Do you want to pursue a graphic design career? Perhaps you have wondered how a postsecondary education could benefit you in this field. Earning an advanced degree in graphic design can greatly improve your employment prospects, salary, and professional satisfaction.
Read on to learn more information about potential careers for a graphic design major.
SeventyFour / Shutterstock
Why Pursue a Career in Graphic Design?
As a graphic designer, most of your work allows you to flex your creative muscles on behalf of a company to create compelling designs that effectively convey information using a desired voice or style. To find success, you need a passion for art and expressing ideas in a visual format. Graphic designers can help individuals, businesses, and nonprofits convey their messages and attract clients and customers.
Graphic Design Career Outlook
Graphic design salaries vary widely depending on a worker's location, field, and experience. For example, individuals who work in areas along the West Coast and the East Coast tend to earn higher wages, and experienced professionals outearn entry-level workers. Additionally, graphic designers working in advertising and public relations typically make more than those working for newspapers or publishers.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the number of graphic design positions will grow by 3% from 2018-2028 -- slightly slower than the average growth for all occupations in the U.S.
Skills Gained With a Graphic Design Degree
While employers can easily quantify hard skills, like software proficiency, many roles also require candidates to demonstrate soft skills, such as time management and oral communication abilities. The following list of competencies includes some of the skills students gain in graphic design programs.
- Adobe Suite Proficiency
Graphic designers must be able to select and use the correct computer software to design projects like eye-catching packaging. Designers must master Illustrator and InDesign, along with other Adobe Suite programs, like Photoshop, Lightroom, Bridge, Spark, and Sketch.
Sometimes a design requires significant editing and revision. While graphic designers should remain open to receiving feedback, they must also effectively communicate design plans and understand client expectations.
- Creative Thinking
Graphic designers frequently need to develop intriguing and novel concepts within tight deadlines. Many designers draw inspiration from fellow artists or gain insight from history, nature, and current events.
Designers commonly encounter difficult tasks, like fitting several paragraphs onto a small poster or finding an obscure image to use in their work. Professionals must make decisions to improve the quality of their work, even if that requires changing or abandoning their original vision.
Graphic design positions demand excellent organizational skills. Most projects require professionals to arrange and organize visual elements in an eye-catching manner. Designers should also possess strong time management skills. Individuals who work at agencies often find themselves juggling multiple projects for different clients simultaneously.
Graphic Design Career Paths
Plotting out a specific career path often involves choosing a concentration or focus in college. Choosing a specialty allows students to explore a particular aspect or subfield of design in greater depth to gain specialized skills and find a creative/professional niche. Graduates can later use these abilities in their careers.
For example, individuals interested in a packaging design career path may pursue a concentration in product design or marketing, while aspiring magazine designers might select an InDesign-focused concentration. While concentration options vary from school to school, many programs offer one or more of the following tracks.
- Packaging Design
This pathway -- ideal for candidates who dream of designing labels for beauty products, beverages, and snacks -- teaches designers to create head-turning packaging. Coursework emphasizes consumer psychology and marketing principles. Many professionals who specialize in packaging design work for large design agencies or private corporations.
Successful brands often possess a visual persona. Branding professionals use graphic design to establish and reflect a client's desired image. Branding explores visual marketing strategies and design elements used to convey brand identity and consistency to consumer audiences.
- Editorial Design
A magazine's layout strongly influences its readability, and eye-catching magazine covers draw readers in. Courses in an editorial design concentration offer a top-down look at publication design, addressing topics such as page layout and typeface selection.
How to Start Your Career in Graphic Design
There are many benefits to earning a graphic design degree. Degree-holders at every level can pursue roles in the field commensurate with their education. Generally, employers expect an associate degree or higher, along with a reputable portfolio.
If your target job involves a lot of responsibility and autonomy, you may need a higher level of education. However, depending on your career interests, earning an advanced degree may not be necessary.
Associate Degree in Graphic Design
For many professionals, earning an associate degree in graphic design is the first step in launching a graphic design career. Combining core technical skills and concepts with general coursework, an associate degree in graphic design helps prepare candidates for some entry-level positions in the field.
Associate programs also provide a solid academic foundation for students who wish to eventually pursue their bachelor's degree. The table below explores two potential careers for individuals with an associate degree in graphic design.
