Have you decided to take the plunge and begin a career as a graphic designer? If you have buckets of creativity, lots of enthusiasm, and a dash of tech know-how, this can be an incredibly rewarding career path.
Graphic design is a broad field, ranging from more traditional practices like print design to the fast-moving world of digital design. As a graphic designer you can choose to become a jack-of-all-trades, dipping into numerous design fields to suit individual projects. Alternatively you might focus your energy on developing one or two graphic design specialties – unique skills that allows you to tackle very particular projects with confidence and experience.
In this article we introduce you to some of the design areas you could explore, as well as the pros and cons of opting to specialize or not in the graphic design industry.
Pro: There’s so much to specialize in!
You certainly won’t be short of options if you’re looking to specialize within graphic design. Graphic design used to be a relatively specialist field in itself, with designers in the 20th Century focussing mostly on traditional aspects of print design or branching out into either poster design or advertising. Since the arrival of the digital age, designers have discovered a whole new dimension of graphic and visual design, which initially involved adapting print design to online media, but has since developed into other specialized areas of design like UI design and e-publishing.
Today, the spectrum of graphic design ranges all the way from traditional print to tech-forward digital design. Here are some of the main areas of expertise you can explore:
In Print Design…
- Print Specialities: Printing used to be the domain of the printer, but now, rather than simply handing their work over to the print lab, some designers are getting more involved with print techniques directly. You’ll find a growing number of specialist print studios that combine digital design techniques with more traditional print methods, like letterpress and screen printing. At the digital end of the spectrum you’ll also find some designers who focus on designing for 3D printing, and even set up 3D print studios for producing work in-house.
- Book and Publishing Design: This is one of the oldest and most traditional areas of graphic design, and in many ways this sector hasn’t changed much since the launch of digital publishing software, originally QuarkXPress, followed by the new industry-standard Adobe InDesign. Within publishing design there are a range of specialties, and you’ll still find designers today who only produce covers or typeset, but not both. The main design specialties within this area are book cover design, typesetting (laying out the text for interior pages) and magazine design. Magazine design is probably the most fast-paced of the three, with many magazine designers being pushed to adapt to e-publishing. Book design is also facing up to the effects of a digital revolution too, however, with some designers opting to specialize in EPUB design, which involves adapting the print book to eBook format or creating an online-friendly eBook from scratch.
- Marketing and Advertising Design: If you have a flare for spotting consumer trends and thinking creatively, working as a designer for an advertising agency or in-house within a marketing department can be a fast-paced and extremely interesting job. This might involve more traditional tasks like drafting posters, billboards, or print ads. But you may also need to dip a toe into the breakneck-speed world of online commercial advertising, which could range from designing animated social media banners to creating engaging sales emails.
- Brand and Logo Design: Brand identity designers may work as freelancers, within a design studio or as part of an advertizing agency. Their job is to design a new brand or redesign an existing one for a client. This might be as simple as creating a logo (and indeed some designers specialize only in creating logos) or involve creating branded media, like custom stationery, style guides or branded websites.
- Packaging Design: Packaging design has strong links to brand design, but the software used to create the designs tends to be more specialist and suited to creating 3D templates. A packaging designer might be expected to create labels for a beer bottle one day, or a box for cosmetics the next, so the work can be varied and challenging even within this specialty.
- Typography and Typeface Design: If you’ve been bitten by the typography bug, you’ll be pleased to hear that you can build a career around a love of fonts (though make sure you always refer to ‘typeface’ in front of your typographer friends). A typographer specializes in the design, choice, and arrangement of type. This can include typesetters, mentioned earlier, who specialize in setting type for books, but it can also include type specialists who design for posters, magazines, websites or act as typography consultants for design agencies and foundries. It’s also possible to specialize in typeface design, an especially creative field of typography which requires a high level of technical skill and precision. If you’re a stickler for perfection, becoming a typographer might be the perfect career choice for you.
- Illustration: Being an illustrator bridges the gap between print and digital design, as often the illustrations will be created fully or in part as digital images (either in vector software, like Illustrator, or raster software, like Photoshop). The illustrator then might sell the illustrations as prints, acting as an artist would, or produce them through a client commission (e.g. by illustrating a magazine or website, for example).
