Disclosure: Some links below may be affiliate links, meaning, at no cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
Considering a career as a graphic designer? Don’t be discouraged by the volume of competition. Follow my 5 simple tips so you can grab the bull by the horns and get out of the starting gate. If you can last the distance a creative career awaits you, take it from me.
01. Have a hunger to succeed
The first step is to have the desire and fire inside to succeed at whatever you choose to do. Without drive you will be destined to fail right from day one. Competition is fierce within the world of design, you really must be able to roll with the punches to survive.
Believe me there will be times as a designer when you’re discouraged and want to throw in the towel. Criticism WILL come and it will feel like you’re taking a barrage of body punches in the 12th round from Mike Tyson. If you’re focused on your end goal you will go back to your corner, re-group, learn from the experience and work on ways to improve for your next gig.
It takes a certain kind of person to take criticism on the chin. It can hurt but when justified I always see it as an opportunity to explore ways to improve and learn what I didn’t know. Because I was not immediately successful early on in my career many people said, “Get a real job, why are you wasting your time?” Lucky for me I like to prove the naysayers wrong. Because of this desire failure was eliminated as an option.
If you want to be a graphic designer my best advice is to harness your hunger to drive self-motivation. Work hard and open your eyes to everything around you, design is everywhere. If you have the passion and determination to become a designer there really is nothing to stop you making it a reality.
Success doesn’t come without hard work, believe me. If you’ve got this far you’re still in the ring, ready for your next bout. You must be made of the right stuff.
02. Tools of the trade
Made it past the first step? Well, you’re going to need to invest in some of the tools of the trade. Designers need more than just creative ideas and a pair of hands to create visual art in the digital age. Nowadays, you really won’t get far without a computer.
Hardware really is competitively priced in today’s market. No longer do you need to heavily invest in the most powerful and expensive iMac or Mac Pro. At work, I use a 2019 2.3GHz 8-Core Intel Core i9 32 GB MacBook Pro but at home I use a 2015 2.5GHz Intel Core i7 16 GB ram MacBook Pro. Honestly, I can’t say I really notice the difference between the two machines apart from when I’m working on large format print.
If you’re not an Apple enthusiast or don’t want to part with more money than you need to, there’s still plenty of budget options that will do the job. For less than £500 you can get started with a HP 14s-dq1504sa or ACER Aspire 3 15.6. Both are reasonably priced with good specs for any aspiring graphic designer.
Now that you have your workhorse primed and ready to go you need to think about software. Integral to any designer’s toolkit, design applications enable creatives to output a variety of projects. From artworking to desktop publishing and everything in between, software is the key.
You don’t need to be a designer to know Adobe. It has pervaded our cultural consciousness and ‘photoshopping’ is a buzzword. For over a decade I have used Adobe’s Creative Suite which is now Adobe Creative Cloud as part of my creative workflow. Creative Cloud sets the standard in the creative industry. At GES my whole team across regions use Adobe InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator and Acrobat daily.
For our desktop publishing workflow we use InDesign to output posters, ads, brochures and interactive collateral. Photoshop is used to create and manipulate raster graphics (think photos). Illustrator is the tool of choice for vector graphics. Vector graphics are resolution independent which means they can be enlarged without loss of quality, unlike raster graphics.
If you’re a student/teacher Adobe is currently offering a 65% discount (£16.24/mo) on all 20+ Creative Cloud apps. This includes Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. Check out the offer here. For everybody else all apps are £49.94/mo but if you want to save money you can opt to subscribe to apps individually.
Paid software may not be an option for some so feel free to experiment with alternative applications freely available online. There are several options. Sadly, I haven’t used any of the following but that doesn’t mean you can’t successfully add them to your workflow.
03. Learning the principles of design
Now you have all the gear, let’s get some idea of what to do with it. You don’t have to spend three years at university to master graphic design. If you’re self-motivated you can learn the fundamentals in the comfort of your own home, at your own pace.
There’s a wealth of comprehensive training resources online led by industry professionals sharing their many years of creative experience. Platforms such as LinkedIn Learning and Pluralsight offer beginner to advanced video courses at affordable prices. Over the years, I have used many of these resources to develop and hone my own skills.
If you haven’t already read my 5 training resources to help you master graphic design. This is a great place to start for a list of online training options.
04. Closing the skill gap
A useful tip I learned very early on was to try and replicate the work that inspired me most. I love page layouts and typography and I feel the best learning curve I followed was to deconstruct and then reconstruct designs that struck a chord with me. These designs were just private test projects but they proved instrumental to helping me understand spacing, alignment and typography best practices.
Get yourself Behance and Pinterest mood boards, pin anything and everything that excites you. As soon as that creative spark ignites open your software and try your best to emulate the design and techniques of those creatives you admire. In next to no time you will expand your skill set by absorbing design practices from experienced designers.
05. Jump in at the deep end
It seems like only yesterday, but it’s been 17 years since I left university. On that sunny July day when I graduated and left Lincoln I never even considered graphic design as a career. I never studied design at university, I had one desktop publishing module in my first year and that was it.
To be honest, I didn’t actually know what to do with my life at 21. I got accepted into film school in Los Angeles but that was only to buy some time whilst I figured out my grand master plan. Despite my lack of direction one thing that is clear to me when I look back was that I had this fire in my belly to achieve.
Not as expected
After university I spontaneously jumped on a plane and started my traveling adventures in Australia. Long story short, I followed a girl and ditched my “Hollywood dream”. The crazy things you do when you’re young hey?
When my once in a lifetime adventure and relationship ended, I had to return home and start thinking about a career. A year or so later I discovered the opportunities open to me would not help me reach the level of achievement I craved.
Making your own luck
Because of this disappointment, I knew I had to jump in at the deep end and make my own opportunities. Within weeks of deciding I would make my own luck I was sat in a room with the Prince’s Trust presenting my business plan to get funding to start my own business. Thankfully my business plan was successful. I was awarded the highest value loan – the princely sum of £4,000.
Over the next couple of years, I produced promotional and training videos for small businesses and at weekends shot weddings. For a short time, business was good but then the financial crash of 2008 happened. In next to no time I found myself rethinking my whole career.
Swimming in the deep end
Anybody that runs their own business knows you wear many hats. We roll up our sleeves, get stuck in and learn as we go. During this period, I developed a variety of skills to reduce costs by doing things myself. Very quickly I became aware to preserve cash flow I needed to be able to produce my own marketing collateral. I was very fortunate to take this approach because it sparked my interest in design. I found that I enjoyed the process of design and preferred it to video production. Before too long I decided to become a full-time designer.
Making the career change didn’t come without challenges. It was a few years before I managed to establish myself as a designer and make a decent living from the profession. The best thing I ever did was take that leap into the unknown, if I didn’t I’d still be in my one-dimensional comfort zone. Challenge yourself like I did. No matter how silly you feel sometimes, if you get things wrong learn from your mistakes. The journey is one big learning curve.
Thanks for reading
I hope you found my thoughts interesting? As I have written this post it’s been a very enjoyable experience. I’ve loved reliving the evolution of my journey. I’m glad I broke out of my comfort zone and explored those extra dimensions.
If I inspire only one person to pursue a career in design I will be a happy man!