Many organizations and industries rely on qualified graphic designers to help their products and services stand out from the crowd. With graphic designers in high demand, recent graduates and new professionals enjoy a variety of exciting employment opportunities in many different settings. By pursuing internships, taking on freelance projects, and cultivating an impressive portfolio, you can separate yourself from the competition and land a job you love.
It's never too early to begin planning your graphic design career. A little early research can help you refine your goals, stay focused, and gain an edge in the job market. This guide looks at some important factors to consider as you explore your options, including salary potential, specialized career paths, and the skills every graphic designer should master before graduation. Read on to learn more about what you can do with this versatile degree.
Skills Gained in a Graphic Design Program
Every job requires its own skill set, and graphic design positions are no exception. While hard skills like software proficiency are easy to quantify, many roles also require candidates to demonstrate soft skills like time management and oral communication. The following competencies are just a few of the skills students gain in a graphic design program.
- Adobe Suite Proficiency
Graphic designers must be able to select and use the correct computer software to design projects like a beautiful brochure or eye-catching packaging. Designers are expected to 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 be open to receiving feedback, they must also effectively communicate design plans and understand client expectations.
- Creative Thinking
Graphic designers are frequently expected to look at a blank page or screen and develop an intriguing concept -- often within a tight deadline. Many designers draw inspiration from fellow artists or gain insight from history, nature, and current events.
Designers are often faced with difficult tasks like fitting several paragraphs on a small poster or finding an obscure image to use in their work. Professionals must be adept at making decisions to improve the quality of their work, even if that requires changing or abandoning their original vision for a project.
Graphic design positions demand excellent organization skills. Most projects require professionals to arrange and organize visual elements in an attractive and eye-catching manner. Designers should also demonstrate strong time management skills. Individuals who work at agencies often find themselves juggling multiple projects for different clients simultaneously.
Why Pursue a Career in Graphic Design?
Graphic design can be a highly rewarding field, giving professionals the pride of seeing their creations hit store shelves and computer screens around the world. Graphic designers often benefit from a great deal of creative freedom, workplace mobility, and different opportunities to grow as professionals and artists. Almost every industry hires graphic designers.
Well-suited for lifelong learners, the graphic design field requires professionals to stay abreast of technological advancements, trends, and cutting-edge design techniques. Many graphic designers pursue graduate degrees to gain new skills and enhance their marketability. Some join professional organizations to connect with other designers and stay up-to-date on the latest industry news. Professional organizations also provide members with continuing education opportunities, publications, and networking events like conferences and seminars.
How Much Do Graphic Design Majors Make?
Graphic designers who work in certain industries or geographic regions earn more than others. For example, corporations on the East Coast tend to offer higher salaries than nonprofits or advertising agencies in the Midwest. Some sectors and companies pay higher rates than others, and designers who work for large organizations typically out-earn freelancers and those employed with small, locally-based agencies.
Professional experience is another important factor that influences earning potential. As the table below demonstrates, entry-level graphic designers tend to earn much less than experienced workers.
|Entry Level (0-12 Months)||$38,000|
|Early Career (1-4 Years)||$41,000|
|Midcareer (5-9 Years)||$47,000|
|Experienced (10-19 Years)||$50,000|
How to Succeed in Graphic Design
While standards and practices vary between workplaces and positions, graphic designers are usually expected to hold a relevant associate, bachelor's, or master's degree. Although some high-level roles may require a doctoral degree, the field offers a great deal of job mobility for individuals at every educational level. For example, professionals with an associate in graphic design typically begin their careers in entry-level assistant roles and work their way up to mid-level positions as graphic design coordinators or specialists.
Individuals with a bachelor's in graphic design can land some mid-level jobs immediately after graduation and move into advanced positions as they gain professional experience. However, candidates with a master's in graphic design typically enjoy the broadest variety of employment opportunities.
Experience RequiredGraphic design is a highly competitive field, and many employers prefer to hire candidates with professional experience -- particularly for leadership positions. Internships and supervised training programs are great ways to gain hands-on experience, enhance your portfolio, and make your resume stand out from the competition. These work opportunities show potential employers that you understand workplace practices and possess the applied skills and creativity needed to thrive in a graphic design position.
Licensure and Certification
While graphic designers are not required to hold state or industry licensure, many choose to enhance their resumes by earning software certifications. Software developers like Adobe offer certification programs for individuals who master applications like Photoshop and Indesign. These programs usually require candidates to watch a series of videos and complete exercises before taking a proficiency exam.
