How to Become a Graphic Designer

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Graphic design is a creative process that reaches into everything we do these days—from websites to application interfaces to product packaging, the talented hand of the graphic designer is seen everywhere. It can be a rewarding, challenging career. Here are some ideas to help set you on that path.


Learn the Fundamentals

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    Choose an area of graphic design. Before you can call yourself a graphic designer, you have to make some decisions. For example, are you interested in advertising, web development, multimedia (ex. the TV industry), print design, or animation? These can all be considered different forms of graphic design. Narrow your focus on an area that appeals to you.

    • While graphic design is fundamentally the same whether in print or online, there are also key differences in resolutions, color space, and other variables that are specific to the medium you want to focus on. Though you can certainly do both, it’s best to focus on one to begin with.
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    Acquire the tools. The industry standard applications for graphic design are Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator. (If you plan to go all-out, the full Adobe Creative Suite includes Acrobat, Dreamweaver, Illustrator, Premiere, Photoshop, InDesign and After Effects.) While both applications are designed to be easy to use from the start, they are very feature rich and will require a great deal of focused effort to master them.

    • These programs aren’t cheap. To get started, play around with free alternatives like Gimp, Scribus, Inkscape, and Pixlr, all of which will help you learn the ropes until you’re willing and able to drop big bucks on the real thing.
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    Purchase textbooks. Focus on books that teach design fundamentals, then study as though you were taking a college course. Instead of working for a grade, however, your reward will be a career that you love.
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    Take a course in graphic design. It’s not just to become an expert in programs like Photoshop and Illustrator, but to learn how to use these valuable tools in conjunction with developing a marketable design sense.
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    Get involved with the design community. Practicing at home is a great, safe way to learn the ropes, but eventually, you need to put yourself out there so you can get feedback. Though it may be painful at first, keep your ego in check and take the tips seriously; the payoff will be enormous. Additionally, it’s important to see what other people are doing so that you’re exposed to more than just one or two styles.

    • As with any business, networking is important in graphic design, especially if you intend to freelance. Make friends, keep in touch, be willing to learn, and you might just get work out of it.
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    Further your education. Really interested in graphic design? Consider getting a degree. Academic settings can be inspiring and networking with others in your field is always a good thing. On top of that, many people won’t hire a graphic designer without seeing some proof that they’ve been properly trained. Consider these options:

    • If you want a degree that will lend you credibility but don’t have much time or money, get an associate’s. This is typically a two-year degree and can be acquired at a community college or trade school. The emphasis will be more on computer skills than art theory, but it’s a good place to start.
    • If you want a degree with some weight to it, get a bachelor’s. This is typically a four-year degree that can be acquired at a college or university. In addition to learning all the necessary computer skills, you will also be trained in art and design.
      • Not 100% sure that graphic design will be your career path? Get a bachelor’s of arts degree, not a bachelor’s of fine arts. Though both are great for this type of work, a B.A. is less focused than a B.F.A., covers more general education, and makes it easier for you to change to a wildly different major should you choose to pursue something else.
    • If you already have a B.A. or B.S., do post-baccalaureate work in graphic design. These courses may even earn you a certificate, credential, or second bachelor’s degree.
    • If you’re dead-set on being a graphic designer, get a graduate degree. If you haven’t done so already, you will first have to get a bachelor’s degree. Consider minoring or getting a second major in a business-related field if you’re also interested in freelancing.


Develop Your Style

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    Do what you love. If you are compelled by ornate designs with florid script and bright colors, focus on that. If you love that style, focus on developing that design sense. If your passion is for the clean, well-balanced line, with simple color schemes and powerful graphics, make it your own.
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    Read graphic design books. They can be really helpful and will speed up the process of your education.
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    Study the pros. Hunt down and devour the designs featured in newspapers, magazines, the Internet, and anywhere else you spot graphic design (hint: it will be everywhere you look).

    • Don’t limit yourself to what is traditionally considered “graphic design,” but expand into other areas as well, such as industrial designers like Joey Roth or Makota Makita & Hiroshi Tsuzaki; or architects such as Santiago Calatrava or Frank Gehry. Draw inspiration to foster your own creativity.
    • Don’t just look in the likely places. Check out wine stores, for example: label design is a key part of the industry. Also check out fashion websites, book stores, music labels, even product design packaging.
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    Research fonts. People who get into typography are a whole other breed. They agonize over book print, street signs, and movie credits. They have serious opinions about serifs. They mock your Comic Sans. A good graphic designer should understand the importance of typeface, leading, kerning, and everything else that goes with creating effective text.
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    Develop a unique style. You want people, when they see your designs, to recognize and know that it is your work. The more they know, the quicker things will work for you.
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    Gather interesting designs. Whether it’s a t-shirt, a pamphlet, a food label, a postcard, or a poster, collect anything and everything that excites and inspires you. Study them, note what you like and don’t like, and tuck them away so that you can use them as references whenever you feel stuck on a project.
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    Don’t throw any of your work away. Even if you hate something, swallow that lump in your throat and save it. When you feel strong enough, look back over your old work with a fresh eye. What worked? What didn’t? How much has your style grown? You might even be inspired to redo some of your older projects and turn them into masterpieces.
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    Redesign other people’s work. See a terrible design somewhere? Take a photo or save a copy and rework it for fun. See a fantastic design? Even better! Challenge yourself to add something that the original artist missed. Just as the aspiring music student studies the masters, and learns what they did, by working within other people’s designs will you be able to truly understand what does or doesn’t make it tick and why.
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    Create a portfolio. In addition to needing one if you ever want to get real work, putting together a portfolio challenges you to make critical judgments of your own work. Which pieces are your best and why? Which ones don’t make the cut? Is there a theme – and if so, can you play it up in the portfolio? If you want to work digitally, showcase your portfolio on a website.