What Is the Best Degree Path for Becoming a Graphic Designer?

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If you are a creative person by nature and you have a passion for computers, a career in graphic design could be a great choice for you. In fact, graphic design is one of the top degree programs for creative people. In addition to creative freedom and the opportunity to be their own bosses, graphic designers enjoy a higher-than-average median annual salary and stable job outlook, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). While a career as a graphic designer is a great opportunity, this occupation requires a college degree and advanced training.

Education in Graphic Design

To begin preparing for a career as a graphic designer, you will need a college degree – but not just any degree. Students should begin by becoming a graphic design major and earning a degree in graphic design, specifically from one of the 349 programs accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. Accreditation guarantees a quality curriculum and the backing of financial aid, not to mention a reputable program that is looked upon favorably by potential employers.

Degree programs in graphic design typically include courses in art, commercial graphics production, computerized design, design principles, printing techniques, and website design. Because the work of a graphic designer combines art with marketing and business, courses in these subject areas can also prove useful for aspiring graphic designers. In fact, some programs offer bachelor’s degrees in graphic design with a concentration or specialization in marketing or another closely related discipline.

Prerequisites for undergraduate graphic design programs vary by school. For some programs, students must demonstrate talents with sketches or other artwork to showcase their skills when they apply for admission. Schools may even require students to complete a full year of college-level studio art before officially accepting them into the major.

The Importance of the Portfolio

Graphic designers may not be able to secure a job – in-house or working with clients – based solely on their résumé. The biggest factor in attaining graphic design jobs is not the school the designer attended or the number of years of experience they have. Instead, it is the quality of their work as illustrated by their professional portfolio. Because the portfolio is so important for success in this career, undergraduate graphic design degree programs are typically structured in ways that allow and encourage students to develop their portfolios. These opportunities may come from course assignments or internships.

For aspiring graphic designers, both the formal education and the opportunity to create a compelling professional portfolio are important aspects of the education necessary for reaching their career goals. Most graphic designers pursue the career path due to a love of art and design, but there are other benefits to this job, as well. Nearly one quarter of all graphic designers are self-employed. Self-employed graphic designers can enjoy the freedom of being their own bosses, as well as of setting their own schedule and pay scale. Others work as part of a creative team in graphic design firms or in-house at companies and organizations. While achieving success as a graphic designer takes hard work, dedication and the proper education can get you on the right path for an exciting career.

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Advancement Opportunities for Graphic Designers

As a graphic design major who graduated with a bachelor’s degree and landed a promising role as a graphic designer, what’s your next step? Experienced graphic designers may advance in their career. In fact, advancement opportunities are common in large organizations that employ graphic artists and designers. Graphic designers may advance to the positions of art directors, chief designers, supervisors, and team leaders.

Additional Qualities to Have as a Graphic Designer

Outside coursework and a degree in graphic design, there are certain personal qualities that make a successful graphic designer. The following are important qualities to have for work in graphic design.

Analytical skills: A successful graphic designer perceives their work from their client’s point of view. It is important for a graphic designer to be able to see their work from the vantage point of the consumer. When this point of view is understood, the graphic designer can properly convey important information to the client.

Artistic talent: Having the ability to create images and designs that are artistic and appealing to an audience, clients, and consumers is critical to the role of a graphic designer. Graphic designers often sketch by hand or utilize computer programs to create artistic images.

Computer skills: Not only is a graphic designer an artist, they are also a graphics and design expert. Most graphic designers use specialized software to create and prepare designs. To utilize the software, they must know their way around a computer. Sharp computer skills help a graphic designer to succeed in their role.

Creativity: Similar to having artistic talent, graphic designers must be creative. They must also be innovative, think of new approaches to communicating ideas to clients and colleagues, and develop new ways to showcase a client’s brand or message. To accomplish the job, graphic designers must be creative.

Effective communication skills: Effective communication skills are essential to the role of graphic designer. The job requires that accurate information is conveyed to clients, customers, and fellow designers.

Strong time-management skills: Juggling many tight deadlines is commonplace for graphic designers. In fact, it is not uncommon for a graphic designer to have several projects due at around the same time. Strong time-management skills help people to succeed in the role of a graphic designer or artist.

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Earnings Potential for Graphic Designers

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), graphic designers earn a median annual wage of $53,380. The highest 10% of earners, however, see average earnings in excess of $93,000 per year. Several factors, such as education, experience, geographic location, and industry type impact the earnings of a graphic designer.

BLS reports five industries that offer favorable earnings for graphic designers. Of the five top-paying industries, two offer higher-than-average earnings. The highest-paying industry for this occupation is advertising, public relations, and related services. In this industry, graphic designers see a median annual wage of $55,800. The second-highest-paying industry for graphic designers, as reported by BLS, is specialized design services. In this industry, graphic designers earn a median annual wage of $54,840. Other industries that offer favorable earnings for graphic designers include newspaper, periodical, book, and directory publishers and printing and related support activities.

