Looking to start a career in graphic design but don't have a traditional four-year college degree? Don’t be discouraged. In the design industry, a robust portfolio that showcases your skills and creativity holds more weight than formal education.

Key Takeaways

  • A degree is not a prerequisite for a career in graphic design; having a strong portfolio showcasing talent, skills, and creativity carries more weight.
  • Graphic Designers in the United States earn an average salary of $58,000, with higher earnings in states like New York, New Jersey, and California.
  • There are alternative education routes, such as certificate programs, that provide professional training in graphic design, helping to build a portfolio in less time compared to a multi-year degree program.
  • Mastering industry-standard software such as those in Adobe Creative Cloud is crucial for starting a graphic design career without a degree.
  • Completing personal projects and freelancing are effective ways to gain valuable design experience and build a portfolio.
  • Staying updated with current industry trends and software processes is vital for keeping skills relevant and competitive.

Talent, Skills, and a Good Portfolio Are More Important Than a Degree

Graphic design is a dynamic and rewarding career path for those with an artistic eye and a passion for creative projects. Contrary to popular belief, a traditional four-year college degree is not required to become a professional graphic designer. In fact, many successful designers have built their careers through self-teaching, online courses, and practical experiences. While formal education can provide structure, it doesn't guarantee great design skills. What truly matters in this industry is a robust portfolio that showcases one's talent, versatility, and ability to solve design problems. Essential skills, such as proficiency in design software, an understanding of color theory, and strong typography, combined with soft skills, such as communication and time management, are crucial. Real-world practice through freelance work, internships, or volunteering can further enhance your abilities and build your portfolio. Ultimately, dedication, creativity, and continuous learning are key to thriving as a graphic designer without a degree.

Can I Get Hired as a Graphic Designer Without a College Degree?

Yes, you can definitely get hired as a designer without a college degree. The graphic design field offers lucrative opportunities for those who enter it, regardless of formal education. In fact, the average salary for designers in the United States is $58,000, with higher earnings in areas like New York, New Jersey, and California. If you're eager to jump-start your design career but hesitant due to the lack of a degree, there are several steps you can take to strengthen your skills and secure a position. Alternative education routes, such as online courses and bootcamps, provide flexible ways to gain the necessary expertise. By focusing on building a strong portfolio and continuously improving your design abilities, you can successfully break into the graphic design industry and build a strong career. Additionally, gaining experience through freelance work or internships can also boost your skills and make you more attractive to potential employers. With dedication, creativity, and the right resources, you can achieve a successful graphic design career without the need for a college degree.

What Are the Steps to Becoming a Graphic Designer?

Here’s an overview of the steps, which we discuss in more detail below (click any to jump down to that specific topic).

  1. Get Familiar with the Graphic Design Industry
  2. Learn Graphic Design Concepts
  3. Learn the Software
  4. Complete Personal Projects
  5. Build a Portfolio
  6. Gain Experience: Start Freelancing and/or Find Internships
  7. Do You Have a Niche?
  8. Stay Up To Date
  9. Learn From Someone Who Did It
  10. Learn About the Business Side of Graphic Design
  11. Don’t Forget About Soft Skills
  12. Practice Balancing Work and Passion Projects

1. Get Familiar with the Graphic Design Industry

A great way to learn more about the graphic design field and see if you want to pursue more training before committing to a longer course is to watch free YouTube videos.

Graphic Design Certificate: Live & Hands-on, In NYC or Online, 0% Financing, 1-on-1 Mentoring, Free Retake, Job Prep. Named a Top Bootcamp by Forbes, Fortune, & Time Out. Noble Desktop. Learn More.

Below is a video we made on how to get started in graphic design to help you make sure graphic design is right for you, what apps designers use, and more. In the video, you’ll learn:

The slides shown in the above webinar can be viewed at nobledesktop.com/presentation/get-started-in-graphic-design

2. Learn Graphic Design Concepts

Graphic design concepts are one of the most crucial areas one must master for success in this field. These key concepts include color theory, which involves understanding the impact of colors and their combinations on emotions and perceptions; typography, the art of arranging type to make written language legible and visually appealing; and composition, which refers to the arrangement of visual elements in a design. Understanding these fundamental concepts, along with proficiency in design software, will enable you to create visually compelling, successful designs.

