What Do You Need to Become a Graphic Designer

Wondering “what do you need to become a graphic designer?” In this guide, we’ll break down the key skills, tools, and educational paths you need to start your journey in the field of graphic design.

  • A bachelor’s degree in graphic design, fine arts, or a related field is typically required to pursue a career in graphic design, though alternative education options such as online courses and bootcamps are also available.
  • Graphic designers need a combination of artistic creativity, technical proficiency in tools like Adobe Creative Suite, and strong time management and communication skills to succeed in their roles.
  • Building and maintaining a strong portfolio is crucial for graphic designers, as it showcases their skills and versatility to potential employers and clients.

Understanding Graphic Design

Graphic design is a storytelling art form that uses visual communication through images, graphics, and text to establish a brand and appeal to a target audience. Graphic designers create visual content, also known as graphic artists, using a blend of artistic talent and technological expertise to express messages with images and layouts across digital and print mediums. Their work involves creating visual content for websites as well as printed pages. This visual differentiation, audience connection, and brand loyalty fostering are vital aspects for businesses.

Today, graphic designers work across various platforms, including print, digital, motion, AR, VR, and mixed reality.

Definition of Graphic Design

Whether using computer software or traditional methods, graphic designers, also known as communication designers, generate visual concepts that effectively communicate engaging and captivating ideas to consumers. Their role involves creating the layout and look of reports, advertisements, and logos by hand and using various computer software and hardware. This transformation of data into visual graphics and diagrams helps convey messages effectively.

Achieving this requires graphic designers to apply creativity, technical skills, and a solid understanding of design theory. They must understand the rules of layout, typesetting, hierarchy, legibility, and format to create cohesive and appealing designs. This blend of art and technology is what makes graphic design a unique and essential field.

Importance of Graphic Design

Graphic design significantly contributes to enhancing brand awareness through the design of visual layouts and aesthetics for:

  • brochures
  • magazines
  • products
  • websites

It assists businesses in establishing a strong bond and loyalty with their audience, a critical factor in today’s competitive market landscape. Effective graphic design can differentiate businesses during economic challenges, making it a critical component in marketing and selling products.

Moreover, graphic designers are essential in various sectors, from commercial graphics production to experiential graphic design, ensuring that visual communication is compelling and effective. This importance underscores why many people aspire to become a graphic designer, which requires a blend of creative and technical skills.

Graphic Designer Educational Requirements

To pursue a career in graphic design, a bachelor’s degree in graphic design, fine arts, or a related field is often necessary. While a certificate or associate degree might suffice in some cases, a bachelor’s degree significantly enhances job prospects. There are around 300 post-secondary institutions in the U.S. offering accredited degree programs in this field. However, alternative education options are also available, providing flexibility for those who might not pursue a traditional four-year degree.

Bachelor’s Degree in Graphic Design

A majority of graphic designers possess a bachelor’s degree that offers a holistic education encompassing various graphic design aspects. A typical bachelor’s program includes 120–180 credit hours of classes over four years, covering subjects like website visual design, studio art, computerized design, motion graphics, printing techniques, commercial graphics production, and typography. These programs not only cover technical skills but also incorporate liberal arts education, including art history, sociology, psychology, writing, foreign languages, marketing, and business.

Aspiring graphic designers might also need to submit samples of their work when applying to these programs to demonstrate their artistic ability. This extensive education prepares them for the diverse challenges they will face in the professional world and ensures they are well-rounded candidates for various design roles.

Alternative Education Options

For those who might not pursue a bachelor’s degree, there are plenty of alternative education options available. Students can start with a two-year associate degree in graphic arts, which includes 65 credits combining arts studies with general education coursework. Online programs in graphic design are increasingly popular and offer similar degrees to traditional institutions.

Platforms that offer free graphic design courses with certificates include:

  • Skillshare
  • Udemy
  • Coursera
  • Alison
  • Canva

These platforms provide flexibility and accessibility for learning graphic design. Additionally, graphic design bootcamps and certificate programs offer accelerated paths for gaining practical experience and technical skills. These options cater to diverse learning needs and can be an excellent way to break into the field without committing to a four-year program.

Educational Pathways

Formal Education

Many designers start with a formal education in graphic design from colleges or universities. Such programs provide structured training and access to mentors which can be very beneficial. However, the burning question often is: do you need a college degree to be a graphic designer? The answer isn’t a straightforward yes or no. While a degree can provide a strong foundation, the absence of one does not bar you from entering the field.

Alternative Learning Paths

How to Become a Graphic Designer Without a Degree

It’s entirely possible to enter the field without a four-year degree:

  • Online Courses and Bootcamps: Platforms like Coursera, Udemy, and Skillshare offer courses in graphic design fundamentals and software.
  • Self-Taught Practice: Many successful designers are self-taught, utilizing free resources and tutorials available online.
  • Building a Portfolio: Regardless of formal education, a compelling portfolio is crucial. It is the real-world application of your skills that can often speak louder than a degree.

Essential Skills and Qualities

Graphic designers need a mix of the following skills and attributes to succeed:

  • Creativity and artistic talent for producing visually appealing designs
  • Technical proficiency in design software
  • Time management skills to meet deadlines
  • Effective communication with clients and team members
  • Quick facts graphic designers should also be aware of industry trends and advancements

These critical skills warrant a more detailed examination.

Artistic Ability and Creativity

Creativity fuels graphic designers to develop innovative ideas and distinguish their designs. Artistic ability is essential for creating aesthetically pleasing content that attracts and engages viewers. This combination of creativity and artistic skill enables designers to communicate ideas that inspire, inform, and captivate consumers. Designers create visual concepts that effectively convey the intended message to the target audience.

