The Ultimate Graphic Design Career Guide (Career Paths Included)
So you’re interested in a graphic design career? Then you’re in luck: you’ve chosen a profession where there’s strong demand from employers right now, and where the salaries are pretty impressive, even for starting positions.
And let’s face it, it’s one of the coolest professions around. You’re going to be waking up every morning knowing you’ll spend the day doing something you love, alongside fellow creatives who share your passion and keep you inspired.
Some careers have your progression mapped out before you even start (how depressing is that?), but being a designer to lead you to jobs, companies and places you never expected.
With graphic design, you’ll have a myriad of options open to you, including — in a time of rapid technical innovation — some that haven’t even been invented yet.
In short, graphic design is one of the best careers you can choose to pursue.
At Shillington, we have a great deal of experience in training graphic designers — most with no prior design experience — and getting them into paid jobs, so it’s a subject close to our hearts. Read on, and we’ll explain what graphic design is, share signs you have the right stuff to be a graphic designer, reasons it’s a promising career path and descriptions of the range of jobs and opportunities that will be open to you once you’re trained.
10 reasons it’s a good idea to pursue a graphic design career
Training up and pursuing a graphic design career path is a big investment in your future, so the first thing you need to do is be sure it’s the right direction for you. Here are ten reasons to consider to decide if graphic design is the best career for you.
Learning will be a daily thing
When you’re a graphic designer, your work will never stop evolving or improving. There will always be new challenges to overcome. New problems to solve. It’s a never-ending whirlwind of discovery and invention. You’ll make mistakes. We all do.
Pursuing a graphic design career doesn’t mean you simply learn the rules and then you’re done. In fact, you’ll need to be working on improving and evolving your skills and knowledge, throughout your working life.
That’s partly because there’s always room for improvement, even in terms of the fundamentals like using grids, combining colours, understanding typography and so on. But it’s also because there are always going to be new techniques and technologies coming out that you’ll have to stay on top of.
For example, veteran designers who graduated in the 1970s, before personal computers even existed, are now getting to grips with futuristic techs like AR and VR. Just imagine what you might be working on half a century from now!
If that idea fills you with dread, then graphic design might not be right for you. But if it excites you, then get on board.
Design will always be in demand.
In the age of automation, when we’re constantly being told that our jobs will one day be taken over by robots, you can be rest assured that graphic design will always require human thinking and creativity. It’s an essential cog in the world of work; one that is required for any brand or business.
While simple design collateral could be automated, it takes a graphic designer to develop holistic brands and clever communication that will be unique and appeal to the target audience. This makes a career in graphic design a smart, future-proof decision.
Design opens up so many different career paths
You’ll be able to add value to any workplace, not just a design studio. Design is something that no business can live without.
If an agency isn’t quite for you, perhaps you might want to venture into editorial design and work for a major publisher? Or join an internal team at one of the world’s biggest sports brands? Your graphic design career path is open to so many exciting routes.
Designing will boost your problem-solving skills
Creativity is crucial for any business. Steve Jobs of Apple once said: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”
It’s for this reason that a graphic design career will enhance your problem-solving skills — not just because you’re overcoming common issues for clients; but because you’re encouraged to consider the bigger picture. What will your design solve? How will it add value? How will it achieve a brand’s goals? Design will boost more skills than you realise.
You’ll enjoy working as part of a team
Graphic designers are rarely alone; they’re often part of a creative team or working closely with the client, collaborating to come up with the best possible solution. You’re likely to get to know PR professionals, copywriters, marketers, advertisers… you’ll probably work with senior management and be expected to consult with company directors.
Your role will rely on many business relationships; the knock-on benefits of which will only boost your skills and experience — especially your ability to effectively deal with different personalities. This doesn’t, however, mean you need to be an extrovert. In fact, many introverts — people who find an abundance of social interaction draining and exhausting — become designers. Because you don’t have to spend your whole time communicating with others; there’s normally sufficient ‘quiet time’, in which you’re focused on one task, that allows you to recover.
But whether you’re an extrovert, an introvert, or somewhere in between, you do have to like the idea of sharing and developing ideas with other people. A graphic design career is not the best choice for a ‘lone genius’.
