A question and answer guide to deciding on whether to study graphic design, or are interested in teaching yourself graphic design.
Is graphic design worth studying? Here are the pros and cons of a graphic designer of some decades. In the interests of letting you judge my opinions I studied graphic design but was kicked off my course before I finished it. Many years later, I taught myself via working alone and the internet. We are all different, I try and give as balanced an answer as possible. But it’s just my opinion, make sure you seek others’ opinions too.
Is graphic design worth studying? Yes, education can only be good. You will always learn, meet good people, and see and experience things that you wouldn’t alone.
Is studying graphic design at college essential? Absolutely not. Unlike a lot of jobs, graphic design (and all the surrounding disciplines – illustration, web design, motion graphics) are measurable by your portfolio or showreel. It is easy to see what you can or can’t do, and the best degree in the world from the best university in the world, and all the charisma in the world, can’t hide that you aren’t a graphic designer to an employer.
Is the financial outlay as a graphic design student worth it? This question is related to whichever country you live in. If you are coming out with 40000 pounds/dollars plus worth of debt at the end of a graphic design course and your parents aren’t rich, my opinion is, no that’s not worth it. (Just my opinion, again seek other opinions)
But every job advert I see requires a degree from a top design college? Yes that’s a slightly strange one. HR (Human Resources) departments write the job adverts. They don’t know anything about design, but they’ve got a degree, so degrees must be special…
From my experience, you make sure your portfolio website is all over your CV and covering letter. There is also a huge difference between an interview with an HR department, and an interview with a department head or business owner. HR interviews are the interviews of specialists in that field. The field of interviewing. Read up on how to get through an interview for that.
For a department head or business owner, almost always all you’ve got to do, is ‘shut up, and listen’, while maintaining eye contact, looking fascinated at everything they say, and have one question ready at the end. Smile and nod, smile and nod. (Very occasionally you will meet an anomaly, a department head or business owner who does know how to interview, whereby the interviewee is doing most of the talking. You will later learn this person previously worked in HR).
Can graphic design be learned? Absolutely. There are clear rules, and best practices with typography, colours, imagery, creativity, problem solving and the use of the industry standard software (Adobe for short). There are vastly differing parts to being a graphic designer or graphic artist. From an all rounder who can fit into any discipline between logo design, illustration, web design and motion graphics, to an absolute specialists in their niche, a font designer, packaging specialist, character designer. At least one part of it, you need to get a buzz off of the creative process that drives you forward to want to learn more, and make the mundane tasks worth it.
What skills are essential to know if graphic design is for you? The fact you are interested, shows you probably have it. You are visually oriented. Like aesthetically pleasing things. Like typography, the shape, and feel of the letters, a colour combination interests you, you like and admire nice design, are excited by being creative. You are maybe not happy with what you create, you are always striving to get better. You don’t need to be the finished article to start learning. (This is a particular bugbear of mine regarding art school applications. They will accept the people with the best work in their portfolio, who typically have the most experience. These same people have often reached full potential, so are at art school for a qualification. Whereby more talented people who have less experience are turned down, despite the potential they have to get much better. Art tutors are often very bad at every aspect of their jobs – yes I have some issues with art schools, but it doesn’t mean I am wrong). Somewhere in you there is a spark of passion for creativity. That spark of passion is your calling. You mustn’t want to be a graphic designer because it sounds cool. (trust me, no-one is ever impressed!) It’s all about the creative process, and the desire to get better. Other aspects that would be good, but not essential, a sense of, or an interest in business/commerce, an enjoyment of problem solving. An interest in people from a behavioural science viewpoint. If artists are the movie stars of the art world, graphic designers are the character actors. We shouldn’t be leaving our specialised mark. Our style is invisible. We bring the correct solution for each roll, for each job. It’s not about us. Also graphic design is a service industry, you need to be, or learn to be service minded. The client IS always right, if you want to pay your rent.
