Ask LH: How Can I Become A Graphic Designer?

Ask LH: How Can I Become A Graphic Designer?

Hi Lifehacker, I am a hobbyist graphic designer and I have dreamed of doing it as a job for years. The problem is I don’t have a portfolio and I have the habit of leaving work unfinished or deleting it. How can I ever hope to be less critical of my work, finish my projects and have a portfolio to show potential employers? Thanks, Design For Life

Designer picture from Shutterstock

Dear DFL,

You’re being held back by a mixture of perfectionism, procrastination and fear. The brutal truth is that you have to ditch all of them if you want to pursue a career in this area. Graphic design is a competitive industry, especially now that online marketplaces such as 99designs and Freelancer mean that anyone seeking out someone to work on a design project has the entire world to choose from.

I can’t tell from an email if you have sufficient passion to overcome those obstacles. But I can suggest these four simple steps to get started:

  • Buy a large external hard drive to store all your projects on. That way, you can’t use “I’m running out of space” as an excuse to get rid of unfinished work. This isn’t an expensive investment, and doing it suggests you’re serious about your design ambitions.
  • Schedule regular time on your calendar to work on design projects. Having a regular commitment means you’re not just indulging in design when the mood takes you. (Nothing wrong with that for pleasure, but it’s not a good basis for a career.) Make appointments in your calendar and stick to them.
  • Set a deadline to complete an individual project. In the commercial world, you can’t dither over a design until it’s done; you’ll have deadlines to meet. Set yourself a deadline and try to stick to it. If procrastination is a problem, check out our archive of tips on how to beat it.
  • Recognise that criticism makes you a better designer. Criticism can hurt, but it’s an essential part of the process. No designer gets everything right the first time (and every designer has to live with choices they didn’t want but the client did). If you don’t want to hear criticism of your work, you’re not ready to pursue a design career. If you’re ready, set up an online portfolio or find another way to share your work online.

Those steps won’t guarantee you a career in design. However, if you can’t commit to these, then I’d argue it’s not the right path for you. If readers have additional suggestions, we’d love to hear them in the comments. Good luck!

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • As someone who employs full-time graphic designers for web work, here are the skills I look for:
    – Ability to work within a company’s brand style. Yes it cramps creative options, but making something that looks like someone else’s brand isn’t helpful. Designs need to differentiate from our competitors, not from our previous internal designs.
    – Consider interactive elements. A webpage doesn’t get framed and put on the wall. Design an experience. Extra points: avoid superficiality.
    – Buildability of the design. Consideration of the next steps after the design is signed off. Who can build it, are the fly-out menu systems you designed available as a plug-in? Is it the plug-in we already licensed, or a new one? Working with the team who build it to answer questions, and to check that the key elements of the design are implemented.
    – Ability to discuss the design with the client. Often clients interfere in unhelpful ways in the design process, however it’s important to bring the client on the journey to reduce risks of the completed design being rejected.
    – Advanced: Responsive design skills – the ability to imagine a single design that works on web browsers, tablets, and mobiles.

    The kind of web designer who can only come up with beautiful static designs, isn’t enough for me, however I get the impression that this is what some aspire to.

      • Just an added note for uccoffee and a heads up. I tried applying for a full time graphics job in Brisbane once. I ended up turning it down. Am I mad? nope.

        After some research I found out that Queensland has no updated salary bracket for Graphic Designers. When I viewed the list a few years ago, they stick all graphic design (doesn’t matter what u do, web, video or print) into ‘Design and print’ with a very vague low starting salary
        of 22k a year. The people I wanted to work for were Madman Entertainment. I Would have got
        the job too, if it wasn’t for the head of the company at the time offering me a 19k a year starting salary for a junior position. In other states, the starting salary for a junior graphic designer not falling under a bracket is at least 40k a year.

        Maybe try NSW or VIC.

  • DON’T become one! It’s a trap!! lol. You will quickly find out that the reality of your dream will be quite different than you had imagined it! Let me shatter your dreams. 🙂

    All jokes aside, Karmadillo is right. there will be a 1001 qualities people look for these days, and not just design for web. I myself hate webdesign, because I have no patience for coding. This puts me at a huge disadvantage over other graphic designers who do have that skill so
    Karma would never employ me. That’s why I went into print and video graphics and
    mastered that instead. So be very specific in what you can and WANT to do.

    But the key remains, have an awesome portfolio on you, and also work experience, which can be
    somewhat difficult because up until now it was more of a hobby. Put your stuff online, or in pdf form anyway! And I mean EVERYTHING you made you think is the best thing you’ve ever made. The more you have, and more variety of stuff you have, shows you are adaptable to many graphic skills. That paired with a killer resume of 1 page should land you at least an interview.
    Also in the meantime try and do any sort of freelance graphic design work.

    Trouble is, as with any job 10.000 other hopeful applicants want the same job. Its highly competitive out there. If you are lucky enough to even land your dream job, you will be a junior. You will get payed the shittiest salary on earth for at least 4 years, unless the boss really likes you or you happen to slam dunk land your job as a junior at Microsoft or something.

    You will also quickly find out that everyone wants everything for the least amount of money
    or if possible FREE and yesterday. Welcome to the wonderful world of Graphic Design 🙂

  • Yup, agree with the above sentiments. It’s not worth your time.
    Clients think graphic design is something that takes minutes to do and want to pay accordingly. They dont understand its hours upon hours of work, with tens to hundreds of changes in designs based on clients changing their minds etc.

    Spent years getting university qualifications, doing design work etc and I gave it up. I love design work but as a career, its not fesible unless you work for a design team in a major company like McDonalds, Microsoft, etc.

