Graphic Designer

Becoming a Graphic Designer

If you’re looking to get into advertising and graphic design the advice you get can vary, depending on that person’s experience and the type of job they have within it. So my advice is reflective of my experience only, intended to give a different perspective based on the path that I trod. My path will have been very different to someone else’s, and I know it, but I reckon I’ve got some sage tips to share. 

Are you sure you want to get into advertising? Really sure?

I’ve had acquaintances get stars in their eyes when I told them I’m a graphic designer (or used to be!), apparently it sounds so totally amazing and wonderful that they feel their own career is lacklustre in comparison. Well, it is amazing and wonderful, but those epithets can be applied to anyone’s career, it all comes down to one thing; perspective. One person may loathe what they do because they’re just not the right fit for it, or they’re in the right career but in the wrong workplace. Advertising, like any job, can be soul destroying and harsh, there are long hours, hard deadlines, difficult people and stressful situations. And it can be rewarding, fun, exciting, fulfilling and life-building with great people and great clients. Once again, all descriptions for any workplace. Right? I will openly say that I have worked in places I have loathed, and in places I have loved.

So! You have to know what kind of person you are, what environments you will thrive in and where your strengths are. Sure, that only happens with time and maturity, but keep it in mind.

If right here you want to know what I mean by ‘advertising’, I mean it as a blanket term. To be in advertising can mean a few things, specifically advertising agencies, creative agencies, ad agencies – businesses dedicated to creating, planning and handling advertising and selling of a product, for a client. Graphic designers and other various creatives work in these workplaces, but some graphic designers can also be freelance and work for themselves. I’ve done a little bit of the latter, but I worked for many years in agencies and I reckon that’s a great place to get some experience before branching out on your own.

People wonder how to get started in graphic design and there are a few ways to go about it, but no matter what you do you must be able to LEARN. You must learn how to, well, learn, right from the start because really, you never stop learning. When you think you know everything, you don’t. Sorry. I know that may come as a shock, but let’s face it. You don’t know everything. I know that, because that’s one thing I know for sure. I know that because I don’t know everything either, and never will. I never stop learning because there is so much to learn and so much that I need to learn, whether I like it or not.

Where to start? Here are some ideas.



I totally recommend studying a course specifically tailored to your particular interest. That way you can get a complete foundation without leaving any critical holes in your skills. You can either study at university or private colleges, short courses on a week night, TAFE courses; there are many options. Be careful though, before you spend tens of thousands of those precious bucks on a course, there may be better and cheaper options out there.

I work with a talented designer who did an intensive-months-long course, but another who studied her craft at university over years. The place you learn will not necessarily turn you into a designer extraordinaire, that part is up to you and the talent and skills you have. The talent that only you can foster, the skills only you can add to your creative arsenal, if you want it badly enough.

What do I really mean by that? Formal learning can only take you so far. Definitely do I recommend it. Definitely! But to my horror I’ve worked with uni graduates who barely know how to use Photoshop or get incredibly frightened when I mention Illustrator. Apparently, they were told to watch tutorials online to get their technical skills. The thought still blows me away, I am shaking my head in frustration, because that’s an incredible amount of discipline to expect from students who are already busy with their assignments or working part-time to pay for their studies. I just don’t understand why it’s not included in the curriculum. I know this isn’t the case everywhere, don’t worry! Just MAKE SURE your technical skills are what they should be. You won’t last long without those skills. (Can you tell yet that that is a pet peeve of mine?)


This is when a company or agency will allow a student or recent graduate to come in for say, one day a week over a couple of months (or longer), to work with the team. I’ve even worked at an agency that allowed a middle-aged woman come in for a week to see what advertising was like because she wanted to switch careers. Such a great idea!

But! Two pieces of advice, one positive, one negative. Kinda.

The negative: you may be stretched beyond your comfort zone. Once, an intern, a student who was there as part of their work-placement, was reduced to tears by the Creative Director. Why? Because he didn’t like her work. I took her aside, got the full story and realised that he had just been trying to stretch her, creatively. To think well beyond that of a student and more like a full-time art director. Too high of an expectation? No. I don’t know if the criticism was delivered harshly and I won’t excuse it if it was (I mean, the poor girl was in tears!), but the logic is sound. You may get pushed beyond what you are used to. Look on this not so much as a negative, just a challenge to expect, or a challenge for yourself.