There’s (usually) no need for a formal business attire
Hate stiff white shirts and uncomfortable blazers? Relax. Graphic design is hands-on career for creative minds and designers tend to have more relaxed work attire. T-shirts, jeans and trainers are practically the uniform. You can’t be creative when your arms struggle to move in a formal business suit.
Clients won’t mind either. It’s widely accepted that designers dress a certain way, and that’s alright with us too.
Your graphic design career path is unpredictable
Think you’re just going to follow the herd? A graphic design career can take you to places you never thought possible. You could secure a job at a studio on the other side of the planet, or find that your employment means lots of travel to far flung places. You might even go solo and launch your own studio someday. The possibilities really are endless.
You could see your work in lights
How would you feel if you spotted your work on a billboard? Or in a magazine? The sense of job satisfaction can be overwhelming. It’s your creativity up in lights, for everyone to see. Nothing beats the feeling of contributing to something that you know will inspire many people.
You’ll change the way you see the world
Pursuing a graphic design career will reframe how you see things. When you walk down the street as a graphic designer, you’ll see things in a completely new light. It’s because your job will become your life.
You’ll find inspiration in everything you see and do, saving ideas for your next project. Design brings a new perspective, and encourages you to get out there and discover new things. From art galleries and architecture to clothing and accessories — your life will be full of creative wonder.
You’ll never stop being inspired
Once you’ve mastered something in a job, things can get boring quickly. That’s not necessarily the same for graphic designers. So, whether you’re changing careers at 40 or just getting started at 50, a career in design will always leave you feeling inspired.
Trends will develop and change, keeping you well and truly on your toes from one day to the next. You’ll never know what’s around the corner. And for a career choice, that has to be the most inspirational.
Eleven signs this career path is the right fit for you
You buy things just for the packaging
Does the bottle of wine with the most unique label always find its way into your shopping basket? Have you found yourself admiring the take-out bag your food came in while eating lunch?
If so, you have a serious appreciation for packaging design and might want to consider pursuing a graphic design career.
Shillington Sydney’s Johnny Boardman gets it. “I love designing packaging because there’s a design competition going on in every category at any one time. Your design will be sitting right there rubbing shoulders next to all the other products and it’s your job to be original, be creative, be disruptive in any way you can to grab the attention of the public. At the end of the day, the most appealing design wins! Just as long as the product doesn’t suck or taste like poop.”
You recognise fonts have different personalities
You know font choice matters. With so many different typefaces available, it’s essential to find the right typeface pairings to complement the design.
Designers can quickly tell what works and what doesn’t, so if Comic Sans and Papyrus make you cringe — you’re well on your way to establishing your career in graphic design!
Shillington Manchester’s John Palowski loves typography too. “Drawing wasn’t my go-to skill growing up — so I turned my attention to sketching out the letterforms for logos such as Reebok & Kawasaki which (in the 1980s) had that instant cool factor. I guess that was my training ground for all the type I find myself designing today.”
You know the difference between maroon and marsala
Who knew there were so many colours in the rainbow? You! Do you know what the latest colour trends are? Are your bookshelves coordinated by colour?
Colour choice is a big part of design, and it takes a keen eye to perfect. Simply seeing the spectrum is a powerful place to start.
Shillington Manchester’s Laura Weldon understands. “I nearly had a breakdown while choosing a paint colour for my living room. My husband couldn’t believe there were so many options for ‘off-white’.”
You spend hours on Pinterest and Instagram
We all know how addictive social media can be. Designers love creating mood boards because visual research can inspire and spark creativity in unpredictable ways. You should definitely consider a graphic design career if you find yourself lusting over stationery on Pinterest or in a deep spiral of #typography tags on Instagram.
Shillington New York’s Shanti Sparrow knows the joy of Pinterest. Check out her epic collection of design boards.
You download apps just to check out the design
As our everyday life catapults into the innovative future, designers play a big role in creating well-designed digital products. If your phone is full of apps you hardly use but can’t bear to delete — you have a head start in understanding the world of UX aka User Experience design.