- Junior Graphic Designer
Junior graphic designers work alongside senior designers and within teams to create content for print media. They hone their creative skills while mastering image editing and modeling software. These professionals create page layouts, storyboards, and website mockups.
In addition to needing strong communication skills and self-discipline, photographers are often self-employed and must market their brands and businesses to prospective clients. Many photographers master Adobe Suite applications like Lightroom and Photoshop. They must also use digital or analog cameras, along with other photography equipment. Photographers do not need an associate degree, but the skills they learn in college can help them find success more easily.
Sources: BLS and PayScale
Bachelor's Degree in Graphic Design
Many aspiring professionals earn a bachelor's in graphic design. This versatile degree increases a worker's earning potential and career opportunities. Individuals with a bachelor's degree in graphic design can pursue many employment options, such as those in the following table.
What Can You Do With a Bachelor's in Graphic Design?
- Multimedia Artists and Animators
Multimedia artists and animators create computer illustrations and animated effects for print and web material. Many begin the design process with pen or paint and paper, then digitize their artwork for use in print and web design. These professionals may use Adobe Suite applications like Photoshop and specialized hardware such as drawing tablets.
Median Salary: $75,270
- Graphic Designer
Graphic designers develop visual content for posters, websites, magazines, brochures, advertisements, and product packaging. Many use Adobe Suite software, including Indesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop. These workers may also need photography skills to create original source material, especially if they work at smaller companies.
Median Salary: $52,110
Well-suited for candidates who love to draw and paint, this role presents graduates with many opportunities to exercise their creativity. Illustrators work with different mediums to create artwork for children's books, murals, and other types of media. While some refine their designs with Photoshop, others use software and a stylus from start to finish.
Median Salary: $49,060
- Commercial Photographer
Unlike independent photographers, commercial photographers work with advertising agencies or corporations to create high-quality photographs for advertising or editorial purposes. In addition to Photoshop and Illustrator, they use advanced photography equipment, lights, and photo processing chemicals. Most commercial photographers work in studio settings.
Median Salary: $47,030
Source: BLS and PayScale
Master's Degree in Graphic Design
In many cases, earning a master's in graphic design can lead to a promotion faster than accruing experience and on-the-job training. Individuals with bachelor's degrees often spend many years working their way up to an art director or creative director position. In contrast, candidates who hold a master's degree may qualify for leadership roles after graduation.
If you love to collaborate with others on creative endeavors, a master's degree in graphic design could be your ticket to a rewarding career. The table below outlines five jobs you may qualify for if you earn a master's degree in graphic design.
What Can You Do With a Master's in Graphic Design?
- Art Director
Art directors oversee organizations and companies' visual brands. They work with photographers, graphic designers, and illustrators to create content that aligns with their client's desired message. Art directors must possess strong leadership skills to provide content creators with constructive feedback. While these professionals work in many settings, the editorial industry hires more art directors than any other sector. Workers may qualify for this role with only a bachelor's degree, but a graduate-level education can help set applicants apart.
Median Salary: $94,220
- Creative Director
Although creative directors perform many of the same job functions as art directors, they tend to focus more on big-picture creative decisions instead of team leadership. Using broad visual concepts, they develop and define creative directions for photo shoots, advertising campaigns, and branding initiatives.
Median Salary: $88,200
- Senior Graphic Designer
Senior graphic designers oversee graphic design teams. Although these professionals may perform graphic design tasks themselves, they primarily critique other designers' work and delegate projects. Senior graphic designers must possess strong leadership skills to mentor new team members. Many senior designers work for large corporations or advertising agencies.
Median Salary: $61,600
- Brand Manager
Brand managers control and oversee company trademarks. They communicate with other organizations and individuals to ensure that their company's trademarks follow brand guidelines. These managers work closely with graphic designers to select colors and fonts, establish recognizable branding, and oversee promotional material development.
Median Salary: $71,060
- Senior User Experience Designer
This position combines graphic design with cognitive science, marketing, information technology, and statistics to properly lead a team. Senior user experience designers work with designers, product engineers, and product managers to create websites and applications that merge form and function.
