How To Become a Thriving Designer: The Ultimate Guide

March 2020 · 8 min read

In this guide, we will cover everything you will need to know about becoming a designer, including what a designer does, the skills and education he or she will need, salaries, and where to find work. We will also share tips from experienced designers on how to succeed in the field.

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Take Advantage Of The Growing Field Of Design

The broad field of design offers plenty of opportunities for the creatively-minded, with many high-growth career options to choose from. Jobs at the intersection of design and technology have a particularly promising future—fields like web design and development are growing much faster than the average for all occupations. In graphic design, nearly 300,000 design jobs were available in the US as of 2018; beyond this, design also offers the opportunity to work freelance or remotely with clients anywhere in the world. With the most successful senior designers earning up to six figures, training as a designer can be a lucrative way to use your creative skills.

There is a lot to think about when starting on a new career path, whether you are a student just beginning your journey or an established professional looking for a career change. You will need to first decide if design is right for you, and then, should you choose to pursue it, make a plan for how to achieve your goal.

How To Become A Designer

This section explains what the different types of designers are, and describes how to launch a career in design.


Types of Designers

There are many different types of designers, from product designers to interior designers and architects. However, in this section we will focus specifically on three technology-oriented design fields: web design, graphic design, and UX/UI design.

Web Designer

The Interaction Design Foundation defines a web designer as someone who “works on the appearance, layout, and, in some cases, content of a website.” In essence, a web designer is responsible for how a website looks. He or she makes choices about aesthetic factors like colors and typefaces, and may be responsible for making the website accessible, responsive, and mobile-friendly.

Graphic Designer

A graphic designer creates either online or print designs for a variety of purposes. These may be as diverse as magazine layouts, flyers, posters, packaging, infographics, or logos. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, graphic designers “create visual concepts, using computer software or by hand, to communicate ideas that inspire, inform, and captivate consumers.”

UX/UI Designer

While UX and UI are often grouped together as a single specialty, they actually can be considered two separate (but closely related) fields. UX designers are responsible for making sure that a product or website is user-friendly. They may do this through applying industry-specific UX heuristics or conducting user research. UI designers, on the other hand, focus specifically on the user interface—the visual appearance of a digital product.

Professional Skills Needed

So, what skills do you need to be a designer?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics offers some insights on the type of competencies designers need to succeed. These include:

  • Creativity: Any good designer must be creative and able to generate new ideas independently.

  • Artistic skills: Designers should have a good eye and be able to produce aesthetically-pleasing work based on composition best practices.

  • Time-management skills: Designers need to be able to manage and meet deadlines.

  • Communication skills: Diplomacy and professionalism are needed to communicate with clients, employers, and team members.

  • Computer/technology skills: Today’s designer will probably be creating work using digital programs like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. A UX designer may also use UX-specific programs like InVision or Balsamiq.

Design Education and Experience

When planning your career in design, you may be wondering what type of education and experience you need to get started in the field.

Formal Education

There are many types of university degrees that can help you get a head start on becoming a designer. These might have titles like “Digital Media Design”, “Graphic Design” or “Web Technologies”, among others. If you have decided that you want to work in a design-related field in the future, doing a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in a creative subject can build your skills and show future employers that you are knowledgeable about design.

Bootcamps and Informal Learning

If you already have a university degree or are looking for an alternative educational option, a design “bootcamp” may be a good choice for you. These informal courses generally cost less than a university degree, and take less time to complete. They emphasize practical, hands-on knowledge over theoretical principles.

Bootcamps may be completed online or offline, and usually take anywhere from a few weeks to several months to finish. Some popular design bootcamps include IronHack, DesignLab, and Springboard.

There are also other types of educational resources available online, including free courses (such as those on Khan Academy), pay-per-course websites (like Udemy), academic learning opportunities (like Coursera courses), and subscription-based websites (like Treehouse). Podcasts and books can be useful sources of design learning as well.

Building Experience

Job-seekers, career-changers, and recent graduates often lament the “experience paradox”: seemingly, you need experience to get a job, but you need a job to get experience. How can new designers avoid this paradox when starting their careers?

The truth is that in a competitive market, education and enthusiasm alone is rarely enough to land a job, especially in design. Prospective employers will want to see evidence of candidates’ design skills and previous projects before making them an offer. The good news is, there are several easy ways to build up your competencies:

1. Internships

While completing an unpaid internship may not be possible or desirable for everyone, keep in mind that some internships (usually at larger companies) are paid. Others are short and can be done part-time, around other commitments. For fresh designers looking to gain experience, the internship option is worth looking into.