Geographic location also impacts earnings for graphic designers. In certain states and cities, graphic designers earn higher wages. According to the Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics published by BLS, there are five top-paying states for graphic designers. These states offer much higher earnings than the average for this occupation. It is important to note that the annual mean wages reported by each state do not include those of self-employed workers.

Graphic designers working in the District of Columbia can expect an annual wage of $83,070. D.C. offers the highest regional wages for graphic designers. The second-highest-paying state for this occupation is Washington. In Washington, graphic designers can expect average earnings of $77,000, approximately $22,000 more than the median annual wage for all individuals working in this occupation. Massachusetts ranks as the third-highest-paying state for graphic designers. In Massachusetts, graphic designers see average earnings of $70,180. The fourth-highest-paying state is New York, where graphic designers earn an average annual salary of $68,260. Virginia is the fifth-highest-paying state for this occupation and offers an annual mean wage of $66,850.

Graphic designers working in metropolitan areas also earn higher wages than the average for this occupation. In fact, BLS reports six metro areas that offer earnings higher than $72,000 per year. According to BLS, the top-paying metropolitan area for graphic designers is Seattle, Tacoma, and Bellevue, Washington. In this Pacific Northwest region, graphic designers should expect an annual mean wage of $84,030. The area of San Francisco, Oakland, and Hayward, California offers an annual mean wage of $80,820 for this occupation. A slightly lower-paying metro area that still offers higher-than-average earnings is San Jose, Sunnyvale, and Santa Clara, California. In this region, graphic designers earn an average of $77,800 per year. The D.C. area, including Arlington and Alexandria, offers graphic designers average annual earnings of $77,400. The fifth-highest-paying metro area is Vallejo and Fairfield, California. In this metro region, graphic designers see an annual mean wage of $72,570.

While non-metro areas don’t typically pay the high wages found in metro areas, graphic designers may still find favorable earnings and a lower cost of living in certain regions. BLS reports three top-paying nonmetropolitan areas for graphic designers. The top-paying nonmetro area for this occupation is Hawaii and Kauai. In this region, graphic designers see an annual mean wage of $62,160. Northeast Virginia non-metropolitan areas offer graphic designers an annual mean wage of $58,520. The third-highest-paying non-metro area, as reported by BLS, is Western Washington. In this area, graphic designers should expect average earnings of $57,110. Other top-paying non-metropolitan areas include Connecticut non-metro and Massachusetts non-metro areas.

Job Outlook for Graphic Designers

Minimal employment growth for graphic designers is projected through 2030, partly due to the significant decline of print media. According to BLS, employment for graphic designers is projected to grow three percent over the next decade, which is slightly slower than the average for all occupations. But even with a slow employment growth, approximately 23,900 openings for graphic designers are expected over the next 10 years. As graphic designers reach retirement age and leave the labor force, new hires will be needed to fill these slots.

To help combat the decline in print media, many graphic designers are diversifying skills. In-demand job applicants will be skilled in other forms of media. Graphic designers with skills in animation and the creation of content for electronic publications and video entertainment will be sought after. Graphic designers with digital expertise should be essential to any organization in the future. Additionally, those who can combine their digital experience with their experience in traditional print media will be the most attractive to hiring employers.

States with the highest employment level of graphic designers, not including self-employed graphic designers, are California, New York, Texas, Florida, and Illinois. According to BLS, there are approximately 27,490 graphic designers working in California, 18,910 in New York, 14,320 in Texas, 12,540 in Florida, and 10,260 in Illinois.

An image of a graphic designer for our FAQ on What Is the Best Degree Path for Becoming a Graphic Designer

Self-Employed Graphic Designers

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook published by BLS, graphic designers held approximately 254,100 jobs. The largest employment area for graphic designers, according to BLS, is self-employed workers. Self-employed individuals make up approximately 19% of the total jobs held by graphic designers.

Self-employed graphic designers, or freelance graphic designers, are responsible for the graphic design and artistry of a business or organization. Self-employed graphic designers have creative freedom, a tailored schedule, and the freedom to work in a remote location. In fact, many graphic designers who work for themselves have no commute, because they work from home. Although there are many benefits of working as a freelance graphic designer, there are a few disadvantages. For example, there are no colleagues to collaborate with on ideas and projects, pay can be unreliable, and benefits may be nonexistent. The biggest disadvantage of freelance graphic design gigs is that you are constantly searching and bidding for projects. In an organization, graphic designers may sit back and wait for projects to land on their desk, but as a self-employed artist, you must actively seek new opportunities. In many cases, you will be bidding against other graphic designers and competing to win an assignment.

But, if you are a highly motivated and business-savvy person, and if you want to create a flexible schedule for yourself, freelance graphic design work might suit you.

BDP Staff
October 2021

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This concludes our article on the best degree path for becoming a graphic designer.

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