The ways to get into the field of design are as diverse as the designers’ styles themselves. In previous years, a degree or a diploma was considered a requisite to get into the industry. These days, an impactful online portfolio website can give you a leg up in your design career and is a great way to market yourself.
This article answers questions about how to become a designer. It covers commonly asked questions about building a design portfolio to help those interested in this unique and exciting industry.
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Design is at the core of everything we do. Design refers to planning and executing the look and feel of the world around us. Graphic design, a visual subset of the design field, is concerned with creating methods of visual communication through different tactics and techniques. In the words of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), graphic design is “the art and practice of planning and projecting ideas and experiences with visual and textual content.”
At its core, design means helping brands, products, and experiences show up in the world.
Designers are creators. They are storytellers. Designers bring value by applying visual principles, editing, and layout techniques to meet the needs of the design. Much like an artist, the role of a designer is concerned with the visual expressions of objects and people. Unlike an artist, a graphic designer has to answer to the demands of clients, budget and time.
One of the most unique things about the field of design is that it comes in many different forms. To name a few, a person can focus in areas of:
A brand identity designer is tasked with coming up with a visual language for a brand, product, or public persona in the form of designs. Some of the elements a brand designer gets to develop are the logo design, primary and secondary color palette and associated fonts.
Illustration is a branch of graphic design that covers both two- and three-dimensional designs that act as a visual representation of an idea or concept. This area of design has a broad wingspan with many specialized roles. An illustrator may provide visuals for are magazines, websites, or illustrate steps in a process for the creation of manuals.
Layout designers guide the composition of text and visual elements on a page, including image sizes and position, font choice, elements spacing and overall flow of information for the reader. Many different fields hire layout designers, including advertising and publishing. This work may include interaction design or involve working closely with the UX team.
The role of a marketing designer often focuses on creating advertisements for the everyday consumer. This may involve creating advertisements that target customers digitally and in-store environments through flyers, shelves, and store signage. However, marketing communications have a broad wingspan and can include posters, banners, and much more. Quite frequently, research is used to find ways to outperform last year's benchmarks using marketing.
When it comes to packaging, the job covers conceptualizing and designing an attention-grabbing product presence that stands out among the competition. Elements such as shape, colors, and typography, functionality, and accessibility all come together in this field.
The opportunities when it comes to design are nearly limitless. For example, someone with a visual inclination and functionality may choose to become a user experience designer or a product designer, which are two design areas concerned with product experience.
While every person has something different to bring to the table, there are certain traits shared by those employed in the field. You may find yourself reflected in the list below, but if not, it’s important to remember that having an eye for creative expression is the only requisite.
You are curious and enjoy learning new things
You’ve been described as detail-oriented
You live in a world where eggplant is a vegetable and a color
You’ve purchased an item based solely on its packaging in your life
People say you have an active imagination
In addition to the following traits, an important quality that designers share is finding joy in continuous learning. Design is a career where individuals need to be in the loop about everything from cultural trends to the latest editing software, so continuous learning comes with the territory.
One of the things that distinguish a quality designer is a skillful communication. This is because clearly understanding and communicating expectations is a big factor overall in one's success. A designer’s job includes: receiving feedback, asking clarifying questions, and providing designs based on budget, timeline, and resources available.
If you consider yourself a strong communicator, you’re already ahead. If communication is something you want to work on, there are many online courses and videos that can help you on your way to becoming an articulate communicator and active listener.
Overall, the design job market is expected to grow exponentially between now and 2028.
According to InVision’s Product Design Hiring report, 70% of people managers increased the headcount of their design team in the past year. In addition, more high-tech integrated areas of the industry are expected to grow more aggressively than others. The promising thing is, it looks like design work is part of the future across industries.
For more specific information, you can check out the Government of Canada’s Job Bank guide, which includes job projections for the industry, complete with associated wages and anticipated demand.
In order to become a designer, you need to have a foundation of knowledge about visual design principles and applications. Some of the skills you will need to successfully enter the field include:
Principles of visual organization
In addition, if you are looking to break into the field of user experience (UX), user interface (UI), you will need to also familiarize yourself with the principles of interaction. This is because these fields of design lead to more interactive final products than other types of design, and as a result functionality and accessibility must be seamlessly woven into the aesthetic appeal of the product.
Thankfully, there are many free online resources that can help you get familiar with basic interactive design principles.