Shillington New York’s Anthony Wood watches for impressive app design. “It’s amazing how often you interact with apps. One of my favourite examples is the Virgin Australia flight check-in, which makes a usually painful process into something smooth and simple!”
You care about aesthetics in everyday life
Are the cushions on your sofa organised by size or colour? Are your picture frames perfectly aligned? Do you recoil at colours that don’t go together or lettering that’s too difficult to read?
If so, you understand the importance of visual clarity. Balance, Repetition, Contrast, Alignment, Hierarchy. The five design principles that create the foundation of design education are already forming in your brain.
Shillington Melbourne’s Lucy Wells knows your obsession. “I’m totally OCD in this in so many more ways than one. The most evident is when I finished moving into my apartment and I realised all the furniture I had picked out was a tone of grey. Subconsciously (without realising it) I’m always matching everything and anything to a neutral/natural colour palette. I even dress that way. You’d never catch me with something bold or bright.”
You understand the power of branding
Branding is more than just a logo — it’s the spirit and idea behind a product or service that consumers connect with. Successful brands create an instant reaction. If you recognise and understand brand loyalty, your inner designer is well at work.
Throughout your graphic design career you will be thinking about branding constantly. Understanding the value of it now is a great start.
Shillington Melbourne’s Wayne Smith is really into branding. “Branding is so important as it filters subconsciously through everything we interact with. From global power-house companies to local start-ups, museums and charities, politicians and celebrities. Through fashion, culture and social media people are managing their own brands every day!”
You have a knack for craft and handmade
Do you like to get your hands dirty? Do you enjoy the process of crafting as much as the end product? If you’re a creative at heart if you spend your weekend undertaking home DIY projects, or even unwinding with an adult colouring book, a graphic design career could be the right path for you.
Shillington London’s Alyson Pearson loves to get crafty too. “Rather than buying birthday cards, I make them.”
You know design is more than meets the eye
You see what others don’t, and love wowing friends with the hidden meaning in popular logos. Your favourite party trick? Uncovering the secret arrow in the FedEx logo, pointing out the bear in Toblerone, or identifying the a –> z in Amazon.
Shillington Sydney’s Sara Mazzoni knows what you’re talking about. “My jaw dropped when I realised that the Roxy logo was an extension of the Rip Curl logo!”
You collect designs that inspire
If you save your favourite cards and invitations, have a bowl filled with cool old matchbooks, or can’t bear to throw out an empty but beautiful perfume bottle … signs are you’re a creative! Both the casual graphic artist and those with a graphic design career love to collect examples that inspire because when something works, it works.
Shillington London’s Ali Neilly is a fan of collecting too. “I’m a serial collector. I once acquired an elderly woman’s stamp collection from a charity shop and since then have continued to add to it as they’re the perfect addition to a moodboard with their unique patterns and colours.”
You love to learn
Have you ever watched a YouTube tutorial to help you perfect a new skill? Our field is ever-evolving, and as designers there’s always more to learn!
Graphic design is a hands on career for creative minds. At Shillington, we know that our creative journey is a life-long one, which is why we’re always finding ways to stay ahead of the curve.
Shillington Melbourne’s Spencer Harrison has always been a self-educator. “I love reading and often have 2–3 books on the go, reading about art, science, design, history, productivity and lot’s of other subjects. Books give me the opportunity to learn from the greatest minds that have come before me and fills my brain with new ideas that fuel my creativity and help keep me inspired in my day to day work.”
Does this sound like you? Then let’s get down to brass tacks. What does a graphic designer actually do?
Job descriptions and responsibilities of a graphic designer
At its heart, graphic design is about using visual media to communicate information and ideas. The media can vary wildly: for example, it may include print publications such as posters, brochures or magazines; digital media such as apps, websites or virtual billboards; or physical media such as set design, signage or murals. But however the content is created, they’ll be based on the same fundamental design principles that have informed graphic design throughout its history.
None of this, as we mentioned earlier, takes place in a vacuum. Typically, a graphic designer (or their superiors, such as their art director) will begin by meeting with the client to discuss what the project is intended to achieve and its goals. This means the design team as a whole must research and understand the business on a fundamental level. Graphic design is above all intended to solve a problem, and there is no point in making something that looks attractive if it fails to solve the said problem.