Median Salary: $101,870
Sources: BLS and PayScale
Doctorate Degree in Graphic Design
While many graphic design professionals gradually work their way up to high-level positions, some careers are best suited for individuals with doctorates. Some doctoral degree-holders take on academic roles in colleges and universities, while others lead postsecondary art departments as deans or department heads. Suitable for individuals who enjoy public speaking, teaching positions present the opportunity to train the next generation of designers.
Additionally, some candidates earn doctoral degrees to pursue careers in research. Researchers may predict future design trends, explore relationships between visual elements and emotions, and conduct original studies. They may also provide consultations with organizations and private companies seeking design and marketing advice.
What Can You Do With a Doctorate in Graphic Design?
- College Professor
College professors inspire and empower future graphic designers by imparting knowledge and providing constructive criticism. They give lectures, develop class syllabi, and grade assignments. In addition to classroom teaching, they may perform original research and publish their findings in academic journals.
Median Salary: $79,540
- Postsecondary Education Administrator
Postsecondary education administrators oversee operations at colleges and universities. While some administrators manage single departments within schools, such as student services, admissions, or faculty research, others oversee entire institutions.
Median Salary: $95,410
- Senior Researcher
Charged with finding answers to important questions, senior researchers drive innovation in graphic design. They design and implement studies, analyze data, and present their findings. Many work with advertising or research agencies to study the psychological processes behind consumer choices.
Median Salary: $94,780
Sources: BLS and PayScale
How to Advance Your Career in Graphic Design
After earning a degree in graphic design, you can advance your career in many ways. You can take online courses to stay informed about new techniques or seek professional certification. Additionally, you can access professional organizations as a way to network and refresh your skills.
Read on for some helpful tips on how to further a career in graphic design or transition into the field as an established professional.
Certifications and Licensure
While there are no licensure or certification requirements for graphic designers to practice professionally, many workers pursue certifications to bolster their abilities. For example, Adobe offers certifications related to its Creative Cloud software suite; workers can become an Adobe certified expert in InDesign, Photoshop, and Premier.
Graphic design professionals can pursue continuing education to cement their existing skills and develop new abilities. You could enter a certificate program at an accredited university, for instance. Typically, non-degree students can earn these certificates independently, though degree-seeking students can usually apply certificate credits towards an undergraduate or graduate graphic design degree.
You can also develop your graphic design career by joining professional organizations for graphic designers, including the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA). Professional organizations offer resources for continuing education and networking, both on the internet and through local chapters. Larger events, such as AIGA's annual conference, allow peers and mentors to network.
How to Switch Your Career to Graphic Design
If you want to get started in the graphic design field immediately, you do not necessarily need an advanced degree. Start by building up experience as a freelancer and develop your portfolio. You may want to take an online course or earn a certificate from an accredited school. As you gain expertise, start pursuing a degree to build your credentials.
People from many walks of life take an interest in this field. Professionals commonly transition from management to art direction roles.
Where Can You Work as an Graphic Design Professional?
While graphic designers in different fields perform many of the same tasks, their work environments, professional objectives, and daily schedules may differ considerably. Although designers work in many settings, the following industries hire many graduates who hold graphic design degrees.
- Advertising, Public Relations, and Marketing
Graphic designers who work in advertising, public relations, and marketing design promotional material for companies and organizations. They may work on multiple types of media, including web and print.
Mean Annual Wage: $58,270
- Specialized Design Services
These professionals typically work with a handful of clients to create individualized content that fits each customer's style or brand. Designs often undergo several edits before receiving client approval.
Mean Annual Wage: $58,830
- Newspaper, Periodical, Book, and Directory Publishers
The editorial industry offers designers the creative freedom to create eye-catching page layouts, publication covers, and logos. Professionals in this industry must possess strong time management skills to meet publication deadlines.
Mean Annual Wage: $48,770
- Printing and Publishing
Graphic designers employed in the printing and publishing industry develop covers and select typefaces for large-scale publications. In addition to design principles, they must maintain familiarity with printing machinery and processes.
Mean Annual Wage: $45,490
- Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting Services
Individuals who enjoy variety and helping others may excel in the consulting services industry. These professionals use their creative skills and graphic design expertise to help clients develop branding and promotional materials.
