Becoming a real professional is quite a journey, and the graphic design industry is no different. As we all know, taking the first step can be extremely overwhelming, especially when you have so many questions bombarding your mind:

Who is a graphic designer? What skills do they require? Do I need a graphic design degree? How to self-study graphic design? What to include in a portfolio? etc., etc. 

Those are questions that require sometimes full-on lectures but we will try to be as concise as possible. Don’t worry – we brought a friend to guide you through the topic. Meet (drum roll please) … Ivory!

Outline Illustration of an AI robot which is waving and saying "Hi".

Ivory is a model of the perfect graphic designer (or as perfect as it can get). Even though Ivory is a machine, we can describe her as easy-going, persistent, and unique. She has been working in the design industry for over 15 years now and has a lot of wisdom to share.

Understanding the profession

Let’s start at the very beginning. Who is a graphic designer? What does a graphic designer do? 

A graphic designer is a person that uses visuals (typography, photographs, illustrations, and graphic elements) to create a piece of design. As the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) explains, designers use their artworks “to construct messages that attract attention, cause us to think about their meaning, and stay in our memories over time.” In a way, graphic designers are communicators that help with spreading information in a visual dimension. 

If you think about the whole process of designing from start to finish, the main scope of work includes:

  • Discussing the project and organizational matters like goals, deadlines, payments, etc. with a client.
  • Brainstorming ideas for the designs.
  • Making sketches and prototypes, approving them.
  • Creating visuals using various mediums.
  • Approving your artwork design and working on the adjustments and edits.
  • Proofing your artworks for print and web.
  • Making the final presentation to the client.
An outline illustration of an yellow flag with an exclamation mark on it with the text nearby saying "Don't forget about enjoying your work!"

Yes, thank you, Ivory. The most important of all is to love what you are doing! You might be wondering why that is a task and not just an accompanying feeling. You see, to keep Ivory sane and make her actually progress, enjoyment is one of her core software parameters. 

Exactly as for the machines, enjoyment is a criterion for humans. We use it to guide through the very popular question: should I become a graphic designer? Of course, no one can answer this question for you, but, to help you decide, we have a fool-proof method. Try designing something! Ivory will generate a couple of briefs for you and your task would be to design one of them. It doesn’t matter how or where you do it, the vital part is your attitude to the process. 

An outline illustrations of scissors, poster, and wallpaper rolls that represent three briefs

So, after you finished the project ask yourself: 

  • Did I enjoy the process of creating this design? 
  • Was it interesting to transform concepts into visuals? 
  • Could I do this for a long time? 

If the answer is yes, then you should at least consider becoming a graphic designer!

Also, tag us on Facebook or Twitter if you happen to use any of the briefs because we would love to see your finished projects.

Now that we have covered the basics, let’s move onto what makes a great graphic designer: remarkable skills, extensive knowledge, and relevant experience.

Skills

An outline illustration with the AI robot divided in half. One side is yellow and it has in casual clothes (represents soft skills). Another is purple and it has a robe (represents hard skills).

Take a look at Ivory. She has two sides that characterize her skills: a human side and a robot side (I like to call it the “hello-Luke-I-am-your-father” side). Both of them are extremely valuable and integral, but they are responsible for two very different skill sets: soft and hard skills. Soft skills can be described as transferable characteristics that streamline your workflow and make you a nice co-worker. Hard skills, on the other hand, are the direct contributors to your craft. These are the skills that you should have to be a graphic designer. 

Let’s look at the core graphic design skills that we think are a must. If you would like to read more about this topic, we have an extended article about the best skills for graphic designers.

Soft skills:

Time management

An outline illustration of three hourglasses leaning towards each other.

No one wants to work with the designer that cannot meet the deadline. And to be completely honest, deadlines are not the only thing that you need to manage in terms of time. Project milestones, time spent on communication with clients (especially if you are in different time zones), scheduling your working hours – all of this contributes to the inevitable deadline. So, it is crucial that you know how to manage your own time. 

In order to do this, break down the design projects into bite-size tasks and try to roughly estimate the time you would need to finish them. Then add a few extra hours for emergencies and exclude weekends or other holidays. My general rule is better to have an extra day and submit the project earlier than to promise very fast completion and not to meet the deadline. 

Ivory will demonstrate her calculations for the most recent project.

