There are creative jobs, and there are tech jobs — and there are jobs that are both. Graphic design is a perfect example of work that requires both creativity and mastery of technology. The career of a graphic artist is an adventure in continuous growth and learning. Exciting new challenges are always around the corner, and the technology never stands still.
The commercial use of graphic design took off during the Industrial Revolution when a boom in goods and services required artists to advertise them to consumers. As technology and visual media have become more sophisticated, graphic design is more vital than ever when it comes to communication and audience engagement. Visual communication is not only commercial — it can sell ideas as much as products — but it is central to our economy. “We pretty much are a branch of commerce,” says John Hall, Chair of the Department of Multimedia, Graphic Design and Illustration at Arapahoe Community College (ACC). “Being able to do our work requires someone out there with a story to tell, a product to sell.”
Without graphic design, organizations could not appeal to the hearts or minds of their customers and supporters. As such, graphic designers are always in demand, even in hard times. Hall points to the recent transformation in marketing messaging as companies and organizations had to adapt suddenly to a new pandemic-quarantined world. That sudden pivot in messaging was made possible in no small part by the work of graphic designers.
It’s no secret that graphic designers are “creatives,” which is why other terms for a graphic designer includes graphic artist and creative designer. But, says John, the field has always been based in technology. “Even before we were on computers, it was a blend of art and technology because you had to know what was going on in the print shop,” he points out. “Now, not only are we in print but we’re on everyone’s computer screen — we’re on video, we’re on social media. If you have a message to get out there, a story to tell, it’s got to happen in many different media.”
Artist, Graphic Artist, Creative Designer, Graphic Designer: What Do These Titles Mean?
Graphic designer, creative designer, and graphic artist are interchangeable titles. But an artist, or fine artist, is usually something different. Some people assume the difference is that a graphic artist works with software and a fine artist works with physical media, but this isn’t entirely accurate. Some fine artists create on the computer, and some graphic artists create with physical media.
The real distinction is, whose message are you conveying? As Hall puts it, “A graphic designer applies artistic storytelling for a specific purpose, usually for someone else. An artist is more likely to tell a story that grows from within themselves.”
So on a fundamental level, if you are being paid by a client to tell their story in visual form — you’re a graphic designer. If you are creating images to tell your perspective on a story — you’re an artist.
Technology and Creativity: They’re Learned Skills
Learning the technology of modern graphic design might sound daunting, especially in the context of a 2-year associate degree, but getting a foothold in the technological underpinnings of graphic design is very doable. What you learn by getting a graphic design degree should be thought of as a set of building blocks. You’ll continue to build knowledge as you work on the job and as design software continues to develop and new updates are released.
But what about the creative, artistic part — do you have to be born innately creative or have an artistic talent? Hall says students applying to ACC’s Graphic Design program don’t need to worry about having enough of a creative spark. What is needed is determination and enthusiasm.
“We’re very much open to being an entry-level program,” he says. “We do like it when students are very motivated to learn because even with what you gain in our program, you’ve still got to have that spark within you, that constant hunger for knowledge, and constant hunger to keep your skills sharp and up to date.”
Even if you’re one of those people who can’t draw a stick figure yet — you can still learn creative skills. Everything from drawing with charcoal to drawing with Adobe Illustrator is covered in a two-year graphic design degree program, along with the principles of design including color theory, composition, message hierarchy, and typography. Even ideation — the process of generating ideas — is a learned skill.
For this reason, if you work as a graphic designer, robots are unlikely to come for your job. While it’s true that graphic design software continually updates with AI-driven enhancements, these facilitate, rather than replace creativity. The graphic artist, the idea maker using the technology, will always be human.
Graphic Design Classes: A Place for Both New Students and Career Changers
ACC’s 2-year graphic design program can turn recent high-school graduates into graphic designers, but the program is also an opportunity for professionals who want to switch careers or enhance their existing careers. “We do have students who come in with full bachelor’s degrees in various types of art, and they want to add that technological piece,” explains Hall. “We love having people come in with any kind of art degree. Marketing degrees also blend very well with graphic design.” Career changers enrolling with existing degrees can skip most courses in the first two semesters because they are general education courses.
Regardless of the starting point, ACC’s 4-semester AAS program will prepare you to enter the workforce or transfer to a bachelor’s degree program in graphic design. The program is comprehensive with coursework and labs covering web design, 2-D design, multimedia, illustration, production, and instruction in the tools of the trade. These tools include the Adobe Creative Suite software programs used by design professionals daily.
ACC also offers students in any of its graphic design classes a free account to LinkedIn Learning, so high-quality internet tutorials are available to supplement and enhance classroom instruction.
For aspiring design professionals, there are decided benefits to pursuing an AAS degree; for one thing, it’s a checkmark you can tick off on a job application and a way of ensuring employers or clients that you’ve learned the ropes and mastered a specific set of skills. The associate degree also provides you with key benefits such as client experience, critiques of your work, a curated portfolio, a professional network, and graphic design business skills.
There are options at ACC other than the associate degree for those interested in developing graphic design skills, including 2 certificates.
John says the Computer Graphics Certificate was developed to provide a boost in jobs such as office administration, where there may be an occasional need to produce professional-looking marketing or informational material. All the courses in the certificate are also part of the AAS, so if certificate students decide to continue to the associate degree, they’ve already made a head start.