Then, once you've decided that graphic design is the career path you want to pursue, it's time to form a structured learning plan. If a traditional four-year degree seems too time-consuming or expensive, there are numerous alternative options for professional training that are faster and more accessible. One option is to enroll in a graphic design certificate program, which is typically available in a live online format. These courses are designed to train you on industry-standard software, such as Adobe Creative Cloud, and offer hands-on projects to help you build a strong portfolio.

Certificate courses are typically more focused than multi-year degree programs, focusing on the most relevant skills in a shorter amount of time. This targeted approach not only makes the learning process more efficient but also ensures that you gain practical skills that are directly applicable to the industry. Additionally, many certificate programs include mentorship opportunities and career support services, helping you connect with industry professionals and potential employers.

3. Learn the Software

If you want to start a graphic design career without a degree, it is crucial to master the software used by professionals in the industry. The most common software suite used by designers is Adobe Creative Cloud, which features a range of applications tailored for different areas of design work. Adobe Creative Cloud contains over 20 applications used for design, with additional resources like Adobe Fonts, a portfolio website, and cloud storage. A paid membership is required to gain access to download and use the software and other features. Mastering these tools will not only make you proficient in various design tasks but will also significantly enhance your employability as a designer. 

Within Adobe Creative Cloud, Photoshop is used for photo editing and creating complex graphics. It allows designers to manipulate images and create visual effects, which has helped it become a cornerstone of most Graphic Designer toolkits. Illustrator, on the other hand, is the go-to program for creating vector graphics, which are used for logos, icons, and scalable designs. Its precision and flexibility make it ideal for crafting detailed illustrations and typography. InDesign is a program for layout design, often used to create brochures, magazines, posters, and other print materials. It functions best when handling multi-page documents and offers a wide selection of tools for layout management.

For those interested in motion graphics and visual effects, After Effects is indispensable. It enables the creation of dynamic elements that enhance visual storytelling. Complementing After Effects is Premiere Pro, a leading video editing software widely used for creating promotional videos, commercials, and other multimedia projects. Additionally, Lightroom offers advanced photo editing and organization capabilities, which are useful for photographers and designers who need to batch process and fine-tune images. 

4. Complete Personal Projects

Another way to gain design experience is to work on personal projects that fuel your creativity. Taking time to focus on personal projects offers a no-pressure environment where you can experiment, take risks, and explore new techniques without the constraints of client expectations. This freedom allows you to strengthen your skills within different software programs and work towards developing your unique style in the field. Adding this practice to your routine also helps you build a diverse portfolio that showcases your abilities as a designer. These projects highlight your skill to think outside the box and solve design problems, making you more attractive to potential employers.

Personal projects can also lead to unexpected opportunities and collaborations. Sharing your work on platforms like Behance, Dribbble, or social media can attract attention from other designers, potential clients, or even collaborators who appreciate your unique style and approach. This exposure can open doors to new partnerships and growth opportunities. As a whole, balancing client work with personal endeavors promotes a healthy, fulfilling career that reflects your true artistic vision and keeps your passion for design alive.

5. Build a Portfolio

Building and maintaining a portfolio is vital for any design professional, as it often serves as a client’s or hiring manager’s first impression of your work and style. A well-crafted portfolio will showcase your best projects and demonstrate your design process and ability to solve problems. There are numerous platforms available to help you create your own portfolio website, though free options often come with limitations in terms of customization and functionality.

One excellent choice for design professionals is Adobe Portfolio, which is included at no extra charge with an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription—a toolset that most designers already use. Adobe Portfolio is specifically built for designers, photographers, artists, and other creatives to showcase their work in a visually appealing and professional manner. It offers customizable templates, integration with other Adobe apps, and a seamless user experience, allowing you to create a portfolio that truly reflects your unique style and expertise.