Typically, the client will be involved in the creation of the design throughout the process. The worst outcome would be to present a finished product at the end, see the client’s face fall, and being asked to ‘go back to the drawing board’. Graphic designers avoid that by developing iteratively, communicating the purpose of each element of the design at each stage, and discussing everything in detail on a regular basis. In this way, the team can ensure a smooth transition from an initial idea to a finished product that everyone is happy with.
In short, the graphic design career path is full of a mixture of craft, communication and ideas. It’s not just about creating attractive visuals, it’s about problem-solving, good communication, working with people, and creating designs that are relevant to people in the real world. But if you just want to do the former, then you really want to become an artist. If you’re interested in the latter as well, then you truly are the “right stuff” and will have a great graphic design career.
Training, education and certificate options
The standard graphic design career path involves a three-year university degree in graphic design. That said, in practice, many degree courses are largely or wholly academic, and so some graduates find supplementary training courses and/or self-study necessary to build up the more practical skills demanded by employers.
Some people, however, are unable or unwilling to take on the large debts involved with a full degree, at the same time as taking three years away from paid work. In this case, training yourself purely through self-study can be an appealing option, either through paid-for online courses or free YouTube videos, or a mixture of both.
There are certainly graphic designers working full-time today who have come through this route. However, it takes a big commitment and strong discipline to devote enough hours to train properly.
Without anyone to guide and mentor you, it’s also difficult to know that you’ve covered every aspect you need to learn. It’s difficult to convince employers you’re industry ready for a career in graphic design without a certificate to prove it, and you’ll struggle to network and make the right connections without anyone to make the appropriate introductions.
If neither self-study or a three-year degree appeal to you, there is a ‘third way’ offered by Shillington, which has colleges in the UK, USA and Australia. Shillington offers intensive courses in graphic design over three months (full-time) or nine months (part-time) that will teach you the fundamentals of graphic design, the software skills you need to use them, and how to put them into practice on real-world briefs. Led by professionals actually working in the industry, everything you learn on these courses will be directly relevant to getting a job, and you’ll have proactive help with finding the right positions at the end of it.
Different graphic design career paths
The typical graphic design career path begins as a junior graphic designer at a creative agency or an in-house design team at a big company. From there you might seek to progress through to midweight designer, followed by senior designer, art director, creative director and beyond.
Alternatively, there’s the freelance route. Many graphic designers go freelance once they’ve got a few years’ job experience. But there’s no rule saying you have to go straight into a job, and if you’re attracted by the freedom offered by freelancing (and ideally have some funds to get you through the first few months), it could be worth considering straight after graduation.
Whether you’re a freelance or salaried designer, you may find that the graphic design career path leads you to an area of specialization. If there’s something you have a real passion for, that’s a smart move, as good people with specialized skills will always be in demand, whether you become a book cover designer, packaging designer, digital designer, UI designer, web designer, web developer, motion designer, animator, 3D designer, game designer, mural artist, sign painter, email marketing designer, VR designer, product designer…. or anything else that floats your boat.
Another industry that’s open to you is marketing and advertising. Being experienced in graphic design means you’re able to brief creatives on all aspects of communications, from brochure copy to web design, and so you’re in a great place to apply for jobs such as digital marketing manager.
Teaching is another graphic design career path that’s open to experienced designers. If you have a passion for design, what better way to share it than by inspiring the next generation of graphic designers? Jobs in teaching graphic design can be found at general schools and colleges, as well as specialist education and training facilities.
Ultimately, of course, many graphic designers decide they want to work for themselves, rather than make money for someone else. So you may eventually wish to found your own agency or other design-related company. With some of the world’s biggest companies being partly or entirely design-driven, the sky really is the limit!
Or — you might find yourself on a career path you never expected! Here we share 15 of the most unexpected occupations of graphic designers to help inspire your creative career, as told by our graduates and teachers.
As you’ll know, creatives are seldom interested in just one area of design. Fashion, for example, is an extension of many other forms of visual expression, and so it makes sense that some graphic design career paths lead to garment and accessory design. Shillington New York graduate, Greg Bemis, took his illustration talents to Nike’s headquarters in Oregon where he excelled in the Basketball Footwear department. “I think it is a career that allows you to wear different hats and do a multitude of different things.”