Now the positive! You might get access to the brightest and amazing minds in the industry. I mean, think about it! That intern I just mentioned got to work with art directors, creative directors, copywriters! The things you can learn from a real-life workplace are golden nuggets of wisdom. If you do get to have some work experience somewhere, make sure you ask millions of questions because you will probably get to work with all sorts of people that a full-time staff member might not get to (believe me). So suss out the friendlier and more open of the creatives and get them to show off for you. As someone who has helped interns in the past, there is nothing more ego boosting than an intern who thinks the sun shines out of your keyboard. Ask questions!! Creatives usually love the attention. Be careful though, they’ll be all nice until you get annoying and prevent them from getting their work done, that’s when they’ll turn and you’ll scurry away in fright. So be wise in your approach.

Contact workplaces/agencies and find out what the procedure is for applying. Some places can be strict about these things if they are looking for someone out-of-the-box, so if there’s somewhere you have in mind, blow them away with an interesting proposal. For example, I worked with an intern that created their own crossword puzzle for their application that the client had to fill out. I’m laughing as I write that, because that is something I don’t think I would EVER do, so don’t be daunted! It may just be as simple as a phone call, an email, and a simple portfolio.


If you want to show what you can do you have to build a portfolio, which can be a display folder full of printouts of your designs, or a nice website with a slideshow of them. Whatever way you approach it, the great irony of building a portfolio is that if you haven’t worked anywhere yet, or the work you have done isn’t exactly the best to show you off, you may have nothing to start with. I’ve perused a number of portfolios from job applicants and straight away I can guess what work was a uni assignment and what was actual work. Seriously! I totally did, and was right. Nothing wrong with that, but it does place you exactly where you are. So design stuff for fictional clients. Creating portfolio pieces from scratch is an excellent way to practice and show off your creative skills, and pad out your portfolio.

Keep in mind many real clients have guidelines to their branding so instead of always giving free reign to your imagination, put some restrictions on what you design. For example, if you want to create a poster for a conservative corporate client, you might not want to go the street/urban graffiti look. If you can think about the fictional client more than what you want to do, that will put you in a better position to be able to meet real briefs that you might get.

Remember, you need to show flexibility in understanding your client’s needs, not just in what you like. But don’t think I want you to curb your creativity – go for it! That’s how you develop your skills and mature your designer’s eye. Keep up with and practice using current design trends to show that you can work in a variety of styles. You will find there are some designs that come naturally to you and you just have to get it out of your system and onto the computer screen. People may want to hire you based on the styles you seem to be good at designing, so if you find you get really good at something and it gets you more and more work, fantastic, you’ve hit your niche.

All I will suggest is that you think about your portfolio strategically; be smart about it, be objective, be creative, but learn some discipline. If you don’t know where to start then design for the kind of job you might like, the kinds of clients that you might want to work on. Check out what kinds of clients your chosen agency have and maybe put in a few designs that suit them. But no blatant suck up pieces, please! The interviewer will see straight through that.

That’s all good, but where the h*ck could I work?

There are large advertising agencies and small boutique agencies. Boutique just means, well, they’re small, and maybe specialise in a certain kind of work or have a limited number of clients. Then there’s publishing houses, in-house design teams for companies that aren’t in advertising, and printers. Designers are everywhere. Send out your resume to places that are hiring, or places that aren’t, you never know. If you really want to work there and really get their attention, when they have an opening you may get a call. Don’t be afraid to start small to get some experience, keeping your eye out for other opportunities.

Never reject a job just because you are hanging out for the high profile, larger than life dream agency, because trust me, those agencies aren’t always as amazing as you might think they are, even though they will look good on your resume. You may be surprised by preferring smaller agencies once you work at one, or not even in an agency at all but in a corporate environment. Get work where you can, build up your skills, you never know what may come of it!

But I just want to do my own thing!

Ah, yes. This old chestnut. I’ve met a few people over the years who love designing things, but they loathe clients. They don’t want to work in an environment where they have restrictions, limitations, clients dictating their ridiculousness, brand identities that suck, all that. They just want to be able to create beautiful things, their way, without any limits on their creative juices. Well, my lovely, that’s great, but…without clients, who are you going to be designing for? Also, those so-called ‘restrictions’ have instilled invaluable discipline to my own work over the years. It’s like being given a set of specific tools to use and rather than thinking that they are designed to limit you, they can be used to expand your problem-solving abilities which is a critical component of creativity. Having carte blanche is, I think, often more debilitating than having a brief to work around – you’re allowed to do anything but that means so many options. And if you don’t have a huge amount of knowledge and experience, you could get frozen in creative-block.

Overall, I would suggest getting some experience, get some credibility in the industry, find your niche, hone your craft, and THEN you’ll be ready to perhaps start your OWN business where you can offer your own particular flavour to clients who want what you’ve got.

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