    The next issue is the fact of being multi-skilled. If you dont have coding skills, marketing skills etc, you are brushed aside and companies arent interested. Yet if you have those skills, they don’t want to pay a wage that reflects it. It’s horse-shit.

    Don’t get me wrong, its possible to find decent design jobs if you have the skills, you can get lucky. But unless youre a single person, living at home (or cheaply) you can’t afford to do design work.

  • The biggest problem I have with graphic designers (hiring them, working with them) is they really are clueless!
    Sure, they you make pretty pictures, but how are you going to print it?
    Digital? Screen Print? Solvent? UV? Sublimation? Vinyl Stickers?

    How are you going to break down that fancy pants logo (with all the pretty effects, gradients and highlight) to be screen printed? What substrate is it to be printed on? Four colour process? Spot colour? Do you even know how to break an image down to produce film for printing?

    Illustrator, illustrator, ILLUSTRATOR!!!
    Yeah, thats a pretty picture you made in Photoshop. You want it to be a 5m wide banner? Well, youre shit outta luck. You should have produced it in Illustrator.

    Solo (Schweppes) recently redesigned their logo. They handed it to me and said they want to use the new logo. I said “yeah ok, how are we going to reproduce that?”
    Its full of gradients, highlight effects and metallics. Sure, it looks great, but it was completely unreproducible.
    Even the Schweppes graphic designers I spoke with were all “derp?”

    To sum it all up. . . in design school there is far too much emphasis on making pretty pictures and next to no teaching of printing, of any sorts.
    First thing I do when interviewing a new graphic artist is I open a logo in Illustrator and tell them to reproduce it. If they can do it fast and accurately then theyre 80% of the way there.

  • Oh, if you can learn the stuff I was saying above about printing and reproducing then you will be leaps and bounds above every other ‘regular’ graphic designer. Sadly, most of those sorts of skills can only be learnt on the job.
    People are more than welcome to come visit me and see how its all produced.

  • I studied graphic design went out all excited with my head held high to get my first job. And failed, there are hundreds of designers looking for jobs. Its tough and cut throat.

    I got lucky, I started at a department store unpacking boxes and then moved into sales planning and then into the design department. I got to work on massive catalog projects by myself, coordinated photoshoots, write radio ads. And I learned some vital skills.

    Its now about 3 years after that job and I am marketing manager now. I hire quite a few designers and I will tell you what I find is missing. These are all personal though, everyone is different.

    Commercial designers. Designers who understand that the end goal is to sell. I don’t want an artist I want a designer.

    Designers who understand business and how a company works (usually I make my designers spend a week or two working in other departments).

    As the person said above, an understanding of printers and what they have to deal with or at least a willingness to learn. Building a good relationship with your printer is vital. There is no shortage of printers out there so shop around to you find one you get along with. Its always worth going for a visit and see what they do and hear their complaints.

    And for me, personally. I don’t care about logo design. Just a personal thing but every designer I see comes in with a bunch of amazing logos they have designed. I find layout skills far more desirable (and hard to find).

    Don’t stop applying. Keep trying. Have a good attitude. That the best advice I can give.

  • One of the many things that you need to keep in mind here, is that getting a job in graphic design is not a beauty pageant. Your work needs to be well designed, well thought out, smart and above all, has a concept. THINKING will set your work apart from the others.

    Among all the toolers out there that are learning how to use the latest Adobe software on YouTube, very few of them are designing with a concept in mind. Conceptual thinking takes training and talent. Sure, you can push pixels here and there, but I want to see smart design. Something that’s appropriate for the brand and does its job well. Just being pretty doesn’t cut it.

    Once you get your design chops from working hard on your way up, you’ll get your chance. Think about it, if you were a client (or design firm) spending lots of money every year on marketing your wares to the masses, would you trust your brand to some rookie just starting out? You’ve got to walk before you run.

    Anything worth doing takes time to perfect. If you really want to do it, don’t listen to the people who’ve given up. Keep at it and make it your mission.

    Remember, being a designer is not a job (or ‘hobby’ as someone put it), it is a lifestyle. Make it so.

  • I’ll add my 2 cents to all the points above (which are very valid). I’ve been a designer about 20 years now and I’ve seen the field change a lot over that time, one of the first questions I would ask yourself is what area do you want to work in?

    To break it down there’s freelance, in-house, agency or studio work. The area you want to work in will dictate whether you need to be a specialist or a generalist. Working in a large agency you’ll get pigeon holed to a set task, you’re the Brochure guy, or the front end guy. Working in-house you’ll need to be able to put your hand to everything.

    Are you the type of person who gets bored easily? Working freelance or in a studio you’ll get to play with lots of different brands, however as karmadillo said you’re playing in another persons sandbox and you need to stay on brand. Working in-house or even in an agency you may end up working on one brand for years, the pro here is that you’re sometimes in a position to evolve that brand over time.

    The design industry is saturated with people trying to get junior level jobs, unfortunately the CVs that I come across show they’re not being taught the correct skills, too much Photoshop, not enough InDesign. People are being taught to create pretty pictures, not solve problems and typography is a thing of the past.

    Teach yourself the skills you’re not being taught, study typography, grid systems, be the person who cares that the space between two letters needs kerned, learn about widows, orphans and look at the ideas behind great designs. To echo Leighton, a concept behind a design is more powerful than all the photoshop or illustrator tricks you can master and a concept doesn’t have to be complex, in fact the simpler the better. Look at the FedEx logo and notice the shape created by the E and x. Always ask yourself, “What is the purpose of this item I’m working on, what should it be doing, and is it doing it?”

    Hope all this doesn’t put you off, there is no better feeling that when you really nail something, and the feeling you get from seeing something you designed on a wall, in a store or magazine is amazing. Good luck.

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