In Digital Design…
- Web Design: Web designers are ten a penny these days and that’s no surprise given that businesses are putting more and more of their marketing and consumer-engagement efforts into their digital presence. Web design has become a broad and ever-changing sector of design. While the separate role of developers used to take on the designer’s specs and work their coding magic, it’s now becoming more commonplace for web designers to both design and create websites, combining the expertise of a visual designer and a UI designer. WYSIWYG editors like WordPress and Dreamweaver allow web designers to work with real-life designs and translate these to code simultaneously.
- App Design: If you’re tech-savvy and looking for something a little different to web design, app design is a relatively new specialty that’s evolved in leaps and bounds over the last few years alone. Designing apps combines skills borrowed from a number of different fields, like UX (user experience) design, web development, UI design, and graphic design. You’ll need to be creative, tech-competent and resilient — app design is a highly competitive field — but this is dynamic and exciting specialty within graphic design.
- Animation: Animation is very much a design field within its own right, but I mention it here as there are aspects of animation which interact with other digital design fields. If you are interested in web design, app design or digital illustration it seems likely you will come across animation at some point. Animators either create completely unique motion graphics or transform existing static graphics into animated video. To get a sense of whether you might be interested in animation, take a look at these 12 Basic Principles of Animation.
As you can see you’re completely spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing a graphic design specialty. But before you dive into just one area, take the time to review a few more upsides and downsides of specializing…
Con: Some design specialties are riskier than others
Some areas of graphic design are faring better than others, and if you’re looking to start from scratch in the graphic design industry you should spend a bit of time researching the current state and projected health of the specialty you’re interested in. While digital design is enjoying consistent growth, certain areas of print design are experiencing either short-term or long-term decline. The Onion’s satirical ‘obituary’ for print from a couple of years ago sums up the uncertainty being experienced within the print design industry right now. But keep in mind this might be a short-term dip for the publishing industry and not necessarily indicative of long-term decline, depending on who you read.
While print books and newspapers might be seeing a slump in sales, this also means new opportunities are emerging in digital publishing. The tangible quality of print is also leading to resurgence in other print design specialties, like letterpress printing.
So if you’re looking to specialize make sure to read up on your sector, and don’t be shocked to discover that work is scarce if you enter a specialty that’s experiencing decline.
Pro: By specializing, you can command more professional respect
A huge bonus of specialization is the professional respect you will quickly gain amongst your clients and designer peers. By becoming a specialist you are stating your commitment to achieving a very high standard of work in one area of design. In professional design circles this is very highly respected, and, with a few years under your belt, you will find that other designers may seek out your advice or propose collaborations. This can lead to more interesting and creative work, and through partnerships with other designers you will have contact with other areas of design which may help to improve upon and develop your own specialty.
For discerning clients, specialists are also highly prized, and you may find that the landscape of your client base shifts to higher-paying individuals who are looking for work that surpasses the quality that can be expected from a non-specialist. Again, this can lead to projects which are more challenging, creative and evolve your specialist skills further.
Declaring yourself a specialist also gives clients confidence that you know what you’re doing. This means that it’s more likely the client will be happier to hand over creative control of the project to you. So if you want to have more control over your creative work, becoming a specialist is the best chance you have of becoming both Art Director and Designer.
As long as you are bringing in a healthy amount of new business, you will probably also find that your income increases as you become more specialized. It makes good business sense that you would pay more for a job better done, and this is why most clients will be happy to pay you more as a specialist than if you were only partly experienced in that particular field.
All of these factors — more respect within your profession, more creative control and potentially more money — makes specializing an enticing prospect for designers looking for a career that’s more rewarding in the long-term.
Con: By specializing, you exclude a potential customer base
If you don’t specialize, you can accept jobs across a wide range of graphic design areas. One day you might design a book cover, the next you’re creating an app. Balancing all of these jobs and clients can feel a bit overwhelming at times, but the upside is that you’re building a very broad client base. However, once you decide to specialize, that little black book of valuable clients is now diminished.
All specialists have to start somewhere, but the growth of your client list is likely to be slower than that of a non-specialist. By choosing to focus on only one sector, you instantly exclude a potentially huge client base. This can be incredibly scary at first, and many specialists find the first few years of building their client base to be a painfully slow process.
