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How to get a career in graphic design: A student's guide

How to get a career in graphic design: A student's guide

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The study of graphic design can lead to a highly rewarding and varied career path for dedicated design students. Of course, building a career in this creative industry requires tenacity just as much as it requires passion and artistry.

If you are, however, able to stick with your career projection plans and take on any and all professional opportunities and challenges that may come your way, you will find yourself being regarded as an established and highly professional graphic designer in your own right.

But how do you reach this end goal? Here's the definitive guide to kickstarting your own graphic design career, from one creative student to another!

Enrol in some long (and short!) design courses

Although you may not need to enrol in a graphic design course in order to understand what graphic design is, you will absolutely require a formal education if you ever hope to work in the industry as an industry professional.

Graphic design courses will be able to provide you with a foundational understanding of how the industry operates at large, and what the nature of your work will look like upon your graduation.

You need to be prepared for the years of freelancing and independent contract work that will lie ahead, and part of being ready to take on these unique challenges is naturally knowing your worth, and as an extension of this, being able to offer a diverse variety of professional skills as an independent contractor.

Whilst long graphic design courses will provide you with the foundational knowledge you'll need to prepare for a professional life in this creative industry, short courses will be able to support your upskilling post-graduation and as you venture into the world of freelancing. If you continue seeking opportunities to further your craft and invest in your own personal development, chances are high that more and more people in your wider community or local economy will recognise you as a more than capable graphic design professional.

Become proficient with all relevant industry software

How exactly do you upskill as a graphic design professional? A great place to start is simply by turning your attention to the software that you may find yourself using every day.

In the present day, graphic designers are truly spoiled for choice when it comes to design software, with many graphic design courses providing whole 12-week subjects dedicated to using applications like Adobe Illustrator and the wider Creative Cloud.

Alongside the Adobe apps, many graphic designers will naturally also dabble with other big name vector illustration and photo editing software like CorelDRAW Graphics, as well as iOS apps like Procreate.

However, it's not always guaranteed that you'll be able to engage with these other pieces of design software in your graphic design coursework.

You can either turn to the internet for online tutorials, or potentially look at short courses that are specifically geared towards designers looking to achieve proficiency with these relevant industry software applications.

Taking the time to really engage with these various pieces of software and understand how to use them best will undoubtedly ensure that you stay ahead of the curve as a designer in this rapidly digitising industry.

Take on a diverse selection of projects

The best way to learn is simply by doing. This is precisely why you may find that even with all of the short and long course qualifications to your name, the bulk of your learning experiences will actually come from being a freelancer over being a full-time student.

There's a lot to be fearful of when taking your first steps out into the professional world, but that 'fight or flight' response to placing yourself in your first few professional opportunities is really what will dictate whether or not this career pathway is right for you.

You want to put your skills to the test, both in freelance work as well as in other professional opportunities like internships. In fact, internships can be a highly valuable learning opportunity for graphic designers who feel that they're ready to work as part of a wider team.

Of course, taking on agency-wide projects will naturally feel quite a bit more daunting than being in control of a smaller, independent project on a freelance basis.

You'll feel a greater sense of responsibility, both to yourself and to your fellow team members. It's important to note that even if you do have deadlines to adhere to, all the work you do is still an enriching learning experience, and you should feel encouraged to take whatever you can personally out of any of these early professional experiences.

You'll experience a fair bout of imposter syndrome both in your early days as an intern, as well as throughout your time in your first professional role, and that's absolutely natural. So long as you continue enjoying the work that's in front of you, you'll know that things are definitely going to be okay!

Widen your professional network wherever possible

Another valuable aspect of internships? They are a superb networking opportunity. Even if your internship doesn't end in an offer of employment, you still get to walk away with a wealth of hands-on industry experience, as well as a solid reference or two.

Some of your supervisors may also turn into insightful mentors and potentially even lifelong friends.

It is absolutely worthwhile taking whatever networking opportunities come your way, especially considering that these opportunities don't necessarily have to be in professional settings either.

The fantastic thing about graphic design professionals and other professionals working in creative industries, is that they have an eclectic array of personal interests, and it is quite easy to meet industry professionals in casual settings.

Go to art gallery openings, special on-campus events, and guest lectures, seminars, and workshops. Buy tickets to panel discussions, and immerse yourself in the world surrounding this industry.

In doing so, you'll likely find some sparky, like-minded individuals who, down the line, may help you find roles or employment opportunities that are perfectly aligned with your personal and professional goals.

Or who knows? You may find some for them! The opportunities to connect and grow together are bountiful when you have a wide and supportive network of peers.

Build your online portfolio and professional brand

Finally, the most important step that you can take to further yourself as a graphic designer is to showcase your work. You can do so by putting together your own professional website and social media profiles accompanied by a thorough digital portfolio.

Providing accessible samples of your work online will ensure that your wider network of peers will be able to explore and share your work at their leisure, opening you up to even more potential professional opportunities, both in your city as well as abroad.

Similarly, utilising industry hashtags on social media platforms like Instagram, can help you garner an international audience for your work, which can be especially valuable to those of you who are looking to work overseas.

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This guide will help you structure your own early career pathway both during your time as a student and following your graduation day.

Alongside following the tips outlined above, you should also absolutely create your own personal and professional goals to be achieved within a set timeframe, and revisit these goals periodically to ensure that your career in graphic design is developing in a way that appeals to you.