How to break into graphic design?
September 5, 2006 8:08 PM   Subscribe

I am new to graphic design and am looking to break in with my current skills before taking a lot of classes, so that I can see if this is something I really want to do with my life.

I have more than seven years of website design experience so I have some design sensibilities and I am familiar with Dreamweaver, Photoshop, etc. However, I do not have much print experience outside of getting Tshirts made up for my college clubs or printing my employer's logo on mugs or keychains. Obviously print design is a big part of graphic design and I am very interested in it (I think I will ultimately prefer it to web design) but I'm not sure what there is to know about the print industry, and how quickly I could learn it.

I'm not interested in staying in my current job much longer and I'd like my next job to be related to graphic design so that I can start getting some experience in the field. I'd rather not start an intensive series of classes just yet - I'd like to give graphic design a shot, first, to see if it is something I really want to invest my time and energy into learning.

So given my current experience level, what do you recommend? Where can I learn more, and what will I have to master in order to 1) at least get a job where I can start doing some graphic design, and 2) do a GOOD job at it?

Thanks in advance for your help!
posted by inatizzy to Work & Money (18 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
You're going to want to know Illustrator, Quark &/or InDesign. Start reading up now. Tutorials are all over the place, but look in particular to how to work with spot colors, how to generate plate separations. Understand how a press works and what you need to give it.

If you're really up for learning the good stuff buy Professional seems to be out of print, so use the author's pdf articles in the meantime.

For a job, find a small design shop, ask to do some freelance or see if they have any positions open. You'll probably have better luck with the tiny tiny places.
posted by Brainy at 8:36 PM on September 5, 2006

You need to learn all about offset printing. This is how I began working at a service bureau years ago - I sat down and read a series of pamphlets, collected into a binder, published by Linotype-Hell. I wish I could find a link or something online, but I can't.

You should research topics such as:
  • process color vs. spot color
  • overprinting
  • trapping
  • the effect of paper stock on color
  • CLUTs
  • halftoning and registration
  • proofing color on an imperfect Fiery or somesuch
  • quality differences of digital press vs. real offset
  • postscript vs. truetype fonts (hint: the answer is postscript)
  • raster image file formats
Very incomplete list of places to begin:,

Learning all this will not make you a good designer, but it will help you to avoid rookie mistakes, and perhaps give you an edge at an interview.
posted by dammitjim at 8:51 PM on September 5, 2006

Instead of CLUT (color lookup table), I meant color space. Sorta the same, but different.
posted by dammitjim at 8:52 PM on September 5, 2006

I had a part time job not so long ago nominally in web design but which turned out to be more weighted towards print design - which led me to the decision that I definitely prefer web over print.

I did learn a lot about the process of printing, the different types of colour pallettes, paper quality/types and more importantly the way to schedule a print project.

The two programs I used most were Illustrator and InDesign. If you are used to the concept of style sheets InDesign shouldn't be too tricky for you. Illustrator is a whole 'nother ball game however and I would recommend you aim to play around with this a lot more.

As for getting experience - pretty much the same as any design field, start to build a portfolio through some volunteer work first. Also try to buddy up with some graphic designers and pick their brains over a coffee or two.
posted by gomichild at 8:53 PM on September 5, 2006

Also, you could do worse than to get a job at a service bureau. You get to see lots of designers' work, and laugh at all the ways that they screw themselves and their print jobs (omitting fonts, RGB images instead of CMYK, low-res JPGs instead of hi-res TIFFs, etc... good times), and you get to play with all the latest software for free. I wouldn't call it a career, but it's a good springboard,
posted by dammitjim at 9:16 PM on September 5, 2006


Learn to trap, know what trapping is an beware of limitations imposed by trapping, but please god please don't send a printer trapped files unless you know exactly how they want their files trapped. I work in a shop where most of our printers want their plates with a 1/16" trap - some can hold much less, others want an 1/8" (yes, 1/8").
posted by nathan_teske at 10:24 PM on September 5, 2006

focus on tools and you will never be more than a tool yourself.

guys, you are recommending a lot of production know-how to the poor chap. that way, he will end up in some print production studio turning comps into mechanicals. that's work a monkey could while juggling a drunken and naked bob hope attempting to play golf.

if you wish to become a proper graphic designer, you will need to think about your sensibility. software is like any other tool - every other year, there's a new brush, hammer or whatnot else. they are just the means. you need to know what to do with them in order to achieve anything meaningful. this alone is reason enough for me to recommend a solid liberal arts and science education.

my alma mater, art center college of design in pasadena, california offered a bunch of night classes for people just like you when I went there and I am sure they still do. go to a place like that for the summer and take one or two while working somewhere. you will have a great time in LA and the couple hundred bucks you do spend on these classes will give you a better idea of what you want and what you need.

you want to know what being a graphic designer is like? read karlssonwilker inc.'s tellmewhy: The First 24 Months of a New York Design Company or stefan sagmeister's great book Sagmeister: Made You Look. do you know who tibor kalman or the great paul rand were? (the latter was a close friend of louis danziger, himself a legend and still teaching one or two classes every now and then at art center.)

