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How to Become a Professional Graphic Designer or Illustrator, Career Advice, Finding Work, Building a Portfolio, Getting Clients, Training and Education

Advice for Aspiring Graphic Design and Illustration Students

About once a month I receive a set of questions from an aspiring graphic designer. Usually they send me a set of questions assigned by their teacher. Most of the questions are the typical stock career day fodder and are largely irrelevant. I used to do my best answer them but I'm just too busy these days. So as a service I've compiled the most frequent questions, tossed out the irrelevant ones and added some of my own.

Now I'm just one guy. My experience is just that, mine. Your situation and experiences may be totally different. What works for me may not work for you. I'm also an entrepreneur at heart so it's not in my nature to seek employment in the traditional sense. In fact, I've never had a traditional graphic design job as I've always worked for myself. So I really have no idea what it's like to try to get hired at a design firm, nor am I interested in finding out.

This doesn't mean I haven't worked with many firms, both big and small. The difference is they hire me as a contractor to handle a specific job. It's less of a boss/employee situation and more of collaboration among peers; much different than being an employee. However, I do know what I require from anyone I collaborate with and what they require from me. I've worked with the Discovery Channel, Google, Intel, and Playboy Magazine as well as dozens of lesser known but no less demanding companies. I know why they chose to work with me and what they expect. I know how to keep them happy.

So take my advice for what it's worth. Use the stuff that works for you and toss the stuff that's irrelevant to your situation or goals. Good luck.


Do I have what it takes to make it in this business?

It’s almost impossible to get accurate feedback about your artistic talents while growing up. Your parent’s job is to encourage you. Your teacher’s job is to encourage you. You’re friends want to stay your friends so they won’t help much either. And employers, well they’re just too busy to critique your portfolio.

So how do you know if you have what it takes? The most obvious method it to compare your work with the top pros in your field. Get the latest Society of Illustrators or Communication Arts Annual. Print out some full page samples of your work and slip it in the book. Now flip through the pages. Does your work blend in? Then great, you’re on your way. If it sticks out like a sore thumb then you have some serious work ahead of you.

This is not for "artistic" types. This is a serious and competitive business and is not for the sensitive, weak, slow, hesitant, insecure or flaky. The "arts" are a dumping ground filled with dreamers and wannabe's. The reason for this is simple; few objective or enforceable standards. If I say I'm an accountant, a lawyer, a doctor, a dentist or an airline pilot, it's very easy to test that statement. Do I have the proper state licenses or credentials? Can I complete a set of technical tasks that are germane to the profession? If not, then I better stop bragging. I could even be prosecuted for fraud. However anyone can claim they are an artist and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Art schools prey on this fact and graduate hordes of ill prepared "artists" who don't stand a chance in the real world.

To make it in this business, and it is a business, you need to be talented and extremely hard working. You must be able to meet deadlines, work within budgets and communicate clearly. It would be ideal if your business skills were equal to or greater than your artistic ones.. The world is full of talented artists who are just flakes and will never be successful because of that. An average designer with above average business skills can still do quite well. The reverse, however, is less likely.

If you need to be "inspired" to create then find another line of work. If designing (writing, drawing, photography…whatever your passion is) doesn't come easy, then find another line of work. If you feel that people who make great money from their art are sellouts, then find another line of work.

Scared yet? If your response to the above is “Well, duh!” then great, you’re either completely delusional or really talented. If the above totally freaks you out then I’ve saved you months or perhaps years of future frustration and disappointment.


What about my student portfolio?

The short answer; ditch the student portfolio and fill it with real work as soon as possible.

A student portfolio is filled with work that has been done under the supervision of a teacher under unrealistic circumstances. In the classroom environment you have weeks to complete assignments that in the real world will be expected to be finished in six hours. Your work has not been tested in the print shop so one would have no idea if you can produce work to the exact specifications required in the printing industry. Do you understand bleed requirements, vector vs. bitmap, converting text to outlines, and the difference between CMYK and RGB? We don't know. That's why employers take a student portfolio with a big grain of salt.

