, the more appealing of a candidate you’ll be in the eyes of hiring managers, according to Caldwell.
“From your kitchen pantry to your bathroom to the clothes you wear, there is some logo, typography or aesthetic element that was carefully crafted by a designer,” Caldwell says. This is why he recommends diversifying your skillset.
“Don't just be a graphic designer. Be a web designer, a user experience guru, a developer, a copywriter, and you'll see that you can work anywhere you want – and get paid really well for it!” he says.
What’s the job outlook for graphic designers?
The job outlook is bright for graphic designers in areas such as computer systems design, websites and other technology-related fields, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). These positions are expected to increase by 21 percent through 2024, which is much faster than average.
Though other design fields—such as newspapers and other print materials—aren’t expected to need as many graphic designers in coming years, the booming digital world is keeping designers in demand. The BLS reports the median annual salary for graphic designers at $45,900 in 2014, which is also more than the national average.*
Despite these optimistic numbers, it’s important to realize that when it comes to landing a job, it’ll take more than just mastering the software. The tools can only take you so far. It’s important to have a thorough understanding of design elements and a passion for pushing the creative boundaries.
“Grasping the fundamental concepts of design as well as having some artistic skill and passion is what I look for,” Caldwell says.
Are you headed for a graphic design career?
Now that you have a better idea of what a graphic designer is, you should be closer to determining if this is the creative career you’ve been seeking. If you can envision yourself in this position, it’s time to take the next step.
But the next step isn’t the same for everyone. Learn more about your options in our article: Is a Graphic Design Degree Worth it or Worthless?
*Salary data represents national, averaged earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries and employment conditions in your area may vary.