What Is a Graphic Designer? And How Can You Start?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

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 with this article from Coursera.

[Featured Image]: Graphic Designer working on a project.

Graphic design is the art and process of visual communication and problem-solving through the use of images, typography, and colour. A graphic designer is someone who uses this set of skills to design or create messages and visuals that are used in websites, marketing campaigns, advertising, product packaging, and signage.

As a  graphic designer you will create visual concepts, using a variety of techniques to convey messages or create aesthetic effects. You combine art and technology to produce effective brand imagery and other graphics that communicate the ideas of a product, service, or organisation. 

If you want to design brands, websites, packaging, print ads, and create illustrations, animations, and interactive media—using both traditional and digital techniques—a career as a graphic designer might be right for you. This guide provides an overview of the field and shows you how to break into the industry.

What does a graphic designer do?

Graphic designers use their knowledge of design, colour, and typography to visually communicate a message or present a product. They create visual concepts, by hand or using computer software, to communicate ideas that inspire, inform, and captivate consumers. As part of the creative team, they collaborate with artists, copywriters, and marketing managers to develop visual solutions that effectively promote a product or service.

Historically, graphic designers worked primarily in print media, but in today's digital world, the field can be very broad. Some graphic designers create layouts and advertising campaigns for websites while others design logos and branding for businesses. 

Visual communication glossary of useful terms

Before we go further into the graphic design role, here is a quick glossary of terms you may encounter when investigating graphics design courses or discussing graphic design:

CMYK: A colour model used in printing. CMYK colours are translated into RGB values for display on web pages and other electronic media.

Hex code: A six-character hexadecimal number that represents the red, green, and blue values for a particular colour.

Infographic: Information presented in an easy-to-digest (and often visually appealing) format.

JPEG: JPG — A file type that supports 24-bit colour, with 8 bits allocated to each of the red, green, and blue channels. While not suitable for print design, JPEG is commonly used for photographs due to its ability to compress large images without degrading their visual quality too much.

Mood board: A collection of inspirational images or graphics that help define the visual style and tone of a piece of digital media.

PPI: Pixels per inch — Used to describe screen resolution with reference to paper print design (e.g., 72 PPI). Also used as shorthand for pixel density when describing mobile devices.

GIF: Graphics Interchange Format. This is one of the most common image file formats on the internet and has a maximum image size of 8 bits per channel at 256 colours.

Resolution: Resolution refers to the quality of the image on the screen. The minimum resolution for viewing images on a computer is 72 pixels per inch (PPI). Although images with lower resolution can be seen, they are often blurry and distorted. Images with higher resolution will appear clearer and more detailed.

Typography: Typography refers to the style, size, and appearance of text used in a design. It's also used to describe how text is organised into columns and paragraphs. The most common type of typography used today is Helvetica, which has a clean and simple appearance.

User Interface Design: The user interface (UI) design describes how graphics are used in a design to create an organised layout for the user to interact with. It can also refer to how colours and images are used together in a design to help users better understand what they are looking at and what actions they can take next. It is essentially how a website communicates with its users, explaining what it does, how it works, and why it benefits the user.

Vectors: A vector image is a type of computer image that is defined in terms of vectors, which are mathematical objects that have magnitude and direction. Vector images can be scaled up or down without becoming pixelated or blurry. This quality makes vector graphics very popular for use in logos, diagrams and other graphics where the image will be enlarged.

Where do graphic designers work?

Graphic designers are employed by 

  • Corporations

  • Advertising agencies

  • Communication firms

  • Publishing companies

  • Retail businesses

  • Magazines

  • Newspapers

  • Catalogue companies 

  • Other companies that use visual communications.

Competencies of a graphic designer

Becoming a graphic designer is about more than just having a creative talent and an eye for layout. Graphic design involves a lot of practical and technical skills, too. 

Here's a list of some of the skills you'll need if you want to be successful:

Audience targeting. You need to know who your customers or clients are and design visually appealing, effective material. It's important to understand the target audience. Understanding their preferences will help you create work that makes the right emotional impact and gets noticed.

Colour theory. Colour theory is the study of how colours can affect people emotionally, physically, and psychologically. It takes into account cultural differences as well as individual preferences. To use colour theory effectively you need to have the skills to balance and position colour to get the look and feel you want.

Communication skills. You'll communicate with clients and potential clients. Many designers miss the information and requirements gathering stages. Being able to listen and take direction is essential to creating effective designs.

