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The essential guide to career development for designers

With the increased digitization of our society and culture, companies worldwide realize the importance of being a design-led company to stay competitive. 94% of first impressions are design-related and 73% of companies invest in design for brand differentiation. As a result, the number of graphic design jobs that need filling continues to rise. However, creatives who are willing to take on the challenge must be able to take conceptual ideas and create visual representations that appeal to specific target audiences, both in print and electronic media.

Graphic design is visual storytelling that engages, informs, and inspires. Collaborative and iterative, designers are skilled in the design process from conception to the final deliverable.

So what is out there for people with an eye for design? Below is a breakdown of different graphic design careers and some of the advantages and disadvantages of each role. Knowing that graphic designers are an essential part of communication for many brands alike, keep reading for clarity on how you can make your mark in the industry.

Types of designers

Graphic designers work in three ways: in-house, agency, and freelance. Whether you prefer the structure and security of the corporate world, the creativity, and collaboration of agency life, or the freedom and flexibility of freelancing, there is a place for you in the graphic design world.

In-house graphic designer

Average Pay: $51,873

Working in-house refers to being employed with an established organization or brand. As an in-house graphic designer, you may be a part of a small team of designers or act like a band of one. Usually, in-house designers are generalists, possessing a broad range of general design skills that meet various creative needs.


  • A steady paycheck
  • One brand to develop at a time


  • More rules
  • More communication
  • Less creative freedom and variety

Agency graphic designer

Average Pay: $55,375

Creative agencies are hired by outside clients to produce creative work. As a result, agency designers work on several projects at once. Agency designers specialize in different areas and work on a team, usually under a creative director or art director. Accounts at agencies tend to be short-term or limited to a specific campaign.


  • More varied work
  • Mentors
  • Focus on graphic design


  • Less job security
  • Rigorous hours
  • Potential for no job progression

Freelance graphic designer

Average Pay: $64,017

A good portion of designers explore freelance/self-employed life within 5 to 10 years of having their first job. Freelance graphic designers make up around 90% of the industry and they are responsible for every aspect of their business, from marketing and client relations to bookkeeping and invoicing. As such, freelance designers must possess more than just design skills. They have to have business acumen too.


  • More creative freedom
  • A tailored schedule
  • Project flexibility


  • Searching for work
  • Unreliable pay and benefits
  • Keeping up with administrative tasks

Once you decide on the type of environment you want to be a part of, your skill level will determine how you progress in salary and responsibilities. Graphic designers can be classified based on their skill level ranging from junior designers, senior designers, art directors, and creative directors.

Junior designers

Average Pay: $41K

Ready to learn the ropes? A junior designer job is an entry-level position, generally aimed at creatives with between zero and three years of commercial design experience.

At this level, designers work closely under the supervision of more senior designers, who will provide mentoring as you learn the ropes in design conception and implementation.

Although, there will be moments of brainstorming ideas and mocking up designs. This job will focus mainly on busywork that other designers may not like to do, including layouts, drawing logos, and corrections to typefaces or colors.

Senior designers

Average Pay: $80363

Now that you understand the fundamentals, you will likely progress into a senior designer.

Senior designers see and understand the bigger picture, often working beyond the creative brief to solve complex problems. Because of their honed skill to acquire knowledge, they have the experience necessary to challenge and, where appropriate, to work beyond the brief to produce a design with greater functionality or improved user flow.

For instance, senior designers are much more likely to negotiate a deadline based on realistic timescales and with an eye as to how this task will fit into the project.

Art directors

Average Pay: $100,890

After graduating from a senior design role, you will notice less time behind the computer and more time managing people in your new role as an art director.

An art director's primary concern is to inspire and guide their team. A key aspect of the art director's role is that of management: for example, critiquing people's work, working to deadlines and budgets, and (on occasion) disciplining designers.

Leading a team of artists, art directors will determine which artistic elements to use; articulate the vision to their team; review and approve copy, designs, or photography; and determine how to best represent the creative director’s concept

Creative directors

Average Pay: $126,082

And, once you have mastered each role as a junior designer, senior designer, and art director, you move on to becoming a Creative Director.  

Creative Directors, heads of the team in which art directors and graphic designers work, are experts at visualizing the entire product. These professionals develop and oversee projects at the earliest stages; from casting vision to pilot design.

While their focus is typically on the bigger picture of the direction, they are also keen on the details and developing their team.

Key requirements for designers

A strong portfolio of work

A portfolio is crucial to showing your skills to an employer or client. Maintain a well-organized portfolio of a diverse range of work that puts your best foot forward. It’s also a good idea to tailor your portfolio according to a company.

A formal certification

Although a degree is not always required, some formal certification, such as a higher national diploma is required. A degree or diploma can be obtained in graphic design or other art-related subjects such as Illustration, Fine Art, Visual Art, Photography, 3D Design, Communication Design, or Film and Television. (Provide a couple of examples of the most popular institutions that provide such certification.)

Relevant work experience

Gaining and documenting relevant work experience is essential to progress in this field, as new employers/clients will nearly always ask for references to ensure that they’re hiring a competent professional.

Key skills for succeeding in a designer role

Graphic design is a career where the skills pay the bills. Like any job, there are some essential skills that all budding designers have to master to achieve their dream. Keep reading for a breakdown of the skills that an employer would be looking to help get you hired and succeed in your design career.

Fundamental technical skills

In addition to a great understanding of typography and design principles, designers need to be well-versed with Adobe’s creative software: Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. In all seriousness, you won’t find a graphic designer who isn’t both a master of InDesign and simultaneously constantly learning new tips and tricks in new, emerging technologies and programs. The key here is to have the fundamentals down, but never stop learning about new trends.


This may seem like a no-brainer, but a creative mindset is an important graphic design skill. It enables a designer to excel in pretty much every stage of the design process: from ideation to developing, designing, and refining concepts.


Most designers will spend a big part of their workday communicating with people who aren’t trained in design. Thus, communication is paramount to becoming a successful designer, including talking to clients, managers, team members, or customers. From your first day as a junior graphic designer to an executive leader, effective communication is key to success, especially when explaining new concepts and ideas.

Strategy and problem solving

Exercising your strategic brain will help you understand your client’s business and their longer-term goals. It allows you to make connections between audiences and actions, look beyond the brief, and have a clear idea about your undertaking. This should look a little something like the brief, market research, brainstorming, concept development, feedback, and so on.


Designers often enjoy a reasonable degree of flexibility with their schedules. However, this also means that they’re responsible for staying on top of deadlines and delivering quality work in good time. A designer needs to frequently assess the bigger picture, plan ahead, and make room for delays and revisions — all while remaining collaborative.

Time to level up your design skills!

So, you’re creative and you wear it proudly. With this article, you’re well on your way to being a graphic designer and landing a job in the industry. The truth is (and we hope that this article has shown you) that there is a wide array of design careers for you to thrive and grow.

Graphic designers bring ideas to life with visual impact. With the right mix of skills and experience, any designer can achieve their career milestones. Want to upskill yourself? Visit the Playbook website for more insights on careers in design.