- According to our data, most open graphic designer jobs in the United States and worldwide do not require a degree.
- Graphic design is one of the most accessible creative professions for degreeless people, with many freelance work possibilities and abundant online educational resources.
- Try to gain initial working experience through freelancing, and leveraging that to land a full-time job as an in-house graphic designer.
In modern marketing, graphic design is one of the most important tools for any brand. 94% of first impressions of a given company are design-related, and social media posts with visuals perform 650% better than those without images. It is no wonder, then, those large companies are willing to invest a lot of money into creating advertising, logos, and other necessary visuals.
However, while the demand for qualified graphic designers is high, the entry barrier to the field is relatively low, and professional graphic design tools and learning resources have never been as accessible as now. This has led to a situation where many professionals in this field are completely self-taught and have never even set foot in a design classroom.
With a respectable median salary of $50,170 and a steady growth rate of 3%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), it is no wonder that many people are interested in becoming professional graphic designers. Now, let’s go over how you, too, can become a successful graphic designer without obtaining a formal degree.
In this article, you’ll learn:
What does a graphic designer do?
A graphic designer is a creative professional responsible for creating visual art for their clients. While many modern graphic designers rely on digital illustration software like Adobe Photoshop or Procreate, traditional methods like pencil and paper are still widely used among professional graphic designers.
No matter what tools they use, though, the goal of a graphic designer is always the same – to create art that communicates a message clearly and effectively. This means that graphic designers must have both a strong artistic sensibility and a keen understanding of the needs of their clients.
Graphic designers may work in various industries, and their exact job responsibilities can vary greatly depending on their field. However, some common duties of modern graphic designers include the following:
- Creating logos. Graphic designers are often tasked with preparing logos for various companies. Here, a designer must take the client’s vision and distill it into a simple, elegant design (think iconic logos like Tesla, Apple, Mcdonald’s, etc.) that can be used across various applications.
- Designing marketing materials. Another common duty of graphic designers is creating marketing materials like brochures, flyers, and posters. Here, the designer must craft visuals that accurately reflect the brand identity of their client while also attracting the target audience to notice and engage with the material.
- Developing website layouts. In the digital age, an increasing number of graphic designers are also responsible for developing the layout and visual design of websites. This task requires a strong understanding of user experience (UX) design and web development technologies.
- Designing packaging. Many graphic designers also work in the packaging industry, creating eye-catching visuals for product packaging. Here, the designer must take into account the size and shape of the packaging as well as the needs of the client to create a design that is both functional and visually appealing.
- Creating book and/or album covers. Another common task for graphic designers is crafting book and album covers. Here, the designer must be able to capture the essence of the book or album in a single image while also adhering to any specific requirements and budget the client sets.
What skills do you need to become a graphic designer?
In addition to graphic design skills and design theory, a professional graphic designer must possess various supplementary soft and technical skills essential to the job.
Here are some of the key soft skills needed for graphic designers:
- Creativity. Anyone trying to break into the creative industry needs to be able to demonstrate exceptional creative abilities. It sounds obvious, but the creative process is often misunderstood. It’s a skill like any other, and it can be honed, practiced, and improved. As a new designer, you will probably think that all your ideas are terrible – this is perfectly normal! The key is to keep pushing through and experimenting with new techniques until you find your unique style. “The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident; the real one is scared to death.” – this quote by writer Steven Pressfield perfectly sums up the paradox of all creativity.
- Communication. Graphic designers need excellent communication skills to express their ideas to clients and colleagues. They also need to take feedback and criticism constructively and use it to improve their work.
- Flexibility. A successful graphic designer must be able to adapt their style to fit the needs of their client. This might mean designing something outside your comfort zone – but that’s the whole point! The best way to stretch your creative muscles is to take on new challenges constantly.
- Visual communication. Another essential skill for graphic designers is the ability to communicate ideas visually. This means being able to use the elements of design (line, shape, color, etc.) to create coherent and impactful visuals that convey the message of your client.
- Time management. Whether a graphic designer works as a freelancer or in-house, they will eventually come face to face with deadlines and need to learn how to manage their time effectively. Bad time management leads to stress, which tends to impact the creative work negatively. Simply put – to be at your best as a designer, you must master time management.
- Leadership skills. The best graphic designers are often the ones who can take charge of a project and lead other designers. If you want to make it to the top, start practicing your leadership skills early on and you’ll benefit from this throughout your career.
In addition to the soft skills mentioned above, becoming a graphic designer requires you to master various technical skills.
- Typesetting. Typesetting is arranging text on a page in an aesthetically pleasing and easy-to-read manner. This might seem like a simple task – but it’s quite complex, as it involves everything from choosing the right font and font size to set the correct line spacing and word spacing. Modern graphic designers need to be proficient in typesetting, as it’s an essential part of creating both digital and print materials.
- Layout. The layout is closely related to typesetting, but whereas typesetting is primarily concerned with text arrangement, the layout also includes other elements such as images, infographics, or illustrations. A good layout needs to take into account the hierarchy of information, as well as the overall aesthetics of the design.
