Illustrators visually represent and interpret information for several industries, including book publishing, healthcare, film, and fashion.
This guide helps you find the illustration path that fits your creative interests and professional goals. It covers many topics, including potential career advancement opportunities and salary potential based on factors like education level and geographic location.
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Why Pursue a Career in Illustration?
Illustration is one of the most versatile occupations available to creatives. Although illustration and graphic design overlap, the former field tends to be broader. Illustration is traditionally an art form used for decorative or commercial purposes, while graphic design focuses mostly on commercial production, helping businesses succeed through effective branding and logo messaging.
Contemporary careers in illustration typically combine aesthetic methods with strategic communication and marketing concepts. To succeed in the field, you must have strong time management skills and be capable of working as a member of a team.
Illustration Career Outlook
Employment opportunities and salary potential for illustrators differ based on their education, experience, location, and industry. Bachelor's programs in illustrations provide students with the core skills needed to work as production artists, web designers, and commercial photographers. Master's programs prepare graduates for some postsecondary teaching roles, as well as leadership positions like creative directors and brand managers.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), fine arts professionals -- including painters, sculptors, and illustrators -- make a median annual salary of $50,550.
The following table includes salary information for illustrators and related roles at different points of their careers.
Skills Gained With a Illustration Degree
Although necessary abilities vary depending on the specific job, there are some skills every illustrator needs, including those related to creativity, time management, artistic ability, adaptability, and communication. These skills allow illustrators to produce quality work and keep their employers happy.
Many of these abilities can be developed throughout school and during on-the-job training and do not require any additional certification.
Illustrators need to regularly come up with fresh ideas that entice and excite their audience. Successful illustrators develop a unique style and portray their art in a novel and interesting way. While crafting innovative art, these professionals must also remember to appeal to their clients and consumers.
- Time Management
Professional illustrators work within strict deadlines to complete projects, often juggling multiple projects at once. Prioritization and strategic budgeting of time and resources are integral to a successful career in this field.
- Artistic Ability
The ability to create an appealing product that clients and consumers respond positively to is imperative to an illustrator's career. This requires significant skill and attention to detail, which students develop while studying illustration. Creating interesting and thought-provoking work that people appreciate pushes illustrators ahead in their careers.
An illustration career requires the ability to adapt as consumers' needs change. This does not mean illustrators must sacrifice their style or integrity, but they must learn to integrate their style into the current market to maintain relevance. These needs also vary depending on the industry, meaning illustrators with diverse clients must stay up to date with multiple fields.
As illustrators make progress on projects, they must communicate updates to their clients and employers. Illustrators often receive revisions or edits on their work and must make these updates in a timely manner. Clients are more likely to continue working with illustrators who communicate clearly and efficiently. Maintaining a professional reputation helps illustrators find success.
Illustration Career Paths
Choosing a specific concentration in a broad field like illustration can lead to more career opportunities. Pursuing a specific subfield, such as digital illustration, art direction, or graphic design, can help illustrators focus on their professional goals.
The following sections provide more information about how students can begin their careers in illustration.
How to Start Your Career in Illustration
While you may be able to find work as a self-taught illustrator, most professionals begin their careers by earning an associate or bachelor's degree in the field.
During college programs, you receive dedicated training and guidance, as well as opportunities to build your network through campus events and internships. A college degree may also qualify you for certification from major industry-specific associations.
Associate Degree in Illustration
An associate degree in illustration serves as a starting point for many future illustration professionals. Students learn the field's fundamentals and take basic art courses. Although many students transfer directly into a bachelor's program after earning their associate degree, several jobs exist for graduates of an associate program in illustration.
Some graduates pursue freelance careers in illustration or graphic design, making their way as self-employed professionals. However, graduates can also pursue entry-level careers and internships in art publishing and graphic arts.
What Can You Do With an Associate in Illustration?
- Freelance Graphic Designer
Although many full-time graphic design careers require a bachelor's degree, graduates of an associate program have opportunities to work as freelance graphic designers. These professionals work on smaller projects for various clients, meaning their day-to-day tasks change regularly.