A student portfolio full of ad campaigns for fictional products is a dead giveaway of your inexperience. Even worse are the samples based upon real fortune 500 companies. Not only do they generally look inferior when compared to real deal, it's also clear to the prospective employer or client that you really didn't work on the latest, Coke, Apple or Nike campaigns. Smart employers will be more impressed with a couple of well done logos, business cards and postcard mailer samples for local businesses (complete with a little case study on how your designs resulted in verifiable positive results) than any overblown art school fantasy assignment. There is only one reason anyone would ever hire you and that is they think you can make money for them. Pitch your talents accordingly.

Note:Student portfolios for illustrators can be quite effective however. If you're a talented illustrator it really shows as there's no way to fake it or hide your shortcomings with flashy effects and layout techniques.

Second Note:This advice is subjective. So much depends on the quality of your student work and the client you are pitching. As a general rule however, the faster you transition away from the student/personal work the better.

Exceptions to this rule: Personal pieces designed to show off your skills can land a great job or assignment if they are highly infectious and the execution is drop dead amazing. This is especially true with animation, film, flash, and video game design or anything entertaining and interactive. If you can generate the online buzz, you will get the work.


Should I go to art school? Do I need a degree in graphic design?

Should I go to art school? I can answer that with and enthusiastic “maybe”. Do I need a degree in graphic design? My firm answer is “it depends”.

A talented, focused, hardworking student can grow by leaps and bounds in a very short time when matched with the proper school. This was my experience. I was awarded a scholarship straight out of high school to the Colorado institute of Art. Even though I left after the third quarter of an intensive two year program, my skills were honed and refined in a way that still benefit me today.

However, for a student of average ability and focus, art school can be one of the most painful ways to waste $40,000 of your parent’s money.

So be careful. Understand completely why you are going to art school, pick the right school for your skills, goals and temperament and work harder than you ever have in your life.

Never, however, forget the hard truth about art schools; art schools need to fill their seats. Without a constant flow of new recruits they'd be out of business. This is why you're unlikely to get an honest appraisal of your chances in the real world while in school. If they only took students who had the talent and passion to make it, the seats would be half empty and they’d be out of business. The average students, who will ultimately not pursue a career in design, subsidize the career faithful. This is true for all schools.

If you’re not 100% certain that art school is the right path for you, but you’re overflowing with talent and ambition, then self study maybe the path for you. It was the path that I most preferred and pursued. It was also the path of some of the most talented designers and illustrators I know.

One of the best kept secrets about self study is that while you are learning you’re also working and building real world skills. So while your friends are busy with their art school assignments, you’ll be spending the next four years studying and learning while building a real portfolio, while hopefully putting some money in your pocket along the way.

For the right individual, the effects can be profound. Four years later you’ve built up a small client base, a decent reputation and a collection of quality tear sheets and client testimonials. Meanwhile your friends are shopping around a portfolio of art school fantasy assignments to perspective employers.

A degree from a good school will help get your foot in the door, but it’s your work and personality that will get you hired. Smart employers use a degree as a way to cull the herd, not as a litmus test.

Clients on the other hand aren't interested in your degree. They’re going to base their decision on the quality of your portfolio, the quality of your clients, and how they feel about you personally. If the match is good you may get hired, if not, they’ll find somebody else.

So it depends on several factors on which is the right path for you. For those of you who are passionate about a path of self employment and cringe at the thought of doing the typical nine to five routine, then self study is probably the right choice. The upside is that you can never be fired. Even if you have no clients, you still own your own design business.

However, if the responsibility of running a business, including invoicing, collecting payments, client interaction, negotiating fees, and weekend client emergencies sound like a nightmare, then the “art school/degree/internship/junior designer/senior designer, art director” route is probably best for you.


How do I promote myself and what do people mean by acting professional?

Hard to believe but aspiring designers actually send me long resumes full of dubious work experience and pointless personal goals, yet fail to include any actual work samples. You're a designer, show me, don’t tell me!

