Careers within Graphic Design: A Guide for Visual Arts Graduates


Careers within Graphic Design:

A Guide for Visual Arts Graduates

It’s not uncommon for a student in their graduating year of college to be scared to enter the job market. Actually it’s expected and Visual Communication majors are no exception to the rule. You’ve taken classes for years and now it’s time to put those hours studying visual hierarchy, page layout, composition and hopefully the Adobe Creative Suite in to practice and if you’re lucky someone is willing to pay you to do it. That kind of pressure is enough to overwhelm anybody. At this point, ideally, you have some idea of where your skill set fits in a business setting. So, where do you apply for a job? Whether you’re great with motion graphics, illustration, branding, user interface or more generalized creative direction, there is a place for your talents. The list of possible careers for digital artists today is pretty expansive. There are three areas in the market where a new graduate could have a pretty good shot at landing a job and possibly, if you’re good enough, a high paying career. The three areas you might want to consider working in are: Advertising Agencies, working as an In-House designer and if you’re bold, trying to make it as a Freelance Designer. Considering these as options for future careers raise a lot of questions, namely, how much school is actually required, what’s the work environment like and last but certainly not least, what does the job pay? Considering this now could help you hone the skills that make you more financially marketable, meaning more dollar signs in your future, as opposed to wasting your time developing the ones that don’t. Of course you’re going to have to weigh that against what type of work you would like to do more of which may or may not be as financially viable.


Working for an Ad Agency right out of college has the most immediate potential at making the big bucks but you’re going to have to earn it. If your portfolio is impressive, out of college I know it’s rare but it happens, you have a shot at getting hired at an Advertising Agency. College required 2 year degree at least, maybe more but it’s more about your work so look at what others are doing and judge for yourself where you measure up. Okay, so what is an Advertising Agency and what would your job be? An ad agency is a company that creates, handles and provides advertising as well as marketing and branding for their clients. This can include, online marketing, television and radio commercials, designing environmental graphics such as billboards and so on. You’ll lay out type and images for their ads on television, redesign their website or create an animation that sells their message. Your job is to be creative but in the most marketable way possible. An ad agencies client list generally will include businesses, corporations, non- profit organizations even government agencies so pretty much everyone with a lot of money will be the bulk of your clientele. A lot of designers love the diversity of work that is possible in an ad agency but if you don’t want to go all corporate with your art this may not be for you. Everyone knows that there is a lot of money to be had in advertising so what kind of money are we talking about? For a graphic designer working at an ad agency, as reported by, the salary is anywhere between 48K to 52K here in the United States. Based on my research those numbers are closer to the average a designer would make, which isn’t bad especially out of college. Other numbers collected from,,, and  show salaries ranging from 10K to well over 100k so you’ll want to remember to weigh in that earning potential as well when you’re deciding. It’s fast paced. It’s aggressive. It’s an ad agency. If this sounds appealing this might be your gig.


Working as an In-House designer right out of college is another option that seems relatively easy to get in to especially if you have a portfolio that is not as good as it could be. Least amount of college required, 2 year degree…maybe not even that. This would be a great job to help you cut your teeth while you build that portfolio in to a work of art. Alright, what is an In-House designer, and what do they do? An In-House designer would work for a specific company handling all the designing that company requires. Whether it’s designing brochures, packaging, merchandise, letter-head, stationary, possibly their website graphics, maybe advertising or just maintain the look of the brand, you would be responsible for all of it. These positions are potentially slower paced since you work for one company. Because of this, in general, the pay is less than an ad agency. Depending on whom you work for the designs you create most likely won’t be cutting edge nor will it be technology driven. This is because you’re serving one market audience. An example of this would be working as an In-House designer for a scrap booking magazine. You get to layout the magazine, develop the graphics for their website and design their merchandise which would be fun but you would have to design it to appeal to their market. A scrap booking market most likely is not interested in fashion, design or technology trends and that means neither are your designs. The silver lining is you are free to make more mistakes. In Rani Molla’s article, The Silver Lining to Being an In-House Designer, she says “… they’ll likely still have their job the next day, while freelancers and agencies run the risk of not being hired again.” This could be ideal if you want something more reliable such as a regular paycheck. On the other hand studies show that in house designers are paid less and less because of companies downsizing and try to squeeze as much work as they can out of the designers they have. as of 2014 has the average salaries for an In-House designer listed from 40k to 52k.  My research and personal experience shows that the average is closer to 28k to 40k. It’s not the worst thing you could hope for but in my opinion unless you’re working as an in house designer for a large innovative company with a lot of people you like, jobs like these are better used as stepping stones.


Probably the easiest work to find as a fresh graphic design graduate is freelance design work. If you’re ambitious you’ve probably already done some in college but if not that’s okay because you will. College required: none, but your abilities will dictate your pay scale so you should probably have at least a 2 year degree in order to be competitive. Getting started, what is freelance graphic design and more importantly what does it pay? Freelance design work is contract based design work for an individual or a business. As a freelancer you get the benefits of making your own schedule because you are your own boss but you are also responsible for generating clients and marketing yourself. You’re also responsible for the finances and legal matters as well so hopefully you can manage your books and are willing to pursue legal action against people who don’t pay up. As a freelance designer you can literally work on whatever you think you are capable of. You want to brand a small company, go ahead. You want to illustrate a book cover, go right ahead but make sure you watch your time estimates because you might handle 100% of the steps that are required to produce a finished product whereas with an agency those steps would be broken up. Freelance contracts can be pretty diverse you may be handling just one aspect of a project while someone else or another firm does the rest. Speaking financially:  it’s pretty much feast or famine.  One day you have more work than you have time and the next all you have is time. This isn’t always an issue if you can budget accordingly for those moments.,, and a dozen other websites don’t really have a solid number on an average freelance designer pay scale. You can make 500 bucks to over 100 thousand in a year.  The reason why is because it is so widespread in who offers what and the success rate is all over the board as well. One thing to be sure with freelance design work is there is a lot of money to be had if you’re hungry enough to go after it.


Looking for work as a graphic designer is moderately difficult so if you’re ambitious and willing to work on anything there’s a place for just about everybody. If your portfolio game is up to par than you could make a lot of money right out of the gates at an Ad agency but you might not like the high stress situations. If your portfolio is on its way to becoming  a masterpiece or you just want something more relaxing and stable maybe an In-House  design job is more up your alley. On the other hand as an In-House designer you might be expected to perform the roles of two or three people for a lot less pay. It’d be more reliable than an ad agency in terms of pay but not necessarily more relaxed in terms of your blown out nerves from the piles of work you’re expected to do. Freelance design work can and most likely will be done by all designers throughout their career offering both positive and negative gains. Being able to work from  wherever you like, setting your own schedule, working as little or as much as you want; these are all good things but trying to make it work as your primary source of income straight out of college is probably too much of a challenge to be successful… at least in the beginning. The opportunities are there and so is the money just as long as you’re willing to work for it or if you’re not willing to really work that hard for it or if you’re just starting out the opportunities are there and if you’re not that good it looks like the money is there too.

I guess what I am trying to say is “Relax” you’ve got options.

Bryan Holbrook—March 22—2014


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