The Web Design Certificate is a resume and career booster that consists of 30 credits of coursework that go beyond the curriculum offered in the AAS. Classes cover web design and user interfaces, as well as marketing. John emphasizes that with both the AAS and Web Design Certificate, “You’ll have a very expanded and in-demand skill set.”
Client Projects: Real-World Graphic Design Experience
ACC’s graphic design degree programs allow students to complete real projects, from pitching ideas to finalizing revisions, for real clients. Hall emphasizes that these experiences are invaluable. “It’s a tremendous opportunity to learn how to really listen to your client, come up with a design, and present it to the client. You’re going to have give and take. You’ll see how they respond to your solution and how you’re responding to their needs. It’s that kind of spontaneous interaction that’s hard to duplicate in self-learning.”
Various classes within the program include client work, but two classes are specifically devoted to it. In Studio ACC, students design material for various departments within the college. In Cooperative Education (Coop Ed), students work alongside a mentor in an internship. Students can take either class or both.
In Coop Ed, local businesses volunteer to work with student interns, but the number of participating companies varies each year. At times when few businesses volunteer, “That’s good and bad,” Hall says. “Students find themselves pounding the pavement and wrangling connections for themselves. The bad part of that is that it’s more work. But that’s also the good part! It bodes well for someone in our industry if you have the will, determination, and ability to network like that. It’s just like finding a job.”
Getting to participate in client work also leads to a stronger portfolio. While it’s fine for a portfolio to contain hypothetical, or concept, pieces, projects that see the light of day in the real world are more compelling. Plus, Hall points out, “In a job interview, it’s a success story to tell.”
Students in the program can get even more real-world experience by working on the layout and design of Progenitor, the school’s art and literary journal featuring artwork, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and other creative work from ACC students as well as members of the local community.
Critique Is King
Receiving and giving feedback is another part of the graphic designer’s world that working solo with a web tutorial can’t replicate. In graphic design classes, students gain the courage to repeatedly pin their work up on a board for peers, instructors, and clients to see. Receiving feedback teaches you what works and what doesn’t.
And maybe, more importantly, the feedback process teaches you to accept constructive criticism without taking it personally. “The clients we bring in will just blurt it out and tell you what they think,” Hall says. Responding to this feedback professionally and productively is a skill that comes through practice, and it’s a skill that will make you more effective not only in design but in every facet of your life.
The giving side of critique is also essential. Students learn how to recognize and assess good design principles and how to communicate their observations to the designer. As Hall says, “It’s learning the language of design.”
Building a Network and Learning to Promote Yourself
Hall also points out the value of studying with a cohort in a program like this one where your peers may become sources of future work referrals and references for years to come. Instructors are also long-term professional contacts, as are many of the clients who come in to work with students.
ACC’s design students learn to promote their own work by assembling a meticulously curated portfolio, and the program culminates with the annual student show. Family and friends attend the show along with local design and business professionals — potential future clients and employers. It’s a networking opportunity, a celebration, and a chance for students to practice their elevator pitches.
Most professional design focuses on telling a client’s story; the student show is where students can tell their own stories.
To prepare for the student show, students hone their pieces with input from local design professionals in a Capstone course. The Capstone course also includes an intensive overview of freelance business planning, including calculating expenses, determining rates, and preparing job estimates and proposals.
Courses also include a large printing facility tour so that students can see the mechanics behind the mass production of design. And finally, says Hall, “We also bring in alumni to tell students what they wish they had known” when embarking on their careers.
With a network, multiple client experiences, and a strong portfolio, students leave ACC’s design program ready to add their own voice and vision to the world of graphic design.
Working as a Graphic Designer
Hall says many students graduating with an AAS go on to get jobs in places like sign shops, or students interested in typography might work somewhere like a monument shop, designing headstones. He also cites a student who went to work designing logos and uniforms for youth sports teams. These jobs can lead to more advanced jobs at ad agencies, publishers, apparel or sportswear companies, and in-house design departments. Many people don’t realize that companies, nonprofits, and government organizations often employ their own design staff, so there’s no limit to the types of employers where you might find work.
While an AAS is a good launchpad for a successful career, it can also be used to transfer to a bachelor’s program. Some students find it’s worth putting in the extra two years honing their skills and building a portfolio before seeking work.
Either way, while studying, it’s a great idea to either get an internship or land some freelance jobs — or both — to gain experience and portfolio material. Students who excel at freelance work might decide to stick with self-employment.
Whatever educational path you choose, most professionals agree that your portfolio’s strength is a big key to successful employment.
Graphic Design: A Story to Tell, a Product to Sell
Graphic design plays a key role in our economic system, fusing art and technology with marketing, psychology, and storytelling. As the pandemic crisis abates, creatives, including graphic designers, will tell the stories that help get businesses back on their feet.
ACC plans to conduct Fall 2020 classes as hybrids combining online learning with classroom meetings following safety and distancing guidelines. Hall reports that the transition to fully online learning in Spring 2020 went very smoothly, as the design program had already been taking advantage of some of the remote-education modes.
With universities also going to partial or fully online learning, many students who planned to enroll directly at 4-year institutions are switching to the more affordable associate degree option, which can transfer later to a 4-year degree program.
To find out how to launch your career in this dynamic, rewarding field, please visit the program page for ACC’s Department of Multimedia, Graphic Design and Illustration.