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How to Become a Graphic Designer

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Well, I’ve been mulling this over lately. Mainly because I’m in the market for a good designer (contractor? intern?), and I need to be able to communicate the type of person I’m looking for.

I have to say, even though I’m a designer, I don’t always take the time to deliberately dissect it. I just do what comes naturally, what I enjoy, and what I’m good at. I’m pretty sure God intended for me to be a designer; otherwise, why else would He give me the talents to do so? So I really can’t take any credit whatsoever for having creativity or an “eye” for design. But. I also went to school, got a degree, work hard every day, deliberately nurture the skills that I have, and continually push myself to a higher standard. After contemplating for a while, I’ve come to the conclusion that a good graphic designer (at least the kind that I would want to work with) will likely have a similar combination of attributes, and I’ve narrowed it down to five specifics.

The 5 non-negotiables you need in order to become a Graphic Designer

1. An (art) education. 

Yes, I believe an education is very important. Does this mean you have to go to a $40k per year school? Nope, not necessarily. An education may be a combination of hands-on training and online classes; it could be at a 2-year community college or at the most prestigious university there is. As long as there are periods of sustained and disciplined study, practice, testing, and group critique under the tutelage of an experienced designer, that is an education. What an art education does is force you to learn, recognize, and consider the basic fundamentals of art and design. And this is KEY. I have met many “self-taught designers” who just started using Photoshop and liked it. There’s nothing wrong with that, but… a hammer does not a carpenter make. You have to have a good foundation to build upon, and if you don’t understand the principles of contrast, color theory, balance, white space, how to guide the eye, or know what kerning and leading are… then you are shortchanging yourself and likely creating unprofessional, unpolished, and ineffective designs. Another benefit of having a traditional art education is that you can experiment with different types of media, explore other artists, learn about the major historical art movements, and throughout that start to realize your own personal style and design “voice”. Without this, many novice designers look around at what’s popular and what others are doing and simply attempt to mimic it, instead of drawing from within to create something unique. So. A good graphic designer has a solid foundation in an art education, preferably resulting in a degree (especially if you’re trying to find a job working for somebody else—a bachelor’s degree is practically mandatory in this market). 

2. A passion. 

It seems like this could go unsaid. But I have to say it. I don’t mean just a passion in that you like what you do, although that is probably the most important aspect of it. But to be more specific: a passion for learning; a passion for creating; a passion for making a difference through your work; a passion for making the world a better place by eliminating one bad design at a time! A passion for the creative process, however frustrating it may be at times. I don’t think passion is something that can be taught. In a sense, I feel like this has to be part of your nature, part of your makeup, part of your brain and cells and neurons and soul. It doesn’t have to be your only passion, and it doesn’t have to run your life, but if you don’t have passion for it, why are you even doing it?

3. An understanding of typography. 

The average person may not think typography is that important, but yes, my friend… it is. This hearkens back to point number one (a good art educational program will include typography courses),  but to me, this gets a category all its own. I see soooooo mannnyyyy bad uses of typography or unconsidered typography from “designers” that I want to track them down and delete all fonts from their computer except Helvetica. Letters are designed. Yes they are functional design, since we can read them and use them as tools of communication, but it is still design. Just because we can read “A B C” in English does not mean it’s not a part of the design. It’s a huge part! I love the calligraphy of Asian languages. I readily admit I have no clue what the characters mean, but it allows me to see the beauty of a shape in the arrangement of lines and swooshes and the construction and shape of its design. I can look at it and just appreciate it for what it is. A mistake that is made by self-taught designers is that type is just type. “I can use whatever font, and if I want something fancy, I’ll use something that looks ‘cool’ and different, like Papyrus or Scriptina or Trajan, or some-free-font-I-downloaded-off-the-internet-but-it-has-terrible-kerning-but-I-can’t-recognize-that-because-I-don’t-know-what-kerning-is.”  No. No-no-no-no-NO. Oops, this is turning into a rant, let me get back on track with number 4… Sorry…

4. A good grasp of (professional) tools. 

Industry standard, like it or not, is the Adobe empire. Adobe products include Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Flash, Dreamweaver, and others.  And this is the stuff the professionals use. If all you have is Microsoft Publisher or Powerpoint, may the good Lord help you. That’s like trying to pound in a five-inch nail with your kid’s plastic toy hammer. It’s a nice imitation, but can’t do the job of the real thing. There are other quality professional programs, like Corel and Quark, but Adobe is by far the accepted industry standard worldwide and is most popular. These tools are also very extensive. There is so much you can do within Photoshop alone, that you may only ever use 10% of its capabilities. So you don’t have to be a master of the programs, but the better you learn to master the program, the more efficiently you will be able to use it. Online tutorials are great for this. Adobe itself has where they teach you about their programs. Yes, I will be the first to admit that Adobe products are expensive. There are other options out there, including some (free) open source tools that are becoming increasingly popular, but if you are going to be serious about it, it is still best to know Adobe.

5. The ability to solve problems creatively. 

How can you communicate one idea in five different ways? If you are tasked to design a logo for a construction company, can you do it without using a hammer? A house? Can you challenge yourself to think beyond the cliché? In addition to “thinking” creatively, you should be able to “execute” creatively as well.

So that’s it. Not so bad, eh?

I consider it a privilege to be a designer. I take this craft seriously and respect it for what it is and the value it brings to the world. If you’re reading this as a would-be or self-taught designer, strive to do the same! Understand the power that you have to create, to influence, to change someone’s perspective. If you’re reading this as someone who may at some point have a need for a Graphic Designer, do yourself a favor and make sure whoever you choose to work with can hold up against this list. 

Did I overlook anything? What other qualities are important for a Graphic Designer to have?

Nyla Smith

Nyla Smith

Nyla is a Graphic Designer, Web Designer, Front-End Web Developer and Consultant with over 15 years of experience. She is the owner of n-Vision Designs, LLC in Hampton Roads, Virginia, which exists to provide marketing support and brand consulting to small- and medium-sized businesses needing creative solutions. Contact Nyla if you'd like to discuss your next creative project. She can usually be bribed to a meeting with a cup of green tea and an oatmeal cookie.

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