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Being a Graphic Designer in the Modern World

Tips to help you become an effective and self-reliant graphic designer

Adobe InDesign

Adobe InDesign

First released over 20 years ago, Adobe InDesign is a graphic designer’s best friend and most valuable piece of software.

It can be used to create posters, flyers, books and magazines, amongst many, many other things—all those things that immediately spring to people’s minds when you say you’re a graphic designer.

You won’t find a graphic designer who isn’t both a master of InDesign and simultaneously constantly learning new tips and tricks on the programme. It really is amongst the essential skills needed to be a graphic designer.

Adobe Photoshop

Adobe Photoshop

Photoshop is the world’s most popular photo editing app.

  • As a designer, you’ll be using Photoshop for editing and modifying raster/bitmap graphics (aka JPEGs, PNGS, and GIFs) for use in your designs—in simpler terms, it uses pixels to make images.
  • The program can be used for things like cropping, color-correcting, resizing, and editing images and photos.
  • It’s also used for loads more jobs that will be part of a designer’s repertoire from overlaying text onto an image to combining photography (yours’ or someone else’s) and graphics.

Adobe Illustrator

Adobe Illustrator

Adobe Illustrator is a vector graphics editor first released in 1987. Vector graphics are not made up of pixels, but instead are made up of paths and can therefore be scaled much more than raster graphics. While Photoshop deals with the latter, Illustrator deals with vectors.

The program can be used to create a variety of digital and printed images—we’re talking logos, charts, illustrations, cartoons, graphs, diagrams—basically anything that may need to be printed or displayed at different sizes or on different formats.

Degrees Needed

Degrees Needed

To become a graphic designer, you don’t necessarily need an undergraduate education. Often, the quality of work in your portfolio and the caliber of the clients you’ve worked with will speak louder than the degrees in graphic design you’ve received. 

However, many people do choose to obtain bachelor’s degrees in graphic design, or in related fields such as industrial design, animation, or fine arts. In fact, some graphic design jobs require a bachelor’s degree in order to apply. There are also associates degree programs focusing on graphic design.

Graphic Design Portfolio

  • Find the samples that best show your and skill as a graphic designer.
  • For each sample you chose to showcase, write some words on why you chose it, what it was created for, and the process of its creation. Mention if you worked on it with any other people.
  • Choose your website. Popular platforms include PortfolioBox, Adobe Portfolio, Cargo, and Behance. If you’re an avid web designer, you can also choose to design your own website.
  • Get your work on social – a great added component to a web portfolio is a social media account where you showcase your work as a graphic designer.

Graphic Designer Hiring Process

  • Freelance: As a freelancer, you’ll typically stitch together an income through contracting with multiple clients. Before you send out freelance applications, make sure you know how much you’re comfortable with charging for your work, so you have a metric to enter negotiations with.
  • Full-Time: Many companies and independent design firms are constantly hiring full-time in-house graphic designers. Typically you’ll submit a resume, your portfolio, and in some cases, a cover letter. After that, you may be invited back for an in-person interview, and you may have to showcase your skills.

Your portfolio

Your portfolio

When it comes to your portfolio website, focus on the essentials. You don't need an entirely bespoke all singing and dancing website to find work for yourself.

A strong thoughtfully ordered and presented body of work is much more important.

Your hourly rate

Your hourly rate probably needs to be higher than you think. Research the going rate in your locality.

If people try to talk down your rate, stand firm. Once you agree to work for a reduced rate, it will be close to impossible to talk it back up again.

Preparing for the interview

  • Research any potential new employer.
  • At the interview (or by email) find out what hours you will be expected to work. You might have to travel to a different part of town or start at an unfriendly time.
  • Find out your new employer's payment terms. Try to negotiate something shorter than the standard 28 days if you can.
  • Allow 15 minutes extra so that you're early on the first day. First impressions still count, so you don't want to be late.
  • Get prepared. Have a folder of fonts at the ready (on your hard drive, not in the cloud). And perhaps some templates ready to go.

The mindset required to start a creative business

Questions we ask ourselves when we're about to enter the world of work or start a business.

  • How do I make myself employable?
  • How will I find my dream job?
  • What skills am I lacking?
  • How should I deal with clients?
  • What are people more interested in - my technical ability, or how I think?

The mindset you need to start a creative business and keep it going is the same you need to tackle any new creative challenge.

Prepare yourself (You don't know everything just yet)

Prepare yourself (You don't know everything just yet)

If you intend to start your own studio, don't. Not yet.

First benefit from other's who have done it before you. Find out about their successes and failures. Learn from their mistakes.

