When I grow up, I want to be a Graphic Designer

1st Semester Project, "Pineapple Skull"
I now have a 13 year old who is taking graphic design as an elective in middle school and a 6 year old who is going to art club after school. On the off chance that either of them decides to pursue a career in art/design/graphics I became curious about what it takes to be successful in that field. Like most careers, I believe our kids do not need a prodigy's level of talent to make it happen. Hard work, ambition, focus, can get them almost anywhere they want to go.

There are lots of art related jobs in the world (see the list at the end of this article). The requirements to succeed differ, for example you  may not necessarily need a college degree to be a good photographer. But for simplicity's sake, I am going to focus just on the graphic design job for this article.

Graphic designers are found in companies as regular employees but also often as independent contractors or freelance. Under the assumption that freelancers and independents will need a decent portfolio of paid work to get hired, we can narrow our discussion to what it takes for our kids to get that important, first, full time job.

Working backward from the job description for an entry level graphic designer, we see that the typical company is looking for a college degree in the arts, preferably graphic design, practical knowledge of the tools of the trade, particularly (at the time of this writing) Illustrator, Photoshop, pencils..., some sort of related work experience (ideally), and a portfolio.

Since this is an entry level job, the step prior to applying is graduating college.  There are many schools that offer design programs but let's look at what it takes to get into #1, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). The assumption being that if our kids can get in there then they can get in to any of the other colleges lower on the list. According the the RISD website, applicants should have a high school diploma, preferably including classes in design. They will need an SAT composite score of 1750 or more and a B+ GPA or higher. A portfolio of 15 to 20 of their best (recent) work must be submitted along with handwritten drawings on white paper (specified on the site), plus an essay or two, and letters of recommendation. Oh, and $60 for the application.

Now to high school.  The GPA, SAT scores, and essays are something we all know to focus on for any college career so looking at the design specific points we see three areas to encourage our kids. 1) They should be signing up for whichever electives in the arts are available at the school.  If there are none, it would probably help to find something extracurricular or even start their own "Art Club" at school.  Chances are there is a teacher or parent who will support it and other kids with a similar interest.  2) CREATE and often, The portfolio is not going to be something our kids cram into the summer before college applications begin.  Have them constantly working on something and save it all.  Given the very specific requirement to submit drawings on white paper, a bit of extra work with a pencil is probably a good idea.  3) Personal connections with anyone related to design will be helpful when looking for a job but these people are also good choices for that letter of recommendation. Help your kids to meet up with people who are connected with the industry.  Advertising is the big one but product development managers in house at Procter and Gamble would also be interesting to know. If your son or daughter can get a little work (paid or volunteer) through these connections doing something related then even better.

Which brings us to elementary and middle school. Preparing our kids to enter high school at the artistic level where they can produce a portfolio impressive enough to get them into RISD is the goal. Give them encouragement so that they continue and enjoy the challenging work of trying to create something even though they might not have all the skills yet. Most of the software companies that make products for designers also offer education discounts so look into downloading Illustrator on your computer and letting your son or daughter play around with it. There are even games out there that encourage many of the same skills and 3D thinking that are essential for a designer, Minecraft comes to mind as a popular one. And, as with high school, keep drawing.  The requirements for pencil and paper submissions may change in the future but for now it is worth building that skill if a career in the arts is a possibility.

Here are a few additional qualities that employers look for in their graphic designers. Do they look familiar? They should, these are attributes every employer wants in a new employee:

  • Communication
  • Problem Solving 
  • Time Management

* Other art related jobs and average salaries:
Graphic Designer - $40,073
Video Game Designer - $55,186
Animator - $60,000
Fashion Designer - $58,278
Illustrator - $66,000
Product Designer - $82,000
Museum Curator - $53,160
Photographer - $19,000
Web Designer - $66,000
Artist - $0 to $1,000,000+