Having a background in graphic design will particularly help with roles that involve briefing creatives, such as marketing, for example. This is a career path that not many people think of at first, but it’s a great fit. Marketing Managers are expected to oversee all aspects of the mix, from brochure and website design to written communications. Shillington Sydney graduate Alexander Wu-Kim applied his skill-set to a role as Digital Marketing Manager at fashion label, Local Supply.
Teacher / Lecturer
At Shillington, a high number of our graduates go on to become lecturers, with some returning to the places they studied to help nurture the graphic design careers of budding professionals.
Laura Weldon from Shillington Manchester, explains the appeal: “I teach because I am as passionate about design today as I was first starting out. I love seeing that passion and interest for design in the students. It’s such a great process to be part of — we have students come in that have never used a Mac before, and they graduate with the skills to be a designer. It also keeps me on my toes and gives me a fresh perspective on things as I am surrounded by 22 students that have completely different outlooks.”
Although the visual element of design is the main reason many people choose to study graphics, some prefer to explore more of the behind-the-scenes ‘process’ when entering the industry. UX and UI provide fantastic graphic design careers to the technically skilled, utilising designers’ abilities to help users to easily interact with a product. Shillington Melbourne graduate, Lori Beth Kaye, has done just this working at The Iconic.
Wedding Invitation Designer
Weddings are now big business, with the average bride and groom spending £33K on their special day. With the industry booming, roles for the creatively gifted are plentiful, with couples requiring all manner of stationery, from save the dates to table plans.
This is a graphic design career path that has enticed many Shillington graduates, including Emily Kerr, who has a few words of advice for designers entering the field: “My main learning from doing invites is that its key to involve mother of the bride from the start. So many times friends have been charmed by quirky personalised first drafts. However, later down the line, the family get to see and suddenly things have to become more traditional! I love that my days are never the same; every day poses a new question or problem that I have to solve through design.”
Cemented in the heritage of graphic design, letterpress printing is likely to be on the list of dream careers for many. However, being a highly skilled practice, it takes years of work to develop the trade. Shillington graduate Eleanor Rogers worked as an administrative assistant in corporate finance before deciding to kickstart her graphic design career. After graduation, she landed an amazing opportunity at Chapel Press, a specialist letterpress print studio in Melbourne, and has enjoyed her unique role since.
Rather than opt for a career that fully encompasses traditional skills, 3D illustration can be a happy medium between this and focusing on contemporary computer processes. At Shillington, we host a ‘handmade day’ to encourage more exploration into this field. One of our recent guest lecturers, Kyle Bean, who’s worked for clients including Google, Emirates, Kinfolk and Wallpaper, offers advice to those considering a career in 3D illustration: “Having good making skills is only half of what is really necessary when it comes to this kind of work. You also need to be good at communicating your ideas and carefully planning your projects.”
Book Cover Designer
Ebooks may now be a popular choice for readers, but printed pages are still very much in demand by book lovers the world over. As such, there is high demand for enticing covers that will draw in potential readers — great news for creatives. Holly Ovenden is a stellar example of an inspiring designer that specialises in book covers. She is currently working in-house at Bloomsbury Publishing in London, after graduating from Shillington. Similarly, guest lecturer David Pearson has created critically-acclaimed artwork for a variety of clients including Penguin and guest lecturer Hazel Lam won Emerging Designer of the Year at the 2018 Australian Book Design Awards.
Again drawing on the more traditional elements of design practice, sign painting and hand lettering is still a highly coveted skill, especially in the hospitality industry. Restaurants hoping to stand out in a crowded market may call upon designers to help create unique signage. Shillington guest lecturer Josh Harris, aka The A Board Dude, has dedicated his graphic design career to the art.
“I kinda stumbled into it purely by chance while I was working at The Breakfast Club in Angel, London. I noticed their sandwich board design was looking pretty flaccid and decorated with outdated trivia. So, I scribbled on it. And another board. The big boss man, Jon took a liking to it, informed my manager at the time and she offered me a new role painting the boards at their four locations around the city every week! The rest is history.”