Sketching. The ability to hand-draw sketches has become less important, as more complex computerised drawing programmes are now available. However, many designers still prefer to sketch out their ideas before developing them with a computer. Sketching is also useful for generating ideas on the go, or when sitting with a client. Sketches are a highly agile tool for developing products and visual concepts.

Layout. Designers use layout software such as InDesign to lay out newspapers, magazines, and books. Layout involves positioning text and images; incorporating columns, features, and advertisements; and ensuring that the finished product looks balanced and visually attractive.

Typeface design. The job of a typeface designer is to create original fonts that can be used in digital applications, such as websites or adverts. As a graphic designer you need to have a good understanding of typeface.

Web page design: Designing the structure and appearance of websites, including creating a layout and choosing colours, images, fonts, and text. Many graphic designers produce the PSD or .AI files that then get turned into websites.

Designing user interfaces: Graphic designers use computer software to design the layout of digital products, such as SaaS products and mobile apps. This includes deciding how the information will be displayed on a screen or printed page, how it will look when opened on different devices and how it will work in conjunction with other technologies.

So why should you become a graphic designer?

Good graphic designers are in high demand and have many career options open to them. You can work as a consultant, start your own design firm, work on a freelance basis, or take a corporate position within print media, advertising, or marketing departments.

It can be extremely satisfying to work with a client from the start of a project and end up delivering a powerful visual concept. If you enjoy visual expression, the work will be fun and rewarding. In addition, you will likely be able to work from home and will have a lot of variety in your work.

How much do graphic designers earn?

Graphic designer earnings vary by experience, area of speciality, location, and whether they are employed, contract, or freelance.

The average graphic designer salary in the North West of England is £25,000/ year. In London, the average salary for the role is £27,612 / year. Freelance graphic designers with a few years of experience working for a company or in a freelance capacity can make anywhere from £20 to £40 per hour, depending on their level of expertise and the type of work they're doing. If you start a successful design company your earning potential could be significantly higher.

Job Outlook For Graphic Design

The job outlook for graphic designers is expected to be steady through 2026. New media, such as digital and mobile platforms, are now the most popular way to reach consumers. This increased interest in new channels will create opportunities for graphic designers to develop graphics for websites, presentations, marketing materials, software, apps, and video production.

Career Paths for Graphic Designers

There are many places to work in the graphic design industry. You could work in marketing, advertising, fashion, or technology. Many graphic designers don't look for onward career progression. They enjoy the design work and with experience gain earning power through larger, more complex, and higher profile project work. In the corporate environment, you may move through roles like senior graphic designer and graphics design manager. 

There are also a lot of roles that graphic designers move into or specialise in:

  • Graphics project manager

  • Email marketing designer

  • Web design expert

  • Video game designer

  • Product packaging design specialist

  • Book cover design specialist

  • Signage designer

  • 3D illustrator

  • UX designer

  • UI designer

  • Marketing manager

  • Teacher or lecturer

  • Fashion designer

The digital revolution has opened up exciting new possibilities for careers in fields that didn't exist a decade ago. For instance, people with traditional design skills are making a living in virtual reality (VR), with VR designers and creators are in high demand. Augmented reality is another field that is requiring a large amount of graphics work.

Going Beyond Your Degree

The graphic design field is a competitive industry. While it's certainly possible to land a job after graduating, you'll have to work hard and show initiative in order for your degree and portfolio to help you stand out from the crowd.

There are several steps you can take to make yourself more attractive to prospective employers and clients alike:

1. Demonstrate your dedication to the graphic design field by showing that you're committed to continuing your education throughout your career. Do extra Certifications and courses, and keep up to date with the latest trends.

2. Gain real-world experience by pursuing an internship with a professional design firm, advertising agency, or other design organisation. Not only will this give you the opportunity to work with experienced professionals and broaden your skillset, but it's invaluable on your CV.

3. Invest plenty of time in building your portfolio of work and examples. These can be paid work, volunteer work, or just your own personal projects. Graphic design portfolios are one of the best ways to showcase your work.

4. Tailoring your portfolio to the job you are applying for is a good idea. If you're applying for a job at a publishing company, include some of your editorial design work. If you're applying for a job as a user interface designer, include screen designs and wireframes prominently in your portfolio.

Get started in graphic design with Coursera

Are you considering a career as a graphic designer? You might have an interest in and aptitude for art, but that doesn't mean you have the skill set to get hired as a graphic designer. Learn what it takes to be a UX designer with the Google UX Design Professional Certificate.

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