Using Adobe Portfolio, you can easily upload and organize your projects, add descriptions and context to each piece, and ensure that your portfolio is accessible. The platform’s integration with Adobe Fonts and other Creative Cloud features allows for a cohesive and polished presentation, enhancing the overall impact of your work. It’s clear that having your portfolio within the Adobe ecosystem makes it easier to update and maintain, ensuring that your latest projects and achievements are always displayed.

6. Gain Experience: Start Freelancing and/or Find Internships

Start Freelancing

One of the best ways to gain design experience without a college degree is to start freelancing and promoting your services to clients. Once you understand the software used in the field and develop a strong sense of design, you can use sites like Upwork and Adobe Portfolio to begin building a portfolio of work. Overall, freelancing allows you to work on a variety of projects, which helps you refine your skills and understand different client needs and preferences. However, it's important to verify any state or federal requirements for self-employment before starting your journey as a freelance designer.

Find Internships

Even if you are not a student or do not hold a college degree, there are internships available for those who have some experience in the field and want to gain more. Internships provide structured learning experiences and the opportunity to work alongside experienced professionals, offering realistic insights into the industry. Entry-level internship positions are often posted on job board websites like Indeed and LinkedIn, as well as through professional clubs or organizations. Searching for summer internship programs or job openings specific to your area of interest can yield promising opportunities.

Gaining practical experience through freelancing and internships is one great way to build a successful graphic design career. These opportunities add variety to your portfolio and also expand your professional network, making it easier to find future job opportunities. By actively seeking out and engaging in these experiences, you can develop the skills, confidence, and connections necessary to thrive in the competitive field of graphic design.

7. Do You Have a Niche?

The term graphic design covers a vast area of the design industry, including digital design, web design, motion graphics, and other specialties. Some of the biggest areas of digital design are user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) design. Mastering UX and/or UI design can provide additional job opportunities in web design and app design, which tend to offer more lucrative salaries than other design positions. These fields focus on creating intuitive and visually appealing digital experiences, making them highly sought after in today's technology-driven world.

Some designers choose to specialize in specific areas of design, such as web design, motion graphics, logo design, and print design. Finding your personal niche or specialty in the industry can help you identify your target audience and create a portfolio that truly showcases the type of work you’re best at or more passionate about. Specializing allows you to develop deep expertise and become known for a particular style or type of project, which can set you apart from other designers.

While building your portfolio and interviewing for jobs, it can be helpful to have examples of work that highlight your niche in the graphic design industry. Having a focused portfolio can make a strong impression on potential employers or clients who are looking for specific skills and expertise. However, many designers work on a variety of different types of design projects, so you don’t have to feel confined to just one niche.

8. Stay Up To Date

Regardless of whether you hold a formal degree in design, staying updated on current trends in the industry and software processes is crucial for anyone looking to secure a new career role. The design field is constantly evolving, with new tools and trends emerging every day. Technology is always advancing, and software can change significantly with each new release. Keeping up with these changes ensures that your skills remain relevant and competitive. One way to stay current in the field is by taking refresher courses in software or best graphic design practices. Many online platforms, such as Noble Desktop, offer courses specifically designed to keep professionals updated on the latest advancements in design software, like Adobe Creative Cloud. The curriculum in these classes often covers new features and advanced techniques that can fuel your creativity. 

In addition to formal courses, staying engaged with the design community through blogs, forums, webinars, and social media can provide insights into emerging trends. Following influential designers and thought leaders on platforms like Twitter, Behance, and Dribbble can inspire you and keep you informed about what's popular in the design world. Attending industry conferences and workshops is another excellent way to stay up-to-date. These events offer opportunities to learn from experts, see new tools and technologies in action, and network with other professionals. Engaging in continuous learning and professional development not only improves your skills but also demonstrates your commitment to growth, making you stand out from other applicants.

9. Learn From Someone Who Did It

Alex Pappas took our Graphic Design Certificate and had this to say about his experience and transition to becoming a Graphic Designer:

“My experience with Noble Desktop was exactly what I was looking for! I went from knowing nothing about graphic design to getting expert training all via Zoom. All of the professors I had were welcoming, and engaging, and made me feel comfortable asking questions and seeking advice on how to use the Adobe apps.

