What does a Graphic Designer Do? The Industry Revealed

Graphic DesignerUpdated on February 27, 2014

So, you’re looking at career options. You’ve got a good eye for form and colour, or maybe you just love fonts a little more than is natural (mmm, look at the curve on that lower-case ‘g’). Something’s led you to consider graphic design as a viable option, and you’re here to find out whether you should take the plunge. Perhaps you aren’t sure if you have what it takes, maybe you can’t tell if you’ll enjoy it, or maybe you’re just poking at it cautiously to see what happens. Either way, you’re in the right place.

Graphic designers, in people’s minds, often get lumped together with fine artists – when the truth is that we’re almost opposites. Artists create to inspire, to emote, to share something that’s uniquely theirs with the world – and the best art lets each viewer find their own interpretation. Designers, on the other hand, create to communicate – we’re visual-thinking problem solvers, and if people are interpreting our message in their own unique ways, well, then we’re just not very good at our job.

And now we get to the big question, what you’ve actually come over here to find out – what, exactly, does a graphic designer do?

Well, here’s the answer, straight from the horse’s mouth – we’re visual communicators. We’re given a brief, which states a problem to solve, or a specific outcome that needs to be achieved, and we collect information and analyze it to figure out the best solution. And our success is determined by the measurable outcome of what we’ve created, not just by how pretty it looks.

The fun part is, graphic designers can use literally any visual medium to communicate our messages. We use shapes, colors, and fonts, on print design, websites and social media. We can use photography and animation. We can use billboards, walls or the faces of buildings. Heck, we could even use flags, blimps or smoke signals if we really wanted to.

But I digress. Let’s get back to what you want to know.

To make your decision a little easier, and to hopefully directly address some of your doubts/questions, I’m going to tell you a few things that you DO and DON’T need to become a graphic designer.

graphic designerLet’s start with what you DON’T need.

You DON’T need to be great with drawing.

 Art often stems from inborn talent, whereas design is a skill, and like all skills, it can be learned. And as a designer, your ideas aren’t necessarily limited by your skill set – you’ll find yourself collaborating with artists, animators, and other breeds of creative folk on many of your projects. Don’t get me wrong, if you can draw, that’s great – but it’s not essential. My drawing talent, for example, extends to stick figures and balloon people. It does help to be willing to work out your solutions visually, by scribbling in a notebook or mind-mapping on a large sheet of paper – but you don’t need artistic talent to scribble down roughs and jot down ideas. I personally like to do my visual thinking via pen and paper and figure out rough concepts for logos/layouts before going to my computer – and that’s the accepted, tried-and-trusted method (in my opinion, it saves a lot of time as well!). However, there are plenty of designers who go straight to digital.

You DON’T need a postgraduate degree or even an undergraduate one.

graphic designerThat’s not to say that you shouldn’t do one – in fact, if you’re just finishing school and starting out fresh, a design degree will let you meet and work with lots of others who are doing the same thing, you’ll be given opportunities to meet and listen to great designers and creative folk, and you’ll have unlimited access to design resources and guidance from dedicated professors. However, a huge number of fantastic designers never went to design school, and just learned their trade as they went along, by reading design books, working with more experienced graphic designers, and most importantly – working in the field. Because what you REALLY need to become a good designer is practice, practice, practice. Find a good source of guidance, find out what good design practices are, and then apply them, again and again, until you become really good.

Some of you are contemplating a change in careers, can’t pay the massive fees required for design school, or simply can’t spare the 3-5 years it would take for a design degree. This does NOT put you at a disadvantage. In fact, you’re likely to be more focused, more motivated and more productive, as the responsibility for your education is all on you.

The best advice I can give you is: listen, and then do. There are thousands of design books out there, full of amazing advice, sample work and tips from the best designers through the ages – and if you’re not the reading sort, there are hundreds of talks, seminars and workshops to be found online. Learn from the best, then apply their principles, constantly, in your own work.

And remember, no one cares about your degree when they hire you. They care about your portfolio.

You DON’T need to spend thousands of dollars on a fancy computer before you even start out.

graphicdesignerWhile we graphic designers love our Macbook Pros or our custom-built PCs, most of you will be perfectly all right starting out on a mid-range computer, as long as it’s got a reasonable amount of RAM. I even worked for a year and a half on an office computer which had under 1 GB of RAM, although that wasn’t exactly optimal. If your area of graphic design involves extensive and heavy image or video editing, or lots of animation or 3D work, you will need a more advanced computer, but if as is most likely you’re starting off with the Holy Trinity of Photoshop-Illustrator-InDesign, the truth is that, if you need to, you can hold off on the high-end beast machine until you’ve earned enough money to buy it comfortably. Don’t let the fact that you can’t afford the sort of computer that graphic designers are ‘supposed’ to have put you off from considering a career in graphic design!

Now, let’s talk about what you DO need.

You DO need a portfolio.

Website DevelopmentWhat people want to know when they hire you is this – can you do the job? Is your work any good? There’s only one way to find out – through your portfolio. Portfolios used to be huge, overflowing ledgers or binders, but fortunately we live in the digital age and you can just make yourself a website, post someone a CD or email them work samples.

Your portfolio is what is going to get you hired, whether it’s at a design agency or for a freelance job, so it needs to be a priority – keep it updated with your latest and best work, and try and include client testimonials wherever possible. When putting yourself out there for hire, marketing skills are a bonus – so you might want to check out this great guide on how to market your design business!

You DO need visual thinking skills.

