When it comes to careers, the aphorism is no doubt correct that the grass is always greener on the other side, but that is especially true if you know how to take that green’s hex value and convert it to its nearest CMYK equivalent. And if you found the preceding remotely amusing, you may have a blossoming career in graphic design.
Or you may just have no life, which is by no means a mutually exclusive state of being.
Kidding aside, the field of graphic design can be an extremely rewarding one, but it also carries with it its own unique challenges. Having been involved in that field for quite some time, I am queried from time to time on how to break into it, what paths one should take, etc. And while there are no easy or uniform answers (as every situation is different), for some time I have wanted to create a bit of a primer on pursuing a career in graphic design, and this seems as good a place as any.
Note: I am using the term ‘graphic design’ as a sort of generic catch-all for a wide range of fields and specialties, including graphic design, layout design, animation, motion graphics creation, and others. I would with qualification also include some types of photography and video production which, although often comprising a much different toolset, nevertheless have a fair amount of overlap.
What You Are Getting Into
When I was first trying to break into the field myself I had a naive and somewhat over-glamorized notion of what this type of career would entail. From the outside it can appear to be a veritable creative paradise, where your days are spent in the rarified air of creative exploration and experimentation. You flit and float though a realm of ideas and inspiration as effortlessly as a butterfly carried aloft on a gentle spring breeze.
But then reality hits and you learn the truth: what most clients really want is a slightly more intelligent (but not more costly!) Photoshop monkey, who will bang away at a keyboard long enough until their ‘creative vision’ (which is rarely communicated beforehand) is fully realized.
I naturally over-exaggerate, but it is important to remember that a large part of graphic design is the eternal dance/fight to the death of trying to weave your creative vision into that of clients who are not on the same page. This field would be a wonderful playground of creative expression if it weren’t for the people. Seriously, what’s with people, anyway?
Ultimately, whether you are working for multiple clients or on staff at a design firm or the designer in residence at a particular company, the field of graphic design has an almost medieval flair to it, in that you exist in a patron/artist relationship. Very few of us are Michaelangelos, which is fortunate since it means we also don’t have to deal with Medici’s and popes threatening to throw us off of scaffolding (although it can certainly feel that way). But this relationship means that, in the modern vernacular, the customer is always right (even when they really aren’t).
One of the hardest lessons any designer has to learn is how to let go of that brilliant idea which has taken ahold of them and which everyone should obviously love and either work on something different that is inferior or else (and this is even harder) take that idea and hack away at it until it transforms into something the client is happy with. This can feel like the death of the soul, but along the way you may actually find yourself refining the way your approach your designs and the creative process, and perhaps from death can spring life.
Or you can become bitter and angsty, which means you may have a blossoming career designing ironic t-shirts.
The important takeaway from this is that the design world is client-driven, which means that to be successful you will have to learn how to create the sorts of things that your clients want or, if you design products to be sold directly to customers, how to create things that people will buy. It is probably a somewhat pathetic commentary on society, but it is usually not the cutting edge designs that capture your imagination that sell, but rather the mid-range ‘hey, that’s pretty cool’ sort of designs that tend to look like a lot of other designs that are trendy at the time. It’s a harsh world out there, and at some level you have to adapt. It sounds kind of cynical, but that’s reality.
During my final interview at my place of employment they basically tried to talk me out of working there. The idea is that the position was something that I really had to want to be in and that I was willing to put the effort and time into; hence, they basically told me all the ‘bad’ things I should expect and the challenges I would face. If I was willing to accept those, however, it could be a great relationship going forward and a good fit for both of us.
And it was.
Knowing the negatives of any career is definitely important, and I sort of want to do a similar thing and talk you out of getting into design. It is definitely not for everyone, and unless you are willing to put up with its challenges (and surmount them!) you have very little chance of being successful.
But despite all its challenges and occasional frustrations, I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.
While I still do not always get the sort of creative freedom I would want, I have been fortunate in that I do enjoy quite a bit of it. And to be honest, this isn’t accidental. Rather, the more you work to improve your skills and the more you can demonstrate that you understand your client’s style/vision/etc., the greater latitude you will usually be given.
At my present place of employment I have developed relationships and trust with many of my ‘clients,’ which generally means that I am given the freedom to direct the creative vision of both the department and any particular piece to be created. This certainly didn’t happen overnight, but has been hammered out over years of trial and error, lots of wins, lots of misses, and just a lot of time.
