Choosing Careers in Graphic Design

by Cathy Sivak
Choosing Careers in Graphic Design

Graphic design students often dream of a job housed in city loft where masterpieces are created while lounging around with laptops during all-night, caffeine-injected collaborations. Then, everyone hops into brand new sporty cars and drives into the sunrise, heading back to a high-rent condo.

Those graphic design jobs may exist in some fields, and in some major metropolitan areas...but those jobs are the exception, particularly for those sporting only their brand new design degree.

The reality of graphic design: creativity on demand, constant deadlines, demanding clients, and workspace in a traditional office setting.

But the graphic design field also is an integral part of industrialized society. Behind every CD cover or label, movie credit, product package, letterhead, logo, newsletter, web page, magazine, brochure, calendar, book or newspaper -- anything that incorporates words or images and conveys an image -- there is a graphic designer.

"Everywhere you look, everything has to look nice. Even smaller businesses need to have a good image, better than what they can design because they have a computer at home," explains Cully Smutzler, director of education at Minnesota's Academy College. Smutzler is a graphic design educator and continues to take on professional projects.

Your opportunity depends on educational level, creativity, and the ability to play well with others. Graphic design is much more than creating a "bells and whistles" website. Graphic designers use computers to put together color, images, typography and space to create a design - no matter the specific project. But classic drawing skills and art backgrounds also are important to help develop concepts. Throughout the process, the graphic designer typically works with copywriters, photographers, illustrators and printers, notes the extensive student information section of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) website.

Opportunities Abound

The graphic designer has a wide field of career opportunities, all of which typically utilize computer software. The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics projects graphic design employment to grow from 10% to 20% between 2002 and 2012.

In 2002, roughly 212,000 graphic designers held jobs in their field, according to the labor department (which culls stats from tax returns).

Graphic designers work primarily in specialized design services for newspaper, periodical, book, and directory publishers as well as in advertising and related services. Responsibilities sometimes include:

  • Developing the overall layout and production design of magazines, newspapers, journals, corporate reports, and other publications
  • Producing promotional displays and marketing brochures for products and services, designing distinctive logos for products and businesses, and developing signs and signage systems-called environmental graphics-for business and government
  • Developing material for web pages, computer interfaces, and multimedia projects
  • Producing the credits that appear before and after TV programs and movies

Money Matters

As far as the dream of new car and plush digs goes...well, you'd better prepare to keep that old jalopy for a while, and perhaps consider shared living expenses. Depending on the region and the type of work, new graphic designers with bachelor's degrees are likely to be offered salaries of $18,000 to $22,000 a year, according to various industry experts. Tack on an extra $5,000 for web design proficiency, and up to another $10,000 for animation skills.

"It's all relative to where you live, but the longer you work, the more valuable you become to the company, the more potential for big money. If you keep working and have the skills, you can make a good living at it," says Pat Cheak, head of the Visuals Arts Department (and graphic design professor) at the University of Illinois, Springfield.

Industries with the greatest concentration of graphic design jobs (and median annual earnings of all graphic designers, regardless of job-time) noted by the labor department include: advertising and related services ($39,510); specialized design services ($38,710); printing and related support activities ($31,800); and newspaper, periodical, book and directory publishers ($31,670).

Go for It

"Employers are going to be looking for people who are multi-talented, with graphic design, web design, multimedia and a little bit of animation mixed in," Cheak notes. While the job market may be tough to break into, a good portfolio created during the educational process will open doors. So will networking: classmates, internship co-workers and anyone else who might know of an available position.

Can't find a fulltime gig? Dread the thought of punching a clock, or simply have an entrepreneurial spirit? The labor department reports roughly one-third of graphic designers from all disciplines were self-employed in 2002.

Contacts are necessary, as are sales skills. Lack those? Smutzler advises joining up with an outsourcing agency, which does the legwork on getting assignments, then farms them out to capable designers working from home offices (or that funky loft). Top freelancers command hourly rates of $60 per hour and up. One caveat noted by U of I's Cheak: the ups and downs of the markets and client project flow.

Whether flying solo, joining a big firm, or getting into the publishing industry, opportunities abound for creative individuals with the appropriate credentials.

"If you can communicate visually, the sky is the limit in graphic design opportunities," says Cheak. "As long as you keep up with technologies, current software and capabilities, and continue to develop your creativity along the way, you can have a career for the rest of your life."

More Resources

For more on graphic design careers, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, New York, N.Y., offers a slew of info, and AIGA also sponsors an annual salary survey of designers - choose a specific job title, type of employer, size, and region for detailed information.

For information on benefits and compensation in desktop publishing, visit Printing Industries of America, Inc., Alexandria, Va.

The interactive Occupational Outlook Handbook from the U.S. Department of Labor offers detailed information on a number of graphic design-related careers.

More resources on careers and training in printing, desktop publishing, and graphic arts include:

For information on careers in medical illustration:

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