Graphic designers create visual communications seen every day, every minute, across the globe. Designers develop entertainment, advertising, news and features in all forms, including print publications (magazines, newspapers and brochures) and digital and broadcast media such as game machines, television, web browsers, social platforms and portable devices. As technology continually develops in complexity, so too grow the duties and skills of graphic designers. This comprehensive career and degree guide examines the role of graphic designers, the most-common routes into the profession, as well as available programs and schools. It’s rounded out by a review of job growth estimates in the field and salaries, by state, for graphic design professionals.
Graphic designers convey inspiring and informative ideas in advertisements, brochures and other marketing communications materials. Some graphic designers work for specialized design firms as part of a collaborative team, while others are self-employed and work independently. Print and digital designers use complex graphics tools to manipulate text, images, animations and color.
Most graphic designers work full-time to meet deadlines. Self-employed graphic designers must be flexible, as clients sometimes need to meet during evening and weekend hours. As with so many industries, customer service and client satisfaction are keys to success. Additionally, succeeding as a graphic designer includes learning how to bid on contracts, market services and develop an ongoing client base.
Communication lies at the heart of a graphic designer’s job. While their duties may involve extensive work with images, unlike artists they do not produce “art for art’s sake.” Graphic designers must get across a specific message and call-to-action or emotion based on their client’s objectives. For instance, a graphic designer may be tasked with creating a brand or logo that makes a lasting impression on consumers, incorporating a unique shape or color scheme.
Although much graphic design work is done on the computer, it can also be multimedia in nature, or employ motion graphics. Projects may need to be optimized for viewing on a range of digital platforms, including web browsers, tablet devices and mobile phones, which is the fastest growing sector in the field. In addition to mastering general all-around skills, designers may specialize in a particular graphics area. More common specialties include:
While designers may work more often in a favorite media, a specialization isn’t required for success. Most graphic designers enjoy working for a variety of clients to keep their career options open. Multiple specializations leads to flexibility, however, and can expand clientele and increase overall opportunities.
Salaries for graphic designers are variable across the country, based on factors including experience, education, type of employer and geographical location. According to the BLS, the median national annual wage for graphic designers in 2014 was $45,900, while the top 10 percent of graphic designers earned over $77,490. Graphic designers with the highest salaries are generally those with advanced training and who work for specialized design firms. Payscale.com reports that the cities of San Francisco, Washington D.C. and New York pay the highest salaries, with San Francisco graphic artists earning a median wage of $54,711. Self-employed designers earn up to $20,000 more per year than those working in other settings, according to Payscale.
The BLS reports the top paying states and 2014 mean annual salaries of graphic designers as:
|District of Columbia||$72,820|
Use the map below to compare graphic design salary estimates by state:
Job rates for graphic designers are expected to grow by 7 percent during the 2012-2022 decade, according to the BLS. This growth rate is smaller than the national average for all jobs during the projection period, for a number of reasons. Due to the rapid development and deployment of digital media, the market for graphic designers in print media has severely slowed, making designers that can work both in digital and print more attractive. The BLS says jobs with “newspaper, periodical, book and directory publishers” will decline by 16 percent during the decade. On the flip side, jobs for graphics professionals in computer systems design and related services will find a strong 35 percent increase in job openings, especially in fields of web-based graphics production, portable devices and video entertainment. Competition for new jobs, the BLS predicts, will be stiff. In all, 17,400 new openings in the profession are anticipated over the projection decade.
The greatest number of regional hires are anticipated (in order) in the Northeast, Sunbelt, West Coast and Midwest. The BLS sites the following states with the largest growth potential and current greatest number of professionals in the graphic design field:
Top cities for employing graphic designers, according to The Atlantic Magazine’s City Lab, are:
Select a state below for more information about employment and job growth for graphic designers.
It never hurts to start early in any field, but it is particularly important when it comes to graphic design. While in high school, students should take classes in art history, drawing, graphic arts and website design. They can put their emerging skills to use designing and producing the school newspaper or yearbook. Graphic design requires a good eye and a creative mind, but also tantamount are the development of solid practical skills and software fluency. The sooner the student begins preparations, the better.
There was a time when a graphic designer could get hired strictly on their creative portfolio. Today, however, most employers are looking for designers with a more complete and well-rounded education – the kind only a college degree can provide. A certificate in the field, or an associate’s degree, may be sufficient in some cases, but the U.S. Department of Labor reports that fledgling designers are much more likely to land a quality job only after earning a bachelor’s degree.
There are currently approximately 300 post-secondary institutions in the U.S. that offer degree programs accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. School options run the gamut from large public universities, to small private colleges, to prestigious art institutes. There are also a growing number of online programs available. Coursework covers a wide range of subjects, such as studio art, principles of design, commercial graphics, web design, advertising and graphics-related computer technology. Classes in marketing and business may be part of the curriculum as well, since designers must be able to compile and submit professional job proposals, and effectively sell themselves to potential clients.
Regardless of the specific degree they choose, graphic design students should look for an accredited program from a reputable school.
Not all college programs in graphic design require internships, but those that do offer students an exceptional opportunity to gain practical experience, to form professional relationships in the design community, and complete work suitable for presentation in their portfolio or design “book”.