Website Development WireframeHaving a keen aesthetic eye and a creative approach to problem solving are key – however, these are traits that can (and should) be developed as you go forward, so don’t be too discouraged if you don’t think those aspects of yourself are particularly well-developed at the moment. You’ll have to focus on them a lot initially, but it’s a most enjoyable process that will let you learn other essential skills, like lateral thinking, along the way, especially if you teach yourself through books like Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats (which should be required reading for all graphic designers, really).

Being a graphic designer is more than just a profession, it’s a way of life. People who are drawn to design as a career are usually intensely visual, and this carries forward into what they are inspired by, how they do their research, and where they get their ideas, once they become a graphic designer. If you’re not a visual thinker at all, chances are you’re not reading this article.

This quick course on design thinking should give you a bit of a boost!

You DO need to speak Adobe.

Whether you can draw or not, you’re going to need to learn how to use certain design software, and use it well. The Adobe Creative Suite is the most widely used among designers, and hence has the most available resources and tutorials – and don’t think you can skim by just by knowing Photoshop! You’ll need to be fluent in at least these three – Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign – because as every designer knows, Illustrator is what you design logos and vector graphics in, Photoshop is for image editing and web design, and InDesign is meant for print. Maybe desktop publishers think it’s okay to design a brochure or a logo in Photoshop, but we graphic designers (who can be a snooty bunch, as you might have noticed) know that it really isn’t.

You DO need to specialize.

Like I said, you need learning, practice and experience to get really good at what you do. So while you may initially dabble with different areas of graphic design till you find your niche – maybe you experiment with branding and print design until you find that your niche is really web – you’ll need to ‘specialize’, at least for periods of time. Make a name for yourself designing websites, until you have a steady stream of clients coming to you for exactly that, and then start experimenting with other areas. Sure, there are designers who seem to be good at just about everything, but you’ll invariably find that they’ve been working for years and had time to fully explore different avenues, or that they’re working in two or three closely connected areas. For example, I specialized in typography for editorial design (that’s print/publishing), and now I work on mostly branding or print/digital layouts with a strong focus on typography. Yes, that’s the good news, everything is interconnected, so once you’ve specialized on one area it’ll be that much easier to apply what you’ve learnt and get really good in another area as well.

So while it is great fun to dabble and stick your toe into several different ponds, don’t forget that if you want this to be a career, not a hobby, you’re going to have to take the plunge into one of them eventually. This does not by any means mean that you’re restricted from visiting the others later!

It’s amazing how graphic design has evolved over the years from being a rather eccentric niche profession to an extremely sought-after and lucrative enterprise. In our increasingly visual and digital world, at any given moment there are several things fighting for our attention – everyone wants us to buy their product, watch their movies or subscribe to their newsfeed. When you’re standing in the midst of a raging cacophony of visual images, the winner isn’t necessarily the one that shouts the loudest. It’s the one who knows just what to say and when and how to say it so that you’ll notice and remember, the one who manages to convince you of something without you even really noticing. That’s where we, the designers, come in. And that’s why we’re so valuable.

The Different Areas of Graphic Design

graphicdesignerIf you’re still here, you’ve been reading this article for a while. You might have noticed that, while I’ve touched on various aspects of what graphic designers do at their jobs and while I’ve endeavored to answer many of the questions you may have had on your path to choosing whether or not to become a graphic designer, there has still not been a comprehensive and final answer to the question asked in the title of this post.

That’s because there isn’t one.

Graphic designers do…well, we just do a ton of stuff, is the truth. I couldn’t even begin to touch on all the various, myriad possibilities in the space we have here, but here are just a few of the career options you’ll have after studying graphic design. Of course, plenty of you will be like me, a happy-go-lucky freelancer who goes around with ‘graphic designer’ on her business card. On the other hand, there are a ton of fantastic jobs available for qualified graphic designers out there, so I urge you to be ambitious and aim for one of them – the best way to gain experience (and job security) is to work at an agency or company, at least for a few years if you don’t want to establish a career path there.

graphicdesignerCreative Director – You manage a creative team that creates visuals for product branding, advertising campaigns, etc.

Art Director – You manage and coordinate between production artists and illustrators to make sure projects are completed on time and to the client’s satisfaction.

Art Production Manager – You manage the production aspect of art generation and creation, with a focus on improving efficiency and lowering costs.

Package Designer – You create and design packaging for marketing and/or products in terms of both design and physical construction.

Brand Identity Developer – You develop brand identities for various organizations.

Visual Image Developer – You create images and designs through 3D modeling, photography, and image editing.

Visual Journalist – Among other things, you create informational graphics known as infographics. This can be be both for print or digital application.

Broadcast Designer – You create visual designs and electronic media to be used in television productions.

Logo Designer– You create the visual expression of the organization’s key message or value. This is also a key aspect of brand identity – though in identity design, you carry the logo and design identity forward for all branding materials.

Interface Designer – You develop graphical user interfaces and usually work for web development companies.

Illustrator – If you have an art as well as a design background, you can create illustrations to represent an idea, message, and/or story through 2D and 3D images.

Web Designer – You create graphics, layouts, and pages for websites.

Multimedia Developer – Applies graphic design skills to sound and/or motion.

Content Developer – You create written, graphical, video, sound, or other multimedia content depending on your brief.

By now, you should have a pretty good idea as to whether you’d like to make your career as a graphic designer! Just to help you out, here are a few more resources that could help you kick-start things…

Introduction To Graphic Design

The Ultimate Guide On How To Become A Designer

Graphic Design Secrets Revealed

Graphic Design For Video Editors

Basic Design For Advertising

Creating Responsive Web Design