  • Get a job. Gain experience from being around other professionals. Make yourself indispensable by showing how you add value to the company. Think about how to improve processes, add services and find new areas of revenue.
  • Be a thinker. Think about the writing, user experience, and the project's overall impact.
  • Be a sponge, not a Hoover. Ask questions, listen to the answers, and put them into practice.

Start small, but plan for growth

Start small, but plan for growth

When the time is right, start small. This will allow you to take risks and learn what works.

  • Do your homework. Write a thorough business plan. It is a valuable guide that forces you to think about where your work will come from. Make an effort to understand a profit & loss sheet, planning pipeline and cashflow forecast.
  • Plan to grow. Write an operation's manual to detail who does what and how often. Plan all the roles a bigger agency will need, then do them all yourselves.
  • Find 'your way'. Establish what your studio's vision is.

Be clear on your value

Be clear on your value

Your value to potential clients is what sets you apart from your competition. When you can clearly communicate the value you provide, you’ll have a better chance of winning more freelance clients.

The first thing to ask yourself is what your value actually is. Start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What results have your past clients gotten from projects you’ve done for them?
  • What experience do you have that’s unique to you?
  • What do you have to offer that other graphic designers don’t?

Ask for recommendations

If you have happy clients, ask them for referrals or recommendations. Let them know that you’re always open to talking to new clients and appreciate their referrals.

While it might initially seem like a client wouldn’t want to refer you to their potential competition, remember that most businesses have working partnerships with all kinds of suppliers and other organizations. They could refer their vendors or other business contacts to you.

Make sure your portfolio is the best it can be

Your graphic design portfolio is one of the most valuable assets you have in winning new clients. Be sure that you showcase your best work there, and take the time to explain each project.

Talk about what your role was in the project, what the design problem was, and how you solved it. Share your portfolio far and wide. Add new projects to it regularly (but remember that you don’t have to add every project you work on; just the best examples).

Discuss what is expected on both sides

Discuss what is expected on both sides

Don’t accept a project without discussing what is expected on both sides. 

Make sure you understand what your client wants you to do, how much time they are giving you to do it, and to what extent they expect you to include them in the process. If you think their expectations are unrealistic, discuss alternative timelines or adjustments to the project.

It’s a good idea to give each client a written copy of your process, including milestones where you’ll expect payments. This will keep them from calling you to ask about the next step, and it may prevent payment delays.

Plan ahead for changes and delays

There are many reasons that the details of a project may change, so you must plan for that when drafting your contract and discussing your work process. You should cover the steps a client may take when requesting changes to the original design plan, and this includes adjustments to the timeline and budget.

Many clients don’t realize how much work is involved for changes that they consider simple. When setting milestone dates and deadlines, give yourself some room for unexpected delays.

Price quotas

Don’t give a price quote until you’ve thoroughly discussed the needs of the client.

There are some things that justify an increase in your rate, but you may not know that those things apply until you’ve thoroughly discussed the project. If they expect you to put other projects aside and rush their order, then they should expect to pay a bit more. They should also expect to pay for added elements or more complex designs, so hear the client out before you give them a number.

The graphic design process

The graphic design process

Graphic design is a critical visual communication tool marketers use to convey key messages about a brand that resonates with target audiences. It’s all about producing visual assets that are eye-catching, on-brand and aligned with specific messaging.

The graphic design process, then, is what a designer follows to bring design ideas to life while serving a client’s end goals.

As a creative process, designing graphics involves equal parts of “creative” and “process.”

Build out the creative brief

Also called a design brief, this document will capture all of your client’s wants and needs and other key project specifications.

Your creative brief should address:

  • Company information (e.g., mission, offerings, unique value proposition).
  • Brand guidelines.
  • Target audience.
  • Asset type (e.g., logo design, UX design, eBook design).
  • Purpose of the asset and how it fits into the overarching marketing campaign.
  • Initial design concept or creative direction.
  • Production-related design specifications.
  • Delivery format and file type.
  • Project timeline, with key milestones.
  • Budget or cost of the design work.

Research the design ecosystem

During the research stage, spend time:

  • Understanding the specific product or service you’re representing.
  • Examining competitors’ design work.
  • Assessing your brand’s market positioning and differentiating qualities.
  • Exploring other visual content your target audience consumes, beyond your niche.
  • Considering how you might apply color theory and design trends.
  • Gathering inspiration images and building out a moodboard.

You’ll use your findings to inspire original ideas, solidify the overall design approach with other stakeholders and back up the design decisions you make later on.

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