Updated: Nov 30, 2020
I was speaking with my sister Diane. Her son, my nephew Carter, thought he might like to be a graphic designer. I believe I’m the only graphic designer he knows, so I’m flattered. And Diane, being the great Mom that she is, wanted to make sure he is prepared and understands what it means to be a graphic designer. Thinking about Carter and his interest gave me pause. This essay was written with Carter in mind.
What does it take to be a graphic designer? It’s a question I’ve considered often throughout my decades of practice. I’ve measured myself against my peers, trying to gauge the relative levels of our skills and ability. In my less kind years, I often discounted those who lacked what I considered formal training. That training was specifically: an art education; with a concentration in Graphic Design (caps intended); from a respected design school. In my limited thinking, anything less made you a poseur, a wannabe. I resented those illustration majors who took jobs as “graphic designers” when their dreams of children’s book fame and fortune didn’t pan out. I mean, how dare they assume they could do what I’d specialized in for 2 years? (Sarcasm intended).
A matured, more reasonable me came to realize that my rigid definition was unfair and grandiose. My hubris and my ego prevented me from seeing that I still had so much to learn myself.
But back to the question– what does it take to be a graphic designer? Here is a short list of qualifications I believe to be prerequisites.
You have to want to create. You have to be motivated to make images that communicate in interesting and effective ways. A budding designer begins as a hatchling with an innate desire to fly. You begin without feathers but an appreciation of the sky, and those that fly. Being drawn to a craft – or the arts – is like that. You feel a need to draw, to write, to build, to dance. The budding designer yearns to make things.
The desire must run deep. It’s not the surface desire of being someone else, or doing what they do. It’s a burning, motivating passion to do that thing you want to do.
Here is my definition of creativity– Making novel associations and sharing them in effective ways. To be effective, a graphic designer must be able to make something that will resonate with an audience. To do that, the image must be notable, memorable. Creativity results in ideas that spark reactions in others.
To develop as a craftsman, you must observe and appreciate the work of other craftsmen. To become a graphic designer, the novice must observe and evaluate the work of others. An aesthetic is nurtured through observation and critical thinking. But, it’s not enough to recognize that something is good or bad. Observation should lead to understanding why something is good or bad, and how it might be done better.
Wanting something isn’t enough. Unless you work your way to a goal, you are unworthy of that goal. This is not The Matrix, where you can plug in and moments later know Kung Fu, or how to fly a helicopter. In terms of developing as a graphic designer, you must work at making images. Contrary to the adage, practice does not make perfect. Practice hones skills and trains the mind. And practice never ends. There is a reason that practice is also a noun. When you practice enough, you may become worthy of payment for that practice, and your practice becomes your business.
Desire is born. Skills are earned. Skills are the ability to do what your mind wants you to do. Skills are the result of observation and practice. What skills? Drawing, visualization, composition, rhythm, understanding the architecture of effective image-making.
Drawing is a skill that seems elusive to most. Those who claim they cannot draw place far too much importance on the drawn image being “good.” There are all kinds of drawing; the goal should something other than an ability to make something look real. Great drawing makes something look interesting, or meaningful, or funny, or surprising. Great drawing communicates.
Great drawing– 2 Examples Drew Friedman and Matthew Inman are awesome, but different.
Drew Friedman is a phenomenally talented caricaturist and draftsman. He has developed a singular style of ink drawing with pointillist detail that gives his images a photographic quality that makes them all the more potent. His witty drawings serve as pointed, funny comments on their subjects.
Matthew Inman (aka The Oatmeal) tells insightful, provocative, funny stories with words and pictures. Compared to Friedman, his work is crude and unsophisticated. But its crudeness works to service Inman’s unique kind of storytelling. His ugly, bloated characters are the players in his satire of human existence.
An effective graphic designer needs on a command of language. Designers arrange words and images to represent an idea or point of view. Knowing how to adeptly employ language is essential for effective communication. Precise use of language (grammar, punctuation) can make the difference between a powerful statement and an embarrassing display of ignorance. The visual language skill that allows a designer to create a message with contrast and emphasis is equally important.
Experience is the other outcome of practice. Experience is the development of the mind and its ability to become adept at thinking in ways that make results uniquely effective. When done well, experience can lead to expertise.
The last pre-requisite is the least important, but necessary for any modern student of design…
Access and experience with graphic design software is a requirement for nearly every practicing graphic designer. But software familiarity is of little importance. The only value of computer aptitude is the ability to achieve a desired result. The result is what’s important.
It’s my experience that many young people get into graphic design, or animation, because they are enthralled with the tools used to create images. Their motivation may be “I want to make the computer do that.” But skill with design software will not make anyone a designer. Love of software is a fruitless attachment without a worthwhile intent for these tools. An expert typist with no story to tell– is not a writer. But, the explosion of special effects in all kinds of media has led to a need for these software-typists. If your goal is to be a creator (ultimately as a director or designer), better to concentrate on ideas and not making images within the confines of any particular software.
Ultimately becoming a graphic designer is about training your mind. It’s about learning to think in different ways. It’s about making those novel associations and sharing them. First among the prerequisites is desire. The rest should flow from that.