if you want my recommendation: go to a really good design college and talk to a really good professor who actually is a designer and has been doing this for a very long time. or call up one of the great graphic designers out there. most (david carson being the notable exception) are nice folks who will reserve a minute for you if you ask nicely.

back to art center: at this specific institution, I'd recommend a chat with the whacked out god of bling roland young (and here is a video of him... don't expect to "get it" until you have met him. the guy is brilliant but insane.)

more info? dive into the aiga los angeles or aiga US websites.

you're beginning to do the right thing. you're asking questions. but the thing is you don't know what question to ask because there are things you haven't heard about yet (example: you are focussing on software). that is what a real design education is supposed to change, it's supposed to expose you to things you never thought were relevant or even there...

art director / accd 2004
posted by krautland at 10:30 PM on September 5, 2006 [4 favorites]

the video link doesn't work. what a shame. roland truly is god.
posted by krautland at 12:34 AM on September 6, 2006

krautland is right if you're interested in a career in graphic design. Learning about the production process is critical as well, and will make you an even more well rounded designer, but don't make the mistake of focusing only on the outcome or in just becoming an expert in the tools. That's just a part of the picture.

Graphic design, in large part, is about communication. It's an art form, but there are rules to it that you need to learn (if for no other reason than to know when you should break them.) It's also a commercial, service-oriented profession. You will have a client, they will have something they need to say, and an audience they need to say it to.

Your job is providing a bridge via communication design to get the best version of that message to the audience, while being original, creative, and staying within budget and timeline.

In addition to the production courses mentioned above, I would place an equal (or perhaps higher) higher importance on classes relating to typography, color theory, layout, grid systems, general design, advertising, marketing, and creative thinking. Graphic design also invariably involves text (copy) so it wouldn't hurt to brush up on your writing and editing skills, as good graphic design is very often the successful marriage between image and type.

Also, be prepared as best you can for critique. You have probably already experienced this in your web design career, but print design has been around a lot longer, and there are a lot of ways your print work can be reviewed -- not just by how it looks, but by what it says, how it feels, and whether it does its job or not. Don't take critiquing personally, it's always an opportunity to learn and grow.

One of the biggest challenges in graphic design is that because it is technically an art, it is subjective. That means everyone, especially the clients who are paying you, will have an opinion on your work--whether it is informed or not. Some clients will even want to make changes just to assert themselves and feel like they have contributed to the design process. Very often you will find yourself having to compromise your design to meet their requests. It will take many years of experience before you can find elegant methods of incorporating client feedback without compromising the integrity of your design, but that's all part of the fun.

Here's a secret art director/graphic designer tip: when you place your client's logo in your layout, make it smaller than even you would want. Your client, by some unwritten law, will invariably ask for the logo to be bigger. When they do, you can oblige them and still have the logo the size you wanted it to be in the first place ;)
posted by wubbie at 12:49 AM on September 6, 2006

I've been on both sides of the Graphic Design employment equation.

How to break In:
The approach that has worked for many friends, my wife and me is to start offering your work at a reasonable price (never free, free turns clients into monsters) for small local projects. CD covers for local bands, flyers for a non-profit, posters for your church, whatever.

Small projects mean you will not be commited for a very long time, and will have more creative freedom. And they also mean limited runs.

It also means, and this may be controversial, but has worked for many people I know, that you can use some crutches, and no one will complain. If you are having trouble with layout for a particular piece, base it in a similar one you like. The same for color schemes, typography, etc... As long as you are not flat out plagiarizing, you will learn a lot about very old and commond design problems and ways to solve them. Same as starting a 3 column layout based on someone elses CSS.

Limited runs usually mean you will deal with a smaller print shop, where the people will have time to talk to you, and explain how to do some of your pre-press. Never underestimate what you can learn from a printer, and never miss the opportunity to ask them questions.

Limited runs also mean that screwing up will be cheaper. It sucks to find out that 6 point brown type on green background does not read as well in the 500, 2 ink flyers you just picked up from the printer as it did on your monitor. But it sucks less than finding it out on the cover of the 10,000 glossy magazines just mailed in from your offshore print shop. (Yeah, I've been there).

Keep samples of your work, and start building a portfolio.

The single most important thing to get a job in graphic design is a good portfolio.

If you really enjoy these projetcs, then going to school might be good.

Late caveat: I drifted away from design, and am now a full time coder. It is my very personal opinion that graphic design is all about communication, its effectiveness should be measured, it should take into account all we know about how the mind works, and subjectivity should have little or no place in it.
posted by Dataphage at 4:33 AM on September 6, 2006

The two things I've learned that are the basics for breaking into graphic design are education in design principles and education in technology.

You really need to start with the basics. A good short college course could cover that. I spent four years in college, but I know plenty of good designers that went to art school or even community school. Here you will learn principles of design, color and art. I wouldn't be afraid to pick up a drawing class, either. You would be shocked at how often you will have to draw (with vector programs) in a print production job.

