How to be a graphic designer

My design story

I often get asked how I got into graphic design and what I think are the best routes. I thought it was about time I created a blog post about it!

I began my design journey as a gothy teenager with no direction. Did you have careers lessons at your school? We did, on VHS videos in the school hall and occasional career nights where people talked about their job. It was during these lessons that watched a video about the skills required to be a commercial artist. I vividly remember being captivated by this short film and knowing it was what I wanted to do. I now go back to schools to share my story and hopefully inspire future generations.

This lightbulb moment meant that my parents were reassured that my dreams of living in a Parisian attic or a remote Greek Island, creating beautiful paintings and cohabiting with a lusty local, were in fact dreams and I had a plan!

I found my opportunity at Cambridge University Press, creating marketing material for the academic journals division, turning line drawings of bird life and mushrooms into leaflets and adverts. Later I joined the marketing team at a builders merchants which sounds very dull but I had great fun getting creative on everything from vehicle wraps on lorries and buses, signs, brochures, leaflet of all shapes and sizes, exhibition stands and pop up marquees! I also spent a long time creating clipping paths around lawnmowers, dull as it was, it was good training in Adobe Photoshop. I can turn my hand to lots of different work and diversify across print and packaging. This means clients do not need to employ multiple creatives when I can do all of these disciplines and that makes less paperwork and less briefing.

The design and print of the company newsletter got me interested in publishing and multi-page documents. This lead to art directing in magazine publishing and marketing agency work adding names like UPS, United Business Media and the BBC to my portfolio. I became adept at pitches and procurement.

I managed the design and production of weekly titles that could have over 150 pages and had to be sent to press as finished files with paid advertising in place. Tuesday was press day and Friday was subscriber delivery day leaving just two days for the printer to print, bind and post. There was no room for error and the files had to be 100% perfect otherwise it was a 1am phone call and a drive to the office to fix the problem! Good systems, page plans, customer management and copyediting were just as important as good design. All these experiences have helped me to work efficiently and creatively, paying attention to workflows.

Since then I have worked in book publishing for Pearson, Cambridge University Press, Penguin, John Wiley and other publishing houses of all sizes. I also work in digital design and website design, adding digital media and coding to my range. I use my skills in calligraphy and illustration too.

My educational background spans graphic design and English literature, with a Masters degree in graphic design and typography. I often read contentious discussions about whether a degree is necessary and asked for my opinion. Is someone born to be a designer?

Without question my academic study has polished my work and gives me confidence in my design skills. I understand the science of design better - why one typeface and not another? Before I may not have understood why I thought this. I can draw on research, the lecturers I have met and fellow graduates. I now appreciate why something or someone inspires me and how I can use it that in my work. Ultimately, It’s only until you take a degree that you realise how much it can benefit your skills and help your clients. It isn’t necessary but I believe that my clients get a better result because of my education and my practical skills.

Are you born to the job? I believe we’re surrounded by so much media that it’s hard not to be influenced. I do know I’ve never been driven towards maths and figures as I am words and type. So perhaps some of us have a natural desire? If that’s the case, I’m very fortunate to have followed my yearnings even if that hasn’t ended up in a Parian loft or on a Greek island with a lusty local… yet!

What skills are useful?

  • Good personal skills and a thick skin! You will often have to talk to clients or stakeholders, all with their own opinions on the work you’ve created. Taking the view that it’s the designer’s way or no way isn’t productive!

  • Creativity which is obvious, but be mindful of variety in that creativity. Nobody want to see a portfolio with everything set in Helvetica or endless leaflets. Try tackling a book cover.

  • Technical skills. Adobe Creative Cloud is still the industry go-to. Knowing the basics of Indesign, Illustration, Photoshop is essential. Adding video editing or animation packages is a bonus. I do use a Mac but I honestly don’t think it’s an essential requirement.

  • Time management, literacy and the ability to problem solve are really important. You may like to read this post about 12 skills that aren’t creative but essential!

Takeaways

If you feel you’d like to turn to design as a career, talk to established designers. Look out for talks at universities and The Design Council. Use social media to follow designers like Erik Spiekermann, Antony Burrill, Ryan Bosse, Dan Mather and Stegan Sagmeister (who will provide a solicited critique on his Instagram feed). I am always inspired by Marian Bantjes and Candy Chang.

Follow design awards like The D & AD and read about industry news in Creative Review, Creative Bloq, Design Week and Its Nice That Is. This will help you to understand the different disciplines of design.

Practice! A decent portfolio will help you should you wish to study. You may grow this and find you can enter awards. I’ve won awards for my personal study and professional practice, all rather unexpected but a great addition to my CV.

Volunteer. Many small charities would love some help with design, from newsletters to social media. You may get the chance to work with an established designer.

Don’t sell yourself short. Please don’t think that your lack of training means you have a place on Fiverr. Keep learning and developing your skills, so you can charge your worth.

Look for junior or office roles. That’s how I started at the University Press. A marketing assistant role turned into the design role. Arts Jobs lists weekly opportunities and you can find out more by following design studios on social media.

Finally let me know if this post helps! I’d love to hear from you.