What Does a Graphic Designer Do?

by Genevieve Carlton
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Graphic design is a top-paying creative career that communicates information through exciting visuals. It often appeals to artistic students.

Creative students who love to express themselves visually often feel drawn to graphic design. But what do graphic designers do?

Graphic design includes everything from designing product packaging to creating movie posters and book covers. Graphic designers also create digital designs for mobile apps, infographics, and custom logos.

This guide to the graphic design career explains the skills and preparation students need for careers as graphic designers.

What Do Graphic Designers Do?

What do graphic designers do? Graphic designers communicate information visually. They create illustrations and layouts that appeal to consumers and convey particular information. Graphic designers also create informative content like infographics, brochures, reports, and magazines.

Graphic designers work closely with art directors and clients to understand a project's goals and its target consumers. They create designs with software programs like Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop. Digital designers also rely on software like Sketch. They create custom elements like logos or illustrations. They choose the colors, typefaces, and images for the design.

Within graphic design, professionals specialize in areas like product design, mobile app design, animation, and typography. Related fields like web design, UX design, and UI design draw on graphic design skills.

Graphic designers create physical and digital projects, including:

  • Web layouts
  • Advertisements
  • Logos and business cards
  • Infographics
  • Custom typography
  • Product packaging
  • Movie posters
  • Album covers
  • Book covers
  • Fashion branding

Is Graphic Design the Right Career for Me?

Graphic design appeals to artistic people who like combining their creativity with technical skills. While graphic designers need a strong sense of visual style, they also use a variety of software programs to create their designs. Like many other art and design careers, graphic design requires strong communication and collaboration skills.

You Might Enjoy a Graphic Design Career if You …

Love creative pursuits and want a career that draws on your artistic side Excel at design software programs Thrive in a collaborative, fast-paced environment Like communicating ideas visually Enjoy solving problems by testing multiple solutions

Where Can Graphic Designers Work?

Graphic designers work in a variety of settings. While many work for a single employer, others work freelance jobs with multiple clients. Graphic designers often take on freelance or contract work early in their career to help build their portfolio.

As with many other creative jobs, graphic designers often move between freelancing and long-term employment over the course of their career. This section looks at career paths for graphic designers.


Freelance Graphic Designers

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than one in five graphic designers works as a self-employed designer. These freelance designers work on projects for different clients. Some freelance graphic designers work full-time hours on several contracts at the same time, while others work a less consistent schedule.

What do freelance graphic designers do? They create graphics, custom logos, branding materials, and web designs. Freelance graphic designers often work remotely, giving them a great deal of flexibility.


Full-Time Employed Graphic Designers

Many graphic designers work full time for a single employer. Advertising agencies, public relations firms, publishers, and graphic design firms hire graphic designers.

What does a graphic designer do as an in-house designer? They work closely with art directors and clients to complete projects. For example, graphic designers at an advertising agency create product packaging, posters, digital ads, and other advertisements. In a public relations firm, graphic designers create custom logos, digital media posts, and infographics.

Creative and Technical Skill Sets

What do graphic designers do? They mix creative and technical skills to create visually engaging, informative work. Graphic designers bring human and hard skills to their careers.

In addition to a creative eye and an innovative spirit, this career requires technical skills. Graphic designers regularly work with software programs like Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop. Specialists in digital design rely on software like Sketch to create finished products. Other key skills include communication, time management, and collaboration.

Human Skills

  • Creativity and an innovative approach to visual design
  • Communication with art directors and clients
  • Attention to detail
  • Time management, especially for deadline-driven projects
  • Ability to work effectively on a team

Hard Skills

  • Design softwares like Adobe InDesign and Photoshop
  • Programming languages like HTML and CSS
  • Content management systems like WordPress
  • Digital design skills using Sketch, for example
  • Typography skills

Graphic Designer Salary Overview

Graphic designers earn an above-average salary. The median wage for graphic designers reached $53,380 in May 2020. Graphic designers work in many fields, including advertising, publishing, and public relations. Industry, experience, and location all influence earning potentials for graphic designers, as the following information shows.

$53,380
Median Annual Wage of Graphic Designers (2020)

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Highest Paying Industries for Graphic Designers
Industry 2020 Median Annual Wage
Advertising, Public Relations, and Related Services $55,800
Specialized Design Services $54,840
Newspaper, Periodical, Book, and Directory Publishers $45,170
Printing and Related Support Activities $41,490
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Top 5 Highest Paying Metro Areas for Graphic Designers
Metro Area 2020 Median Annual Wage
1. Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA $84,030
2. San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA $80,820
3. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA $77,800
4. Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV $77,400
5. Vallejo-Fairfield, CA $72,570
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Ask a Graphic Designer

Thomas Faessler is co-founder, art technician, and historian at Art in Context, a dominant website that helps create actionable posts, guides, and reviews about the world of Art. He has always been fascinated by the world of art and decided to pursue it full-time after graduation. He is currently exploring digital art and hopes to create unique illustrations in the future.