While a solid resume is an important aspect of any job search, the biggest asset to someone looking for a job in graphic design is an impressive portfolio. Though graphic designers will need a resume, the only way for a prospective employer to understand an applicant’s abilities is through a portfolio demonstrating a range of work and growth as a designer.
There was a time when a graphic design portfolio was a simple collection of a designer’s best newspaper and magazine advertisements. Professional portfolios today are much more sophisticated, consisting not only of print ads, but also including online advertisements, website graphics, and even a television commercial reel and animation demo. It is not uncommon for job seekers today to carry fully digital versions of their portfolio on CD or DVD with them to interviews – along with the more traditional paper version – and many designers also maintain their own up-to-date design portfolio websites.
For students just starting out, presenting a large and varied portfolio is difficult given the limited amount of completed work they’ll have done. In that case, they should focus on quality instead of quantity, presenting only their best design samples, and a portfolio arranged to meet a prospective employer’s specific needs.
Graphic design is a constantly changing and developing field. Designers must keep up with the commercial and artistic trends in the industry – or they may find themselves quickly left behind. They must also remain current on new and updated computer graphics and design software programs, which are in a near constant state of evolution. This is particularly true for designers working as freelancers, and for those interested in advancing to higher positions within their companies. Organizations such as the American Institute of Graphic Arts or the Graphic Artists Guild provide members with educational updates on new technology, software or methodology. Completing certification programs in vendor-specific design software can also help build credentials.
Graphic designers may choose to advance their skills, creativity and deep knowledge of the field by adding a graduate degree or post-secondary certificate. There are master’s degree programs created specifically for designers wishing to advance in theoretical studies (MA) or concentrate their work on a studio degree (MFA).
Before enrolling in any postsecondary education program, students should have a strong sense of their long- and short-term goals including why they’re pursuing this education; the level of schooling they’re prepared to undertake; and what they expect from the program. For some students, a degree is a means to an end: a new career, a better job, the advancement of skills. Degree programs are sequential in nature, and beginning students will focus on building a foundational skills and mastering key theories in visual communications at schools offering undergraduate certificates or associate degrees. Others may be ready to take on the total immersion of work required of a four-year baccalaureate degree. Professionals often return to school to master advanced techniques, explore a new specialty, or refine their crafts.
|Career Goal and/or educational needs||Associate
|I am interested in learning about graphic design and working with basic tools/programs for making digital logos, websites, and print graphics|
|I’ve already taught myself basic graphics and want to explore a four-year degree to learn key skills in print and digital arts|
|I want to learn advanced graphics and project management skills|
|I want to devote my time to graduate studio work and build an advanced portfolio|
According to Education News, the number of postsecondary graphic design graduates in the U.S. increased by 57% between 2006 and 2010.
The complexity of education and skills development in graphic design grows with each successive level. A two-year degree program may be the best place to start for first-time students. These degrees typically offer the lowest tuition rates and, for some students, are a financially prudent way to gain skills for entry-level roles in the graphic design field. Bachelor’s degree programs are the minimum educational attainment for many design professions. At the master’s degree level, students focus on studio skills and the development of expert technique, project management, and advanced design theory and applications.
The Associate of Arts and Associate of Sciences degrees in graphic arts combine arts studies with the general education coursework. Students must complete 65 credits to graduate, which takes approximately two years. The degree offers introductory graphic design courses and a well-rounded liberal arts and sciences curriculum, which may be transferrable to a four-year program. First semester curriculum may be based on introductory courses in design theory and technology, typography, color theory, computer graphics, electronic imaging, and print/digital production.
At the associate level, students may encounter courses such as:
Introductory course in the elements of design as an effective communication tool. Studies include concepts and applications of design elements and relationships.
Students are introduced to typography as it applies in design and how it affects meaning, brand, or personality.
Students are immersed in the study of color, how it impacts cultural or psychological levels, and the effects of color interactions.
Introduction to graphic design applications in online and multimedia publishing. Course focuses on technical environments and elements of navigation, usability, and web best practices.
Bachelor degree programs in graphic arts typically take four years to complete and are comprised of 120–180 credit hours of classes, which are divided into general education, core studies in graphic design, and electives. Students can choose from the following degree options:
Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BS)The BA or BS degree in graphic arts is designed to be a well-rounded general degree, providing graduates with key artistic and production skills, and a foundation in graphic design theory.
Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in Graphic ArtsConsidered a professional degree, the BFA curriculum is based on studio practice and concentrates on development of skills and knowledge in interactive design, typography, and motion graphics.
The following upper division courses from bachelor’s degree programs showcase the progression and sophistication in learning that’s provided beyond the two-year degree level:
This course focuses on delivering production-ready graphics as well as files for print and mobile devices.
This advanced course integrates print and digital techniques for creating and managing visual communications across a range of channels with distinct timelines.
Design students study the history, change, and contemporary impacts on communication tools and how to build a successful enterprise.
Students compile previous design work into an effective portfolio. Typically a graduation requirement for seniors.