It can be tempting to simply take a project and crank it out, but taking the time to get to know and understand your client will help to build that level of trust. Some projects are one-and-done, but some begin a relationship with a client that can be long-term. Unsurprisingly, these end up being the best clients because as you get to know each other, you can usually begin to anticipate what they are wanting and they begin to trust your direction when it comes to their projects.
And while there are many cases where you can feel creatively stymied, graphic design does give you at least the opportunity to flex your creative muscles. When I first started it was always sort of daunting to take on a new task, because I simply didn’t have as large a repertoire of completed projects and ideas from which to draw. But the more you create and the longer you keep plugging away at it, the more ideas you will find simply because you have more experience. Eventually you can even learn how to draw new ideas from old ones, how to pull concepts out of the most random things, and all kinds of creative opportunities that you might not have otherwise noticed.
Seriously, it can be a lot of fun. When everything comes together in a perfect synergy of idea and execution, when the client absolutely loves what you have produced, when you get to see the completed project in its final form- really, there is not much that is more satisfying than that.
It’s why we do this, after all.
So, my young bright-eyed and bushy-tailed designer wanna-be, now we can get down to the nitty-gritty of getting into the field. One of the most frequent questions I get is this: should i go to school to learn design?
The answer, unsurprisingly, is maybe, maybe not.
Next question?… just kidding!
I have a lot of friends, acquaintances and colleagues in the design world, and I would estimate that it is a pretty even split between those who went to school for design and those who didn’t. These are all great designers and they all have fairly successful careers.
Formal training is not without its benefits, You will be exposed to styles and techniques and mediums that you might not have otherwise. You will receive training in certain applications, industry standards, etc. Probably most importantly, you will have the opportunity to create projects with which to begin building a portfolio of work, as well as potentially having greater leads and connections as a result of going through a certain program.
I would certainly not discourage anyone from seeking formal training in design, but I would encourage anyone to discover if it is enough of a value add to justify the cost and time involved. As such, it is somewhat important to know in what way you intend to pursue a career in design.
For example, if you decide to go into the field as a small business, you will quickly discover that running a small business can be a bit complicated, especially as you get more and more clients, have to navigate the minefield of taxation, etc. Client relations, accounting, marketing and other such considerations might be part of your design program at school, but they might not be. If you do pursue design in higher education, use your electives wisely and fill in these gaps if you can. Courses in business, accounting, marketing and the like will probably be more beneficial long-term than extra art or design classes.
Even if you choose to pursue a different field of study at school, you still need to be always learning and developing in what will be your career field. This is true for any career, but in the world of design it is especially pertinent since you will often be called on to work in a wide variety of styles and mediums. Additionally, while we would all love to think that we have our own unique style and will wow the world with that, it is usually inevitable that much of the time one’s work will draw lots of inspiration from what is currently trending in the world of design.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does mean that you must be continually learning and developing. This is especially crucial for your business since the more skills you can bring to bear upon your work and the more efficiently you can produce quality work the more clients you can reach. You may eventually settle into a design niche of some kind, which is fine, but that often occurs only after a lot of paying one’s dues by cranking out anything and everything. This can be frustrating, but keep the end goal in mind- as you give outstanding service to clients, the more you will eventually have the opportunity to choose what clients you take on.
An education in design is a wonderful thing, but it is basically worthless for landing a job or a client if you do not have a strong portfolio. Very few potential clients are going to actually care if you have any formal education or not. For better or for worse, the world of design is essentially a meritocracy where you live and die based on how good your portfolio is.
Starting out, you really aren’t going to have a large portfolio, but the good news is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be large; it just has to be good. It can be tempting to fill your portfolio with the random personal projects that you have done (and probably really like!), but clients are not usually terribly concerned with your own personal projects but rather with work that achieves a goal similar to the one they have.
I face this temptation all the time, in that there are so many projects I like that are not necessarily the most successful ones, but I still want them in my portfolio either because I really liked the style, the aesthetic, or any number of other things. But just as employers don’t want to read a 5 page resume, they don’t want to weed through a massive portfolio of all your work.
