The demand for graphic design jobs, what employers are looking for, and how to get one
A creative marketing profession is a great way to bridge the gap between traditional arts and business. If you’re considering getting a job in graphic design, these are some things you might want to know before submitting an application:
What graphic designers make
A graphic designer in the United States can expect to make between $49K-$73K1 per year or about $23-$34 an hour. By comparison, a freelance graphic designer might pay between $50-$75 an hour depending on the size of the company or client and the experience of the designer.
What is a graphic designer
If you’re considering a career as a graphic designer, there’s a lot more to it than creating beautiful work. Making yourself a valuable asset to any organization is the key to excelling and nurturing a career that supports your goals. The definition of a graphic designer and what a graphic designer actually does are often two very different things. This article explores the different ways you might work as a graphic designer and how to get there. The key is to find your area of interest, gain the skills you need, and build a portfolio that wows potential employers.
This article covers:
Job titles to search for
Skills graphic designers might have beyond graphic design
Courses and certifications
Building a portfolio
The good news about graphic designer jobs:
There are a ton of positions to choose from
There are hundreds of available jobs for graphic designers. From remote positions looking for creative talent all over the country to businesses of all sizes in the closest major city near you. If you’re the type of person who is also savvy with social media or copywriting, you might try looking for a position as a marketing specialist. A lot of businesses only have two or three positions in their marketing department and would greatly benefit from someone who can run a social media page and create the assets too. Employers see this as a huge bonus!
Job titles to search for:
Social Media Specialist
The bad news about graphic designer jobs:
There might not be anywhere for you to grow
An emerging graphic designer or a graphic designer with a few years of experience might see their job trajectory looking something like this:
The issue is that a lot of companies don’t have the marketing budget for four or five on-staff creative positions at any given time. It’s a lot of additional overhead when you also have to account for the department head, digital marketing staff, content creators, etc. Many businesses don’t have enough ongoing programs to justify that big of a creative department.
If you find yourself in a situation like this, there likely won’t be anywhere to grow. Job hopping might be the only option for career development and even then, there’s a misconception about what a graphic designer can do. I’ve never met a graphic designer that can only create basic graphics in Adobe. Whether it be websites, powerpoint presentations, or video.
Skills a graphic designer might also have
Building websites in editors like SquareSpace, Wix, Wordpress, Hubspot, etc.
Creating presentations in Powerpoint or Google Slides
Video production and editing
Diversifying your skillset not only increases your value to an organization but it also allows you to add another tool in your toolbox. This can be a rewarding way to grow professionally and help you to understand the type of work you enjoy most. Having this knowledge is crucial for finding the perfect career path for you.
Do I need to go to school and get a degree in graphic design?
Most open job postings will require a bachelor’s degree of some kind but like any art profession, you certainly don’t need a degree to practice and master the required skills. I’m a firm believer in learning the rules before you break them so some basic arts courses are always a good idea. Things like color, composition, and typography have rules and best practices that will create the foundation for a career in graphic design.
Basic art courses to learn color, composition and typography
You might have a degree in business or another completely unrelated field. I wouldn’t suggest going back to school for an art degree when there are so many certifications and courses you can take to gain those skills. First, you should decide what specialty you’re most interested in. Do you love digital advertising or have a passion for product marketing? Scroll through a list of courses and try one that sounds most interesting to you. Once you start designing actual assets, the ancillary skills that are required to make things are best learned through practice.
Graphic design courses:
Graphic design certifications:
EdX Certificate Courses (available from a variety of schools)
How do I build a portfolio?
The first step for this depends on whether or not you already have a body of work. If you have a body of work, you’ll start by presenting your work in a way that’s most appealing to potential employers. If you don’t have a body of work, you’ll need to start by creating sample pieces to feature in your portfolio.
Using your existing work is a great way to show an employer that you have the skills to follow a project through to completion. It might seem like enough to display the flat artwork on your portfolio but this strategy can be confusing employers. When we design something, it’s obvious to us that it’s a handout or a social media post but to an employer, it has no context. Mockups are a great way to bridge this gap and create a visual indicator for employers to understand how your work lives in real space and time. There are Photoshop mockups available online, both free and paid versions.
Websites with great mockups:
Don’t sweat it if you don’t have real-world designs to show, especially if you’re applying for an entry level position. Employers are looking for work that displays an understanding of basic art principles (like composition, color, and typography) and work that follows brand guidelines. Start by taking a brand you admire and looking up their brand guidelines. Create a faux campaign that includes an array of asset types like digital ads, social media, print pieces, or webpages. This will not only help practice your skills but also display your ability to flow a design concept across multiple platforms. Just make sure to note in your portfolio that the project is a creative exercise, not actual work you’ve created for that company.
Finally, once your body of work is ready for prime-time, you’ll need to build your website. There are some easy-to-use options that are affordable and even free.
Sites that are great for your first portfolio:
Are internships worth it?
The good thing about internships is that you get real-world experience. The bad thing about internships is that they often pay very little, if they pay anything at all. If you’re a student, internships are a great way to build your portfolio before entering the workforce. If you’re already working, you might want to consider freelancing in your spare time.
Should I try freelancing?
Yes, yes, and yes!
Even if you’re in a full-time position, freelancing is a great way to earn some extra cash and develop your skills. Freelancing diversifies your body of work and expands your professional network beyond your day job. It gives your brain a new challenge and offers the opportunity to work with a variety of different brands.
Freelancing is also like owning a small business. You get to practice important business skills like invoicing and project management. Taking a few extra hours out of your week to take on a client or two can be really rewarding.
There are a few sites dedicated to freelancers that take a percent of the project fee for connecting them to clients. You might try Upwork or Fiverr but be aware that they are quite oversaturated with freelancers. You might be able to find work if you offer a low enough hourly rate or bid on a project for lower than the client is asking. They are great if you’re not looking to make much money and just want the experience. Otherwise, it can be difficult to win gigs at the price you’re hoping to get paid.
Traditional jobs sites like Indeed have postings for freelance jobs that indicate the hourly rate and estimated weekly commitment. You might try applying for one of these as a way to meet clients.
Starting with your own network is the best way to create a client-base. Start with someone you’ve worked with in the past and let them know you’re open to freelance work. As long as you were a good teammate, they should be willing to ask around or (if you’re in the right place at the right time) even hire you themself.
Read more about how to side hustle as a graphic designer: How to Side Hustle as a Graphic Designer in 2024.
About the author
Brooke LeBeau is an artist, educator, and the owner of Artfully Creative Studio. She has worked as a creative marketing professional for over a decade and advocates for graphic designers exploring supplementary revenue streams.