Graphic design can be easily understood by splitting the terms ‘graphic’ and ‘design’. Graphic refers to the visual part of the job that requires art skills and imagination. While design, which requires analytical thinking and problem solving skills, refers to the ability to choose the best visual elements (typography, colour, lines, shapes) to communicate a message in the final product.
Designers have to deeply understand the functional use of their final product. For example, if they were creating brand packaging for an energy drink aimed at Gen Z, they’d have to take their audience and the brand’s values into account and do their research before starting to think about visual ways to communicate their findings. Someone who can merge their reasoning skills with their art skills is on their way to becoming a great graphic designer. This is a skillset that opens doors to numerous creative jobs, including in advertising, brand packaging, web design, magazines and book publishing.
If you’re here, chances are you’ve already studied design theory and have the technical prowess for your craft, but want to know how to break into a competitive creative industry. We spoke to eight graphic designers at various stages in their careers to get their tips on how to succeed in this field.
Get out of your comfort zone
Having unique ideas is an essential part of graphic design, and one way to build your creativity and imagination is to get out of your comfort zone and explore. Tom Hadaway, a Junior Designer at DesignStudio, London says, “Take the time to explore every area, even the ones you’re not interested in, and try everything at least once. Find your passion and fully immerse yourself in it, but enjoy the process and go at your own pace.”
Meanwhile, Deborah Osborne, Co-Founder and Designer at Osbourne Ross recommends putting yourself out there at talks and events saying, “When able, use talks, exhibitions and events to network and keep knowledgeable about the wider industry. A chance conversation can lead to a new opportunity. Treat every project as a learning opportunity."
Build your value
As a graphic designer, you’ll be helping companies communicate better. This can involve selling things, but it can also involve driving change and making a social impact. Greg Bunbary, an award-winning graphic designer who helps mission-led, purpose driven businesses, mentions one of the ways to stand out is to build your value.
Bunbary says, “The best advice I can give to aspiring creatives is to work towards trading your value instead of your labour. Avoid the trap of simply exchanging money for time. Cultivate your authority around an expertise, a personal mission or cause, so you can offer clients and employers valuable solutions to important problems.” Bunbary recommends adding value by writing a blog, hosting a podcast, or through engaging in self-initiated projects saying, “Embrace your passion, perspective and conviction, as this is what will make you unique in the marketplace. Don't be afraid to stand out.”
Stay true to yourself
Claude d'Avoine who has worked with top luxury fashion and arts brands and guest lectured at Middlesex University, UCA Epsom and University of Brighton says he always tells his students not to present work they aren’t happy with – both at the beginning of their career and as they progress on their journey in the industry. He says, “It's so important to have conviction in what you're presenting. If you don't believe in the work you're putting forward, then no one else will. You're the one who is selling your ideas and work, so make sure you stand by it.”
d'Avoine says he’s learned the hard way not to present work to a client that you aren’t happy with saying, “I've presented work to clients I really didn't like, and nine times out of ten they will pick that idea over the ones you prefer. Then you're stuck creating a project you have no interest in!” So stick to your guns and take pride in whatever you’re doing, your work will be better for it.
Develop skills that support the design process
Like many other creative fields, becoming a graphic designer doesn’t mean you’ll spend every second of your working day designing. There are other factors that come into play, from distilling client briefs and presenting ideas, to commissioning illustrators, photographers and animators. As you climb the ranks, time and project management skills will also be key. In relation to this, Osborne says, “Not all of your day will be designing and it's important to develop the other skills that support the design process.”
Similarly Eugene Lee, a Junior Designer at Manual, also recommends learning about other roles within the field to help hone your design skills, saying, “The designer has multiple roles: interviewer, researcher, strategist, art director, and even educator. Design does not live in a vacuum with other designers and visual fodder. It lives within an interconnected community of diverse individuals and ideas. Sometimes we have to take up different roles to better inform our designs and to better communicate them.”
Know when to walk away
This was said in the context of graphic design, but it’s solid life advice too. d'Avoine says, “It’s so important to know your worth, and if a client, a job, or a relationship is taking you for granted and affecting your wellbeing, it’s essential that you take it first, but there is no shame in leaving something that fundamentally isn’t working. I remember leaving one of my first internships after a week as I wasn't doing any design work, but was simply making cups of tea and running errands.”
Having the confidence to walk away usually comes with experience, and as you spend more time in the workforce it’ll become clearer what type of environments mesh with you as an individual. d'Avoine expands on his learning saying, “In the early stages of my career I accepted certain behaviours from employers and members of the team that were unacceptable. I stayed in toxic workplaces because of company clout or for fear of my career being harmed by leaving too soon. However nowadays I am quick to know if a client or a team environment is suited to how I work best. There is absolutely no shame in walking away.”
Feed your creativity and curiosity
Graphic design is a creative profession that requires imagination, and the more you feed your soul, the better you’ll be at your craft. In this respect, Jojo Sonubi, a freelance graphic designer who also co-founded a photo archive called ‘Black in the Day’ says, “Feed your senses so you can develop a nice taste level. The music you listen to, the books you read and the things you watch. Your body can’t function on an empty stomach and nor can your mind, so feast well! This will allow your work to have reason and distinction – especially in the social media landscape.”
Similarly Matt Cox, a Mid-Weight Designer at DesignStudio, London, says, “Have the courage to be curious – try new programmes and embrace technology. Don’t be scared to make mistakes or to ask questions. Design can be challenging but that's what makes it so rewarding.”
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