Mean Annual Wage: $61,650
Employment and salary statistics suggest that graphic design professionals get hired the most and make the most in states that host thriving metropolitan tech hubs. California, home to the massive tech scene of the Bay Area, employs almost 30,000 graphic design professionals -- more than any other state.
Graphic design professionals earn the highest average wages in the District of Columbia and Washington, making $79,450 and $72,200, respectively. With Microsoft's home campus in Redmond, Washington, and tech startups migrating to the D.C. area, graphic designers are in high demand in these regions.
Interview With a Professional in Graphic Design
Jon Berry is a Los Angeles-based, award-winning motion graphic designer and creative director of television branding, advertising, marketing campaigns, main titles, and graphics for online and experiential video. Since 2005, he has worked at an independent motion design studio, creating designs for clients in television, corporate business, sports, and advertising.
- Why did you decide to pursue a career in graphic design? Is it something that you were always interested in?
I was always artistic as a kid and especially liked design, so it seemed almost a given that I would go to art school. I remember wanting to be an architect in high school, but was convinced it was too exact when working with tools like a t-square and triangle; only to discover once in design school that it required using those same tools. (I doubt they still do today, though.)
- How is a graphic design program different from other college majors?
Graphic design is different in that it is probably more immersive, with nearly all of your classes being arts-related. The best design programs start with a year of art foundation -- an intense exploration of all aspects of the arts to help determine your major, which may end up being something other than design. That foundation year gives a lot of important skill and knowledge that creates a strong basis for learning design.
I'd also recommend a school that requires other liberal arts courses, like literature, social sciences, etc. Those end up being important and useful to your design and general life skills.
- What was the job search like after completing your degree?
I sort of fell into my first design job. I was already working in radio when I graduated college, which led to a producer job a year later at a local TV station. Soon after starting there, their graphic designer left, and they asked me to help fill in that spot. After a few months, I ended up taking that position full time and giving up the producing role. That job in TV design became the basis of my motion design career; at that time, that was pretty much how most motion graphic designers began. (In fact, it was generally called "broadcast design" back then.)
- Is graphic design a versatile degree? Or one that has a clear career path?
If you're in a program that focuses on design and not software or technology, then yes -- it is a versatile degree. Good design is good design. If you have a strong basis in the basics and fundamentals, you can apply those to print design, motion design, environmental design, or other specific directions. I'd encourage any student to look for programs that emphasize design fundamentals, as well as arts outside of design, more than technology or tools.
- Is your career path typical of someone who graduates with a graphic design degree?
Both yes and no. Because motion design was equivalent to broadcast TV design at that time, it was common when I started for designers to start at a small local TV station, move to a larger market station, and eventually go to a network or agency that, at that time, was nearly always in Los Angeles or New York. (Expensive dedicated equipment was a big reason for that.)
Today, that's not the case. However, the idea of starting at a smaller place and moving to a larger one probably still applies. Ideally, you continue to learn and grow in each job -- though with the equipment more available to anyone today, I would think it could be easier with the right talent and business sense to blaze your own path, as well.
- What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job? The most challenging?
Easily the most enjoyable part is getting to create. The challenge of solving the problem is also what makes it enjoyable. There are certain projects when you hit on the right idea and it just blossoms -- especially when a client chooses a direction you didn't expect they would go for, but hoped they would -- and gives you the freedom to run with it. Collaborations that push you in unexpected directions are also really rewarding.
The most challenging part is earning a client's trust to let you do what you do best. It's common for clients to want to be the designer, and their trust to let go of that often only comes in time as a project and relationship with a client develops.
- What advice would you give to students considering a degree and career in graphic design?
Find a program that focuses on the basics and not the tools: theory and philosophy of design, design history (and art history,) typography, color theory. The fundamentals are universal and critical -- soak up every bit of those that you can. Technology, software, and tools will change. Of course you need some basic level of those, but don't focus on those because those will change and you can always learn those later. Diversify and stay loose in your studies. And don't skimp on the liberal arts classes, either. Writing, social sciences, etc. are important in communicating, both in design and business.
- Any final thoughts for us?
Keep learning, whether through trade groups or classes. Make connections -- relationships are important. And be prepared for change. The design world today is completely turned on its side from the way it was 20 years ago, and probably will be again. Have fun. Every project and every client isn't always fun, but if you aren't enjoying what you are doing, figure out why and see if that is something you need to change. And again -- it's all about design, not technology. The principles are what matter, not the tools.
