So You Want to be a Graphic Designer?

This week I had the pleasure of being interviewed by a student from a high school in Illinois, who was doing a research paper on jobs they might want after graduation.

What kinds of things do you design?

I design things related to the internet (Web sites, banners, eblasts, etc.), and just about anything on paper (logos, brochures, stationery, rack cards, direct mail, annual reports, etc.). I also do illustration work.

Have you designed anything for a major company?

The easy answer is yes, though it isn’t as glamorous as the question makes it sound. Girl Scouts and BlueCross spring to mind as major companies that I’ve done work for. I was the art director for global high end staffing company for about 5 years. I also did a lot of work for a lot of our subsidiary companies.

What do you like most about being a graphic designer?

Solving problems for clients and making them happy. Getting new clients from recommendations from existing clients. It’s the highest form of flattery. (Because it pays better than imitation.)

What do you like the least about being a graphic designer?

“Design by committee”. This is when you work for a company and there is a large team of people that will be approving your work. Many times there are so many opinions flying around the work gets watered down to the point that it sucks. Everything that was unique and eye-catching is chipped away leaving nothing but mediocrity.

How long have you been a graphic designer?

I started freelancing about [years_freelancing] ago while I was still in college. Since then I have had many formal graphic design jobs, but eventually decided to go back to being a full-time freelancer and have been for about for 29 years.

What did you have to do to get started as a graphic designer?

I knew I always wanted to do something in the art field. My mother was artistic and I always loved creating things and drawing growing up. My parents always encouraged me.

Even before high school was out, I knew I wanted to be a graphic designer. Later, I got my degree in Graphic Design and Illustration.

While I was still in college I worked for print shops on the computer working on layouts. The jobs came to me mostly by accident, but it was the best job I could have had to prepare me for the rest of my career.

What do you do as a typical day for a graphic designer?

As a freelancer

Today, my typical day starts with waking up when I’ve had enough sleep. The funny thing is you’d think I would sleep in since no one is making me get up. But, I find myself happier on a self-imposed schedule. I go to bed at a reasonable hour and wake up before 6:00 most days. I know designers that would rather stay up late and work into the night – but I’d rather keep the same hours my clients do (9 to 5).

I shuffle into my office in my pajamas and spend about an hour answering emails and adding items to my to-do list. A bit later, after breakfast and exercise, I start banging away at my list.

I try to book about 80% of my day with scheduled work. The other 20% is for unexpected phone calls and emergency projects that crop up. The first half of the day I spend working on big projects like web sites, logo designs, or brochures. The other half of the day I work on smaller projects like making changes to client’s websites, changing a few words on a brochure, adding a new email address to a client’s account, making a requested grayscale version of a client logo, writing blog articles, etc.

The day is peppered with phone calls, answering emails, adjusting my schedule and dogs begging for biscuits and to be played with. I try to stop working by 5:00 p.m.

When I was working for a big company…

I would be at work by 8:00 and gone by 5:00. I never skipped lunch. When jobs came in I didn’t schedule too much. I just did whatever was on top. New jobs went on the bottom. It was more simple and only an occasional emergency. There was less pressure to keep everyone happy. Whenever I had free time, I was teaching myself web design or a new program.

I did the same types of things I do now minus the web design work: logos, brochures, newsletters, manuals, reports, PowerPoint presentations, charts.

Do you see yourself designing until you retire?

Absolutely. Although, I don’t really plan on retiring. I like to keep busy. I imagine the type of work I will want to continue doing will change. I see myself getting more into illustration work that requires less attention to deadlines… like stock illustration.

What helped you decide that you wanted to be a graphic designer?

Sometime in the middle of high school I started thinking about how I could apply creativity to a job and came up with graphic design. I am not a purely logic-based personality nor am I totally creative-based. Graphic design was something that had the right amount of creativity and structure for me to be interested in. Plus, my local college had a degree plan for it.

Watching the movie Big, with Tom Hanks, may or may not have had an impact on my decision.

What recommendations/advice do you have for someone who wants to enter into the profession?

  • Make a decision. Do you want to work for yourself as a freelancer, or work for a company? Do you want to stick with print design or web design? Or both?
  • Get educated. I recommend going to college, but if you were really motivated you could get by with individual course-work.
  • Lynda.com and your local library can teach you any program you want.
  • You will be judged on your portfolio. Work on freelance jobs for your friends or make up projects to help build your portfolio. College group projects will help you learn how to work with a team, but they aren’t good for your portfolio. The interviewer is going to want to know if you could do the work without the help of your team.
  • If you need to work while you are in school, find a job that will help you when you get out (print shop, t-shirt shop, sign-shop, etc.)
  • Act like a professional. Be on time. Keep your word. If you are going to be late, call ahead. Return phone calls in a timely manner. Write thank you notes after interviews and meetings with new clients.
  • Work with industry-standard programs (Adobe Creative Suite for example. You can get trial versions and student discounts). Microsoft Publisher is cheap — and there is a reason for it.
  • Back-up your work. There are two kinds of hard drives: those that have crashed, and those that will crash. Set up your computer to create back ups automatically. Manual backups are like using the rhythm method to avoid preganacy.
  • Look at other people’s work to fill your head with ideas.
  • Keep a sketch book. Learn to draw.
  • Proof-read and spell-check.
  • Keep organized.
  • Learn to listen to your clients and not to take criticism personally.
  • Your job is to create something pleasing and functional.
  • Read “The Mac is Not a Typewriter”.
  • If you find yourself without a project – do something to help yourself later. Work on your own marketing materials, file, create a new promotion, call a client, learn a new program, explore other designer’s work, etc.

If you have any other questions, post in the comments below.

Lena Shore

2 Comments

  1. laf @ laf Custom Designs on May 2, 2012 at 10:18 am

    This is great info Lena. Even I learned a thing or two! You echoed something another friend of mine said–all your portfolio work doesn’t have to be client projects. Even self-generated projects are good portfolio pieces. The client wants to know what you can produce.you can show that you’re able to work with clients by doing so. I also like your “fill the slow time” suggestions. Thanks a bunch.

    I’d be interested in workflow suggestions to make the design process more efficient.



    • Lena Shore on May 2, 2012 at 10:25 am

      So glad you got something out of it. It’s a constant learning process, but that is what makes it fun!



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