- Production Artist (Graphic Arts)
Production artists in graphic arts design and create specific materials for clients. These materials may include pamphlets, posters, signs, and banners. Production artists create initial designs to share with their clients. After discussing changes and edits, an artist creates a final product that fits their client's needs. Professionals may be able to qualify for some of these positions with an associate degree.
- Fine Artist
Fine artists work in many industries, including marketing, web design, publishing, and fashion. Illustrators in this field use their talents to contribute designs for packaging, advertisements, and websites used by their company. Although entry-level workers may not receive as many big projects, more experience and higher education can lead to more responsibilities.
Bachelor's Degree in Illustration
Careers in illustration are competitive, and many employers expect experience, talent, and education. Earning a bachelor's degree in illustration prepares future professionals in these areas. Students receive feedback from quality educators, helping them develop their skills. Students also have opportunities to pursue internships and complete freelance work for nearby organizations.
Students can open many doors by completing a bachelor's degree in illustration. Firms hire these professionals as book illustrators, graphic designers, animators, and commercial photographers.
What Can You Do With a Bachelor's in Illustration?
Professionals in this field can find work as book illustrators, collaborating with an author by adding visuals to the writing. Other workers provide illustrations for manuals or promotional material for an organization. Although some illustrator careers require only an associate degree, many industries only consider hiring graduates of a bachelor's program.
- Commercial Photographer
A commercial photography career generally requires a bachelor's degree. The knowledge and skills gained during college help cultivate each student's artistic eye and knack for design. Commercial photographers stage shoots and capture and edit photographs. Companies may use these photos for promotional or commercial campaigns and in print publications, such as magazines and newspapers.
Animators create cartoons and turn them into moving scenes. These professionals must design characters, create storyboards, and work with a team of other animators to complete their task.
- Web Designer
Web designers work with companies to create websites and apps. They may also provide updates and new additions to existing computer programs. Their work involves developing, coding, testing, and debugging web pages. These professionals must have strong communication skills and be willing to adapt to frequent changes.
Master's Degree in Illustration
Students in master's programs enroll in courses specific to their medium, allowing them more opportunities to grow as illustrators, improve their craft, and add to their knowledge base. A master's degree can also open up more lucrative career opportunities, including positions as creative directors and senior graphic designers.
What Can You Do With a Master's in Illustration?
- Medical Illustrator
Medical illustrators produce content for various medical fields. Some illustrators create photographs or renderings of a patient's medical history. Others contribute accurate illustrations for medical pamphlets or textbooks. This field takes both medical and artistic knowledge and may require additional certification.
- Senior Graphic Designer
Senior graphic designers possess strong design skills and leadership qualities. These professionals lead teams of designers to create material. They manage the team's progress, divide up work, and approve completed work before final submission. This career typically requires experience as a junior graphic designer, and it may also require a master's degree.
- Creative Director
Creative directors oversee all creative projects at an organization, and they sometimes lead multiple teams at once. Projects may involve graphic design, photography, music, media, and other creative outlets. Professionals with a passion for art and strong leadership skills may find this career rewarding.
- Art Director
Art directors create concepts and campaigns for commercials, websites, and print publications. They then lead a team of artists to turn these concepts into reality. Art directors should possess a sharp eye for detail and strong leadership skills. Some art directors work under strict deadlines and fast turnarounds, making this a busy but rewarding career.
How to Advance Your Career in Illustration
After earning an undergraduate degree and an entry-level job, the next step to growing your illustration career involves skill development. Your artistic capabilities should grow naturally as you become more experienced at your job, but you should also actively develop your craft by enrolling in continuing education classes and programs. To cement yourself as a committed illustrator, you can also pursue relevant certification.
Some of these specialized credentials are granted by professional organizations, which can also help you expand your network of colleagues, mentors, and potential employers. Professional organizations further support their members by providing career guidance and advocacy, fellowship opportunities, and grants.
Professional certification is available if you want to pursue a specialized career in illustration. For example, the Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI) provides board certification for candidates with college degrees and at least five years of relevant work experience. Candidates must pass a written exam and a portfolio review.
Alternatively, professionals who want to work in information technology and graphic design can become certified in Adobe Illustrator by passing a 50-minute exam. Recipients must renew this credential every three years.
