how to be a graphic designerSo you’re turning over a new leaf. You’ve decided you’re going to be one of the few, the proud: the people who can discuss kerning. If you’re keen on a new career in graphic design, you’re in luck. Only a few decades ago, graphic design wasn’t really taught in schools. Now most major universities and trade schools offer degrees in graphic design, but you can begin your education online and at home. Graphic Design courses are a great way to get your feet wet and to decide if this is the career for you before you sink fifteen grand (or more) into tuition.

The real question is: what does a graphic designer do? And the answer is: more than you think. A graphic designer may work on any of the following:

Graphic design is ubiquitous in our modern consumer communications. Some agencies specialize in branding or packaging while others have a broader scope. Web design is usually its own specialty, but you still need to have a foundation of solid 2D design principles. Here’s how to do that.

Start Your Graphic Design Library

Most design programs start at the same place: design history. Get yourself a copy of THE premiere graphic design history book: A History of Graphic Design by Philip Meggs. Choose the most recent edition. Thumbing through the pages of past notables is a great way to expose yourself to the concepts and principles of graphic design. Check out new and noteworthy publications by designers you admire and keep on top of current trends. Trends in graphic design can be heavily influenced by trends in other design fields like fashion design, industrial design and UI design. Just think: if you get your graphic design mojo going, your subscription to Wallpaper* can be a tax write-off.

Hone Your Eye for Good Graphic Design

From menus to magazines, graphic design is everywhere. Start collecting samples that impress you whether it’s a shopping bag or a shampoo bottle. All of it will help you when you’re sitting in front of a blank screen trying to choose between Helvetica and Univers. You’ll soon notice that consumer companies like P&G use a vastly different visual language compared to say a small artisan restaurant. Your job is to learn why (hint: because they appeal to different audiences.) When you’re trying to become a graphic designer, you’re trying to prove that you can speak with the differing visual languages of a varying consumer groups. As with any language, you can’t get by just by repeating what someone else has said (in this case, made.) You need to develop your own creative edge.

Developing Your Creativity

Of course, you’re now thinking: how can I learn something as elusive as ‘creativity.’ How can I judge whether my work is good or bad? Again, it’s time to look at the best. Find out who’s winning the design awards and why. Carry a notebook around with you to harness your ideas when inspiration strikes. Graphic designers love to borrow from other visual languages in order to convey more meaning. What does it mean when the pros put their message in the handwriting of a child or in needlepoint instead of a font? What do they gain by doing so? What are the cultural connotations? Those are the questions you have to ask yourself. If you thought design was about making things look pretty, you’re wrong. Design is about research, subtlety, selective choices and visual impact. From now on, you’ll need to be able to sell your ideas with logical, clever, and emotive reasoning. That said, a solid idea won’t sell anyone without the proper execution.

About that portfolio…

If your portfolio is empty, lackluster or getting dated, there’s a simple fix. Make new work. You’ll need a good handle on the top graphic design applications like Photoshop, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, and InDesign. Don’t freak out. The Adobe suite is well designed, and you don’t have to learn it all at once. One of the best ways to learn what you need to know in the software applications is to pick up the most recent copy of Communication Arts. There you can find samples of the best current design that’s inline with market trends in terms of the look. Trying to replicate what you see will give you some familiarity with the software. It goes without saying that you obviously shouldn’t put copies of someone else’s designs in your portfolio, but there’s nothing wrong with being inspired by them. With a little luck, you’ll also improve your sensitivity to what works in graphic design and what doesn’t.

An ideal graphic design portfolio should show your versatility. If you can, it’s best to include at least:

Obviously, you should only include work that shows off your strengths. And if you’re applying strictly for a web design position, they probably want to see lots of websites and not so many logos. Ditto for environmental design. If you’re more interested in art direction at an ad agency, your print and web work should trump your experience in way-finding signage. At the same time, if you have a particular skill, like hand-lettering, give it the prominence it deserves with a section in your portfolio, but don’t get pigeonholed. Here’s a shortcut for your first logo design.

Building Your Presence

You’ll almost never see an advertisement for a design job that doesn’t require a portfolio, so if you’re starting from scratch that’s the first thing you have to do. But companies also expect a graphic designer to know how to build a basic website, and the first one you should build is your own. Your website should showcase any of your previous design work and your resume. Again, it’s important to sell your work. While your designs can and should stand alone visually, a company will take notice of an articulate designer who can clearly relate why the design is an effective solution. Design businesses have to do that everyday. Show them that you can sell your decision to use cut-paper silhouettes instead of photographs.


Keep in mind that good design is all about appealing to a niche market. Before developing a new brand, designers undertake a meticulous research process of the brand history, competitors, future objectives and obstacles. You should do the same when you’re reaching out to companies or clients. Make an individual pitch that show them that you’ve done your homework when it comes to their business. That will give you the best chance of getting the gig and getting the reputation you deserve.

Getting In

While you’re honing your prowess with the gradient mesh tool, it’s not a bad idea to join your local AIGA, and go to the annual conferences—especially if it’s near your home base. Prepare as much as you can in advance because the annual AIGA conference is a great opportunity for networking. It still attracts the big cats who are pushing the industry forward. Besides, where else can you brush shoulders with graphic design royalty like Michael Beirut while barfing on David Carson’s shoes? Graphic design is like any other business: you’ll need to market your skills once you’ve acquired them.

At the end of the day, graphic design is a natural profession choice for visually inventive people with digital sophistication. You cannot have one without the other. Without question, learning the software is the hardest part. Distilling ideas, finding surprising solutions, making art for the masses—that’s what we kerning-ninjas call fun.


An Ivy League graphic design education doesn’t guarantee that you’ll turn out to be a graphic design maven (some of us become copywriters.) Because your work must stand on its on own merit, Udemy offers a viable educational alternative. From technical AfterEffects guidance to Photoshop for WebDesign, Udemy let’s you customize your education in a way that no other program does. Here you can fill in the gaps in your knowledge for the price of a pair of pants—and not Gucci pants either. There’s definitely no other program that offers that.

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