What are the most rewarding aspects of your career?

The most rewarding aspect of my career has to be the fact that I can work independently and have freedom in choosing the projects that I like. Of course, the ultimate benefit is being able to express myself creatively.

This career has also given me the opportunity to work with people from around the globe, and the fact that I can share my creativity with so many people truly makes me happy.

What are the most challenging aspects of your career?

One of the challenges that I have personally encountered is [that] it becomes difficult to keep track of time. Creative imagination is not time-bound, and sometimes certain designing projects have fixed deadlines within which you must come up with the perfect design. Creative blocks can always be discouraging at such times. This is something that I have always struggled with, but I am getting better at maintaining my creative flow.

What type of person is successful and thrives in a graphic design career? What type of person may not be the best fit?

To excel at a graphic designing career, you must constantly innovate and experiment with different designing techniques and digital tools. So, it's not just being good at art, but also knowing how to translate the physical painting into digital illustrations, since nowadays being equipped with the digital techniques and trends is the priority.

So, a creative person who is also good at using Photoshop, Illustrator, ProCreate, InDesign, and other designing softwares would be able to thrive in a graphic designing career. However, for those who love to paint on paper and cannot think of using digital painting softwares ever — graphic designing may not be the best fit for them.

What's a typical day for a graphic designer? What tasks do you typically work on?

Most of my days are spent working on layouts and product illustrations, reviewing the finalized designs, and organizing the designs properly. Losing any one of them could cost me my job!

Who do you communicate with?

Since I work remotely most of the time, communication with the teams and clients is limited to emails, messages, and sometimes video calls. Depending on the project I am working on, the communication method differs.

Mostly I communicate directly with clients, and at other times, it is the product teams that reach out to me. When working with small businesses, I mainly communicate with the marketing teams over voice or video calls and have to participate in the team discussions regularly so that everyone is updated with the changes and requirements.

What kind of hours do you keep?

My work hours are flexible, but I like to set aside an eight-hour work period, from 7 am to 3 pm. I am an early riser and feel the most productive during the day, which is why I like working early so that I can save up time in the evening for my passion project.

Who are your coworkers?

My coworkers include everyone from non-design backgrounds to techies! But mostly I work with junior designers, team leaders, product managers, and interns as well.

What knowledge do you utilize?

In terms of knowledge, I would say understanding color, composition, and design elements are the prime knowledge that I use daily. It is the artistic ability and creativity that go into creating the perfect designs.

Apart from that, utilizing technical knowledge of Adobe Creative Cloud and other design softwares, such as QuarkXpress, is also a part of my day-to-day work.

Since becoming a graphic designer, has there been anything about the role that you didn't expect or anticipate?

I might have been biased in thinking that it would be easy, since I have been painting for such a long time.

Also, I didn't think that motion designing would become a part of my role. Previously, the graphic designing niche wasn't as saturated as it is now. So, companies look to hire designers who have experience working with video-editing softwares and are good at animation. This was something that I wasn't adept at at the beginning of my career.

But over the past couple of years, I have realized that if you want to stay relevant in this niche, you have to continuously upskill.

What would you recommend that students do, in addition to their graphic design degree program, in order to stand out to employers?

A simple graphic designing degree, I am afraid, wouldn't be enough to land a job, especially now when graphic design has become so competitive.

It is good to have some work experience before applying to graphic design jobs. Even if someone wants to pursue it as a freelancing gig, they would need to stand out against other designers, and the freelance market is even more competitive.

As I mentioned before, motion graphics would become an integral part of a graphic designer's career. Therefore, I would urge students to learn to use tools like After Effects and Cinema 4D, apart from Photoshop and Illustrator.

Always stay updated with the industry trends and get some 3D design and typography experience to build your portfolio. The more projects you can add to your portfolio, the better your chances of standing out to your future employers.

What was the most challenging, rigorous course you took in your graphic design degree program? What advice would you give to students who are about to start this course?

I didn't pursue a graphic designing degree program until it was absolutely necessary. I was already preoccupied with an art historian role that I had taken up, but since I wanted to experiment with different art forms, I decided to take up a part-time graphic design program.