Instead of enrolling in a formal graduate-level degree program, you can pursue other types of continuing education to develop specialized skills and connect with colleagues and industry leaders. These short-term, intensive courses are usually offered by universities and online education platforms.
Continuing education is also an integral part of maintaining many professional certifications. For example, the AMI requires certified medical illustrators to renew their credentials every five years. This renewal process includes submitting a fee and evidence of having completed continuing education courses from sources like Harvard Medical School, UpToDate, and LinkedIn Learning.
Career advancement as an illustrator requires honing the skills you already have, learning new competencies, and connecting with other practitioners in the field. Industry events like the Illustration Conference offer networking opportunities and the chance to present a project or academic research. You can also access career development opportunities by joining professional organizations.
How to Switch Your Career to Illustration
Career transitions are common in most fields, and illustration is no exception. Graphic designers often become illustrators because they want to cultivate a personal artistic vision rather than work within existing style guides and brand identities. For these professionals, the switch usually does not require a new college degree, since the academic training for illustration and graphic design overlaps.
When considering a career in illustration, ask yourself if you want to work a conventional nine-to-five or find success as a freelancer. The latter path provides greater creative and professional freedom but requires more dedication. Freelancers spend their first few years gathering clients to ensure that they have enough projects to sustain their business.
Where Can You Work as an Illustration Professional?
Many different industries benefit from the work of illustrators. The table below outlines five different industries and their average salaries; however, keep in mind that many more industries also exist for illustrators.
Additionally, these salaries largely depend on a worker's level of education, and most positions require at least a bachelor's degree. Opportunities for higher pay in these fields often become available for individuals who earn an advanced degree.
- Freelance and Independent Artists
Freelance artists set their own hours and schedule, relying on art commissions and assignments from clients and customers. Their work weeks fluctuate regularly, but they enjoy the ability to work from just about anywhere.
Average Salary: $53,160
- Motion Picture and Video Industries
The motion picture and video industry offers many opportunities for illustrators. Some illustrators work closely on a movie's overall design, while other artists work on promotional materials or package design.
Average Salary: $100,940
- Architecture and Design Services
Illustrator careers in the architecture and design field involve turning ideas into reality. These professionals create digital designs or physical models of projects, creating tangible representations of buildings and other structures.
Average Salary: $94,080
As an illustrator, employment opportunities and salary potential depend on location. California and New York employ the largest number of illustrators. These states also boast the highest pay, with professionals earning mean annual wages of $94,000-$98,000.
As you analyze these statistics, keep in mind the associated cost of living in these areas. Furthermore, the growing popularity of remote jobs means that you can find illustration work regardless of where you reside.
Resources for Illustration Majors
This section provides a list of general professional organizations for illustrators and associations for specialized fields like medical illustration, typography, and art education. The section also contains a list of free online courses that may be beneficial to your illustration career and a list of creative publications to help you keep up with emerging trends and practices.
- Professional Organizations
The Association of Illustrators: The AOI offers several membership packages, including discounted student, illustrator professional, and agent memberships. Members gain access to digital resources that connect professionals and allow them to share their work.
National Cartoonists Society: Founded in 1946, the NCS is the largest network of professional cartoonists in the world. This organization accepts established professionals and young talent into its ranks. Members enjoy exclusive features and can help lead the charge in the latest cartooning developments. For those not yet ready to become members, the organization puts out a magazine for cartoonists at all levels.
Graphic Artists Guild: With chapters across the United States, the Graphic Artists Guild promotes the profession through networking events, free webinars, member portfolios, and advocacy efforts with local government. Members enjoy a community filled with other graphic artists and gain access to discounts and insurance.
American Institute of Graphic Arts: One of the largest and oldest organizations for design, AIGA is a useful resource for designers at all levels. Resources include a job board, webinar access, and discounts on certification courses and competitions.
American Society of Architectural Illustrators: Since 1986, ASAI has represented the needs of architecture designers. The society hosts competitions and exhibits featuring designers from all over the world. Members can also engage in networking opportunities, taking part in local and regional chapters.
The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists: This association aids cartoonists at all levels and professional stages. Each June, the AAEC hosts a large conference that offers networking opportunities, guest speakers, and panel discussions. In addition, members may participate in regular online discussions related to the field.