I have since been able to pick up some freelance graphic design work as well as gain a new role in advertising/marketing with my current company, which had been previously outsourced to a graphic design firm. I have become very skillful in corporate marketing and advertising. I also learned a lot about picture enhancing along the way, which really allows me to get the best out of photos I take on vacations or travels. I would recommend Noble Desktop to anyone who is looking to get into graphic design and learn a skill set that is invaluable in today’s world.”

10. Learn About the Business Side of Graphic Design

Understanding the business side of graphic design is another part of building a successful career in the field. While creative skills remain essential, knowing how to market yourself and handle finances can impact your professional growth. Start by learning the basics of project management, including setting timelines, creating budgets, and communicating effectively with clients. You should also familiarize yourself with essential business concepts such as pricing your services, invoicing, and negotiating contracts.

Networking with other professionals and joining industry groups can also provide valuable insights and opportunities. By balancing your creative talents with solid business acumen, you can navigate the competitive landscape of design with ease. Investing time in learning about the business side of graphic design will not only enhance your professional credibility but also ensure long-term career success.

11. Don’t Forget About Soft Skills

While technical skills are crucial for a successful graphic design career, soft skills are equally important and should not be overlooked. For example, strong communication skills enable you to understand client needs and articulate your design choices. Problem-solving abilities allow you to tackle design challenges creatively and find innovative solutions that meet project goals. Time management is another vital soft skill that helps you handle multiple projects, meet deadlines, and maintain a productive workflow. Being adaptable and open to feedback is vital in a field where trends and client preferences can change quickly.

There’s also emotional intelligence, including empathy and active listening, which helps foster strong client relationships. Networking and teamwork skills continuously play a role in career growth, as they open doors to new opportunities and collaborations. By developing and honing these soft skills, you can complement your technical expertise and position yourself as a well-rounded Graphic Designer.

12. Practice Balancing Work and Passion Projects

Balancing work and passion projects is crucial to maintaining creativity and job satisfaction in any type of design career. While it’s true that client work is essential for income and professional growth, dedicating time to personal projects allows you to explore your creativity without stressful constraints. Staying balanced helps prevent burnout and keeps your passion for design alive. One great way to do this is to schedule regular time to work on your passion projects, treating them with the same importance as client work. Additionally, passion projects offer a space to experiment with new techniques, styles, and ideas that can enhance your professional portfolio. They also provide an opportunity to focus on causes or themes that are meaningful to you, adding a personal touch to your collection of work. Sharing your personal work on platforms like Behance or Instagram can also attract new clients who appreciate your unique style. Overall, this practice enriches your portfolio and enhances your satisfaction in the field.

Communication and Collaboration is a Key Part of Working in Graphic Design

It’s important to remember that communication and collaboration are key aspects of working in graphic design, as they directly impact the success of projects and client satisfaction. This is because learning communication skills ensures you fully understand client needs, allowing you to deliver designs that align with their vision. It also involves articulating your design choices and rationale, which helps build confidence in your expertise. Collaboration with other team members, such as writers, marketers, and developers, is equally important. It fosters a cohesive workflow and ensures that all project elements are integrated seamlessly. By honing your communication, you can create more impactful designs, build stronger professional relationships, and enhance the overall quality of your work.

Have Fun Learning & Designing!

Graphic design is a fun and creative industry that offers opportunities for those passionate about visual storytelling. Yet, many aspiring creatives are unaware that while a four-year degree can be beneficial, it's not always necessary to secure a graphic design position or land your first client. Numerous alternative paths, such as online courses, certificate programs, and self-directed learning, can fast-track your entry into the field, allowing you to start freelancing or applying for jobs much sooner. Programs like Noble Desktop’s Graphic Design Certificate provide immersive training without the long-term commitment or high costs associated with traditional college degrees.

As you start on a new learning journey, remember to enjoy the process and embrace the challenges along the way. Your dedication, creativity, and willingness to improve will pave the way for a successful and fulfilling career in graphic design.