What Does a Graphic Designer Do? (and How Do I Become One?)

A graphic designer creates visuals for all kinds of projects, from websites to print ads. Learn about skills, salary, requirements, and why you should consider a career in this field.
A graphic designer sits at their computer in an office with a notebook and a coffee cup

The graphic designer profession combines art with technology. Graphic designers create visuals and layouts for individuals and companies using design elements such as typeface and images to convey information to a reader or viewer. A graphic designer can work in print or digital media, and designs can be accomplished by hand or using computer software. 

What is graphic design?

Graphic design is a form of communication that uses color, shapes, images, and words to create visual content. This content surrounds us in many forms, both in print and digital media. Effective designs can communicate information in a way that inspires and informs consumers, making it a critical element in business success across many industries.

Graphic design is used to create images and layouts for some of the following:

  • Company brand identity (logos, typography, and color palettes)

  • User interfaces on apps and websites

  • Books, magazines, newspapers, and other publications

  • Product packaging

  • Advertisements and commercials

  • Signage for stores, transportation, stadiums, and event spaces

  • Video games

What does a graphic designer do?

A graphic designer creates useful, meaningful, and functional visuals using various means of technology. The world of graphic design is expansive, and many new and evolving technologies continually push the limits of what a designer can create. Staying on top of cutting-edge technology and design trends make working in this evolving industry and exciting and challenging career choice.

Since graphic designers can work in many settings, your tasks and responsibilities may vary. You may work in-house at a company, at an agency, or freelance. Graphic designers often work in:

  • Ad agencies

  • Web design firms

  • Marketing firms

  • Print and online publishers

  • Online and brick-and-mortar retailers

  • Non-profit organizations

Skills needed to become a graphic designer

If you’re naturally creative and have a good eye for visually compelling design, a career in graphic design may suit you well. Nurture your talent as a graphic designer by spending time building a few key skills.

  • Color theory is a series of rules and guidelines you’ll apply to your work to create aesthetically pleasing visuals. This involves choosing an appropriate color palette for a project and understanding how people perceive color in various situations.

  • Computerized sketching gives you creative flexibility that sketching and coloring by hand cannot offer. Sketching software also allows you to quickly implement changes to a design.

  • Communication skills help you communicate, actively listen, problem-solve, and understand what clients and other stakeholders need when collaborating on a project. 

  • Audience targeting helps you identify and analyze who the design is intended to appeal to and why. 

  • Typeface design skills help you tell appropriate, pleasing, and easy-to-read stories by using the right categories of font and typeface.

  • Layout skills help you to effectively manipulate the visual space of a print page or screen to attract readers or visitors.

  • Website development skills (including an understanding of multiple programming languages, such as HTML and CSS) give you the knowledge to design on various content management platforms. 

  • Computer-aided design (CAD) software skills give you the tools to create complex two- and three-dimensional designs. Some of the computer software programs used in graphic design include Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, Dreamweaver, Paintshop Pro, and Corel Graphics Suite.

Why pursue a career in graphic design?

When you pursue a career in graphic design, you get to flex your creative skills and put them to use while you learn and implement new technologies in your work. If you want to have a critical hand in shaping how a company, brand, or product comes across to the world, it’s worth pursuing a career in graphic design. 

How much do graphic designers make?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for graphic designers is $53,380 as of 2020, or $25.66 per hour [1]. Those working in advertising and public relations tended to earn on the higher end of the pay scale.

Job outlook for graphic designers

The job outlook for graphic designers is highly competitive. The BLS predicts that there will be a four-percent dip in the need for graphic designers from 2019 to 2029. This is due in part to the decline in design jobs at newspapers, magazines, and traditional print publishing companies. Demand for online design is projected to increase, according to market research company IBISWorld [2]. 

How to become a graphic designer

Many graphic designers have a bachelor’s degree in graphic design or a related field. Earning a degree not only helps you build foundational skills for a career, it also gives you opportunities to begin building a portfolio of work to show potential employers.

Look for programs accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. Coursework in these programs generally includes principles of design, computerized design, printing techniques, studio art, and website design.

While enrolled in a design program, there are some things you can do to make yourself more competitive when you’re job hunting for a graphic design position.

  • Consider an internship that will allow you to work with more experienced designers in a real-world setting.

  • Volunteer your design skills to local charitable organizations.

  • Pursue certification in popular graphic design products like Adobe.

  • Join a design organization. Membership often comes with access to networking and professional development opportunities. You can join the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) as a student. 

Graphic designer career paths

Being a graphic designer can open up doors to numerous careers and industries. Many people who have started as graphic designers have expanded into new and exciting fields, such as augmented reality and virtual reality, where visuals are used for interactive experiences. Within a design department at a company, you may be able to advance into managerial positions, like creative director or project manager.

Get started with Coursera

Choosing a career as a graphic designer empowers you to use your creativity to help companies get their messages across to their customers. Get started in the creative world of graphic design with the Graphic Design Specialization from the California Institute of the Arts. Complete a Guided Project to enhance your professional portfolio in less than two hours.

Glossary of graphic designer terms

Below you will find a few terms you’ll encounter throughout a career as a graphic designer.

CMYK: A color model typically used in print visuals that stands for the four colors used in ink plates: cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (black)

Hex code: A six-digit HTML code that represents a color used in a computer design program

Infographic: A visual representation of data designed to present information clearly and efficiently  

JPEG: A format for compressing graphic image files

Mood board: A collection of images and texts that communicates a project or brand’s overall aesthetic messaging 

PPI: Pixels per inch, an important term that measures the density of pixels on the screens of various devices to determine resolution

Resolution: The amount of detail an image or digital display can show measured in dots per inch (printed image) or pixels per inch (digital image)

Typography: The manipulation of the style and appearance of printed or digital matter so it is legible, readable, appropriate, and aesthetically pleasing

User interface (UI) design: The design of interfaces in software, apps, websites, or computer devices to maximize their usability 

Vector image: A graphic file built by points on a grid that can be adjusted without losing resolution

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Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Graphic Designers, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/arts-and-design/graphic-designers.htm#tab-5." Accessed April 12, 2021.

2. IBISWorld. "Graphic Designers Industry in the US - Market Research Report, https://www.ibisworld.com/united-states/market-research-reports/graphic-designers-industry/." Accessed April 12, 2021.

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