14 Things Novice Graphic Designers Should Know Before Joining The Industry

910 607 Lexie Lu

Are you thinking about going into design? Graphic design work is rewarding and allows those with creativity an outlet to do what they love. However, as with any industry, there are positives and negatives to graphic design work.

Of the around 266,300 graphic designers in the United States alone, many are employed in specialty areas, and around 20 percent self-employed. It’s a highly competitive industry, yet one that most businesses still need.

If you’re just getting started as a graphic designer, here are 14 things you should know before joining the industry.

1. Plan to Budget

The average graphic designer earns $40,733 per year. Of course, the pay varies based on niche areas and the city where you work. While you can survive at the beginning salary of a graphic designer, it isn’t one of the highest salaries in the industry.

If your passion is graphic design, you have a few options. First, add skills and knowledge that attract higher pay, such as UX design and creating motion graphics. Some designers take on freelance work on the side to pull in a bit more money and keep connections with businesses in the area. This allows you to be the first to learn about jobs with higher paying companies, too.

2. Create a Portfolio

One of the first things new graphic designers need is a professional portfolio that highlights their best work. If your portfolio is sparse, you may need to do a bit of pro bono work for charities or business owners you know. Your portfolio needs a mix of different types of design — the only way employers will know what you’re capable of is by viewing your previous work, so plan different types of projects.

3. Learn How to Use Interactive Graphics

Schools may teach basic design skills, but there are situations where you’ll need to take a step back and look at the design as a whole. One of these areas is designing for stores and office spaces. You’ll need to look at the entire space and create an experience for the consumer through experiential graphics.

Interactive graphics pull people into the experience, keep them in a store and make the atmosphere memorable. Large-scale experience design requires looking at the space through a different lens. However, there are also smaller design projects, such as floor graphics and directional signs, which add to the overall atmosphere in a building. 

4. Add Color Later

One tip veteran designers share with new designers is creating logos and other elements in black and white first. Sketch out your idea on paper and scan it into the computer. Color should come later in the design. By creating the logo in black and white at first, you see the bones of the design and are better able to fix any minor errors before they become major errors.

Another benefit of starting with black and white design is that you can easily shift the colors to something different should the original color palette fail.

5. Choose a Niche

You might be tempted to bounce all over the place with your design work. After all, surely an employer wants someone who can do any type of work. However, in the world of design, specializing in an area allows you to fill a gap a company has for a specific type of designer. An established brand or marketing agency likely already has staff with certain abilities. Your role is filling any gaps with your own niche skills.

6. Understand the Audience

Any time you create a design, you must understand the purpose behind the design and how the audience might react to it. Spend time getting to know the target audience of the company for which you’re designing. What drives the people who will see your design, and is your creation geared toward engaging them on both an emotional and visual level?

7. Study Design History

Spend time studying the history of design, so you can learn from past successes and failures. In any type of art, trends repeat. Art deco reappears from time to time, and other retro looks have made a comeback in certain years, too. You’ll also find inspiration as you study designs of the past.

8. Improve Your Writing

As a graphic designer, you’ll have to create copy at times, such as a tagline or wording for an infographic. Spend time brushing up on your copywriting skills, so the words included in your creations are tight and engaging. Learn about which action verbs have the most impact on readers. Study the power of the call to action (CTA) button and learn how best to personalize the experience for users.

9. Find a Mentor

When you first start in graphic design, you’ll deal with everything from demanding clients to software issues. It’s vital you have a mentor who has been through the beginning days of design work and knows how to navigate the waters of the corporate world. Look for one of the leaders in the design department once you land your first job, or talk to a professor about where you can find a mentor.

10. Learn the Rules, But…

You should certainly spend time learning all the rules of graphic design. Understand basics such as the Rule of Thirds and how to best utilize negative space. However, don’t be scared to throw the rules out and try something completely different. Understanding the rules allows you to break them and come up with cutting-edge designs no one else tried before.

11. Learn Patience

No matter how hard you study, you won’t learn everything you need to know in a few weeks. Design skills develop slowly, and usually after multiple mistakes. Learn to have patience with yourself. In fact, you may find your mistakes are what help you learn the most as a new designer.

Give yourself a bit of grace and ask for feedback, so you continue growth even after you’ve been on the job for a while.

12. Keep Learning

No matter how long someone is in a job, there are still new techniques worth mastering. Go to design conferences, take online classes and ask for input from your boss about how to improve.

As technology advances, new design techniques emerge, such as using virtual reality (VR) in advertising. Keep learning as new technologies come out and figure out ways of tapping into trends with your designs.

13. Create Balance in Your Life

One thing you’ll learn early in your design career is that almost every client has an emergency project that needs to be done yesterday. Set realistic goals along the project path and communicate with your client or superiors if there isn’t enough time for completing a project.

Every person needs time for reducing stress and creating a work and life balance. If you let work take over all your free time, then you’ll burn out and begin to despise your job. Instead, set aside certain hours for work and certain hours for family and other activities. Guard your free time as much as possible.

Of course, there are situations that truly are emergencies, and putting in a bit of extra time satisfies the client and shows you care. It’s okay to be flexible with your schedule, as long as you don’t make a habit out of working 70-hour weeks.

14. Develop Listening Skills

One of the biggest parts of designing is learning to listen to what others want. Of course, you also need some interpretation skills, delivering what the client wants, but also making it relatable to the audience and current design trends. Practice talking less and listening more, and watch how much better your clients respond to your designs.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

There’s an old saying about working smarter and not harder, which can apply to any job. In design, figuring out time management skills and learning productivity hacks goes a long way toward getting more done. Stay on top of trends and learn from those with more experience, and you’ll find success and fulfillment as a graphic designer.


Lexie Lu

Lexie Lu is a UX content strategist and graphic designer. She enjoys covering topics related to UX design, web design, social media and branding. In her spare time, you’ll most likely find her walking her dog, watching HGTV or baking. You can subscribe to Lexie's design blog<a href="https://designroast.org/subscribe/"> Design Roast</a>, or<a href="https://twitter.com/lexieludesigner/"> follow her on Twitter</a>.

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