Concentrations Available to Graphic Design Majors
Graphic design is a broad field with many opportunities for specialization. Concentrations allow students to explore a particular aspect or subfield of design in greater depth, gaining specialized skills and finding a creative/professional niche. For example, individuals interested in packaging design 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: Ideal for candidates who dream of designing labels for products like beauty products, beverages, and snacks, this concentration 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.
- Visual Communication: Much like written words, graphic design communicates ideas and emotions. Students who select a visual communication concentration learn to speak through design, exploring the ways in which images, colors, and typefaces evoke feelings and transmit messages.
- Branding: Successful brands possess a visual persona. Branding professionals use graphic design to establish and reflect a client's desired image. This specialization 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 readability, and magazine covers must be eye-catching and attractive to 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.
What Can You Do With a Graphic Design Degree?
As you explore potential graphic design careers, be sure to consider each role's responsibilities and rewards. If you enjoy carrying out assignments from start to finish, you may want to earn a bachelor's degree and pursue a job as a graphic designer. However, if you prefer making big-picture creative decisions and leading design teams, a master's degree can help you land a position as an art director or branding manager.
Many of the field's most lucrative jobs require at least a bachelor's degree and an impressive portfolio. Fortunately, online learning options make it easier for working professionals to earn a degree or certificate while remaining employed. Online graphic design programs allow students to gain new skills and develop their professional portfolios without relocating or adapting to a new schedule.
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 a bachelor's degree. In the table below, we explore three potential careers for individuals with an associate degree in graphic design.
- Junior Graphic Designer
Junior graphic designers work alongside senior designers and within teams, creating content for printed media like magazines and brochures. Learning from experienced professionals, they hone their creative skills while mastering image editing and modeling software. They are often charged with creating page layouts, storyboards, and website mockups.
- Graphic Design Intern
Internships provide graphic design students with supplemental income, education, and networking opportunities. In addition, many companies choose to hire former interns as staff members. Graphic design interns perform supervised work under the direction of salaried graphic designers and art directors. While some internships are not paid, many organizations offer interns hourly rates.
- Independent Photographer
Independent photographers are self-employed. individuals. Along with strong communication skills and self-discipline, they must be capable of marketing their brand and business to prospective clients. Many independent photographers master Adobe Suite applications like Lightroom and Photoshop. They must also be comfortable using digital and/or analog cameras and other photography equipment.
Bachelor's Degree in Graphic Design
Earning a bachelor's in graphic design is a great way to get started on a graphic design career path. This versatile degree opens up a variety of job possibilities and qualifies graduates for many mid-level roles in the field. Individuals with a bachelor's degree in graphic design can pursue a variety of employment options, including the positions described in the following table.
- 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.
- Graphic Designer
Graphic designers develop visual content for use on posters, websites, magazines, brochures, advertisements, and product packaging. Many use Adobe Suite software -- including Indesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop -- on a daily basis. These workers may also need to be competent photographers capable of creating original source material, especially if they work at smaller companies.
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 media. While some refine their designs with Photoshop, others use specialized software and a stylus from start to finish.
- 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 must be adept at using advanced photography equipment, lights, and photo processing chemicals. Most commercial photographers work in studio settings.
While painters perform many of the same duties as illustrators, these professionals work primarily with oil- or water-based paints. Often working as freelancers, they typically rely on commissions from clients to earn an income. Successful painters who work hard to build a name for themselves often produce and sell original works.
Master's Degree in Graphic Design
In many cases, a master's in graphic design can propel your career forward faster than on-the-job training. Individuals with a bachelor's degree 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 a variety of 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 can earn with a master's degree in graphic design.
- Art Director
Art directors oversee an organization's or company's visual brand. Working with photographers, graphic designers, and illustrators, they create content that aligns with their client's desired image/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.
- Creative Director
Although creative directors perform many of the same job functions as art directors, they tend to focus on bigger-picture creative decisions instead of team leadership. Using broad visual concepts, they may develop and define creative directions for photoshoots, advertising campaigns, and branding initiatives.
- Senior Graphic Designer
Senior graphic designers oversee entire graphic design teams. Although they 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.
- Branding Manager
Branding managers control and oversee company trademarks. They communicate with other organizations and individuals to ensure that their company's trademarks follows brand guidelines. These managers work closely with graphic designers to select colors and fonts, establish a recognizable brand, and oversee promotional material development.
- Senior User Experience Designer
Combining graphic design with cognitive science, marketing, information technology, and statistics, this position requires strong leadership and analytical skills. Senior user experience designers work with designers, product engineers, and product managers to create websites and applications that merge form and function.
