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Graphic Designers Review

Graphic designers have one of the highest paid jobs you can get with just an associate's degree, and as such we have included it in our review of vocational careers.

Our Verdict

Choose to be a graphic designer only if you have a passion for art and design.


  • A very rewarding vocational career that allows artists to do what they love.


  • Difficult industry to get into because of high competition.

Graphic designers have one of the highest paid jobs you can get with just an associate's degree, and as such we have included it in our review of vocational careers.

Individuals in this profession create images for media purposes such as marketing, advertising and entertainment in print and electronic media using a variety of techniques including illustration, photography and animation.

With a healthy starting salary averaging at just below $30,000 annually, this vocational career is a healthy educational investment. However, the field can be rocky in terms of stability, as many work on a freelance or contractual basis. The highest paid individuals in this profession earn an average of $76,450 annually.

The highest paid individuals with this vocational career live in San Francisco and San Jose, California, and the highest concentration of them live in New York City. Presently there are over 200,000 individuals in this profession nationwide with 124,800 jobs expected to open in the next 10 years. The top three industries that employ graphic designers are specialized design services; newspapers, periodicals, books and directory publishers; and advertising, public relations and related services.

Although bachelor's degrees are generally the route that graphic designers take, associate's degrees are available in specific disciplines within the graphic design industry, such as visual communications, computer drafting and design, and web graphic design. Each of these fields offered at the associate's level will get your foot in the door, and often no further formal education is needed, since many of the skills in this field are learned on the job or are self-taught through online tutorials. However, since this is an industry with ever changing technologies, continuing education, whether in a formal classroom or in the form of a tutorial, will enhance your marketability. Subscribe to publications or RSS feeds having to do with graphic design or technology to keep abreast of new technologies as they surface.

One of the primary tools used in this profession is the Adobe Creative Suite including Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator, both very powerful applications that can be used on many different levels, from working with basic layers to creating 3D images. The more you can learn about Photoshop, the more marketable you are in this profession.

Although some in this vocational career specialize in printed materials, most of the growth that this industry will experience in the next 10 years will involve online media, whether it is building websites, building illustrations to be posted on websites or filling online ad space. Advancement in this field is all about marketing yourself, which begins with the creation of an original and creative portfolio of work samples which will give potential employers a feel for your style. But in addition to having a creative, unique style, your work must match a business need. Sometimes that is just about being in the right place at the right time, but it is also about a lot of hard work.

The industry employs very few on a full-time, salaried basis. Most work from project to project. Many in this industry are visual artists with formal education in art theory either at the high school or college level. Where selling original artwork can be a difficult road, artists as graphic designers can make a healthy living. As a result, work is very competitive in this field.

It is important to network with potential employers in this industry. Join associations, even if they are expensive, so that you can hear about and apply for exclusive projects that become available. Once you have done one or two projects that employers are satisfied with, you will begin to find projects more easily. Often, individuals who find full-time, salaried positions in this field began as freelancers.

Work Environment
You are most likely to work from home in this profession using your own equipment, including a computer with a large enough processor to accommodate the Adobe Creative Suite and enough memory to hold high resolution graphics. It is also helpful to have a powerful digital camera, as well as a high-resolution, color printer in which to print samples for employers.

Most in this profession use Macintosh computers because of the brand's accommodation of graphics-related applications. Many also use the Wacom Intuos' digital pen, which is an advanced mouse tool which improves accuracy and more easily places commonly used functions in Photoshop at an individual's fingertips.

Because equipment for this profession is expensive, individuals must have some seed money in the form of savings or inheritance money in order to get started.

Physical Requirements
You must be able to see detail at close range to be a graphic designer, as you will work extensively with content on a computer screen. You will likely sit at a computer for long periods of time, which can be a strain on your back and shoulders. In addition, colorblindness, a rare genetic condition, is a hindrance in this industry, where you work so much with swatches and identifying and matching colors.

Basic Office Skills Required
In this vocational career, you must have adequate spelling, grammar and punctuation skills, since many graphics you will create include words and sentences. You also must have adequate typing skills, since you will work so much with computers. In addition, you will need to have a familiarity with Microsoft Office Suite, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook. Since you will likely do your own marketing, strong verbal communication skills in person as well as on the phone are an important part of this career. So much of the work in this industry is project-based, so being able to manage multiple tasks and to make deadlines is also crucial to success.

Few jobs allow you to do what you love. Although being a graphic designer can be a rocky path at the beginning, if you have a passion for drawing and creating images, you will find this field to be very rewarding. Because only an associate's degree is needed for this profession, it meets our criteria for a vocational career.

A Graphic Designer's Typical Work Day

Robert is just starting out as a freelance graphic designer after completing his vocational career coursework at his local community college. His school gave him a lot of leads concerning potential employers, and so far he has completed art for two web-based ads for a small marketing firm. That same firm is presently lining up some additional projects for him that he expects to learn more about soon.

Each project that Robert works on involves communicating with clients to learn as much as possible about what they are looking for. He wants to know whether his work will be part of a larger project, and if so, he needs to know the color pallet and font choices they have selected. He also needs to know as much about the message of an ad or marketing campaign as he can, including the demographics that the firm seeks to reach and where ads will be placed. All of these factors help Robert make decisions about how he will complete a project.

Since he is early on in his career and since he is an independent contractor, Robert usually spends about a third of his time marketing his services, which involves checking industry-specific websites for graphic designer projects he can apply for. Sometimes he makes cold calls to printers or ad agencies in the city. He frequently updates his online portfolio as well to keep it fresh.

Robert also takes time on weekends to pursue his art. Usually he does random sketch work. He also enjoys taking photos of people in a bustling outdoor mall. Robert has always seen the world through the eyes of an artist, and he needs free time each week to pursue his hobbies. In high school Robert loved art class. Sketching portraits is his favorite art form, although multi-media is a close second. He loves getting his knuckles smudged with black ink, and he likes working with different textures of parchment and art paper.

He is equipped with a Macintosh computer that has a large monitor, and he uses an expensive Nikon digital camera. He also has a digital scanner and a high-resolution printer that he uses for his work. In his schooling, Robert learned the basics of running a business, such as invoicing clients and keeping track of business expenses, but his father has recommended that he find an accountant or financial planner to help him with his taxes. After he makes a name for himself in his vocational career, he hopes to get hired on at a marketing firm, ad agency or printing business, but being an independent contractor may also be fun, too.

The work he has done so far for the public relations firm has involved taking a portrait photo and altering it digitally in Photoshop to make it look like a sketch. He uses one or two colors to communicate attitudes and emotions. The firm likes one of the other techniques he has used in his portfolio that involves the sophisticated use of only a handful of strategically placed lines. This he will put into action for his next project.

As a graphic designer, Robert is thrilled to be able to do what he loves in his vocational career.