Is graphic design boring? Absolutely. And it’s the most exciting job in the world. No job is exciting and brilliant all day every day. There are lots of mundane tasks, there can be problems with clients, problems with bosses thinking they are designers and design by committee to deal with. You’ll learn to deal with it. Learn to love the clients you get along with, the bosses who respect your knowledge. You’ll love the buzz when it all comes together. When a client sends you a gift, for no reason other than gratitude. When you can see you have made an improvement. When there are sometimes enormous measurable improvements, that you are responsible for. There are a lot of great highs to go with the lows. And you’ll learn to set aside time for your own projects, where you are in charge… My not entirely serious article on graphic design being a boring subject for non designers.
How do I learn graphic design without going to college or university? I did it with a computer, the internet, Adobe software, mainly learning Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and to a lesser extent InDesign, and Lynda.com the education website. Also Google is your friend, and Youtube has an enormous amount of videos explaining design, software, and business practices. Spooner graphics has some great videos on his Youtube channel. I also learned web design at the same time. A bit of basic HTML, and CSS, and now I would recommend learning WordPress through using it. The web design aspect gives you the power of self publishing, and publishing others, which in turn builds a portfolio, which leads to employment. In addition to this I was also studying design around me, looking and learning to see what works and doesn’t and what are the latest design trends and developments. That part took me fully two years to get to grips with, and is a permanent ongoing process. That is the difference between a designer, and someone (a boss or client) who wants to play at designing something because they think it’s easy.
How long does it take to learn to become a graphic designer? In my opinion it takes a minimum of two years of study (whether in college or working alone) to train your eye to design to a professional level. I had an odd journey to becoming a graphic designer. Studied for two years, kicked out of art college and began learning again almost twenty years later. When I began learning again, one of the odd sensations I had was realising I had been better at it when I was a design student previously. I couldn’t explain how I knew this, ‘what had I known I now didn’t know’, was a very strange experience. Eventually I became aware I was as good as I had been, and better. The exact point of that was at the two year mark. I had presumed I still had some design training. Without practice it was all gone. A designer must keep working at their skills to maintain that ability.
I have a degree in marketing but wish I’d learned graphic design, have I messed up? An oddly precise question but one I have met a couple of times. You can learn graphic design, see the question on learning without going to college, and not only will you succeed, you will be a brilliant graphic designer. Any sort of business qualification together with graphic design will make you superb in the profession. Graphic design ought to be taught in the same colleges that teach business and marketing. When I was studying for my degree in graphic design, we had to have a second subject we’d study one day a week. The choice was ceramics or textiles. The art college that threw me out, were just time wasters.
Do I need to be a salesperson to work as a graphic designer? Yes and no. More for freelance designers, but still relevant. Depending on your personality type, this part may fill you with dread. What you don’t need to be is the stereotypical used-car salesperson. In a client meeting, you need to listen, ask a few questions which will be easy to you, as you’ll know design, and do what you say you’ll do in the meeting. They don’t need to want to go for a beer with you, or play a round of golf with you, just to trust you. Your portfolio that got you the meeting ought to generate that trust, and you being smart enough to turn up on time, and dressed nicely, ought to seal the deal! So not that hard really.
Does graphic design have a future? That’s a big question. Subject to Greta Thunberg’s ability to save the world, does any job have a future… To be less pessimistic, I believe graphic design does have a future. We now have the Fiverr Wix mentality whereby anyone can get a cheap logo, and a cheap and easy website. I’ve had quite a few clients come to me after failing to do their own websites and logo designs despite being told how easy it would be in the adverts. And the more businesses who have ‘done it themselves’ the more the need for companies to stand out from the competition with some special design that only a designer could create.
What should graphic designers do for the future? Keep learning. And love to learn (it keeps you young) There are other disciplines closely related to graphic design, that a graphic designer’s brain is best suited for. From user experience, to analytics, to social media marketing, to motion graphics, writing a narrative for a brand, the whole marketing shebang. Eventually the name graphic design will go (it’s an awful name anyway) we are marketing creatives, or commercial artists (the old name was far better).
Whatever you choose to do, the very best of luck. Life is short. Enjoy it, do what you want to do. Also, all going well, there is room for more than one career in a life. Two or three career changes are possible. You are not nailed down forever in any area.
Iain Cameron is a graphic designer, web designer and illustrator based in Copenhagen.