Doctoral Degree in Graphic Design
While many professionals gradually work their way up to high-level positions in the field, some graphic design careers are best suited to individuals with a doctoral degree. Some doctorate holders take on academic roles, teaching in colleges and universities, while others lead postsecondary art departments as deans or department heads. Well-suited for individuals who enjoy public speaking, teaching positions present the opportunity to train the next generation of designers.
Additionally, some candidates earn a doctoral degree 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.
- College Professor
College professors inspire and empower future graphic designers, 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.
- Postsecondary Education Administrator
Postsecondary education administrators oversee operations at colleges and universities. Job duties vary considerably depending on their position. While some administrators manage single departments within a school, such as student services, admissions, or faculty research, others are in charge of entire institutions.
- 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, where they study the psychological processes behind consumer choices.
Where Can You Work With a Graphic Design Degree?
Graphic designers are in high demand in many industries and regions, and graduates can pursue a variety of job opportunities. However, with so many options to choose from, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed as you explore potential careers. Fortunately, you can make the decision making process a little easier by considering your professional goals, personal preferences, and the following factors as you examine your options.
Geographic location plays a strong role in a worker's salary potential and advancement opportunities. Before you decide to relocate for a job, it is important to research factors such as cost of living, regional salaries, and local job growth rates.
For example, graphic designers in many Midwestern states often earn less than professionals in coastal regions. However, they also enjoy lower costs of living, paying less for housing, food, and transportation. While demand for graphic designers may be higher in large urban areas, professionals in big cities also face more competition for jobs. The map below details average salaries for graphic designers across the country.
While graphic designers in different fields perform many of the same tasks, their work environments, professional objectives, and daily schedules may differ considerably according to their industry. Although designers work in many settings, the following industries hire a large number of graduates who hold a graphic design degree. The table below examines the salary expectations and job responsibilities associated with five popular fields.
- Advertising, Public Relations, and Marketing
Graphic designers who work in advertising, public relations, and marketing design promotional material for companies and organizations. They are often called on to design multiple types of media.
Average Salary: $55,750
- Specialized Design Services
These professionals typically work with a handful of clients, creating individualized content that fits each customer's style or brand. Designs often undergo several edits before the designer receives client approval.
Average Salary: $56,600
- Newspapers, Magazines, and Other Periodicals
The editorial industry offers designers the creative freedom to create eye-catching page layouts, publication covers, and logos. Professionals in this industry must boast strong time management skills to meet publication deadlines.
Average Salary: $48,530
- Printing and Publishing
Graphic designers employed in the printing and publishing industry develop covers and select typefaces for large-run publications like books. In addition to design principles, they must be familiar with printing machinery and processes.
Average Salary: $44,430
- 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.
Average Salary: $60,110
How Do You Find a Job as a Graphic Design Graduate?
Most graphic design graduates find work in the advertising and editorial industries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 4% job growth in this field between 2016 and 2026, which should lead to a highly competitive job market. Graphic designers must effectively present themselves and their work to secure employment.
A good way to attract prospective employers' attention is to present a well-designed portfolio and a resume describing your relevant job experiences. After securing an interview, thoroughly research your prospective employer so you can answer questions with confidence. You can even ask a friend to help you stage a mock interview, using common interview questions available online. Networking plays a crucial role in most job searches. Professional organizations for graphic designers like the Professional Association for Design, the International Association of Creative Arts Professionals, and the Typographic Circle can help connect graphic design students with peers, professionals, and potential employers.
Professional Resources for Graphic Design Majors
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 access to discounted portfolio consultation services and advice on how to negotiate rates.
Also known as 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 enjoy reduced membership fees.
DMI provides education and training opportunities for future creative leaders. The organization hosts conferences; seminars; and an online library that houses hundreds of articles, videos, and design case studies.
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.
Guild members benefit from many valuable tools and resources, including publications, e-learning courses on topics like copyright law, and discounted insurance plans. The organization also serves as an advocacy group, lobbying for artists' rights at political gatherings.
Even seasoned professionals can benefit from KelbyOne's comprehensive online Photoshop courses, monthly webcasts, and generous discounts on Adobe and Apple products. Members can also seek individualized advice and assistance through the organization's one-on-one help desk.
Based in the United Kingdom, the DHS promotes the study of graphic design from a historical perspective. Membership is open to artists worldwide and includes access to industry publications, an annual conference, and networking events.
This organization celebrates the feminist art movement and supports female artists, including 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.
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. The organization's special interest groups allow graphic designers to communicate and collaborate on niche projects.
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 on projects and initiatives.