I can size up a good designer in two minutes. If they're bad, it takes ten seconds. So show me what you got. If it isn't brilliant, don't include it. If you don't have anything brilliant to show yet, then wait. Keep working at it, perfect your chops, and then show your work.

You're an artist, so get a website. It better be a real one with your own unique domain name. No free hosting services and no stock templates. No Hotmail, Yahoo or Gmail accounts. Make your own website and post your work; if you don’t know how, then learn. Basic web design and web hosting skills are essential in this business. Include your email and phone number. If you're too timid to include a phone number and talk to me personally, then there's no way we're doing business.

SPELL CHECK EVERY EMAIL! Did I mention that you should spell check every email? Oh, and remember to spell check every email.

Do not omit proper punctuation and grammar.

If your email looks like this;

ur work is soooo good.
i’d luv to come work 4 ur company.
any openings???


you are soooo doomed. Don’t send out gibberish like this, ever. Not even to your friends. It just encourages sloppy thinking.

Always follow up an important email with a call. Emails get caught in spam filters regularly so don’t automatically think they’ve read what you’ve sent. Set your email client to ask for a return receipt. It's not 100% effective but if you get a receipt you know they just opened your email, so perhaps it would be a great time to contact them with a follow up phone call.

Speaking of phones; get a cell phone with a very generous plan and record a professional message. No jokes, silly voices or rap tunes. Get used to answering your phone with “so and so speaking, how may I help you” or “this and that graphic design company, this is so and so speaking, how may I help you?” Your friends and family will be amused but your potential clients will appreciate it.

If you don't have them yet, get accounts for Skype, Yahoo Messanger, Google Talk and Microsoft Live. They're great for free long distance calls and every client has a different IM preference. They also work well on your smart phone (I'm using the HTC Rezound these days with the jumbo battery pack). They also they also work with tablet like the new 7" Google tablet T-Mobile , theiPad and the Galaxy line. Clients get fussy quick if they can't reach you and you never want to miss an opportunity, so make sure you are never out of reach.

One more thing; do not send your resume (PDF or Word) as an attachment, it will probably be deleted immediately as no one opens attachments from unknown sources. However, JPGs and GIFs of amazing samples are fine.


How do I build my design business? How do I get started?

You'll need a real portfolio, full of real work samples. Do work for all your friends and relatives businesses, even for free, and start building a portfolio of professional work ASAP. Local non profits area great; they have no money for design but they are generally very appreciative, your work will get seen, and they will make an excellent reference.

Get a website and a business card. Start hustling and networking. Take any job, no matter how small, and do a kick ass job. Collect client testimonials and tear sheets from every job and use those to get more work. Expect to spend five years hustling before you feel like an actual professional designer.

If you can live at home, then stay there as long as you can. No need to have the expense of your own place if you can avoid it.

Keep your day job. You'll need it to pay for your computer, digital camera, printer, ink, supplies, phone and web hosting. Your day job will subsidize your design business until you actually get good enough to make real money.

However, at some point you just have to quit the nine to five job and go for it.

The reason is simple. Clients want to work during normal business hours. If you can’t take calls or emails until after you get off work you will lose business.

I frequently get work over equally talented but less available designers simply because I was able to talk to a potential client when they were ready. By the time the other designers got home from their full time art gig, the opportunity has passed them by. This is a standard time management problem that makes it almost impossible to maintain your freelance clients while working a full time job for somebody else. At some point you just need to make a leap of faith and take advantage of all those midday hours that you once spent working for someone else. It’s also where my previous advice, live at home as long as possible, comes in handy. The lower your overhead, the longer you have to make your design business profitable.

Think freelance. I do everything myself and only collaborate with a small group of trusted experienced professionals. This is very common. Many "companies" are individuals like myself and have no jobs to offer.

Return emails and phone calls ASAP. Always give the client more than they are paying for. Provide the best customer service possible and never leave a client unsatisfied; even if it means losing money on the job.