Resources for Graphic Design Majors
Many resources and communities are available for graphic design majors. Professional organizations, open courseware, and design journals can help you gain a foothold in your chosen field and stay afloat later into your career.
- Professional Organizations
Professional associations provide academic funding opportunities and other benefits for graphic design professionals and students. Members can participate in webinars, networking events, and continuing education opportunities by joining the following organizations.
American Institute of Graphic Arts: AIGA has more than 20,000 members in dozens of chapters. This professional society was established in 1917 to advocate for graphic designers' rights and advancement in professional spheres. This organization hosts several juried design competitions, including 50 Books/50 Covers and the Design Effectiveness Competition. Candidates can apply for the Worldstudio AIGA Scholarship, which provides undergraduate and graduate students up to $3,000 in funding.
nternational Council of Design: ico-D helps designers connect, collaborate, and learn from each other. The council's database of documents remains open to public viewing and includes design policies, best practice guides, intellectual property information, regional statistics, and case studies.
Graphic Artists Guild: This professional guild, based in New York City, serves as a rallying point for graphic artists, animators, cartoonists, and web designers. There are six regional chapters based in major cities, such as Chicago, Seattle, and Boston. Members receive access to exclusive publications, webinars, insurance options, and referrals.
Design Management Institute: This nonprofit organization caters to a global audience of design industry professionals. It focuses on providing career training and networking opportunities, as well as advancing design business practices. Members can join at the student, professional, or faculty levels to gain perks such as referral listings, a job bank, research library access, and event discounts.
The Association of Illustrators: This organization serves illustrators around the globe and boasts more than 3,300 members in 75 countries. Along with helpful educational tools like fact sheets and publications, members receive discounted portfolio consultation services and advice on how to negotiate rates.
The One Club for Creativity: This group sponsors informative networking events like conferences and exhibitions. The club also maintains an exclusive job board and publishes a regular online newsletter. Professionals under the age of 30 and international residents receive reduced membership fees.
The Society of Publication Designers: Primarily serving professionals who work in the editorial, print, and publication industries, this organization constantly updates its website with new resources and informative articles. The society also hosts a job board.
KelbyOne: Seasoned professionals and aspiring designers can benefit from KelbyOne's comprehensive online Photoshop courses, monthly webcasts, and discounts on Adobe and Apple products. Members can also seek individualized advice and assistance through the organization's help desk.
The Design History Society: Based in the United Kingdom, the DHS promotes the study of graphic design from a historical perspective. Membership includes access to industry publications, an annual conference, and networking events.
The Feminist Art Project: This organization celebrates the feminist art movement and supports female graphic designers. Members can access free instructional resources about feminism and video tutorials. The organization hosts frequent events across the country and maintains regional chapters in most states. Many regional chapters host monthly meetings and invite guest speakers.
Association Typographique Internationale: ATypI serves graphic designers who create and work with fonts. The association hosts seminars and conferences, influences legislation around the world, and campaigns for the protection of typeface designs. Members receive access to exclusive publications and educational resources.
National Art Education Association: An important organization for graphic design professors and teachers, NAEA upholds a longstanding tradition of empowering educators through networking and sharing information. Founded in 1947, the organization encourages members to mentor one another and collaborate.
- Open Courseware
The digital era has marked a great period of educational growth for design students and professionals. Websites and apps display a wealth of content, such as high-resolution graphics and videos, to supplement open courses on design. However, keep in mind that the following classes do not provide students with college credits or professional credentials.
Design and Designing - The Open University: The Open University uploaded this course to iTunes University. These clips explore product design, illustration, three-dimensional models, marketing communication, and many other topics.
Art of Color - MIT: This MIT OpenCourseWare offering, led by Dr. Peter Dourmashkin in spring 2005, provides a good introduction to color theory for undergraduate students. Learners explore color blending, the psychology of color in visual arts, and the meanings of color in historical works.
User Interface Design and Implementation - MIT: Professor Robert Miller leads this multidisciplinary course for students at the undergraduate and graduate levels, delving into UI prototyping, design elements of software, and user perceptions during technology interactions.
