At a time when nearly every industry in the US is expected to realize an eight percent growth in employment this decade, the graphic design industry is falling far behind at just three percent. This means that the graphic design industry is only expected to add 7,300 new full-time jobs between 2020 and 2030. With over 1 million people in the US working in the field of graphic design today, the void between job openings and available talent is vast.
With fears of recession looming, landing a job in this highly desired field won't be easy, but this doesn't mean one should abandon all hope. Whether you're a recent grad or someone looking to change careers, focusing on your career will give you an edge over the competition. Take the time to understand your options upfront, and you'll find that it's far easier to find and land that dream job.
What Training and Education Do You Need?
If you've just graduated with a degree in design, you might be thinking that you've already solved this query, but the reality is far less black and white. Plenty of designers enjoying a successful career in the industry entered the field without obtaining a specialized degree first. There are also plenty of design graduates working in anything but the graphic arts. While a degree matters to some employers, in the world of graphic design, talent and skills matter far more.
In fact, for most employers, your portfolio will matter more than your degree.
Your portfolio provides you with an opportunity to show your breadth of talent while also shedding light on your process, methodology, and skill sets. While looking out for a number of key traits any great portfolio should have, employers will assess it to understand how versatile you might be, the design tools you're most comfortable using, and will hopefully get a glimpse into your personality in the process.
Of course, I'm not suggesting that a degree is unnecessary. It can be a differentiator for an employer looking for those qualifications. If you've participated in a highly competitive design program, for example, you will likely find yourself in higher demand than those who haven't. Many degree programs today mimic the high-stress reality of tight deadlines, unruly clients, and vague briefs to help designers navigate the pitfalls of the industry. Graduates of programs like this tend to be more prepared for the day-to-day challenges this career tends to bring--a fact that instills confidence in many employers.
But, experience and relevance don't require a degree
If you have worked with clients in the past and are already an expert in (at least) the Adobe Creative Suite, you may choose to skip the degree entirely. An employer will be less concerned about your past education when they factor in your experience, but experience and relevance do not always go hand in hand.
The design industry is highly dependent on the technology that fuels it. As new and exciting tools arise (see my article on Figma, for example), those who master them will remain relevant and in demand. This means that you must always find ways to continue your education and training if you want to land--and keep--that dream job.
Should You Specialize in a Field of Design or Remain Broad?
Graphic design encompasses a wide array of specialized fields like animation, product design, content design, and so much more. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed by all the options and seek to master one skill set rather than risk being spread too thin trying to do it all. On the other hand, it may feel scary to limit one's focus in a shrinking job market. If you're just entering the industry, how you approach this conflict may greatly impact your job outlook.
Anyone starting in design should test the waters of every specialization before settling in on a few key focus areas. Even if you don't want to design websites, for example, gaining experience in UI/UX design will help you better support your colleagues. You may be asked to jump in and finish a project when a coworker is sick, or you may be expected to take on mobile design edits because a stakeholder wants a fresh set of eyes. By gaining experience in every field of graphic design, you can flex with demand and bring more value to your employer.
Of course, whether you specialize or remain broad depends just as much on your skill set as it does on your preferred employer. Employers building in-house design teams have grown to expect candidates who can act as a "jack of all trades" to take on any project their marketing teams can dream up. Small agencies tend to be similar, often needing an agile team to roll with the punches of startup life. But more seasoned agencies tend to prioritize expertise in a single field rather than versatility.
Decide where you'd like to work first--an in-house design team for a large brand, as a freelancer, or within an agency--and this will help you determine how broad or narrow your focus should be.
Shape Your Portfolio(s) to Match Your Preferred Path(s)
While plenty of job seekers in other industries can simply adjust their resumes and cover letters to match the job they are applying for, designers must also factor their portfolios into the mix. Building an online portfolio can be time-consuming, making it hard to consistently customize your portfolio to match each unique job you are going after. Instead, consider creating two portfolios that can be used for either two key specializations you want to work in, or a single specialization in tandem with a broad portfolio. By shaping your digital presence to match the jobs you are going after, you'll stand out to potential employers.