Ultimately your portfolio should be reflective of not only what you can do (and do well!), but also the type of work that you really want to do. Be brutally selective about what pieces are in there- these should be the cream of the crop, the very best that you have to offer. Include the pieces that were successful in the client’s eyes, even if they aren’t your personal favorites.
Your portfolio isn’t something fixed but should be a fluid thing, constantly changing and evolving and improving. If you are seeking a position, cater your portfolio for each potential position, curated with pieces that most reflect the ethos of the company you want to work for. If a potential client asks for samples of your work, submit pieces that are as near to the scope of the proposed project as possible.
Your portfolio is the first look that most people will give you, and you want to put on your best face!
And as you must be constantly learning and developing, similarly you must be constantly updating your portfolio. This can signal to potential clients who come across your work that you are someone who is being hired by others to do work for them and thus might be a good candidate. It can also illustrate the breadth of your experience. Make sure it is well-presented, professional, and gives the client a sense of what you do and can create.
What to Charge
When I first started out I found that the most difficult aspect of any sort of freelance design was figuring out what to charge. There are a bunch of different ways to calculate this fee, but no matter which direction you go you want to make sure it is worth your time.
A lot of times this is what happens: you are a fairly small outfit, and you really want clients (and want to get paid). A potential project will come along, with the query as to what your rates are for X project. If you’re like me, you really want to land the project, but it is a gut-churning struggle between charging too much and driving the client away and charging too little to get them on board but not ultimately being worth your time.
It can be tempting to lowball the bid to land the project, but you will only end up shooting yourself in the foot in the long run. Here’s the deal: the types of clients you really want know what good design is worth and are willing to pay for it. If you are just starting out you shouldn’t expect to be able to command high prices, but it should at least be worth your time. One of the easiest ways to tell if a client will be good or not is if they accept a reasonable bid that is higher than the lowball bid you would have given to land the project. Since they recognize that quality design is worth the price, they will often be willing to pay it, and, more importantly, are more likely to do so in the future.
On the other hand, clients that will only take a low-ball offer are more often than not destined to either be a one-time client or one who will be more trouble than it’s worth. Almost invariably, these are the clients who seem to want millions of changes, revisions and tweaks, while the clients who are willing to pay more will often paradoxically give you more latitude. It seems counter-intuitive, but the distinction lies in the client’s perception of the value of the product. Clients willing to pay more understand that they are paying for a specialty service and will thus often defer to your expertise, whereas the low-ball clients more often reluctantly view you as a provider of a service they would rather do themselves if they had either the means or the skill. If you wonder at the veracity of these statements, just visit clientsfromhell.net.
As you begin to calculate your fees, even if you go on a per-project basis it is often helpful to make your calculation by the hour. True, you may have to build in additional cost for outside resources, but most of what you are charging for is your time. As you work on more and more projects you will discover what a certain type of project entails for your time, and it will be easier to come to a fair price.
When I quote, I almost always do it on a per-project basis (since my projects tend to vary quite considerably in scope). However, after coming up with a number I almost always go back and see how that aligns with my per-hour rate. Granted, sometimes a project is worth a bit of a discount, but undercutting yourself on a consistent basis is no way to achieve success. In the eyes of your clients you will eventually become a sort of Wal-Mart of design, and it can be really hard to break out of that. Rather, keep pushing to find good clients who are willing to pay reasonable rates for quality design, and you will have a better chance of attracting similarly great clients.
Starting Up A Business
In many ways, a career in graphic design is one of the most low-cost start-up small businesses one could possibly create. The initial cost is generally pretty low; after all, if you have been doing graphic design for awhile- either at school or as a hobby- then you probably already have the equipment you need to do what you do. And even if you don’t, a reasonably powerful computer and the requisite software (depending on what you use) can probably be had for $2500 or less. (Granted, if you do video production, photography or other equipment-heavy jobs, your equipment costs will be greater.)
A very real and very challenging temptation for anybody in this type of field is what I like to call gear-lust. Musicians are probably most known for this phenomenon, but those in graphic design are not immune. It can be tempting (and thus easily rationalized) that if you are going to start your own business, you are going to want to be able to maximize your chances of success with the best equipment possible; ergo, shouldn’t you get as much great equipment as you can?