2. Build a Portfolio

While as a new designer you may not have clients or an employer yet, there is nothing to stop you from creating your own portfolio. Building a website and populating it with sample projects is a great way to show off your design skills.

3. Volunteer

Finally, new designers can also consider volunteering. Students can seek out design opportunities with school clubs, while established job-seekers could consider reaching out to a charity to offer pro-bono design work.

Job Outlook For Designers

Before you jump head-first into education and experience, it is a good idea to verify that design is what you truly want to pursue. Are designers in demand, and if so, what is their job outlook?

For the sake of simplicity, we will focus on the three types of designers previously discussed: web designers, graphic designers, and UX/UI designers. The information below is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Web Designers

The Bureau groups web designers under the category of “Web Developers”. The outlook for this job is good, with a projected growth rate of 13 percent (much faster than average) for the period between 2018 and 2028.

Graphic Designers

The outlook for graphic designers is very different than for web designers. For the same period, the projected growth rate is just three percent, which is slower than average. The Bureau states that “graphic designers are expected to face strong competition for available positions.”

UX/UI Designers

As UX and UI design are emerging fields, the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not have any statistics about these jobs. However, “UX designer” made Glassdoor’s list of 50 Best Jobs in America for 2020, indicating that this job currently has a positive outlook and salary potential.

Designer Salary

Here, we will present the average salaries for the three previously mentioned positions, using salary data for the US gathered from PayScale.com.

Here are the average salaries for popular design occupations:

  • Web designer: $49,752
  • Graphic designer: $44,785
  • UX Designer: $73,857

Keep in mind that these numbers are only averages, and that in reality salaries can depend on many factors. These include location, experience level, and benefits, among other things. Freelance designers set their own prices, and may offer a wide range of rates.

Creating A Portfolio

As a designer, putting together a strong portfolio is one of the most important contributions you can make to your career. More so than your résumé/CV, your portfolio shows what you can do and gives prospective employers and clients an idea of your personal style.

While in the past many designers used physical portfolios, these days most choose to display their work on a personal website (or on a design website, such as Behance). Your portfolio website can be simple, but it is important that it looks professional; remember that this is an opportunity to showcase your design skills. You can present your portfolio to potential employers, or use it as a marketing tool for finding new clients.

Bobby Reed, CEO of Capitol Tech Solutions in California, offers a few tips for new designers creating a portfolio: “You need to set up a solid website that highlights a breadth of your work. Don’t just tell them about your design skills, show them. Organize the site well and make it easy for visitors to get a good idea of what kind of eye you have.

“At the beginning of your career you might not have a lot of designs to put on your portfolio site. It’s okay to fill in your portfolio with unpaid or sample projects, just make sure your site has more than one or two designs [on it].”

Acing A Design Job Interview

Once you’ve set up your portfolio and polished your résumé, hopefully you will be invited to an interview. For a design interview, the same rules apply as with any other kind of interview—be timely, have a neat appearance, do your research, and practice answering some common interview questions beforehand. However, is there anything specific for designers to keep in mind?

According to Bobby Reed, “if you have been invited to interview for a design job and they have already looked at your portfolio, then you need to show them that you are not only talented, but also the kind of person that will be easy to work with. Be relaxed and funny, assure them that you are comfortable working with others and that you don’t [get upset] when given edits to your designs.” Strong people skills can be as important for a designer as good creative skills—along with your portfolio, your prospective employer will be checking to make sure you can take feedback and collaborate well with other team members.

Becoming A Freelance Designer

Some designers would prefer to become freelancers rather than work in a full-time position. While freelancing can be more unstable than full-time employment, it also offers many rewards (like the potential to earn more money and work remotely).

When it comes to being a freelance designer, some of the same rules apply as being a full-time employee. Your portfolio and experience are equally as important when it comes to getting your first clients. However, freelancers have some additional things to think about—these include managing their own taxes, setting up a reliable system to find clients, and learning how to negotiate and set rates.

Successful freelance designers are disciplined and treat freelancing as a business. Nithya Suri, Design Manager at Belong.co, emphasizes this point: “Don’t undersell your skill and talent. ‘I am a designer, so I don’t know how to do business’ is the wrong attitude. You are a businessperson first, a salesperson second, and a designer third.” Taking your freelance design career seriously will allow you to negotiate higher rates and develop better relationships with your clients.

Where To Find Work

Below are some of the most common places for freelance and job-seeking designers to find work:

Design Agencies

A design agency is a company that provides design as a service to other businesses. “Digital agencies” that provide a variety of services (like web development, SEO, or content writing) may also hire designers. Agencies often hire full-time employees, and may work with freelancers as well.