The graphic design (currently called "communication design") degree program was challenging for me since I hadn't used any digital design tools before, but this program forced me to learn all about Illustrator, XD, InDesign, and more. But it was also fun, and I got the chance to experiment with different styles other than my usual painting techniques.

I would advise students to be open-minded and explore as much as they can. Don't restrict creativity and don't be afraid of pushing your creative boundaries. Oftentimes, you might be bothered by some of the themes you think of, but consider it as a part of the creative process and remember that there are no boundaries in the art and design world.

How to Become a Graphic Designer

Graphic designers take many paths to their career. Some complete a bootcamp or certificate, while others are self-taught. Many graphic designers earn a formal degree in graphic design. A degree offers several advantages, including demonstrating skills to employers, internship opportunities, and the ability to create a diverse portfolio.

This section explains how to become a graphic designer.

1. Earn a Graphic Design Degree

Most graphic design careers require a bachelor's degree. During a graphic design degree program, students learn to use design software programs like Illustrator and Sketch. They also take graphic design courses in typography, layout, and visual design. Students complete project-based assignments to build a portfolio.

In addition to graphic design programs, students can consider majoring in web design, digital media design, or product design.

An associate degree in graphic design introduces designers to core concepts and skills. Some careers, including web designer, may only require an associate degree. A bachelor's in graphic design provides broader training in design skills and meets the entry-level requirements for many jobs. Finally, a master's in graphic design provides advanced training in the field.

When researching graphic design programs, prospective applicants should always choose an accredited school. Prospective graphic designers can also consider an online program.

2. Complete Internships

Graphic design majors gain valuable skills in their classes. Internships add additional experience through working on real-world projects. During an internship, interns work in a supervised environment. They gain career-focused skills while also building a professional network.

Many graphic design programs incorporate an internship. Students should reach out to their program to ask about internship opportunities. An internship offers experience, a line on your resume, and the possibility of a job offer after graduation.

3. Build an Online Portfolio

Graphic designers need a portfolio to pick up freelance jobs or land an in-house graphic design position. Students should begin working on their portfolio in school. They can include projects and assignments from school. Early career designers can also include paid freelance projects in their portfolio. The sample pieces should show range and the designer's skills.

Most employers will expect graphic designers to maintain an online portfolio. Graphic designers typically create a custom website, maintain a print version of the portfolio, or create a PDF portfolio to submit while applying for jobs.

4. Stay Current on Design Trends and Softwares

Design trends constantly change and so do design software programs. While graphic designers have used tools like Illustrator and InDesign for decades, those software programs have evolved over time. Additionally, new software programs will continue to change the design industry.

Graphic design professionals must follow trends in their field and learn new software programs throughout their careers. Many organizations offer free graphic design courses for professionals adding new skills.

Graphic Design Professional Organizations

AIGA offers professional development and learning resources for its 15,000 members. The association hosts conferences and events, creates webinars and education tools, and offers scholarships for graphic design students. ico-D sets professional standards, encourages design education, and holds meetings with networking opportunities. Members benefit from resources like the World Design Survey reports and the ico-D career center. SEGD represents graphic designers, industrial designers, and other professionals who build experiential designs. SEGD helps members network and advance their careers with local chapters, an annual conference, and educational events. RGD is a professional association for Canadian designers that encourages collaboration, education, and inspiration. The association welcomes freelancers, in-house designers, and students. RGD offers resources for graphic design students and certification opportunities.

Frequently Asked Questions About Graphic Design

Do Graphic Designers Get Paid Well?

Graphic designers earn median wages of around $53,000 per year. Location and experience shape the earning potential for graphic designers, with several cities paying average salaries of over $75,000 per year.

How Can I Learn Graphic Design?

You can study graphic design in a degree-granting program, through a UX/UI bootcamp, or through self-teaching resources. Each option prepares graphic designers for the workforce.

What Do You Need to Be a Graphic Designer?

Graphic designers typically hold a bachelor's degree and have technical skills in software programs like Illustrator, InDesign, Photoshop, and Sketch. They also understand typography, visual design, and digital design.

Should I Go to College for Graphic Design?

Many colleges offer graphic design programs that provide career-ready skills. A degree demonstrates core graphic design knowledge to prospective employers. Some graphic designers also train through a certificate or bootcamp.

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University. After earning her doctorate in early modern European history, Carlton worked as an assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville, where she developed new courses on the history of science, Renaissance Italy, and the witch trials. Carlton has published five peer-reviewed articles in top presses and a monograph with the University of Chicago Press. She also earned tenure with a unanimous vote before relocating to Seattle. Learn more about Carlton's work at genevievecarlton.com.

Header Image Credit: SDI Productions | Getty Images

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