An outline illustration of an AI robot explaining her calculations for the design project. "The total of working days - 14 days. All in all, the project would take 19 days (with weekends and 1 emergency day)".

Communication skills

An outline illustration of 2 yellow speech bubbles.

As I have already mentioned, designers are visual storytellers, so having poor communication skills, as you might have guessed, can be a problem. Let’s take a look at this situation: you have a client that is not very talkative, and thus you have minimum info about the project. It is your job as the designer to get all the information you need by asking him specific yet descriptive questions. This will prevent you from being too annoying and will leave you with the needed info. 

Sometimes clients don’t even think about certain aspects of the design project (well, because they are not designers themselves – shocking, I know). You, as a creative, need to describe the way of working on the piece or give some details about the behind the scenes. In this way, the client will understand the whole process better and, for example, will more likely negotiate the deadline or the price. Remember to put yourself in somebody’s shoes and strive to have a healthy dialogue!

Hard skills:

Software

An outline illustration with a paint brush and icons of Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop flying around.

We can all agree that knowing the software is a vital technical skill. Adobe has pretty much a monopoly here with its Creative Cloud and most of the designers use Photoshop, Illustrator, or InDesign regularly. However, there are also other decent alternatives such as CorelDraw, Inkscape, and Affinity Publisher. Whatever program is, make sure that you know how you can use its features and tools in the best and fastest way possible. For example, the commonly used shortcuts can help you with speed and additional plugins can do some work for you. 

It’s common to assume that you would only need previously mentioned programs to do excellent design. Yes, that’s true to a certain extent, but the professional design is not only about the visuals, it’s also about communication and collaboration. There are tools and software that can help you with that too: some of those are Figma, Trello, and Slack. 

Approval Studio, for example, is a design approval software that assists with project management and design reviews. No need to remember all of the change requests or stare at the screen for 5 hours to spot the difference. Approval Studio can do it for you with an easy-to-use annotation system and 4 AI-powered comparison modes!

Visual Library

An outline illustration with various shapes that symbolize the paintings on a gallery wall.

To my mind, this is by far the most important skill in any visual profession. Basically, a visual library is a way you have trained your eyes to see what is a good design and what is not. This might sound like some fictional X-ray vision, but a lot of novice designers have this feeling “there is something wrong, but I don’t know exactly what”. This is your visual library saying that the mistake is there, but a lack of knowledge and experience cannot explain it to you. As you progress more and more, you would be able to tell what exactly is faulty and why. 

You might be wondering why this is a skill and not some given talent. Well, like any other skill, the visual library is something that you gain after a lot of practice (sometimes in a subconscious way). While admiring elegant paintings in the galleries or saving stunning photos to Pinterest boards, you get used to seeing beautiful pictures. This trains your eye to differentiate what is pretty from what is not. It’s like uploading millions of aesthetic pictures to your hard drive (this is exactly what we have done to Ivory), but instead of a hard drive, it is your memory.

Knowledge

An outline illustration of a wired brain with the star in the centre.

The next crucial part of becoming a great graphic designer is knowing your craft. This is more theoretical but by no means less valuable. Being deeply intertwined with the previous section about skills, knowledge gives you the rules and guidelines on how to utilize them in the best way possible. I know we all want to let our inner child go and distort the proportions of the illustration, but this is not usually a very good idea (unless it perfectly conveys the intended message). 

An outline illustration of an AI robot that encourages to "enhance both skills and knowledge at the same time".

Concerning the way you can gain knowledge, I want to cover a very popular question: do I need a graphic design degree? 

No, you don’t need to have a degree, but you need to have the knowledge and the skills. If you want to become a graphic designer, you have to learn and practice. Where and how to do it (at home, in an office, or at the uni) is your choice. 

Before you decide, take a look at both advantages and disadvantages of your options. For example, the degree usually takes a long time and is quite expensive, but you get curated courses with feedback from experts. Self-studying gives you the ability to learn at your own pace and specifically what you want, but you should have a decent level of self-discipline and the desire to spend a lot of time searching for the needed info. As a self-taught artist, I believe in the power of self-education, but I also understand that this option might not be viable for some people.

Other common questions are: How to self-study graphic design? What to learn if you want to be a self-taught graphic designer? 

