Becoming a graphic designer takes years of training and determination. It can be a challenging field to break into. There are 266,300 graphic designers employed in the United States, and probably as many amateur designers on gig sites. If you want to compete, you have to carve out a niche for yourself and set goals for what you will and won’t work for. Figuring out how to become a graphic designer is a matter of following a few steps.
If you want to know how to become a graphic designer, take time to study what graphic designers do daily. You may even want to shadow someone who works in this field to be sure it is right for you. If you believe graphic design is your calling, you’ll want to know how to break in and how to make a decent, livable wage.
1. Learn the Basics
You don’t need a college degree to become a graphic designer. If you want to work for a company, rather than freelance, you’ll either need an extensive portfolio or a degree in most cases. Remember, you’re competing against other experienced candidates for the job, many of whom do have degrees.
Make sure you fully understand what is involved in becoming a graphic designer. Read articles on how to become a graphic designer, study common terms, take a few classes in design and practice like crazy.
2. Intern With a Local Company
In one analysis, students who completed at least one internship were about 13 percent more likely to land a full-time position after graduation. Even if you aren’t attending a university, you can land an internship, which is typically an unpaid position but allows you to gain experience for your resume.
Look at online job boards for potential internship positions. If there is a particular company you know you’d like to work for one day, approach them and ask if they’d be willing to take you on as an intern. That allows you to get your foot in the door, learn their style of doing things and build a relationship that may pave the way to a paying job one day.
3. Find a Mentor
Seek out someone who knows more about design than you do. Ideally, this is a veteran graphic designer who has worked in the industry for at least 10 years. This person not only can give you tips and shortcuts for design work, but can help you navigate the ins and outs of securing your first job.
If the person has earned an excellent reputation and has lots of connections, they may even recommend you to their company for an open entry-level position or reach out to their network to see who is hiring. A mentor comes alongside you and takes you under their wing, helping you avoid the pitfalls they likely had to suffer.
4. Make Connections
Begin building your network of professional connections before you start your job hunt. About 70 percent of job seekers get hired by a company where they have some connection. Building professional friendships allows you to reach out to your network when you need a new job and hear about positions they may not have started advertising yet.
5. Build Your Portfolio
For a career in something artistic like graphic design, you’ll need a portfolio that highlights your best work. Begin to build your portfolio long before you seek a position or set out to freelance for companies. One way to do this is to volunteer to create items for local nonprofits, your church or other organizations and groups you believe in. If your aunt owns a clothing store, create some things for free with the understanding you can use them as examples in your portfolio.
6. Choose a Niche
When you go to compete for a graphic design job, you’ll face people with all types of experience and specialties. Your best bet to become highly sought-after is to find a niche area and specialize in that, learning everything you can about it, studying the greats and coming up with new design techniques of your own.
Choose a niche based on what you love, as well as what’s in demand. If your goal is to make a decent living, you must choose your niche based on what pays well, rather than only what is fun.
7. Freelance on the Side
While you’re waiting to land that full-time graphic design job, go ahead and freelance on the side. Some designers find they love the freedom of working for themselves, while others appreciate the steady paycheck a company job provides.
Freelancing on the side has a couple of benefits. First, you gain experience in things you might not otherwise have worked on. Second, you build connections — and one of those connections might lead to your dream job.
8. Get Your Foot in the Door
What if the only job offers you get don’t pay all that well? It’s a common problem for those just starting out in their careers. Entry-level jobs are low-paying, but someone has to fill them. Sometimes you just have to take what you can get until you gain enough experience to move up the ladder in that company, or use your experience to move on to another position.
You need to decide whether you want to get your foot in the door and begin building your resume, or prefer to wait and develop more experience on your own.
9. Know the Going Rate in Your Area
Is that job offer a decent one, or not? Knowing the going rate for graphic designers is the first step to negotiating a fair salary. Nationally, graphic designers make an average of $47,640 per year. However, this is the average and includes top-earning graphic designers with several years of experience. Expect your starting salary to be much less.
Also, different areas of the country have different costs of living, and thus different average salaries. One way to prepare for a job offer is to study the average entry-level wages in your area through sites such as Salary.com and Payscale.com. Job-search sites, such as Monster and Indeed, also provide ranges for your area and other areas you might be job hunting in.
A Lucrative Career
With a little determination and a lot of planning, graphic design is a lucrative and rewarding career. Whether you want to work for a company or strike out on your own, take the time to build the experience you’ll need to attract businesses. Your portfolio is the face of your business as a graphic designer, so put only the very best work in it to represent you. Now, go land that design job or new client!
About The Author
Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her re-reading the Harry Potter series, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or hanging out with her dogs, Bear and Lucy.