7 Tips for Launching a Successful Career in Graphic Design
By Krista McEachern RGD, Freelance Graphic Designer
After graduating from design school in 2016 and being unsure of where I fit into the industry, I took up an administrative position where my employer allowed me to exercise my design skills in small but meaningful doses. Near the end of my tenure at that business, the requests for freelance started to increase, and I continued to build my experience in business operations and client management. Looking back, this natural growth in business areas beyond the actual design work was a blessing. I am now immensely happy in my career as a graphic designer. I have learned how to define success and find satisfaction in my work.
For students and graduates eager to enter the industry, I hope my words of advice will provide inspiration and insight into the joys, realities and stressors of building a career in graphic design.
Remember why you started.
Why did you choose to pursue a career in graphic design? Why did you apply to your design program? Something must have sparked your interest. Hold on to that reason! The turning point for me was when I was told I couldn’t turn art into a career. The first small but powerful flame ignited in my heart. Challenge accepted.
Visualize your success.
What does success look like to you? Is it becoming a Creative Director at a fast-paced design agency? Is it having a freelance career, designing away at your favourite small town coffee shop? Picture it, work towards it and eventually if you want this career enough, you will get it.
Promote the profession.
This is the reason why I became an RGD. It isn’t always easy to effectively explain your job to those outside of the creative industry. If you do encounter someone who questions the impact of your work, I encourage you to explain the value of design in a constructive way. We are solving a design problem for our client and helping them promote their product or service. When speaking with potential clients, delve into how you can solve their design problem. Don’t be afraid to sprinkle some specific metrics of value like time spent, wage relevant to your skill level, relevant expertise and key results achieved with past clients.
Think about your career journey in terms of “How it started vs. How it’s going”.
When you first start, you may not be great and that’s okay. If you want to be great, you will get there. The journey of growth as a graphic designer is half the fun. There are few things more gratifying than having a visual record of where you started and how far you have come, knowing it’s all a direct result of your hard work.
Find a design role model.
I have a few, but the one mentor that always stood out was one of my Professors. She was a great teacher who had an obvious passion for design. She recounted her experiences in the industry, provided valuable resources, built us up, but also constructively critiqued where we could improve and was never afraid to push the limits so that we could grow. She made us aware of the benefits of getting the RGD Certification.
Discover your niche (and master it).
While it’s valuable to have knowledge about various fields, you don’t want to stray lightyears away from your specialty and risk losing your design spark. If you don’t know what your specialty is yet, try different things and put yourself out there. Design for fun in between client projects! Create your own projects and build a portfolio. My creativity as an artist started my journey and I realized that my primary strength was an artistic, ornate, crisp and often colourful design. What you’re great at will come to you with practice. I have secondary design strengths (brand consulting, web design, social media and content strategy) that I market and sometimes make money from, but it’s key that you give potential clients an accurate portrayal of your primary capabilities. You can wear your niche proudly while also being open to taking on other design challenges.
Embrace different perspectives.
You and your client won’t always be a match made in Graphic Design heaven. When your ideas don’t match up, look at it as a learning experience where you're being challenged to think differently and adopt new skills. A client that puts you outside of your comfort zone can add value to your portfolio, giving you the courage to take on more diverse projects.
When faced with a difference of opinions, you must also assess whether the project is worth your time and effort. You may come across that one-in-a million client you absolutely cannot please, no matter how accommodating you are. They might not be t open to the design process or ready to listen to your professional opinion, but expect you to nail the entire project with zero direction. Make an informed decision based on what makes sense for the project and for you.
Did any of that scare you?
Don’t let it. I urge you to dedicate yourself to this journey. Embrace all of those moments and experiences. As long as you believe in your potential, work hard and dedicate yourself to learning and growing, you will find your definition of success. Take the roadblocks as a challenge and let them ignite your flame as your work towards a fulfilling career.