What is Graphic Design?
Graphic design is visual brand management. As technology continues to progress, visual brand management becomes more and more multifaceted and valuable. Now, what the hell does that mean? Let’s isolate a particular company—Pepsi. When you think of Pepsi, what image comes to mind? Many people would say a Pepsi bottle or a Pepsi can. So when these people form a mental image of that Pepsi can, is there a particular visual aspect of that can that stands out? Speaking for myself, yes—the Pepsi logo. It’s that notorious circle—the top half is red, the bottom half is blue, with the curvy white line as a divider. That logo was created by a graphic designer. Company logos are the quintessential element of visual branding. Most serious, legitimate company contracts a graphic designer to assist in logo branding.
But let’s push further. Go to Pepsi.com. The color scheme of that website and all the fonts—a graphic designer coordinated those elements. A Pepsi commercial on TV. The colors, the fonts, and the general aesthetic are the work of a graphic designer paired with film editors. Every time Pepsi distributes a press release, the banner at the top of the document was created by a graphic designer. Visual brand management pervades every form of media.
Graphic design spans many mediums—online, print, multimedia, TV commercials, animation, website content, 3D, 2D, hand illustrations…. Every industry needs graphic design in some form. Any company with a brand needs a logo and website. To form a logo and website, they contract a graphic designer.
How To Become A Graphic Designer
Although not required, the vast majority of graphic designers have some type of degree in the field. Some have an undergraduate degree, some have a graduate degree (an MFA) and some have a certificate. Most colleges and community colleges offer a certificate program in graphic design which will cost you in the range of $4,000—much cheaper than an undergraduate or graduate degree which can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $200,000. Some of these certificate programs are one year, but most are two. How long a certificate takes to complete depends on whether or not you’re studying full time.
If you already have an undergraduate or graduate degree in something unrelated to graphic design, a certificate program is the way to go in terms of saving time and money. A certificate paired with some other degree will more than qualify you for good jobs.
But as said earlier, there are no formal requirements for becoming a graphic designer. You don’t even need a high school degree. You simply have to be able to do what you’re hired to do. Even if you have the most prestigious graphic design degree, you’ll have to present possible employers with a portfolio that showcases what you can do. This portfolio is the most important part of launching your graphic design career. But let’s broadly examine what people learn when they study graphic design. There are two sides to graphic design—the theoretical side and the practical side.
The theoretical side is design theory—colors pairings that go well together, for example, or when to include text or simply stick to images. One reason why graphic design is a relatively accessible profession is that there’s no real defined body of graphic design theory. The theoretical side is largely intuitive and also determined by the clients’ subjective tastes. For example, if you think you create a masterpiece of a logo but the client doesn’t like it, the client won’t pay you for it.
Graphic designers are, in a very vague way, analogous to people who install closets. Let’s say that a client hires you to install a closet with a door that slides open and also has a mirror on it. You do what the client wants. You install a closet with a door that slides open and has a mirror on it. The aesthetic of the closet you installed has largely been determined by the client. The client may have even given you exact dimensions for everything. But by installing the closet, you’ve done something that the client couldn’t do: you’ve physically installed the closet. You hollowed out a space in the wall, drilled sliders into the floor, etc. This brings us to the second and most important side of graphic design—the practical side.
To be a graphic designer, you need to know how to use the necessary computer software. This software will allow you to do things such as generate digital logos and create social media banners. The basic software programs you need to know are Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator. In graphic design school, people gain extensive practice with these two programs as well as the whole Adobe Suite—Acrobat, Dreamweaver, Illustrator, Photoshop, Premiere, In-Design and After Effects. If you’re really serious about graphic design, you’ll eventually need to master the entire Adobe Suit. Until some other software dethrones Adobe (which isn’t likely to happen soon), Adobe’s creative suite is the graphic designer’s gold mine.
The Adobe Creative Suite is expensive. It’ll cost you around $50 per month. If you’re not ready to invest that much money into your graphic design career, there are free alternatives to Photoshop and Illustrator such as Gimp, Scribus and Inkscape. Play around with these programs to get your feet wet.
But the big reason why most people study graphic design in school is to gain experience with the Adobe Creative Suite.
How To Find Work As a Graphic Designer
Graphic designers are in demand because in our digital world, virtually every business needs to think about visual brand management. If a company can afford to contract a graphic designer, it likely will
When you’re staring out, you’ll probably want to join a graphic design firm with an established client base. These firms favor candidates with formal graphic design degrees, but what’s most important is your portfolio. If your portfolio is good enough, people won’t care what degrees you have.
If you can’t find a job with a graphic design firm, check you local job listings for freelance graphic design opportunities. Whenever you speak to a perspective client, they’ll likely ask to see your portfolio. Your portfolio is incredibly important, as important than your resume. Look at online examples of good portfolios. Read a book or two about what makes a good graphic design portfolio. As you build up more experience freelancing, your portfolio and resume will become much stronger. You’ll have options as to whether you’d like to join a graphic design firm or even start your own!
You can also list yourself as a graphic designer on directory websites such as thumbtack.com. You can also contact local businesses whose visual brand image is lacking and offer to renovate their visual brand image. Once they “hire” you, charge a small deposit up front to ensure that you make some money for your efforts in case they decide after your done that they don’t want or need your services.
Salary and Lifestyle
Once somewhat established in the industry, graphic designers can be paid quite well. Currently the median salary for a graphic designer in the U.S. is $52,916. Keep in mind, you can only make this type of money if you’re working full time. To work full time you need a steady stream of clients or a few big name clients that pay a lot for your services.
Once you lock down a client, your job is never complete. There are a zillion little things—fonts, a particular website graphic, a particular website animation—that need to be maintained, tweaked and re-created on a daily basis. Graphic Design is a lot of work and can be tedious at times. You have to pay attention to little details such as the color of one particular icon or the font size of one word that’s set apart on the page. Often times you’ll toggle back and forth between two settings in order to determine which one looks better.
But at the end of the day, if you consider yourself a “creative” and feel as though you have a “designer’s eye,” graphic design can be an engaging and lucrative profession.