Digital Typography - MIT: This graduate-level course explores the meaning, foundational theory, and creation of digital typefaces and fonts. Professor John Maeda demonstrates how to use Java programs to control type. The lessons and assignments revolve around readings from The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst.
Open-Access Graphic Design Journals
The following journals cater to readers who wish to explore the theoretical, academic, and technical aspects of design. Several prominent colleges have released periodicals, including Oxford University and the University of Nova Scotia.
International Journal of Design: This global design journal, founded in 2007, showcases reviews, articles, and design case studies relevant to design practice, advancement, and research. Readers can access past volumes and issues in HTML and PDF formats.
Journal of Design History: This periodical -- edited, managed, and published by Oxford University -- contains a general collection of design history articles and visual art analysis. The first volume debuted in 1988, and new issues are released quarterly.
Journal of Graphic Engineering and Design: The University of Nova Scotia's Department of Graphic Engineering and Design established this journal in 2010. This publication welcomes submissions about visual art theory, typography, and design communication. This free periodical releases new volumes annually.
Graphic Design Books
Learn from experts by investing in the following recommended texts for graphic design students and professionals. Several of these volumes consider the marketing considerations that designers make as they work with their clients. These books also cover fundamental graphic design concepts, such as typography, color, spacing, and image use.
Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, and Students: Typography conveys volumes about brand identity, content, and emotion. Ellen Lupton walks individuals through the technical aspects of font kerning, tracking, and alignment, while also keeping an eye on big-picture design elements.
The Elements of Graphic Design: Alex White's textbook introduces design students to fundamental concepts, such as blank space, design unity, typography, and page elements. The revised edition addresses graphic design for the web, illustrating key concepts with full-color images.
Package Design Workbook: The Art and Science of Successful Packaging: Authors John Silva and Steven DuPuis explore the role of package design in business and marketing strategies. Readers learn how to convey a unifying brand vision through packaging materials. The authors also use case studies from successful projects to emphasize key points.
Design Basics Index: Author Jim Krause has worked as a designer for corporations like Microsoft, Seattle Public Schools, Levi Strauss, and Cingular Wireless. He shares his experiences and professional wisdom with aspiring designers in this encyclopedia-like reference volume, covering topics like color theory, typography, theme, image placement, and concept.
Logo Design Love: A Guide to Creating Iconic Brand Identities: Logos encapsulate a brand's culture and identity. David Airey discusses the various aspects of logo creation, including creating design briefs, maintaining identity focus, overcoming issues related to focus groups, and determining logo design pricing rubrics.
Online Graphic Design Magazines
The digital magazine format lends itself well to displaying graphic design projects. These publications make great reads during academic and professional downtime, keeping you up-to-date with industry news and tech developments.
Smashing Magazine: This digital magazine caters to web-based designers, exploring the intersection of coding with typography and web design. Whether you are interested in print or web design, Smashing Magazine can provide you with ample inspiration. Content covers graphics, user interface design, business, and typography.
Destructed: This magazine provides a space where contributors can openly express themselves creatively, free of formal boundaries. This publication won the Lead Academy Awards distinction of "Independent Online Magazine of the Year" in 2005. Readers can download Destructed for free in PDF format.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is graphic design a good career?
For many, graphic design offers a rewarding career that relies on good business acumen, artistic expression, and creative problem-solving. The field offers professional satisfaction derived from business-related and creative endeavors. It also can lead to higher wages than many other art-related careers.
- What are the highest-paying graphic design jobs?
Graphic design majors make their highest wages in creative direction and experience design roles, which usually require a master's degree and take place in corporate settings. Individuals who earn a doctoral degree can also look forward to high earnings while working in research and education roles.
- Can I be a graphic designer if I can't draw?
Not all graphic designers possess great talent for drawing. Many find their strong points in printmaking and digital image editing. If you possess a good eye for composition and a willingness to work to your strengths, you can succeed in graphic design.
- What is the best degree for graphic design?
If you can handle the time commitment, consider pursuing a master's degree in graphic design. A master's in graphic design qualifies you for high-paying supervisory roles upon graduation.
- Is graphic design hard?
Graphic design mastery requires you to develop a strong portfolio while refining computer, visual organization, and business skills. Ultimately, if you push yourself, you can forge a rewarding career that aligns with your passions.