I would advise starting with the basics, building your visual library, practicing at communicating ideas, and getting feedback from other creatives (no, not your parents). Luckily, Ivory and I have written a list of topics that covers the essentials and help you navigate in the design sphere. 

Main:

  • Principles of Design (Scale, Framing, Symmetry and Asymmetry, Hierarchy, Contrast, Movement, etc.)
  • Color Theory (Color Wheel, Color Context, Color Harmony)
  • Typography (Types of Fonts, their Characteristics, and Functions, Construction of Letters)
  • Branding Design (Creating Identity, Brand books, Logos)
  • Prepress (Types of Printing, Preparing Files for Print, Grids)
  • Workflow (Visual Research, References, Mockups, Final Presentation)
  • Business (Copyright, Contracts, Pricing)
  • History of Art and Design
An outline illustration of 3 books on Phychology of Design, Media and Cultural Studies.

You can use this list of topics as a general guideline or make a checklist and go through them one by one! 

We are working on the compilation of needed resources that could help you fully acquire the graphic design profession on your own. Here is a little sneak peek of the sites where you can learn graphic design with a variety of online classes:

Of course, Youtube videos, podcasts, blog posts, books are also very helpful alternative sources of information (and mostly free). However, be careful about who made them. The rules of thumb are to learn from well-versed specialists, to learn in the medium where you perceive the information the best, and to put the knowledge to use. 

Work Experience

An outline illustration of a portfolio case.

Our last section that ties everything together is work experience. It helps us put our skills and knowledge to use in real-life projects (both personal and commercial). Also, while working with clients or other professionals, you train your soft skills and acquire the needed expertise in the design field. Is it so Ivory?

An outline illustration of an AI robot that says "what helped me become better at my job is the combination of understanding how other people think and perceive information".

And what is the best way to showcase your work experience? Portfolio!

The portfolio is a collection of your best work that depicts your style and what you can do. Your portfolio can have a variety of forms, but the most popular one right now is an online portfolio (Behance, Dribble, or a personal website). It is handy to have a PDF version as well. 

The base projects that make the best graphic design portfolio are:

  • The project that earns the trust of the clients. It can be a project done for a famous company that illustrates your ability to work with briefs and style restrictions. 
  • Technically well-done project. This is the project that shows the scope of your hard skills. 
  • The project of the future. It should be the project that the future you would do – an exciting possibility to show your ambitions.
An outline illustration with tips about design portfolio.

All in all, the portfolio is a project of itself. What works to choose, how to combine them, and how to tell a story through your portfolio – all those things also need some design work to be done. 

Furthermore, I want to touch on the subject of CV. Usually, if you are applying for the bigger company they would ask for the CV alongside the portfolio. A lot of people would put as much time and effort into designing and perfecting their CVs as they would the portfolio. I wouldn’t say that it is inherently bad, but this approach is not usually correct. Why? 

Well, CV is most of the time a requirement from the HR department, whereas the portfolio is what the art director would see and base its decision on. In other words, HR would look at your CV and just see if you have the required skills (like Photoshop and Time management) written down. However, the creative director would see those skills implemented through the design. It doesn’t mean you have to send plain text blocks as your CV, but it is better to spend time polishing the portfolio than a CV. 

To round up, your work experience, however you want to present it, is what makes other people evaluate your worth. Even if you are a beginner, don’t get discouraged by the amount of experience other people have and simply look at it as a learning process to be enjoyed. Working on personal and client projects, collaborating, learning new skills, and doing your absolute best morphs into gaining more expertise. Over time you will be a person that newbies will look up to. 

An outline illustration of an AI robot that says "people only see what you show them, so be smart about that".

Final Thoughts

On the whole, your road on the way to becoming a great graphic designer is going to be different from everyone else (and there is a beauty in that). However, the checkpoints will remain the same for everybody: gaining remarkable skills, extensive knowledge, and relevant experience. A combination of these three aspects makes the best professional. 

I hope, Ivory and I have drawn an accessible map for you to start this path of continuous improvement! Let us know what you think in the comment below or contact us here.

All the best!

Mary Cobe is a girl with a graphic tablet and a new member of the Approval Studio team. Illustration and design have always been her passion and now she is eager to share her extensive knowledge about the creative industry. She considers black and white colour palette her best friend and enjoys splendid visuals more than a good cup of coffee.

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