On the flip side, general designers have to compete constantly with others who are doing the same, as well as more experienced specialists across a variety of fields. This means that their client lists tend to be less stable than those of specialists, who are considered to be at the top of their game. Becoming a specialist is certainly no get-rich-quick scheme, but it will create a more stable client base for you in the long-term.
Pro: You can develop a richer career trajectory
There are many benefits to specializing, but chief among them is becoming highly skilled at one task. Rather than spreading your time thinly across a range of jobs, you can focus on becoming better and better within your chosen field. After even just a couple of years of specializing, you’ll find that you can tackle specific jobs with complete confidence, compared to the non-specialist who may find taking on such a wide variety of jobs to be extremely stressful.
This is not only professionally rewarding, but will also have a lasting impact on your job satisfaction and happiness within your working life. While some non-specialists feel they are constantly trying to keep their head above water and taking on some jobs simply to pay the bills, as a specialist designer your skills will evolve further over time, creating a richer long-term career trajectory. It may even lead to other rewarding projects in the future, like teaching, writing, or art direction.
Con: You won’t develop a flexible career trajectory
When the financial crisis happened in 2007, the last job anybody wanted was in banking. This gives you a sense of what can happen when an industry goes into decline and professionals once considered at the top of their field can suddenly find themselves without work. By committing yourself to certain design specialties you are taking a risk; you are effectively betting that your chosen design area will thrive. In periods of recession, it’s often non-specialists who are more resilient to peaks and troughs within their industry. Because specialists have opted to go all in, they have a less flexible skill-set, which makes them more vulnerable.
The most resilient specialists often make slow progression into different expertise throughout their career. I know of one designer who started out in printing, then moved into book design before developing a two-strand career which blended print publishing and e-publishing design. This demonstrates how you can still retain the high-value skills of a specialist while retaining adaptability over the course of a long career.
As a specialist you can’t afford to be blind to sea change within your industry. Subscribing to industry journals, joining industry-specific social media groups and attending conferences are all great ways to help you keep up-to-date. Design Week is a great daily source of updates about the UK and European design industry, as is Wired’s design section for US readers.
Pro: By specializing, you work towards becoming an expert
If you put the time into becoming a specialist, eventually, given that you have talent and perseverance, you will become an expert in your field. Expertise is prized highly within the design industry, and also within society as a whole. Some expert designers even become well-known and respected outside of their immediate profession — think of graphic designer Saul Bass, or magazine designer Paul Carson. By diving into design specialties, you too have the opportunity to develop expertise in your field.
This expertise can also extend into writing, teaching, or public speaking. Indeed, one of the most rewarding aspects of specialization is a greater outside interest in your work. If you enjoy teaching or speaking to others then specializing is a great opportunity to do just that later in your career.
Con: You always have to be at the top of your game
Specialization can be an extremely rewarding career choice for certain people – it’s not for everyone. Choosing instead to broaden your options and be a general designer can reap its own rewards and provide you with a varied, exciting career. To become a specialist requires complete dedication to your chosen field, and you can only really specialize in something you genuinely love. If you’re still uncertain about which aspect of graphic design you’d like to dedicate your time to, it’s probably wise to remain a non-specialist until you’re ready to take the plunge.
Specialists always have to be at the top of their game, and this can be demoralizing if you’re not fully committed to your specialism. Specialists encounter challenges that are also unique to their status, such as competition with other highly-skilled specialists and professional criticism. If their sector experiences tough times they will have to ride it out, or, in the worst case scenario, sit on the ship as it sinks.
The verdict: To specialize or not to specialize?
Gambling is an apt analogy for choosing to specialize or not, as risk certainly has a part to play in the success of your chosen career. However, there are certain measures you can take to minimize the potential hazards of specialization, and these really do create a safety net for you when you’re standing on shaky ground.
Building a loyal client base is one fallback, as is seeking out networking opportunities and collaborations with other design professionals. Putting time into deepening your existing skills, or learning related ones, by either taking courses or simply keeping up with tutorials online, will help to make your specialty more valuable and flexible. Finally, good old-fashioned hard work, particularly at the start of your specialized career, can help you to build stable work for the long-term.
Whether you’ve chosen to specialize in a particular design field, opted to stick with a flexible non-specialist career, or are beginning on a completely new career in graphic design we’d love to hear your experiences of setting up your business. Share your thoughts in the comments below!