The world of graphic design encompasses a wide range of skills—and opportunities—for those interested in the power and persuasiveness of visual communication.
For those just starting out on the path to becoming a graphic designer, there are a host of core competencies to master that go beyond simply knowing the ins and outs of the Adobe Creative Suite. Just like you load up your portfolio with all sorts of projects, you also need to load up your skill set with “soft skills” that make you an effective communicator.
“More so than any hard skill like Photoshop proficiency, basic communication is the most important part of being a designer,” said Erica Gorochow, founder of PepRally and a Brooklyn-based director, designer and illustrator. “At the end of the day, most graphic design responds to some defined problem. Your ability to articulate that problem is often the first step in finding a visual solution.”
That being said, given her focus on motion design, Gorochow freely admits to spending most of her day in the aforementioned Adobe Creative Suite, using Photoshop, Illustrator and After Effects.
“In the past, I’ve used Sketch for UI jobs and very occasionally, I use Cinema4D, too,” she said. “I’ve also got my eye towards [collaborative interface design tool] Figma.”
She also pointed out that writing is one of the key skills that beginner graphic designers often overlook: “Whether emails, decks, or otherwise—being comfortable with the written word is a huge leg up, especially if you want to grow into a managerial role or run your own business, or freelance practice.”
She suggested seeking opportunities to write for design blogs, or posting your own essays and seek editing feedback. If you go down that path, it’s important to be open to continual re-writes. That’s vital for everything from job hunting to keeping your opportunities current once you land a position.
Know Your Mobile Platforms
In the age of the smartphone and tablet, Gorochow said an understanding of mobile platforms and how they differ from the desktop experience sometimes means approaching the solution from unexpected perspectives.
“When I started, the TV and film screen were the primary rectangles for which I designed,” she said. “But now, most of us voraciously devour content throughout the day. And most of that content, for better or worse, is on the phone.”
Understanding the context in which someone is experiencing your work is important, she added: “When I think of designing for mobile platforms, I think about designing dynamically for a multitude of canvas dimensions–horizontal, vertical, 1:1—and the realities that waning attention spans will likely change your creative brief.”
In other words, understanding mobile platforms often means working backwards to understand your constraints. In addition to having strong communication skills and the ability to clarify an idea by whatever means necessary, possessing a certain technical acumen is still a critical part of any new graphic designer’s toolkit.
“Just like with any skillset, before you can get creative you need to get your foundation down,” said Julianna Carbonare, a graphic designer and education advisor at Discover Praxis. “In the case of graphic design, this means the technology first and foremost.”
Without technical skills, you’re essentially an illustrator or artist rather than a graphic designer. “After you get a good grasp of the technical skills, you can move into basic design principles like color theory, composition, and typography,” Carbonare continued. “This knowledge, put into practice with foundational technical skills, is the number one starting point for a smooth transition into developing a solid graphic design skillset.”
Another aspect, often overlooked by young or beginner designers, is the knowledge base behind the various facets of design theory. “It can be really exciting and just plain fun to jump into designing based on intuition right away,” Carbonare said. “But the truth is that behind every high-level design is a large level of complex thought and reasoning for every angle, space, placement, color choice, and so on.”
It’s best to start working within the rules first, especially when designing for a client, and then you can gain the freedom to break the rules later on.
“I can say with confidence that you don’t have to go to school to become a designer. That being said, it will take a lot more work,” Carbonare said. “You have to essentially create your own curriculum, compile your own sources, and have the discipline to follow it all the way through.”
Some of her favorite sources for gathering information include Udemy and YouTube; there are a good amount of Adobe Certified designers running courses on Udemy: “YouTube also provides a great number of tutorials as well as hosts channels run by some of the best thought leaders in the industry, such as Chris Do.”
Sharing your work and interacting with the design communities on Instagram, Behance, and Dribbble can be “immensely helpful” to your career goals, as well.
Any Graphic Designer Must Learn to Draw
“You don’t have to be an incredible artist to do graphic design, but a solid base of drawing or sketching skills will aid you greatly,” Carbonare noted. “Before most designers even touch their digital tools, they head to paper first. It’s the most natural, efficient way to do a brainstorm or even brain dump” session of ideas. You don’t have that freedom or fluidity on your tablet or computer.”
After playing around with those sketched (and messy) ideas, you may have a better idea of what you actually want to bring to life on a digital medium. “If you’re hoping to start a career in graphic design, whether freelance or within an agency, you need to be able to communicate your ideas and visions,” Carbonare added.
Clients are going to have a vision of what they want, and it’s a large part of the graphic designer’s job to sit down with them and figure out how to pull the image in their head onto the piece of “paper” in front of them.
“This is only done well and effectively with developed, inquisitive communication skills,” Carbonare said. “On the reverse side, you also need to be able to communicate your own ideas in a very human to human way. Whether you’re presenting to one client or to an entire team, sales skills—communication—are the main power behind getting everybody on board with your concept.”
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