Surface Pattern Designer
Designers and artists tend to work across many different mediums, using a variation of materials along the way. Fabric provides an interesting canvas for designers to work on, enabling them to apply their art to a number of end products. Shillington Melbourne teacher Spenceroni decided that surface pattern design was the route for him, after originally studying science and then graphic design. He’s since gone on to win awards with his bright and engaging visual style. Shillington New York graduate Courtney Capone also specialises in surface design and illustration — check out her inspiring work and her pattern tutorial.
For fans of 8-bit, Oculus Rift and everything in between, gaming design might seem a tempting challenge to apply your skills. With the industry growing incredibly fast, this is a graphic design career path that will be viable for a long time. Winner of the Shillumni competition Vanille Cuvelier, caught our attention when she designed a mobile game called Shillorun, with no previous game design experience. On developing her new skill-set, she said: “Creating a game is really straightforward once you get the hang of how rules, behaviours and attributes work.” If you’re looking to make the segue into this creative offshoot, Vanille recommends GameSalad as a starting point.
Brands are constantly on the lookout for new and creative ways to market their products, and as such require designers to help produce engaging artwork for their packaging. From drinks companies to confectionary and toiletries, there’s a whole host of career opportunities for savvy designers and illustrators to be part of this lucrative industry. Shillington graduate Roo Cassels works for UK branding and packaging agency, Big Fish. He secured a job after working in advertising. “Every day’s different so sometimes I may be cutting and sticking, making mock-ups, designing on the computer, on a photo shoot or at a meeting with clients — it’s definitely an upgrade from my old job.”
In addition to UX and UI, truly memorable websites require strong design aesthetics, which is what graphic design is used for and where graphic designers can make their mark. Shillington graduate and the former Head of Digital, John Fry, knows more than a thing or two about the world of web design. Running Sixheads, alongside co-founder Bec Brown, John uses his 15 years of design and development experience to assist his clients in achieving websites that both look and work beautifully.
I still sketch ideas out to explain to clients what I intend to do — that is a really important stage of the process.
Email Marketing Designer
With brands now having the opportunity to reach a mass audience through social media, email marketing is arguably now more important than ever before. Curated lists ensure that companies can talk directly to potential customers, through controlled and customised messaging. In order to ensure the brand’s identity is conveyed across all forms of communication, many design agencies and creative freelancers are finding their niche in specifically designing for email platforms. For designers with a penchant for digital, this could be a sidestep into the graphic design career of your dreams and certainly answers the question, what is design used for!
In cities all around the world, street art is becoming increasingly celebrated for its unique visual appeal, which can instantly transform the ambience of a street or entire area. Shillington Brisbane teacher Adam Busby creates striking hand painted, indoor and outdoor large-scale murals, making his work internationally renowned. His clients have included the Brisbane Street Art Festival 2017, Brisbane City Council and even Shillington’s Brisbane Campus. Next time someone asks you, what is graphic design used for, you’ll have tons of creative choices to give them!
As we mentioned earlier, a graphic design career isn’t just fun and rewarding: it’s also generously remunerated, with lots of growth potential.
For example, this year in New York City, the average salary for junior graphic designers is $43,317 and the average salary for senior graphic designers is $71,127. In London, the same figures are £22,209 and £39,968, and in Australia, it’s $48,376 and $79,573.
For more details on the kind of salary, you can expect as a graphic designer, depending on your level of experience and specialist skill, check out this guide.
So let’s review. The graphic design career path is a great way to enjoy yourself, feel fulfilled by your work, and get paid well. It’s also a career that’s very much in demand! Not everyone can do it, of course, but if you have an artistic eye, an interest in the world around you, an ability to communicate with others and a willingness to commit to a lifetime of learning, then it could well be the career for you.
If that’s the case, then a world of opportunity awaits you. You might end up working in publishing or on websites; in technology or painting murals; designing packaging or video games… or any number of cool and fulfilling areas. You might end up teaching or working in marketing; freelancer or CEO — but wherever you go or whatever you do, it will because you made the choice and followed your passion.