Updated December 2023
Do you need a university degree to be taken seriously as a graphic designer? Can you avoid school altogether and just teach yourself the basics?
What about free graphic design courses you can find online—isn’t that the best option for an up-and-comer who doesn’t want college debt?
Graphic design is one of those fields where there are no clear rules on how to start a career. Some professions—like doctor or lawyer or licensed teacher—have very clear pathways for training. You must go to university. You must get certified. It’s not negotiable.
Becoming a graphic designer is a little different. There’s endless debate between self-taught and schooled designers, and whether formal training is really “worth it”.
But the truth is, with the growing complexity of design software and digital technology, many designers need formal training to stay ahead of the curve.
Our solution? Take a graphic design program that is short, effective, and teaches the foundational skills you’ll need to get hired. You learn the software, understand the fundamental techniques, and get real work experience at an internship.
From there, you climb the ladder by learning on the job and continuously improving your skills. The point? To earn while you learn. It’s all about getting your foot in the door.
With that in mind, here’s our roadmap to becoming a graphic designer, combining the best of both worlds: school training and real work experience.
Step 1: Understand What a Graphic Designer Actually Does
Print is dead, right? Graphic designers only work in digital. The most important part of the job is making things “look good”—it’s all about esthetics. You don’t really have to worry about functionality.
No, no, and...no!
First and foremost, graphic design is about solving problems, communicating key ideas, and prompting action. This goes way beyond making things look good.
How do you take a small mobile screen and fit all the elements your client needs for their website homepage?
How do you ensure your product page design is both eye-catching and easy to navigate so your client's customers will make purchases?
How do you ensure your book cover is unique enough to get attention while staying true to the author’s identity and style preferences?
Graphic design is a complex and challenging process that involves negotiation, creative problem solving, and impeccable technical skill. In terms of practical tasks, typical duties for graphic designers include:
- Consulting with clients to determine the overall look and feel, graphic elements, and content for design projects (print and digital)
- Preparing initial sketches and layouts for client approval
- Producing final illustrations and graphics using CAD software
- Creating 2D and 3D animated drawings/computer illustrations
- Helping to create storyboards for multimedia and digital productions, television, and advertising
- Designing print materials, such as product packaging, books, business cards, and stationary
- Creating logos and other branding elements
- Estimating costs for design projects
- Creating website designs, including wireframes, layouts, and mockups
- Editing designs based on client feedback
- Overseeing the entire design process, from initial concepts to final production
Step 2: Find an Efficient Graphic Design Program That Meets Your Needs
There are all kinds of graphic design programs out there. There are non-university programs ranging from one to three years, plus options for full-time, part-time, and online study.
The program you choose will come down to your learning needs, budget, time constraints, and overall fit with the school.
This is an important investment, so do your research. A few things to keep in mind:
- Read student reviews
- Look for examples of student graphic design work on the school website
- Compare prices
- Compare course lists and key skills taught in each program
- Look at the overall reputation and history of the school
- Meet with admissions and see how well they explain the program and answer your questions
At Herzing College, we offer an accelerated graphic design certificate program that takes just 10 months to complete.
We want to provide a faster route to employment, where graduates can continue learning and advancing their skills while working in the field. But the accelerated approach isn’t for everyone.
If you need a part-time or online program, there are plenty of other options available in the GTA. Our program is for people who can do full-time, intensive study for the full 10 months. Click below to learn more.
Step 3: Complete an Internship & Build Your Portfolio
If you want to become a graphic designer, you need to develop an amazing portfolio that truly showcases your creativity and technical skills. Employers need to see your style, your skills, and how you’ve approached real-world design challenges.
A good graphic design program will set you on the right path. As a student, you’ll be creating all kinds of different design projects. As you work through the training, you should be slowly putting together examples of your best work.
Upon graduation, you'll have a professional portfolio you can use to apply for design jobs. But keep in mind, you will need to keep adding to and editing this body of work, depending on the type of design jobs you want.
For example, is it your dream to become a graphic designer for television and film? Are you more interested in book covers and album art? Think you’d do really well working with businesses to develop branding guidelines, websites, and marketing materials?
Your portfolio should reflect the type of design work you want to do. In the beginning, you’ll probably have to do some volunteer projects to collect the kinds of examples you want to showcase. Be prepared to invest your time and do plenty of side projects.
Step 4: Get Advice from Professional Graphic Designers
Checking out online forums, websites, and blog posts on graphic design is great—but nothing beats talking to real professionals with years of real graphic design work experience.
These are the people who know what it takes to get hired—and stay hired—as a new designer. They can tell you what it really takes to make it in this industry. Usually, these tips go beyond the technical skills taught in design school.
Herzing graphic design instructor Miguel Suarez says it's important to be able to adapt your creativity to reality. "Adaptability also means being very aware of trends that clients have grown accustomed to (whether those trends match your personal taste or not)," he says.
"In this industry, there’s huge value in knowing how to control and manage your imaginative spirit to adjust to the needs of clients. This is what employers are looking for in new hires. This is what pays the bills!"
What's the takeaway here? Becoming a graphic designer means more than learning some software and honing your technical skillset. You also need some key soft skills:
- Diplomacy and professionalism
- Interpersonal skills (relationship building)
- Desire to improve
- Customer service
Step 5: Keep Pushing Yourself to Learn New Skills
Remember: for graphic designers, the learning never stops. There is always a new trend, new software, or new digital tool to know about and apply in your work.
You might not incorporate every single trend and tool, but it’s important to stay on top of these things. A great designer pushes herself to find new, creative solutions to the challenges clients bring.
Designers need fresh inspiration and new points of view to deliver truly unique and compelling work.
Staying connected to a community of talented graphic artists, both online and in person, is crucial for career success. Not only can your contacts lead to job offers, but they can also provide creative support and feedback that will help you improve your craft.
If you’re ready to explore graphic design training, take a look at the 10-month graphic design program from Herzing College.
This is an accelerated program that includes a guaranteed six-week graphic design internship. Courses focus on practical, hands-on design skills, and you’ll graduate with a professional portfolio of work.
Employers who have hired our graphic design grads include Cineflix Productions, Eye Weekly, Gladstone Media, and Lampo Communications.
Click below to browse courses and learn more about the program. You can chat live with an admissions advisor or request free information by email. We’re here to help!