Main image of article Graphic Designer Career Path: Management or Specialist

When it comes to their careers, graphic designers have a multitude of options before them. But no matter what pathway they choose, they’ll need to stay aware of the relevant constants, constraints, and benefits.

No matter where your graphic design skills take you, keep in mind that nothing is achievable without solid “soft skills,” including empathy and communication. Whether a freelancer or a full-time employee, graphic designers must constantly express their opinions to other stakeholders, including executives and clients.

Nor does a graphic design career need to end as a graphic designer; depending on how you ladder up your skills, you can jump into all kinds of related positions, such as user interface designer, or even a more managerial role. Depending on the circumstances, such moves will boost your salary to a considerable degree.

In the world of graphic design, it is also possible to take on a leadership role and still have a hands-on role designing, although the size of the firm and its team composition will also determine how much time can be spent on each.

Finding Footing with First Gigs

Darren Sharp, CEO of S-SA Digital, explains how a graphic designer’s typical first job roles are in layout, photo manipulation, and putting together materials for an organization's press department.

No matter where you start, proficiency with Adobe Creative Suite, which Sharp says has cornered the market for graphic design professionals, is essential. “As a budding graphic designer, the best ones that I find are the ones that are doing stuff outside of work,” he adds. "Maybe you design a brochure for a friend or business cards for your Dad—putting together a portfolio like this will help you get to the next step."

When you launch into your graphic designer career, you need to stay aware of organizations’ evolving needs when it comes to everything from logo design to formulating an excellent website front-end. “This is when your skillset has to evolve, because designing for the digital world is a bit more technical, so you want to make sure your user experience (UX) skills are at the top of their game,” Sharp says. “You have to understand the user interface, which starts by looking at the customer journey.”

For anyone who wants a successful graphic designer career, that means designing for the end user. “Design remains at the forefront, but it has to be made with UX in mind,” Sharp adds. Great soft skills can help you convey your ideas and secure crucial buy-in from a variety of stakeholders who ultimately need to sign off on your work.

From Graphic Designer to Management

Not all graphic designers are enthused by the idea of leading a team or running their own design firm. You don’t necessarily have to go that route, especially if you can establish a reputation as a strong specialist.

For those who want to leap onto the management track, additional soft skills such as work ethic will prove especially crucial. “Your drive to drive yourself will determine how far you go up that ladder,” Sharp says. “That's not just about skill sets, it's about the right attitude and the drive, then the skills.”

Mika Owens, who leads the design team at Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv, says she views herself as more of a coordinator, ensuring everyone is on task and fielding technical questions.

“The unique thing about my position is that the leadership still designs, which is unusual for any studio,” she says. “I do think it's harder when you start to take on the responsibilities of managing the work because it's a balance.”

She admits there are some days where she spends a lot of time managing and not a lot of time creating. “You have to be okay with that if that's what you want,” Owens says. “But there is always a creative aspect in everything you do.”

Taking the Freelance Route

For those looking to set up their own shop, a similar drive to excellence and personal accountability is indispensable. “There has to be confidence in yourself, and your work ethic has to be second to none,” Sharp says. “When you open your business, it's all you—you're taking a risk. The ability to adapt to a market and overcome something is a is one of the most incredible skills that you can have.”

From Sharp's perspective, adaptability and the willingness to learn are key to professional advancement and personal growth within the industry, especially for freelancers who may have to shift between clients on a pretty frequent basis: “Your skills are only relevant while they're relevant, and we know that in tech and design, there's always something new that's coming out. This is where that passion for what you do is key, because if there's a passion, there's a willingness to learn.”

Owens says several of her peers have wanted to own their own studios so they can be a creative director. That’s not a direction she wants to go in, however.

“That's a lot of management work—you have to go after new business and there's other aspects to it if you're running your own business,” she explains. “A lot of my peers went straight out of school with the ambition to run their own business. For a lot of designers, that is the objective because they can be the one who's in control of the design.”

Like Sharp, she agrees it's important to keep abreast of new trends in design and technology and to keep learning—part of which comes from handling a diverse portfolio of clients. “We learn a lot through them and from them about best practices,” she says. “A lot of the learning takes place in just working with them and seeing how they operate.”


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