From English Major to Graphic Designer: Making the Switch


What happens if you decide to pursue a career that’s totally unrelated to your major? It can seem scary, but it is possible to make a giant leap like this. Just ask Sutton Long, who thought her English major would lead her to a career in magazine editing. She quickly discovered that she was much more interested in page layout and design than editorial content, so she decided to pursue a career in graphic design.

After years of learning on the job and building her portfolio, Sutton is now the owner of Sutton Long Graphic Design and Art Director at Study in the USA Magazine. We catch up with Sutton to learn how she changed gears from editor to graphic designer—and why her lack of formal training in her field has actually been a huge asset.

What is your current company name and job title? If you’ve changed titles since you started at your company, what was your job title when you started?

I’m the owner of Sutton Long Graphic Design and Art Director at Study in the USA Magazine. I used to call myself a “freelance graphic designer,” but I made the transition to my current title a couple of years ago when I realized that I had been in business for a long time and wanted to present myself accordingly. I no longer felt like “freelance graphic designer;” I felt like a businesswoman.

What is a typical day like for you?

  • Email
  • Conference call and/or design meeting
  • Design the next round of comps for client #1
  • Finish layouts for client #2
  • Email
  • Email
  • Email
  • Make a to-do list outlining all of the next steps for each client that I need to accomplish the next day

Email is such a prevalent way to communicate that I feel like I’m doing a ton of it: asking clients questions, getting feedback, sending out information to photographers, checking on meeting times, finalizing design details and edits, etc.

What are your favorite aspects of your job? What are the things you would change if you could?

I love collaborating with my various clients. It’s so fun to talk about a concept and watch it grow and see everyone’s different ideas morph and coalesce into a final product. I also love doing research on concepts, fonts, colors, etc. I use the internet, the library, bookstores, etc. to pull together ideas. I also keep a folder of graphics, typography, layouts—anything I see that catches my eye—to spark ideas.

I feel very lucky to work for myself. It has allowed me to work with lots of different people and try different jobs. I really love the challenge of managing multiple projects and designing for different clients and media.

There’s not much I would change. I’ve been very fortunate to work with two magazines for a long time, and then I add in freelance work and other projects as I have time or the opportunities arise. With so much variety, I’m always challenged and learning. Plus, I love working from home and getting to hang out with my dog all day.

What did you study in college? How does your major relate to your current position? 

I was an English major and initially thought I’d be a magazine editor. That’s where I started out, but in my first position, I also learned how to use layout and production software. Once I knew how to put pages together, I realized that I was far more interested in the visuals than the words. So I took jobs where I was allowed to learn how to design as I went.

However, my English and writing background has helped a lot. Because I was an editor, I can see things from the editorial perspective too and look at the pages with an eye to both the words and the visuals. I used to feel like I missed out by not going to school for design, but I’ve come to realize that my unique perspective is an asset.

What advice would you give to college students who are interested in working in your field?

There are so many different kinds of designers today, and I can’t speak with experience about getting started in the field now. Plus, my path has been very unique. But common sense job advice stands:

1. Be willing to listen and collaborate. It’s always important to work well with others—they might be the people who help you land a new job or client in the future.

2. Communication is extremely important, whether it’s with your boss or a client and whether it concerns a concept you’re trying to explain or simply responding promptly to an email about a meeting.

3. It takes time to get where you want to go. It took me ten years to get my business to a place where it felt solid.

4. Say yes to new opportunities and projects.

Homework time! Sutton talks about the importance of finding working environments that allowed her to learn on the job. Is this important to you? If so, think about how you can assess this when applying and interviewing for jobs.

To learn more about Sutton, check out Sutton Long Graphic Design on the web.


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