There are two graduate degrees for students of graphic design: the Masters of Arts (MA) and Masters of Fine Arts (MFA). The MA is a theoretical and academically advanced degree, while the MFA is the pinnacle professional degree for graphic artists and related professionals. Another distinction is that the MA student focuses on a singular academic specialization, sometimes in preparation for teaching, while the MFA student is free to explore a wide range of skill applications and elective fields. Degree requirements include completion of a research or theoretical study for the MA, and a creative dissertation or portfolio for MFA students. Both degrees take from two to three years to complete, depending on the programs and graphic design schools.
MFA graduates use their portfolios or graduations projects to address real world communication challenges or to demonstrate newly integrated advanced skills. Here are six skill takeaways from an MFA degree program:
MFA graduates have built upon a foundational knowledge of design and graphics production. They demonstrate keen knowledge on topics such as composition, color theory, and typography in order to create a persuasive final product.
At the graduate level students learn to solve creative or business problems holistically. MFA graduates also typically build upon practical experience in the field, demonstrating creative flexibility and proficiency in turning concepts into client deliverables.
MFA students learn to develop their own creative expressions. They are aware of the tools at their disposal, but are not bound by a single solution or style. They have the knowledge to originate and develop a “signature style” and the skills to express their own aesthetics.
An MFA program is not completed in isolation – even online graduate students work in teams. Knowing how to collaborate with design and technology teams and to work effectively with demanding clients can spell the difference between success and failure. Graduates have the communication and leadership skills that get the most out of a creative team.
Whether they work independently or with a creative firm, graphic designers are dependent upon skills in sales, marketing, and customer relations. MFA grads have experience in business, entrepreneurship, and marketing. They know how to sell designs to clients, pitch to their creative managers, and how to successfully and effectively navigate professional and business relationships.
Graduates demonstrate competence in the theory and application of motion graphics often used in the creation of entertainment, broadcast, web, and emerging media. Grads also have advanced knowledge of software and industry-standard tools. This can include programs such as CINEMA 4D, MoGraph, Adobe After Effects, 3D Studio Max, and Autodesk's Maya.
Graphic design schools may offer degrees with the same nomenclature (AA, BA, MFA), but there can be a world of difference in the curriculum and academic outcomes of each program, depending on focus and faculty expertise. There is also a dramatic range in tuition, with public colleges coming in as most affordable and private art schools ringing in at the top-tier of the price range. While cost may be the guiding force when researching online schools, students also need to be sure that their program choice will be the best match for their career aspirations and design focus. Three key factors to consider when reviewing prospective online programs are:
Graphic design departments throughout the nation are tasked with developing and publishing learning outcomes. In evaluating prospective graphic design schools, search departmental websites for the list of outcomes and expected skills for graduating students. Reviewing the full list of outcomes can reveal the academic focus of each possible graphic design school, helping to bring a program’s goals into focus with personal career goals.
Schools offering degree programs in graphic design generally post a list of faculty members and their biographies on their college websites. In reviewing bios, look to see where the faculty member earned his or her degree, the extent of their education, their publications, honors, awards, and research milestones. At the same time, see if the faculty includes mentors and professors with practical experience in the field. Some schools invite adjunct or visiting professors who continue to work as artists, art directors, publishers, or animators. What is the program’s specialty and how does the faculty contribute toward this expertise? Remember, faculty with current or recent experience in the field or memberships in active design organizations can increase opportunities for internships and help to form networking connections.
Online graphic design programs should support students with a wide range of materials and services for success. For example, is there 24/7 access and technical support? Are classes and curriculum supported by current industry tools, software, and research facilities? Does the financial aid office provide adequate information and assistance with loans, grants, or scholarships? A phone call or email to the admissions staff should clear up these questions and more. Be sure to also find out about graduation rates, career counseling, and job or internship services as well.
Graphic designers must combine sharp analytical skills with artistic talent to produce convincing illustrations that clearly relate their clients’ messages. Although they spend some time developing ideas on paper, they also need to be able to utilize specialized graphic design software. A large amount of time is spent communicating with clients and coordinating work with members of a design team, so strong interpersonal skills are also important. Graphic designers often have to complete multiple projects simultaneously, hence time management skills are essential.
Above all, graphic designers need to be visual thinkers. They know how best to use digital tools to solve business challenges, and are experts in creatively using the space they have to make the greatest impact.
For the print designer, key graphics programs include:
The digital designer uses software including:
Digital designers that work in the online environment can benefit by using:
Among the key software tools for motion graphics designers are:
Of course, generalists may have a foundational skill set in a number of print and digital environments, or they may choose to specialize just in one or two key programs. Flexibility, as always, remains a key attribute of a successful design career.
There are other career and educational options with an artistic flair to explore outside the traditional roles a graphic designer may take. Here is a look at some, along with earnings and job growth estimates:
Graduates of graphic design programs also pursue careers as art directors, multimedia artists, Web developers, industrial designers and drafters. Related occupations and 2014 salaries include:
With the information available in this guide, potential graphic design students should have a better grasp on the level of education they’ll need to achieve their career goals. Use the school search tool below to help narrow down possible programs by parameters such as degree-by-level or geographic location.
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