When you are not working on "real" jobs then spend your time fixing up your website, improving your marketing materials, networking, reconnecting with past clients, and completing that amazing personal project that will just kill over at whatever design forum you frequent.

If you don't have an ongoing backlog of must finish business, you're slacking. If it doesn't frustrate you that there is simply not enough time in the day to get everything done, you're slacking. If you don't occasionally wake up in the middle of the night and run over to your computer or drafting board to jot down that clever idea before you forget, you're slacking. If you don't wake up everyday excited about your career as a designer, then you're in the wrong business.


How do I charge for my services?

This varies from designer to designer. I prefer a flat fee pricing model. This focuses the attention on the value of the services provided rather than the hours put in. Value received is unique to each client while hours are a commodity. You want to avoid being a commodity. Wheat, crude oil and corn are commodities; your designs aren't. This doesn't mean that every client receives the same quote, it simply means that every client gets a final quote, based upon their individual circumstances, that represents the maximum they will pay.

A flat fee can also include restrictions on the project's scope. You can specify the number of initial comps and subsequent revisions or include kill fees or an hourly rate for additional items out of scope. It's up to you.

This is also why itemization is a problem. When you present a client with an itemized list of cost breakdowns the tendency it to start haggling over the list and try to shave off costs here and there. This is bad in the long run for both you and the client as it shifts the attention to the costs and not to the value received and the effectiveness of the final product.

The only time I quote hourly is for maintenance work or a project that is so open ended that it's impossible to quote a flat fee.


How do I get paid?

As a general rule, don't start a job without a deposit. If a client bails on you, the deposit essentially becomes a kill fee. So at least you'll get something. How much of a deposit it up to you, but the market will let you know soon enough if it's out of line with expectations. Generally, the simpler the project, and the more experienced and talented you are, the bigger your deposit requirements can be. For longer projects it may be wise to break the fees up into installments that are triggered when specific milestones are achieved.

When the project's done, send the final invoice. Your invoices don't need to be fancy, it's just for record keeping. You can use a Microsoft Word template as a stating point or find one you like online and customize it.

If you don't have a PayPal merchant account then get one. Many business people prefer to conserve their cash and pay for design services with a credit card. They'll be happy you provide this option.

If you've given your business a name then you'll need to file a fictitious business name statement, also known as a DBA ( doing business as). This allows you to operate as a business under the name of your choice without having to create a formal legal entity (corporation, partnership, LLC, etc.) In most states you'll probably head down to the county clerk's office and fill out the required form. You'll use their database to double check that the name is not already in use. Expect to pay about $35 for the whole thing plus another $25 or so to have the DBA statement run in a local paper for three weeks. There are local papers set up just for these purposes. The clerk's office will give you a list of possible publishers. Now you can open a business checking account and even get a business phone listing for the name. You'll also start getting credit card offers under your business name as well as get approached by local accountants and bookkeepers looking for your business.

A word of caution: if you have a tagline or use a longer version of your name when doing business then file the whole phrase. My first fictitious business name statement was for Claytowne. Just Claytowne. I set up a checking account and all was great until a client wrote me a check made out to Claytowne Graphic Design. So what was the problem? My bank wouldn't cash the check because it was made out to Claytowne Graphic Design instead of just Claytowne. They said the name on the check can be shorter, but not longer, than my DBA.

The check was for a sizable amount so I just filed another fictitious business name statement and this time put "Claytowne Graphic and Web Design" just to cover all bases. Then I cancelled the Claytowne business checking account and opened up a new one and cashed the check.

There, now you don't have to repeat the same mistake I did.


What's the most favorite part your job?

The flexibility of working at home and owning my own business is nice. I'm able to spend a lot of time with my daughter and I get to adjust my surf schedule to match the preferred tides. Solving a client's problem with grace and style feels great. Finding a solution to an "impossible" situation is exhilarating. Seeing my work in print, especially a full page glossy magazine ad, or a product package design I just did sitting on store shelf, is also deeply satisfying.


What's the least favorite part of your job?