If you absolutely need it, sure. There are some projects that require certain kinds of equipment. But then there are others where it would certainly be nice to have that, but not absolutely necessary. For example, I’ve always wanted to get one of those Wacom Cintiq tablets. My wife and I both do a lot of illustration, and having one of those would certainly be handy. But they are expensive! We both have other lower-range Wacom tablets, and even though they aren’t as sexy by any means, they get the job done. The return on investment for the Cintiq just isn’t there, as much as we might want it to be.
As you look into your equipment costs, make sure you are only purchasing what you really need to do your work, rather than justifying something that would be nice but isn’t necessary. This is especially true as you start up (unless you simply have lots of cash (not credit!) to throw around), but is equally important as you run your business from year to year.
When I first started out I wasn’t really treating my freelance work as a business- it was far closer to being a hobby without actually being so. I found all kinds of excuses to buy extra gear, software, equipment, etc., that I knew I didn’t really need but justified anyway. What ended up happening was that I spent nearly all of my profits on extra gear and software; while I didn’t take a loss ever, I also didn’t make much traction. Fortunately for me I didn’t really need the money and so it wasn’t a big deal, but now that we are actually taking our business more seriously I have to evaluate each and every business purchase.
For example, the computer I currently use for my work is getting up around 5 years old, which in computer terms is pretty much a dinosaur. I have been very close to pulling the trigger on a new one, and it is an easy purchase to justify. Now, because of the work I do my particular machine is pretty pricey, so upgrading isn’t a cheap thing to do. Over the past few years I have had to discipline myself to use what I want and make better use of my time in other ways, rather than fall into the justification of how much time a newer and faster computer would save.
Practically, this has meant that I have had to find other ways to try and squeeze some more vigor out of what I have. My current machine is pretty upgradable, so I have added more RAM, replaced the video card, added an internal SSD, and increased the storage space. None of these is necessarily cheap, but even all together they are much less than a new machine and have given it a few more years of life. And instead of just dropping cash on all of them at once, I have slowly upgraded components over a couple years, spreading out my costs to be able to be cash flowed organically from the profits.
Soon I will have little choice but to upgrade, since some of the technological limitations (such as connectivity) are not something I can get around. But instead of financing something or taking money out of my personal accounts, I am methodically amassing the cash out of the business profits for that eventuality. That way once the time comes for a new machine I will have enough retained earnings to make the transition smoothly without having to fret about cash-flow.
I can’t say whether you need X piece of equipment or not; but whatever you buy to run your business, make sure you get a great deal and absolutely need it to do what you do. Otherwise you may end up buying something that will seriously strain your business or even shut it down altogether.
Another potential pitfall is justifying extraneous purchases by means of the tax-write off. Now, writing off business expenses is fine and all, but not as a justification to purchase items you don’t need. You will end up sacrificing a much greater share of profits for a comparatively paltry savings on taxes. Thus, if you absolutely have to buy something as a business expense, then buy it and claim it as a business expense (assuming you can!). But don’t fall into the trap of justifying things you don’t need for the write-off, because you will simply be eating into your profits.
As you are starting up, if it’s just yourself you can probably do a sole-proprietorship, which is usually a lot less complicated than an LLC or an S-Corp. Talk to an accountant about what would be best for you. Unless you have a background in business, it will probably be a good idea to get advice from professionals who can guide you through its various complications.
You may have a mind-blowing portfolio or be able to bring some major Photoshop wizardry to bear upon any project, but unless you have clients, you are just a designer with a hobby.
In many ways there has never been a better time to get into graphic design. For many projects (excepting video and photo, usually) it’s very rare that a client requires you to be local to them. Thus, your potential client base is the entire world, and it is far easier than at any time in human history to connect with them. The unfortunate corollary is that there is also a lot more competition (and I mean a lot!) which can make it harder to make your portfolio stand out against the din of every other designer trying to get clients.
First, you need to have standout work. Be intentional about curating your online presence, whether it’s on your portfolio or any social media services you use. That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with the photos you post or the regular life (what is that?!?) media that goes on there, but whenever you show your professional side you want it to be your best work.
Second, if there is a particular type of work that want to do, start creating things that exemplify that work. Most of us have to kind of claw our way into what we want to do, so starting out you may have to do double-work: the work that clients are actually paying you for but that you may not be really excited about doing, and then the type of work that no one is paying for but that shows off what you ultimately want to do. Find something that people would be interested in and that is shareable; maybe a mock tour poster for your favorite band, a fake wine label, a character study- the potential is endless. An extra bonus is that there is sometimes something about creating something just for yourself that is really satisfying, and can be a good break from your regular work, even though it’s more work.