- UI/UX design. User interface (UI) and user experience (UX) design are both concerned with the way users interact with digital products. This can include everything from websites and apps to software programs or even physical products. As a graphic designer, you are not expected to create entire digital products on your own – but it’s still useful to have at least a basic understanding of UI/UX design principles.
- Graphic design software. Last but not least, graphic designers need to be proficient in using design software programs. Most graphic designers only work on one software for a given type of task, gaining deep expertise and knowledge in that particular program. The most commonly used programs include those in the Adobe Creative Cloud suite of tools, but there are also plenty of other options available.
While the list above of skill requirements might seem intimidating, it’s important to remember that you don’t need to be a world-class expert in all of them. No one is. Instead, focus on developing a strong foundation in the basics and build your skill set one step at a time.
Now, let’s answer the key question – is a degree needed to become a graphic designer?
Do you need a degree to become a graphic designer?
No, a degree is not required to become a graphic designer. Only a minority of companies hire designers exclusively based on their educational background, and most are much more interested in the applicants’ design portfolio and relevant work experience.
Here’s why the value of a college degree is declining in the field of graphic design:
- Self-teaching. Teaching yourself graphic design skills is much more common in the design industry than in other professions, removing the need for a degree altogether. Plus, the proliferation of online tutorials, courses, and YouTube videos has made it easier to replace formal education with self-education.
- Accessibility. The tools used by graphic designers have never been as accessible as they are now. Due to technological advancements, virtually anyone with a computer, the skills, and the right software can enter the graphic design industry without formal education or networking.
- Freelancing opportunities. The rise of freelancing and the gig economy has made it easier for designers to find work without going through traditional channels and meeting employer requirements. Many high-profile clients are happy to hire freelance graphic designers they found online, as long as they have an impressive portfolio.
Even if you leave freelance graphic design jobs out of the equation, the data shows that most graphic designer jobs don’t require a degree in 2022.
This chart shows the job availabilities for graphic designers without a degree worldwide:
And, here’s the same data visualized in a graph:
As you can see, most graphic design jobs, whether in the United States or elsewhere, do not require applicants to have a college degree. While the United States is more strict about educational requirements than other countries or regions, degree-requiring jobs still form a minority.
Now, let’s examine the United States a bit closer.
Here’s a chart that shows the job availabilities for graphic designers without a degree in the 10 most populous states:
And, here’s the same data in a graph format:
In all 10 states, less than half of employers require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Thus, even in the United States, a country notorious for being strict about formal education requirements, a college degree is not necessary to become a graphic designer.
Now, let’s examine the steps you need to take to become a graphic designer without going to college.
Career paths for graphic designers without a degree
Whether they graduated college or not, the career paths for graphic designers are pretty similar. The three main graphic design career paths to consider are:
- Freelance graphic designers. Being a freelancer has a lot of advantages. For one, you get to be your boss and set your hours. You also have the freedom to choose the projects you want to work on, as well as the clients you want to work with. Of course, this also means that you are responsible for finding your work – which can be challenging, especially when starting. In addition, freelancers don’t usually have access to the same resources as design studios or agencies – so you will need to be comfortable with being responsible for your investments.
- Agency graphic designers. Working in a studio or agency allows you to collaborate with other designers, as well as learn from more experienced professionals. Often, agency graphic designers also have great access to resources and support from their employers, meaning that on-the-job learning becomes easier. On the downside, agency graphic designers tend to have less freedom when choosing projects and clients – and they also need to be comfortable working within the guidelines set by the employers. Plus, agencies
- In-house graphic designers. Graphic designers working in-house are employed by a single company to execute design tasks for their needs and purposes. While doing design work for a single company might seem limiting and boring, it can be quite advantageous. In-house graphic designers will develop a good understanding of the company’s products, services, and branding, allowing them to create an entire design philosophy, rather than just isolated design pieces. And, such holistic designs can be very impressive within a portfolio.
What are the steps to becoming a graphic designer without a degree?
Follow these steps to become a graphic designer without a degree:
1. Learn the fundamentals of graphic design.
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist” – This famous quote by Pablo Picasso is very relevant to graphic design. Before you start tinkering around with various graphic design software, you must first learn the basics of graphic design. This will give you a strong foundation to build upon and will make it easier to experiment with different design styles.
Try to learn the following:
- The design principles (balance, hierarchy, contrast, etc.)
- The different types of graphic design (logo design, web design, packaging design, etc.)
- The different stages of the design process (research, ideation, sketching, prototyping, etc.)
There are many ways you can learn the basics of graphic design. You can take an online course, read a book, or even just do some research on your own. Just make sure that you are getting information from reliable sources – there is a lot of misinformation out there.
Here are some university-led online programs worth considering:
- Graphic Design Certification from UC Berkeley Extension
- Certificate of Graphic Design from the University of Calgary
- Graphic and Digital Design Certificate from Parsons School of Design
Of course, there are many other certification programs out there. It’s also a good idea to seek additional certifications for your software. For example, an Adobe Certified Professional certification is a valuable asset for anyone using Adobe products professionally.
2. Choose your design software.
Graphic design relies heavily on software – so it’s important to choose the right software for you. There are many different graphic design software programs, each with strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to select the software that is best suited for the type of work you want to do.
