Pursuing a career in graphic design is all about creativity and collaboration, with an emphasis on conveying messages visually. Graphic designers leverage writing, technology, communication and problem-solving skills. It's a fulfilling career for those with an artistic mind and sharp organization skills.
Whether you want a career with a design firm or hope to launch your own company after graduation, here are five steps for how to become a graphic designer, from building your skills to learning how to write a resume.
1. Strengthen your design and communication skills
You don't have to major in design to find a graphic design job, but you will need to demonstrate competency in core technical skills like Adobe Creative Suite, HTML and typography. If you aren't already a creative design student, take some introductory courses or pursue a minor or certificate program before you graduate — or even after. You'll be able to meet other students and learn some of the necessary digital and artistic fundamentals.
"If you can demonstrate that you have aptitude with the tools, design sensibility and a good ability to react to a client's needs and respond accordingly, that's the central thing that anybody is looking for," says James Dickinson, assistant vice president for career services at Loyola University of Maryland.
In addition to technical skills, graphic designers need to show that they will listen to their clients and create a product that meets their specific needs. They should have experience receiving feedback and using it to make changes to their work. A successful graphic designer needs the ability to:
- Listen attentively
- Communicate effectively
- Meet deadlines
- Be flexible and agile
2. Consider a graphic design internship or volunteering
By volunteering or getting an internship, you'll get hands-on experience working in the field and build your portfolio, which are crucial when interviewing for full-time positions. You'll also get on-the-job mentoring which will help you grow your skills and make useful connections.
Look around your community or campus for opportunities to practice and build your graphic design skills. You might be able to produce a new brand identity for an on-campus business, design layouts for the newspaper or create a series of social media ads for a local organization.
"The possibilities are limitless — a college campus is really a huge organization, like its own little city," says Dickinson, emphasizing the importance of asking for feedback on your work. Accepting criticism and incorporating it into your work will prepare you for what it's like to work in the field. Not sure where to start? AIGA (formerly the American Institute of Graphic Design) has a list of "Design for Good" resources with a wealth of opportunities to give back.
3. Determine the best environment for your work style
Each aspiring graphic designer needs to figure out which working environment will be most fulfilling. Graphic designers have the flexibility to work in many different sectors and settings, like:
- Small businesses
- Design firms
- Advertising agencies
- Marketing agencies
- Corporate creative departments
- Non-profit organizations
Think about how you like to collaborate and how often, whether you prefer the idea of working for one company or many clients, and how much autonomy you need. Also consider the kinds of industries and organizations that you're passionate about. If you love food, a restaurant group or food blog may be an excellent client. But if you're more of a fitness buff, look for opportunities in health or wellness. That will help you determine the kinds of graphic design jobs might be the best fit.
4. Create an outstanding graphic design portfolio
"[Graphic design] is one of the most 'show me' fields that there is," explains Dickinson. "Your portfolio, at the end of the day, is going to be the be-all, end-all. It's going to show somebody what you put together [and] what your design aesthetic is."
Your portfolio could be an easy-to-navigate website, complete with samples of your work, lists of past clients, testimonials and contact information. (Check out some great examples of graphic design portfolios and our tips for translating coursework to your first portfolio.)
To develop a standout portfolio that highlights your graphic design skills:
- Assemble five to six examples of your best design work, including pieces that require different technical skills.
- Use "case studies" to show specific examples of how you listened to what the client wanted and delivered on their needs.
- If you have limited work history, include class projects. Add in some client work, even if it's work you completed around campus.
- Upload all your portfolio materials to a professional website that shows off your design skills and sensibilities.
There are many online tools you can use to develop your portfolio. Use a hosted service to simplify server needs and set up. To determine the right solution for you, look at template options, layout flexibility, site traffic, and price. Some options include CarbonMade, Behance, Dunked, Viewbook and PortfolioBox. You can obviously also set up a site yourself, if you're skilled in web design. Having a branded website that clearly shows your work provides a proof of concept that hiring managers (and freelance users) will find valuable.
5. Write a resume that reflects your skills and style
Your portfolio may speak for itself, but you'll also need to include a custom resume for each job you apply to. Unlike resumes for more traditional industries, Dickinson stresses that graphic design resumes should include carefully selected:
- Use of color
- Infographics or visuals
- Your experience in design-related software
- Creative — but legible — fonts that move beyond Arial or Times New Roman
LiveCareer's Resume Builder lets you choose a template that provides logical structure and easy-to-read sections. Graphic designers can select templates that reflect their style and customize the design to make it their own. (You can also use LiveCareer's Cover Letter Builder to write that other critical job application document.)
"[Your resume] should be crisp, clean and easy-to-read," says Dickinson. "But it should also have some of your own design sensibilities to convey your brand as a designer."