Successful graphic designers need to curate strong compositions and execute projects that resonate with their audience. This artistic talent, combined with a deep understanding of design principles, is what sets apart the best graphic designers from the rest.

Technical Proficiency

For graphic designers, proficiency in design software such as Adobe Creative Suite is indispensable. Programs such as Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop are the industry standard and mastering these tools is crucial for creating detailed and professional designs. Certification programs in graphic design software can demonstrate competence and give a competitive advantage.

Staying current with industry trends and continuing education is vital to maintain technical proficiency.

Time Management and Communication Skills

Graphic designers, often tasked with managing multiple projects and tight deadlines, must possess effective time management skills. Strong communication skills are equally important, enabling designers to articulate their design choices and understand client needs. These skills help ensure that projects are completed on time and meet client expectations, which is essential for building a successful career in graphic design.

Building a Portfolio

An impressive portfolio serves as a vital tool for graphic designers to exhibit their skills and their approach towards visual storytelling. Employers rely on portfolios to make hiring decisions, and a good portfolio can be the deciding factor between being considered for a position and having an application rejected.

The creation and maintenance of an engaging portfolio warrant further exploration.

Creating Your First Portfolio

First portfolios can include:

  • school projects
  • mock-ups
  • personal projects
  • design challenge entries

Using website-building platforms like WordPress, Squarespace, or Wix can help create an online portfolio.

This initial portfolio should demonstrate versatility and creativity in basic art, appealing to potential employers by showcasing a range of skills and styles.

Maintaining and Updating Your Portfolio

As designers gain experience, they should update their portfolios to highlight new skills and styles. Successful portfolios may contain up to 20 pieces of work to avoid overwhelming the viewer. Regular updates ensure that the portfolio reflects the designer’s current capabilities and keeps it relevant for job applications and project bids.

Gaining Experience

Aspiring graphic designers must focus on gaining practical experience to become a graphic designer. Internships and freelance work offer valuable opportunities to build a diverse portfolio and gain hands-on experience in the field.

A more detailed exploration of relations and related services in these avenues is warranted.


Internships provide:

  • Practical experience
  • Opportunities to build professional relationships
  • Portfolio work suitable for presentation
  • Opportunities for learning new skills, including real-life project management

Internships are typically required for students in bachelor’s degree programs and can provide valuable experience and networking opportunities that can last throughout your career.

Beyond the technical skills, internships are crucial for networking within the design community and securing a mentor who can provide guidance and support. These relationships can be invaluable as you navigate your career in graphic design, opening doors to future opportunities and collaborations.

Freelance Work

Freelance work allows designers to:

  • Gain valuable experience and improve their craft
  • Build their portfolios with a variety of work, showcasing their versatility
  • Make themselves more appealing to potential employers
  • Have a diverse portfolio, which can be a significant advantage when applying for jobs or bidding on projects.

Freelance work also provides the flexibility to explore different design niches and discover your preferred area of specialization. As graphic designers work independently, they can focus on commercial graphics production, web design, or experiential graphic design, and freelancing offers a broad range of specialized design services that can help refine your skills and establish your reputation in the industry.

Certification and Continuing Education

Graphic design certifications offer several benefits for designers, including:

  • Substantiating their skills, expertise, and knowledge
  • Providing tangible proof of their capabilities to employers
  • Keeping them updated on industry trends and advancements
  • Equipping them with the ability to adapt to evolving consumer tastes and preferences

Continuing education is essential for graphic designers to stay competitive in the field, especially with the constant advancements in updated computer graphics.

Professional Certifications

Professional certifications are valuable for graphic designers because they enhance credibility and validate technical skills. Recognized certification programs include Adobe Certified Associate (ACA) and UI/UX Design Specialization. Certified designers are often seen as more reliable and qualified candidates, attracting prestigious projects and clients.

Certifications in Adobe Creative Cloud products, for example, validate a designer’s technical skills and provide access to exclusive events, online communities, and resources, enhancing networking opportunities. These certifications can open doors to higher-paying positions and promotions, making them a worthwhile investment.

Keeping Up with Industry Trends

It’s important for graphic designers to keep up with industry trends and advancements to adapt to changing consumer tastes and preferences and remain competitive. Courses like ‘Graphic Design’ by David Underwood and ‘Introduction to Typography’ on Coursera help designers stay updated with the latest trends.

This ongoing learning ensures that graphic designers remain relevant and can continue to inform and captivate consumers with their work.

Career Advancement Opportunities

Graphic designers must explore potential career growth paths to understand their career progression possibilities. Experienced designers have the opportunity to progress to roles such as chief designer, art director, or creative director as they continue to develop their skills and expertise in the field. This advancement allows them to take on more leadership and creative responsibilities within their organizations. Additionally, various specializations within the field offer opportunities to focus on preferred types of projects and industries.

Advanced Positions

Advanced positions in graphic design include roles like lead designer, art director, and creative director. Qualifications for these positions typically include extensive experience, a strong portfolio, and leadership skills. These roles offer greater responsibility and higher pay, making them attractive career goals for many graphic designers.


Graphic designers can choose to specialize in different areas within the field, allowing them to focus on their preferred types of projects and industries. Motion Graphics Designers, for example, create animations and visual effects for multimedia, earning an average base salary of $96,852 annually in the United States. This specialization is particularly in demand in the entertainment industry, including film, television, and gaming.

Experiential Graphic Designers, on the other hand, work on creating interactive environments such as museum exhibitions and retail spaces, often collaborating with architects and industrial designers. Specializing in such niches can open up unique opportunities and allow designers to work on innovative and cutting-edge projects.