Here’s a quick rundown of the most popular software that’s available:
- Adobe Photoshop – Without a doubt the most well-known of all design software. Photoshop is a bitmap editor, which means it’s primarily used for editing photos – but it can also be used for creating graphics from scratch. It has a wide range of features and can be used for everything from simple tasks like cropping and resizing images to more complex ones like creating detailed illustrations or manipulating digital photos.
- Adobe Illustrator – Another Adobe program, Illustrator is a vector editor – which means that it’s used for creating graphics based on mathematical equations (vectors) rather than pixels (bitmaps). This makes it a commonly used choice for tasks like logo design, icon design, or illustrations. Another great advantage of vector graphics is that they can be scaled up or down without losing quality, which is why they are often used for printed materials such as posters or business cards.
- Inkscape – Inkscape is a vector editor similar to Adobe Illustrator, but it’s free and open-source. It’s a great program for those just starting in graphic design who want to get a feel for vector editing without spending any money.
- GIMP – When Inkscape is a free alternative to Adobe Illustrator, GIMP is the go-to alternative to Adobe Photoshop. Similar to Inkscape, GIMP is entirely free to use. The software is a bit more complicated than Photoshop and might take some time to get used to – but it’s a great way to learn bitmap editing without spending any money.
- Adobe InDesign – Compared to Photoshop and Illustrator, InDesign focuses more on its niche. This software is developed for print design tasks such as creating magazines, newspapers, books, or other types of publications. InDesign is also frequently used for creating marketing materials such as brochures or flyers.
These are just some of the most commonly used software programs in graphic design – but there are many, many more. New software is being developed all the time – so it’s a good idea to keep up with the latest trends and technologies. We do not see Adobe giving up its lead any time soon, but who knows – maybe the next big thing in design software is just around the corner.
3. Start developing your unique style.
Remember what we said about learning the rules before breaking them? Well, once you are well acquainted with the software you use, you can become more creative. Start by exploring different design styles, learn about them, and mix elements from different styles together. As you get more and more comfortable as a designer, you will also naturally bring some of your own experiences and preferences into the mix. Doing this will help you develop your own, unique style.
Some of the most popular design styles include:
Finding your voice as a designer is not something that happens overnight. It is a process that takes time and lots of experimentation. Be patient with yourself, and eventually, you will find a design approach that feels right for you.
4. Get involved with the design community.
There are numerous online and offline design communities where you can get involved regardless of your experience level. Being involved in such a community will not only help you network but also improve your practical skills. Some of these communities also offer membership perks such as discounts on services and products commonly used by professional graphic designers.
Some of the most popular design communities include:
Also, don’t forget many online forums and design groups on social media platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Reddit, and Twitter.
Twitter, in particular, can be a great platform for directly connecting with established graphic designers. Following famous graphic designers who are already established in their careers can be a great way to get inspired and motivated in your journey to becoming a graphic designer.
5. Offer your services as a freelancer.
One of the best ways to gain experience as a graphic designer is to offer your services as a freelancer. This will force you to put your skills to the test and learn how to work with clients.
It can be scary putting yourself out there, but remember that every designer has gone through this process at some point in their career.
One of the most important points here is to manage your expectations. It takes time to build up a reputation as a freelancer. When you start getting work, deliver high-quality results even on minuscule tasks. When you meet or even exceed the expectations of your client, you will get repeat work and referrals, which is great for building up your portfolio.
Some of the most common places to find simple freelancing work include:
Upwork and Fiverr are two of the most familiar names. These platforms also have the largest user base. However, once you have experience, consider trying design-focused platforms such as 99designs. These more specialized platforms have significant advantages such as better quality clients and higher pay rates. But, they also tend to have clients with higher expectations.
6. Create an online graphic design portfolio.
A portfolio is the best way to show off your work and skills as a graphic designer. When you are just starting, it is important to include any relevant projects in your portfolio – even if they are personal projects or school assignments. Once you have more experience, you can be more selective about what goes into your portfolio. However, a good graphic design portfolio always follows some of the following rules:
- Showcases your best work
- Is up-to-date
- Demonstrates a large variety of skills
- Tells a story about you as a designer
If you need help getting started, look at some of these graphic design portfolios for quick inspiration. However, when using other people’s portfolios for inspiration, consider that their area of expertise may not coincide with yours. Portfolios work the best when they are custom-tailored to your specialization and style, so be true to yourself.
7. Get a graphic design job.
Working as a freelance graphic designer has many advantages and you can easily make a good living. However, some designers prefer the stability and benefits of working at a design agency.
Even if you have already established yourself as a freelancer, we recommend giving a traditional nine-to-five a try. You might enjoy the structure and support of working at an agency. Plus, it will give you some much-needed experience working with clients and collaborating with other designers.
Of course, landing a job at a design agency is not easy. But if you have the right skills and portfolio, it is doable. Even if you do not have a degree. Start by reaching out to some local agencies and see if they have any openings. With a good portfolio, the right certifications, and plenty of freelance experience, it should not be too difficult to get your foot in the door.