Secondly, familiarize yourself with the technology. This will help you transition your art knowledge into the workspace of Illustrator, CorelDraw or what-have-you. Get time in front of both Macs and PCs if you can. Learn how to get the mouse to create what you have envisioned.

The mistake that I see a lot of young designers make is that their egos get in the way of being objective about their own work. They think they are all that and a bag of chips and will not accept critique on their work. This, however, is one of the most important parts of becoming a good designer. I got torn down so many times in colllege by my art teachers that it forced me to pull myself up to the level they wanted me to be at. I'm all the better for it. When I went into college, I thought I had a grasp on everything. I was about as far from it as I could have been.

The best thing I've done for my career was to get a job at a small print shop. Seriously. At a small business, you will be expected to take on a number of roles, all of which will give you different fields of experience and will make your portfolio massively diverse. In my position I do production art for textiles, design catalogs and create the websites. I also am given personal projects from sales. This is surely a trial by fire, but it gives you an inside look at a lot of different facets of graphic design. In addition to this, you get to see a lot of logos come through and you will quickly learn what logos are good and which logos aren't.

Also, the other graphic designers at said small company will be able to train you and educate you in anything you need help with. I had no print production experience before I came here, but now I know that it is what I want to do with my career. I learned all about seperations, using spot color, four-color process, trapping and more while on the job. Learning things hands-on is much more useful than learning from a textbook, IMHO.

Finally I think that it might be important to take all of this "process," "communication" and "sensibility" stuff with a grain of salt. Yes, it IS important and should be developed while you are learning the basics. In the end, however, the customer will either know exactly what they want (even if it is a bad design) or they will just want it to "look pretty."

The real talent comes in taking the dual priorities of sensibility and pleasing the customer and then combining them and creating a great product.
posted by bristolcat at 5:16 AM on September 6, 2006

What krautland, wubbie, Dataphage, and bristolcat said. Look around you. Start a file of all the ads, design samples, stuff you can print, copy, tear out, and otherwise keep around for inspiration as well as evaluation. See how it changes over time. Practice. Compose the page with a pencil. Yeah, draw! Keep a notebook of doodles.

Read. If you haven't picked up Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style yet I would recommend that, along with Grid Systems in Graphic Design by Josef Müler-Brockmann. There's a boat load of design books out there, and I'm still buying them myself, but these two get recommended all the time (and for good reason). Toolin' around the YouWorkForThem site reminds me that Armin Hoffman's Graphic Design Manual is good times, too.

Remember to have fun.
posted by safetyfork at 8:15 AM on September 6, 2006

Apologies to Müller-Brockmann, I clipped an "l" of his with my character entity for the umlaut.
posted by safetyfork at 8:17 AM on September 6, 2006

Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style is my bible. has been forever. that being said, he establishes a lot of rules and throws them overboard the next page. it's a good read but you don't have to be intimidated by it.

one more thing: I don't think inspiration should ever come from other graphic design pieces. having a sketchbook is a great idea but seek inspiration elsewhere - go to an art show, to the beach, get drunk if you want to. if what you look at is what another designer has produces, you will invariably end up looking like that. it's what happened when brody and then carson were all the rage. suddenly you couldn't read the copy in all the kids' books anymore.
posted by krautland at 8:33 AM on September 6, 2006

To clarify:
My suggestion for a file to start should includes other pieces of inspiration i.e. "stuff" as anything you can stuff in it as well as ads/design samples* that you find of interest.

*A point that I respectfully disagree with krautland on, even while acknowledging that it may encourage the copycat syndrome, I think you shouldn't deny what you see if you find it of interest or inspirational just because it is of the same category of work that you do. The point to move beyond your discipline is well taken, something I felt but did not make explicit.
posted by safetyfork at 11:09 AM on September 6, 2006

safetyfork: I think looking for inspiration in the same media as you are going to work in requires distance. to me, that's advanced and not 'right' for his level. I would hate to see him ending up thinking something had to look one way or another because that's how it's generally done. that's why we end up with copperplate and tightly kerned helvetica bold all the time.

or my favorite: serpentine.
posted by krautland at 12:37 PM on September 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

That's a fair point, krautland, it's not how I was taught and perhaps that shows. :)
posted by safetyfork at 2:14 PM on September 6, 2006

Hi everyone,

Just want to say thanks for all your replies - these are very insightful. And, for the record, I'm a 'she'. :)

I'm still unsure if this is something I want to do - what are the pros and cons of the field? One major hesitation I have is that although I liked arts-and-crafts as a kid and in general I like design/color/etc., I'm afraid I don't have any art experience and that my own inhibitions keep me from being really creative. I'm too worried about what other people think... anyone else encounter this?

thanks :)
posted by inatizzy at 7:41 PM on September 11, 2006

« Older Viewing the BCC field on emails one sends with OS...   |   Prewitt Organizing Fund? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.