Society of Illustrators: The Society of Illustrators promotes the growth of professionals as artists, advocating for the field and hosting exhibits and networking events.
Association of Medical Illustrators: This global community serves professionals who work in the medical industry creating visuals that improve scientific understanding. Representing over 800 members, the AMI offers professional development and networking opportunities, publications, and certification.
International Society of Typographic Designers: Based in the United Kingdom, ISTD is a professional organization made up of typographers, teachers, and students. The society promotes high standards and provides educational opportunities.
National Art Education Association: Members of NAEA enjoy regular conventions that provide networking opportunities, professional development, and helpful tools and community resources. In addition, the organization advocates for the arts in education.
- Open Courseware
Drawspace: A great resource for new illustrators, Drawspace provides several free courses, including an introduction to traditional drawing. Course modules are self-paced, allowing you to progress at your convenience while accessing guidance from an instructor.
Professional Logo Design in Adobe Illustrator - Udemy: This class contains a seven-hour video that demonstrates how to apply best practices when designing a professional logo for a client. You can also learn how to fine-tune a design following a client review. Direct messaging capabilities lets you receive guidance from the instructor.
Illustrator 2020 One-on-One: Fundamentals - Linkedin Learning: Over the course of 19 hours, this class teaches foundational skills like working with artboards; organizing colors with swatches; and using the pen, pencil, and curvature tools. The course also covers formatting and mobile device graphics.
Introduction to Graphic Illustration - Kadenze: This self-paced course consists of five sessions that teach you how to conceptualize, produce, and sell your visual ideas. Covered topics include a digital tools demo, general project processes, and compositional study. The final session involves creating an illustrative trade ad using hand-drawn typography.
PRINT: Founded in 1940, PRINT celebrates and curates visual culture in all its forms. Broad topics include typography, branding, photography, and illustration. PRINT's website also hosts a job board, where you can find open positions across the U.S. and Canada.
3x3: Self-described as the first publication devoted to contemporary illustration, 3x3 is a print-only illustration magazine that highlights underground artists and movements. 3x3 also helps professionals in the field advance their careers by providing conferences and workshops. You can schedule an in-person portfolio review with the 3x3 staff by paying a small fee.
Juxtapoz: This online art and culture publication celebrates urban, alternative, and other underground artistic movements. Content is divided into departments like painting, street art, installation, pop life, fashion, and illustration. Juxtapoz also publishes audio conversations, hosts gallery shows and workshops, and sponsors award competitions.
Illustration: First published in 2001, Illustration focuses on the history of American art. Each magazine issue highlights the work of an illustrator, delving into the artist's philosophy and the impact their creations have on contemporary culture. Illustration also publishes books. The magazine maintains an open call for contributors.
The Journal of Biocommunication: JBC is a peer-review journal for visual media in science life, showcasing best practices and experimental techniques in medical illustration, film, photography, and other modalities. The journal also advocates for medical illustration as a profession and connects professionals through online and in-person meetings.
Communication Arts: Established in 1959, Communication Arts covers topics like illustration, graphic design, and photography. The magazine also publishes articles on advertising, covering current trends and spotlighting leaders in the industry. Additionally, Communication Arts hosts competitions for artists and students.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is illustration a good career?
A career in illustration allows you to apply your creativity and artistic talents in diverse industries, including marketing, publishing, and healthcare.
- How do I start an illustration career?
Self-taught illustrators can earn employment with a high school diploma. However, most professionals in the field earn an undergraduate degree before applying for entry-level positions. Bachelor's programs in illustration help you develop core skills and access networking opportunities through conferences and internships.
- What companies hire illustrators?
Because illustrators can visualize ideas and stories, they may find work in diverse industries, including businesses where they work as part of a marketing or advertising team. With additional training in graphic design, you can also obtain positions as a web designer or VFX artist. Medical illustration is another lucrative field, allowing you to work for textbook publishers, museums, and trade shows.
- Is there a demand for illustrators?
The BLS projects that craft and fine arts occupations will grow by 1% between 2018 and 2028. During the same period, graphic designers should see 3% growth, while multimedia artists and animators can expect 4% growth.
- Do illustrators get paid well?
According to the BLS, illustrators and other craft and fine artists earn a median annual salary of $48,760.