As previously mentioned, there are both academic and self-taught paths to an exciting career in design. Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach and each has its own pros and cons, and it's important to do your own research before making a decision.
When it comes to taking the structured path, there are many programs offered by training providers that lead to design careers. Those with more relevant experience may choose to round out the content in their online design portfolio with courses covering the latest software, while others may choose to pursue a diploma or even a degree in graphic design.
No matter what program you are considering, make sure the learning application portion of the curriculum should be part of your assessment. This is because the projects students complete as part of their education often become the foundation of their portfolio.
Access to a broader range of learning subjects
Structured learning and feedback
Access to a network of professionals, peers, and job resources
Body of work that can be used as the basis for portfolio
Can be highly costly and time-consuming
Potentially prescriptive content options
Information provided is sometimes out of date due to a fast-moving industry
Accreditation can be leveraged for attracting clients
Of course, the self-directed path allows flexibility in your design education. Students can set their own curriculum, but also puts the onus on you to stay on track and to ensure the range of design skills you invest in learning is comprehensive and relevant to the types of jobs you are after. If you choose the self-taught path, it's important to seek external sources of feedback, as design critiques are an important part of the learning process.
Often less costly
Completed at your own pace
Allows focus on specializations or niche areas of interest
Lack of feedback from peers and professionals
Accountability comes from self-discipline
Fewer opportunities to be challenged
Less line of sight on learning area gaps
No matter your design learning journey, there is a path for everyone. For example, someone that likes more structured learning may find completing a course or two, or a full-time program is the right choice for them. In addition, getting a formal accreditation can be a worthwhile investment as some design agencies source employees from trusted academic programs, and alumni are likely to rely on their community of other college graduates first when job openings pop up.
On the other hand, self-motivated individuals that thrive on a “blank sheet of paper” approach may find that the self-taught approach is more fitting.
Because the field of design is so broad, the exact tools used may vary from person to person, and from project to project. However, a designer is likely to use some of the following to take a project from concept to execution:
A lot of pen and paper
A drawing tablet
File management and project management tools
Coding languages like HTML and CSS (used as part of web design)
As previously mentioned, design is a field that requires continuous learning, so taking on new clients is bound to require some education around industry-specific tools and visual trends. For this reason, some designers include an “onboarding fee” as part of their invoicing to cover this time investment as an overhead cost, as it can take a lot of time.
While designers may use a variety of software based on the type of design field they’re in, the two most commonly used are Photoshop and Lightroom. While both products offer a range of editing options, Lightroom is considered to be more entry-level of the two.
Adobe Lightroom offers a robust set of editing functionalities with fewer plugin options than Photoshop, making it the preferred choice for those starting out in creative industries. Some of the capabilities of Lightroom include:
Black and white conversion
As you can see, Lightroom provides a good range of features that are likely to satisfy the needs of those starting out.
In addition to the list above, Photoshop allows for a wide range of Apple and third-party plugins, which gives the user complete control over the final product. Of course, Photoshop’s comprehensive functionalities also mean a steep learning curve, which is why it is the #1 tool for design professionals.
If you are enrolled in an academic program, you may qualify for student discounts on these editing products as part of Adobe Creative Suite.
An online portfolio is a staple for anyone looking to break into the design industry because it gives your potential employer a taste of your skills, relevant experience, and creative vision.
Later in your career, the types of brands and clients you include will attract more clients of the same ilk. This is why it’s useful to think of your portfolio as a living project rather than as something static that you complete once in your career.
Because design is a creative field, there are a lot of creative differences as to what an online portfolio should include. The good news is that this means that there is no right or wrong way to compile your portfolio, as long as it:
Demonstrates range in the areas of design you want to get hired in
Shows depth of skills and scale of projects you’ve worked on
Encapsulates your creative style
If your portfolio checks off all three boxes, then you’re on the right track. In addition to these elements, you may want to consider including a peek at your creative process. This is because some employers appreciate getting a peek at your process of problem-solving and bringing the idea to life. Of course, this is more relevant to more iterative branches of design such as product and user experience (UI).
At the end of the day, you should make sure your portfolio is an accurate representation of your skills and ambitions in this creative field. Here are 20 online portfolio templates designed specifically for designers' needs to help you get started.
One of the best things about an industry in design is that it keeps you on your toes. If you’re a curious individual with an eye for design and a love of continuous learning, you are likely to find a career in design to be incredibly rewarding.
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