How to Become a Graphic Designer: A Step-By-Step Guide


You’re crazy about color, fanatical about fonts, and pretty handy with an X-ACTO knife. If this sounds like you (and hey, even if it doesn’t… yet), you just may have what it takes to make it as a graphic designer.

We caught up with Lindsey Selden to discuss what graphic designers do, where they work, and what steps you’ll need to take to get your graphic design career off the ground.

What does it mean to call yourself a graphic designer?

Calling yourself a graphic designer generally means that you create digital and or print communication media. You can work for a firm, studio, or agency. In my experience, all of these terms are more or less interchangeable, though I am sure there are people in the industry for whom the differences in these terms are quite apparent / important. When you work for a firm, studio, or agency, you are an employee of that entity, which in turn has outside companies—called clients—who are buying the creative work (that you do) from your company.

Alternatively, a graphic designer can work for an “in-house” company, in which case the creative work you do is for that company. Within the in-house umbrella there are many different types of scenarios: hospitals, retailers, museums, publishing houses, etc.

Regardless of where you work, a graphic designer can be involved in any or all of the following:

  • Branding
  • Brand Strategy
  • Packaging Design
  • Collateral Design
  • Identity Design
  • Environment Design
  • Interactive Design
  • Product Design or Development
  • Advertisement
  • User Experience
  • Promotions or Campaigns

This is not an exhaustive list, but gives you a feel for the breadth of what a graphic design job may entail. Although there is a lot that you can learn at school, much of the specialization in one or more of these roles develops through on-the-job experience.

Which computer programs do most graphic designers use? How do they differ from each other? And in which order would you recommend learning them?

The programs that designers most heavily use are in the Adobe Creative Suite. In particular InDesign (used primarily for multi-page layouts), Illustrator (great for illustrations of all kinds, and complex type manipulation), and Photoshop (a very broad program enabling a wide range of image editing and enhancement). Bridge, Fireworks, and Muse are other programs fairly commonly used in the Suite. Adobe comes up with an updated Suite annually, in which they always offer program refinements as well as introduce new programs.

Designers generally have one “go-to” program, which is usually the tool that feels the quickest and most intuitive. All of the programs relate to each other, and there is a lot of overlap in functionality. If I had to recommend one program to start learning first, I would go with Illustrator, because in my mind it shares the most in common with the other two programs.

Are there any other tools graphic designers rely on? What are they and how are they used?

In my experience most design begins with a simple pen or pencil and some paper. This does not mean that all designers are great at drawing, but being able to simply ideate and express a concept (without necessarily invoking a style) is a great way to get to the essence of an idea. Once you have nailed down a concept then you start adding on the other layers of color, craft, and context that make up a complete design.

Designers can also be asked to do product, packaging, or collateral prototyping. The complexity of this varies, but almost universally will require adeptness with paper, a pencil, a ruler and X-ACTO knife, and some type of adhesive.

Let’s say I’m a student and I’ve done some design work either for class or just on the side and I want to create a portfolio. What do I need to do to make that happen? What are the essential elements of a beginner’s portfolio?

There are so many great online (and often free!) resources for presenting work. Cargo Collective, Dribbble, Behance, Coroflot (and I am sure zillions more) are all resources that have created a place online to showcase creative work, and some of them, like Coroflot also include job postings as well.

The plainest, but maybe most honest and helpful advice is to present good work. If you are really looking to land a job, showing a few things that are done really well, versus a ton of mediocre work is always going to be the best decision.

Figuring out what you love, and what you are really passionate about is a great way to help whittle down what work you want to show. Presenting some kind of “point of view” is also very powerful. Considering the breadth of tasks a graphic designer may be asked to do, it is important to have the ability to work with lots of different tools, for many different mediums, but exhibiting the ability to think critically is (in my opinion) a basic and crucial skill for whatever the job or project entails.


Lindsey mentions that many of the programs in the Adobe Creative Suite are the essential tools for a graphic designer. One problem is that Adobe Creative Suite has traditionally been very expensive, and Adobe recently switched over to a subscription-based service called “Adobe Creative Cloud,” which requires you to pay on a monthly basis.

If you’re a student or recent grad and you’re still trying to figure out whether you’d like to pursue a career in graphic design, it doesn’t really make sense to start by paying a ton of money for a product you might not actually end up using.

So what can you do?

Here are a few options:

  • If you’re still in school, start by seeing if your institution has Creative Suite or Creative Cloud programs available for students to use
  • Wikihow suggests trying out free online alternatives like Gimp, Scribus, Inkscape, and Pixlr
  • AppStorm has a list of all the alternatives to the main programs in the Creative Cloud (not all of these are free, but they tend to be cheaper than the Cloud subscription would be)

Once you’ve got your hands on a program, what should you do?

Start playing around! Look for online tutorials to learn new features of the programs. Here are a few to try out:

  • Getting Started: Exceptionally Great Beginner Photoshop Tutorials from 1st Web Designer
  • 100 Amazing Adobe Illustrator Tutorials from Creative Bloq
  • 50 High-Quality Adobe InDesign Tutorials from DesignMag

If you like a little more structure, you might want to consider signing up for a MOOC through someone like Coursera or Udacity, or a subscription-based course like Lynda.

You’ll also want to read, read, read. Design blogs. Design books. Anything design-related you can get your hands on. Not sure where to start? Wegraphics has a list of suggestions here. Try to get a sense of what you like and what you don’t like (and why).

And if you want to learn more about what it’s like to work as a graphic designer in a variety of settings, check out all our “Graphic Design” content here on the AfterCollege Blog!

Homework time! Go out there and get started! Check out a few design blogs or books, try out one of the free programs online, or watch a tutorial.

P.S. Do you have any other resources you’d recommend for getting started in design? Let us know in the comments!


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