Probably the most frustrating situation for all designers is the job that won't end. It could be that the specs keep changing. It could be a design by committee situation where reaching a final decision is nearly an impossibility. Could be scope creep where you continually add yet other feature to the website. No matter the cause the result is the same; creative exhaustion and frustration.

Other than that, nothing really. I know it sounds like I'm just blowing smoke but I really do love my job. I've molded my career to perfectly match my sensibilities, my lifestyle and my temperament. This is not to say every day is perfect or that sometimes I'm not terribly excited to tweak a design for the umpteenth time, but overall it's exactly what I envisioned the good life to be.


How many hours a week do you work?

There's a funny expression I heard from a colleague of mine: "when you're self employed, YOU get to decide which 100 hours per week you work." It's not that far from the truth and it perfectly captures the paradox of self employment.

Work also manifests itself in different forms. If I'm reading a marketing book, I'm working. If I'm eating breakfast while in my head I'm brainstorming a tagline for a new product, I'm working. If I'm buying some new ink cartridges, I'm working. If I'm at a party and start talking shop with someone, them I'm working there as well.

So perhaps you should ask how many hours a week do I NOT work. That's easy: about as many hours as I'm asleep.


I can’t draw, but I’m good with page layout and text. Can I have a career in graphic design?

Absolutely, and you’ll probably be in high demand if you’re good. Great layout is not easy. Working effectively with type is a skill unto itself. However you will get frustrated with your limited drawing skills and probably try to compensate by using clip art. This is where it gets dangerous.

Inappropriate clip art can destroy an otherwise brilliant design faster than a hard drive crash. If you can’t find the perfect piece of clip art to incorporate in your design, don’t force it. Use shapes, colors, lines, gradients, and typography to create balance and interest instead. This is also where networking can come in handy. Find other professionals, such as illustrators, web designers, or programmers to compensate for your weaknesses. So when a client comes to you with this amazing design project that requires some custom illustration work, you can bid for the whole job and turn the drawing over to someone you know and trust. Everyone wins!


I can draw really well but I don’t like working with text or doing layout. Can I have a career as an illustrator?

Yes, but why limit yourself? It’s much easier for an illustrator to learn design than a designer to learn illustration. The reason is simple; drawing is simply harder and therefore a superior skill. I don’t mean superior in the sense that illustrators are better people, but that it’s harder to master drawing than it is to master layout. So if you’re a brilliant illustrator you’ve already internalized the fundamentals of great design: layout; color, balance, composition, flow, and perspective. Now you just need to apply those fundamentals to layout and typography. This will also dramatically increase your marketability as well as help protect your work from being butchered by an intern. Trust me, seeing a beautiful illustration mired in a hideous layout is truly heartbreaking. At the very least you’ll need good layout skills for your own promotion and marketing, so hop to it and get your typography on.

What computer should I buy.

Sort answer; the best you can afford. At minimum get a top-of-the-line Mac or PC with at least a 4 gigabytes (6 plus gb is better) of RAM and a powerful graphics card. If you get a 64 bit system you can go up to 24 GB RAM and let Photoshop run exclusively in RAM instead of using scratch discs. I highly recommend a RAID 1 system. Don't do RAID 0. You'll be kicking yourself when one of the striped discs fails and takes all your files with it (I speak from experience here).

I prefer at least two arrays of RAID 1 disks. One array for your operating system and programs and another array for your files. So your system would have a total of four hard drives My own sytems has six hard drives. Two1TB Western Digital Caviar drives for my OS. My files are kept on two arrays of Western Digital Caviar 1TB drives (four hard drives total). All of my files are also mirrored on two external RAID 1 hard drives. So at any moment I have six copies of every file that is important to my business. If you’ve never had a hard drive crash, this may seem like paranoia. To those of you in the know, it's just good common sense.

You'll need a good scanner and a good printer. Don't skimp on the printer as you'll be relying on it for comping and proofing. I like heavier matte presentation papers for everyday proofing and a photo gloss stock for final proofing.