Third, you need to be sharing your work like crazy. I know, it’s a terrible pain to upload your work to yet another portfolio/image sharing site, but the more you can get yourself out there, the more exposure you will get and the more potential clients you can reach. Find high quality and high traffic places like Behance where other artists and designers share their work and where potential clients often go to seek out designers. If you have a particular style or want to work within a specific industry, you need to be active in communities that are formed around those interests or pursuits.
Fourth, ultimately the most effective way to get clients is to make lots and lots of connections. This is partially posting your work in lots of places, but even more so it is making personal connections with other designers, image site curators, etc. I am in a group with about 20 or so very talented designers which started off as pretty much just a group critique forum but then blossomed into some great friendships and such over the years. We still post work for critique and feedback from time to time, but more often it’s about the personal aspects of our lives, the joys and struggles and such. Now, it may seem that since we are all essentially competitors we would keep our clients to ourselves, but through the personal connections we have made it is actually the opposite; we are constantly trying to get clients for each other, pointing out potential leads, seeing if someone can take on a project they don’t have time for, etc. The bigger your personal network, the more clients you can engage.
Fifth, having very satisfied clients is one of the best ways to get more clients. Word of mouth is still one of your most effective marketing techniques, and if clients are happy with your work they will be extremely likely to recommend you to their friends, colleagues and business associates. Look for ways to go a step beyond the contract parameters, even if you don’t have to. Sometimes that extra step can leave them with a really great impression of you as someone who is good to work with and who will go above and beyond for their project. Some clients just want something shipped out the door, but most quality clients are looking for someone who cares about their project as much as they do and who will work hard to bring it to a successful completion. Quality clients tend to lead to more quality clients, so you want to make sure you do everything you can to keep them.
Avoid Spec Work!
Avoid (like the plague!) doing spec work for places like 99 Designs or Logo Tournament. First, you probably will not win. The types of ‘clients’ who farm their branding out as a contest do not know what good design is and will almost always pick something cheesy, kitschy or just plain awful. If that’s the type of work you excel at, then sure, jump right in. But more importantly, the types of clients who post to these types of sites are almost assuredly not going to be long-term clients. After all, they are not actually looking for a designer to work with and have a relationship with, or someone who can get to know their ethos and communicate their vision. Rather, they are simply trying to get a project completed for next to nothing, banking on desperate or inexperienced designers possibly creating something that will work.
It is essentially a losing proposition for almost every designer, and usually even for the winner. Consider: you have to take the time to look over the client’s ‘brief’ (assuming there is one…), develop an idea, execute on the idea, and submit that concept. With sites like these the ‘client’ will often offer feedback and revisions on some of the top choices (lucky you!) which then require more time to implement. You can easily waste hours of time on a project that has no guarantee of a payoff, and all the while you are at the mercy of a client who is essentially getting far more work done than what he is paying for, which is most likely as bargain-basement a price as it can be.
There is simply no way for designers to win in this situation, since the odds of you winning are not based on your skill but rather subject to a variety of variables beyond your control. The potential ‘payoff’ is simply not worth the time, and more importantly there is nothing about this situation which would lead to a long-term client relationship.
Becoming a Better Designer
Seek out mentors within your industry who would be willing to teach you and give you insight into the field. You’re not trying to steal secrets here nor to be a burden, but rather to be an earnest learner. Many people with lots of experience in the field will be happy to share their wisdom, but you have to be willing to listen and be grateful for the relationship. Don’t treat them as a step in your career, but rather as an incredible opportunity to learn from someone who has faced down all the challenges and overcome them.
Never stop learning or developing. When deadlines press down it can be emotionally exhausting to try anything new or to take any risks, but if you never branch out and forge a different path you will eventually find yourself in a creative rut, doing the same things over and over again. Granted, sometimes you have to get something out the door and it is valuable to have tried and true techniques and styles to fall back on. But the best way to keep yourself creatively filled up is to always been growing and developing; the only other option is atrophy.
Hopefully this has given you a brief snapshot of what working in graphic design is like. It is definitely not for everyone, but for those with the drive and passion it can be a very rewarding career, filled with limitless opportunities for creativity and growth.
Now get out there and make something!