Pros:

  • Good place to start a design career
  • Team members are usually experts in design (or digital services)
  • Junior designers can learn from senior staff
  • Frequently have work to outsource

Cons:

  • Generally pay less than working directly with companies
  • Managing multiple clients can be a challenge (for in-house employees)

Freelance Marketplaces

Freelance marketplaces are where many freelancers go to find work online. Generally, these are websites that offer frequent work opportunities. If you find a project on a freelance marketplace, you can accept it in exchange for a percentage of the project fee. Some examples of freelance marketplaces include Toptal, UpWork, People Per Hour, and Freelancer.

Pros:

  • Usually have plenty of work
  • Freelancers can easily find jobs without the hassle of more time-consuming marketing methods
  • Some marketplaces offer payment protection and internal project management tools for time tracking

Cons:

  • Lots of competition
  • Can be difficult for freelancers to stand out
  • “Race to the bottom” on prices
  • Freelancers from developed economies may be disadvantaged, as they must compete with those from other geographies who can afford to charge less
  • Time-consuming to sort through a wide variety of projects to find suitable work
  • “Premium” freelance marketplaces like Toptal have stricter vetting for using the platform, which mitigates some of these problems

Job Boards

Finally, job boards are websites job-seekers can visit to find opportunities (often full-time) in their field. Examples of design-oriented job boards include Working Not Working and Behance Jobs.

Pros:

  • Offer access to a wide variety of positions
  • Design-specific boards can help job-seekers narrow down their search
  • Most job boards list full-time as well as freelance positions

Cons:

  • Lots of competition: companies may receive hundreds or even thousands of applications
  • Difficult to make your application stand out
  • Some companies use automated systems for reviewing résumés, meaning job seekers must make sure to include the right keywords in their application

How to Be a Successful Designer

In this section, we will present some tips on how to be successful in your design career once you are established.

Communication

Sammy Jones, web designer at UK-based English Blinds, offers some helpful tips about communicating as a design freelancer:

“Never say you can do something you can’t do or aren’t sure about. It is much better to say no than to say yes and let someone down; the ‘no’ might circle back with another project in future, but the job you mess up absolutely won’t.”

“If you’re not sure if you can tackle something or have concerns but are willing to try, be honest, tell the client, and let them decide; they may wish to proceed anyway if you can agree on terms to do so.”

The same principle can be applied to in-house designers; if you do not know how to do something, it is always a good idea to ask for help. Another important communication tip for both freelance and in-house designers is to know how to take feedback. Although it may be difficult to hear criticism of your work, the ability to balance your own expertise and preferences with your client or employer’s needs is a key skill for any freelance creative to have.

Design Best Practices

Designers in all specialties can benefit by learning and applying best practices. In UX design, best practices come in the form of UX heuristics that serve as guidelines for all professionals in the field ( Jakob Nielsen’s list is one of the most used). For other types of designers, there are general composition best practices that are typically learned in design school (such as the Rule of Thirds and the use of white space).

Best practices provide a strong foundation for quality design work, but it is important to go above and beyond them to develop your own style. Having a unique style makes you memorable, and shows your experience and confidence as a designer.

The Creative Process

As a designer, you are responsible for developing your own creative process: from coming up with an idea to creating your initial design, making edits if needed, and finally delivering a finished product. If you are a UX designer, you have a host of other considerations to keep in mind as well, including data and user research.

Nithya Suri, Design Manager at Belong.co, reminds designers to think about client needs and the business case for their design as part of their process. “Don’t just design the elements, think about how to validate processes. Ask and learn about the bigger picture for your product, and reason out if you don’t think it’s the right direction.”

By asking the right questions before starting the design process, designers have a better chance of hitting the mark the first time and satisfying the client.

Managing Expectations and Completing Revisions

Of course, there will be times when you will need to make revisions to your work—this is a normal and expected part of the design process.

As previously mentioned, asking the right questions at the beginning of the project is very important for managing client expectations. Make sure that you have a good idea of what your client wants and how the design will be used. If you have any concerns or doubts, it is a good idea to express those at the beginning, rather than later on.

For freelance designers, it may make sense to set a limit on how many revisions are included in your initial quote. However, if you are planning to set up a fee structure like this, it is important to make sure the client understands this before beginning the project, so that he or she is not taken by surprise later on.

Conclusion: Start A Flexible Career With Design

There are many things to take into account when planning to become a designer. From education and experience to succeed in the job, building a career in design is challenging, but also rewarding. Once you have established yourself as a designer, you can look forward to a flexible career that gives you the chance to express your creative side, and has the potential to be quite lucrative as well.