While not a computer peripheral, you may need a fax machine. You'll mainly use it for NDA's and other legal documents or making quick black and white copies. You'll hardly use it but clients just expect you to have one. So don't put too much money into this purchase.

Your design can only be as good as your monitor so get the best you can afford. A soft monitor with inaccurate color is going to make your job very difficult. Plus you'll be staring at it for eight plus hours a day so be kind to your eyes.

I'm using the NEC Multisync P221W. Happy with it so far. When shopping for LCD display you must avoid TN monitors. Go with PVA or IPS. Common brands for graphics professionals are Eizo, NEC and LaCie.

For keyboard and mouse just go with whatever feels right for you but you must absolutely get a Wacom tablet. The 6” x 8” will be just fine. The bigger tablets just require you to move your arm around more. I divide my chores. My left hand uses the mouse for scrolling and right clicking and my right hand used the pen tablet for everything else. Set the tablet for single click action and instantly reduce repetitive click motions by 50%. I wrap my pen with some 1/8 inch foam rubber to create a nice wide, ergonomic grip.

As for Mac vs. PC, just go with whatever your friends have. They’ll be your source for tech support and free software. For budget software go to Don’t have an student ID? Then have a student buy it for you.

Me, I'm on a PC running currently Windows 7 Enterprise 64bit. My first OS was NT4. For me the choice was easy. My friends were running Windows and "pound for pound" a PC costs half as much as a Mac. I don't really care about being cool and hip and all the major graphics programs perform the same functions on either PC or Mac. The print shop doesn't care if my PDF's were from a PC or Mac box either. If Photoshop and Illustrator don't care what my operating system is, why should I? But as I said early, get what your friends have or what you're most comfortable with. You'll be happier that way.

Unless you absolutely have to, don't get a laptop as your only computer. The screen and keyboard is in the worst possible ergonomic position. Not a good way to spend 8-10 hours per day. If you must use one, then add a separate keyboard and monitor so you can set up a proper workstation. Plus you'll pay a substantial premium to build a laptop that is worthy as a designer's workstation compared to a desktop system.


What about old school equipment?

As for old school equipment, this really depends on your skill set. My foundation is illustration so I've had a drafting board since I was 12. Currently I have a huge 36" x 56" antique oak drafting board and a nice sized light table. I have about every t-square, straight edge and shape template you can think of. I have a professional drafter's compass, some very good technical pens and ink brushes, several types of erasers, technical drafting pencils and lots of lead ranging from the softest to hardest.

Even if you are strictly a digital designer you'll still need an analog space in which to work on things. Could be that you need a little area to cut out a package design proof and tape it together. Or maybe you need to see if that tri-fold brochure really does fold where you expect it to. Or perhaps you'll need to make a hard copy mock-up of a brochure to work out the correct number of pages. No matter, I guarantee you will need a little traditional workspace. At a minimum get a small drafting board and some basic supplies such as a t-square, a steel ruler, an X-acto knife, a technical pencil and sharpener, a technical pen, a couple of Sharpies, some double sided tape and couple of types of erasers. That will cover most situations.


A final word

Being a designer is a process, not a destination. A design you do today will not look as brilliant five years later. You'll be able to immediately pick out the elements that you would have done differently and be tortured over that one obvious mistake that you should have caught. This experience is most profound when you are young and just stating out. Design work you did when you were 15 will simply not compare to work you do when you are 20. Your work at 25 will be considerably better than your work at 20. Over time this becomes less pronounced. My work at 43 is still better than my work at 40, but not as dramatically as the difference between ages 12 and 15.

So what will be your best work? Whatever you are working on at the moment. When will you have reached your peak? The last moment before you die.

Because if you're not a better designer at 80 years old than when you were 65, you completely missed the point.

This is it. It's your life. So don't be afraid to shape your career to suit your passions, your temperament and your values. In the end, that's all you have anyway.


Clay Butler

Owner of Claytowne

If you're looking for general questions about my design business you can start here.