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You’re artistic and keen to become a graphic designer – but without a design qualification, is it even possible to find work?

Yes, it is. Although qualifications might be helpful, you don’t need a degree in graphic design to kickstart your career.

In fact, according to a recent survey, successful graphic designers are working right now who have no qualifications at all – and many others who only have unrelated degrees.

The survey, conducted by Belfast-based Quinnstheprinters.com, asked a panel of 640 designers about their routes into graphic design – and the results were surprising.

Do I Need Qualifications?

In short, no. Out of those surveyed, a surprising 17% have no third or post-school qualifications at all.

There are a growing number of reputable sites offering informal tuition in all design-related crafts, meaning those without the time to attend college can still get the basic training they need to find work.

Thanks to free online web advertising and the growth of the freelance market, those without formal qualifications can showcase samples of the work and let it speak for itself. They can build a portfolio based on raw talent alone.

Still, it’s common for graphic designers to have additional qualifications…but do you need a university degree?

Should I Go to University?

Out of the 83% surveyed:

65% attended university;

24% attended a technical college; and

11% attended art college or obtained some other relevant qualification through an apprenticeship or placement.

That’s a lot of designers who didn’t go to university! Nonetheless, there’s no point in denying that many recruiters do still value candidates who’ve obtained a graphic design degree.

The degree offers the foundational skills you’re likely to need to stand out in a competitive market, and you get the opportunity to build up a portfolio much earlier – something which will come in handy when trying to impress recruiters.

But with the growth of online and flexible, informal learning opportunities as mentioned, there’s no reason you can’t be proactive in your own time and work on your portfolio.

University isn’t going to be a good fit for everyone. There are countless reasons why you may not choose a university, and a degree doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be any better at the job than someone without the same qualification. So, don’t let a lack of university background put you off that job you’re looking for.

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Do I Need to Study Graphic Design?

No. Out of those surveyed, 41% of them studied graphic design. However, that means there’s still a lot of designers out there without a specific graphic design qualification. A huge 23% of participants studied unrelated subjects, from marketing to journalism.

Why is this?

It’s no surprise that many graduates study degrees or qualifications which don’t suit them. It can take years to figure out what you want from your career, and many undergraduates simply don’t have the knowledge or the tools to make that decision yet.

It’s also clear that a subject-specific qualification like graphic design will not necessarily give you the tools you need to work well. Many graduates feel ill-prepared by their degree for the realities of that work environment – including the art and design world.

What Other Skills Will Help Me?

Being a successful graphic designer is about more than just a qualification. The design market is cutting-edge, competitive, and ever-changing. Arguably, the style of teaching available at colleges and universities is not equipped to deal with the rate of change.

Creative talent, curiosity and an eye for detail are non-negotiable, but you don’t need to learn these skills in a classroom. You’ll need to be driven and keep yourself up-to-date with evolving client demands, and ensure your skills remain relevant and modern.

You might have a degree, but if you don’t keep working on your development, you’ll soon fall behind self-motivated designers.

You must have problem-solving skills. When an issue occurs, the client is paying you to find a crafty solution – you’re a designer, after all. You’ll need to look for answers and, like any successful professional, be great at listening to and communicating with your clients.

Be prepared to explain all creative decisions carefully and clearly. You’ll be managing expectations while still maintaining a positive attitude – leadership skills are essential with this kind of responsibility.  

Does a graphic design degree guarantee you’ll develop all those other skills?

No. You’re as likely to become a great leader by working up an unrelated career ladder, and you can learn responsibility and problem-solve in any discipline. Ultimately, consider a career in graphic design if your skills, personality, and interests align with those of other designers – that’s what matters in this increasingly-versatile market.

Where Can I Get Started?

Still interested in becoming a graphic designer? Great! Here are some tips for getting started on building that dream career:

Make sure you’ve got a positive attitude and the talent to go with it – arguably the two most vital tools you’ll need to make a career in graphic design work.

Try to find work as a junior designer, or other entry-level design opportunities. You can find these online, or by approaching more experienced designers for shadowing opportunities.

Some may request that you have a degree, but this need is becoming more and more outdated. Finding entry-level work will let you see if this truly is a career you want.

Consider the skills you already have, and how they’ll transfer into a career in design. You’ll likely find you have more relevant skills than you realize!

Brush up on your tech skills. Not sure how to use Photoshop or similar programs? Get familiar with these before you start looking for work. Make sure you’ve got the basic foundations you’ll need to score work in this very competitive area.

Become friends with, and network with, other designers. They can pass on useful hints and tips, help you avoid pitfalls, and offer support when things get difficult. You never know, they might even send placements or work experience your way.

Begin working on a portfolio. This is a collection of the work you’re most proud of and gives clients a taste of what you have to offer. You should also have a website and a decent social media presence so you’re easily accessible.

Remember, you don’t need a formal qualification to find the artistic career you want. You just need to be creative – which is all part of the job.

Written By
Laura McLoughlin is a Digital PR based in Armagh, Northern Ireland, with a background in web content creation and management. She writes for Mackenzie and Dorman, solicitors with offices in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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