Graphic Design Career Path Industry Overview

Graphic design is a booming industry that is constantly growing and changing. Graphic designers are in high demand, but the field can be competitive. It’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into before making the decision to become a graphic designer. In this article, we will explore the different graphic design career paths and what you can expect from each one. We’ll also discuss how to be more than just a Graphic Designer and tips for finding a job in this industry.

We’re going to talk about whether or not graphic design is a good career today. Maybe you’re wondering if you should actually get a degree in design or just teach yourself. I think the graphic design career path is an amazing choice but you need to know some important things before you jump headfirst into it. So if you haven’t done that yet, go ahead and hit the subscribe button because we’re going to talk about some powerful stuff and you need to be notified of everything that we got coming. I’m Adrian Boysel, and let’s go ahead and get right into it.

Opportunities along the Graphic Design Career Path

The first thing you need to consider is the size of the opportunity. How big is this opportunity for you? It really just depends on where you are in your career. If you’re in a position like I am right now, the opportunities are limitless. But if you’re just starting out your career, you may not have a degree yet. And even if you’re passionate about graphic design and you’re a great artist, chances are you’ll still be broke – it’s just the reality of the situation.

So looking at the different sizes of the opportunity, there are different ways to do this. There are different people who talk about this but I want to talk about this tangibly for you and what you need to look at is if you’re just beginning a graphic design career path and the only skill you have is graphic design, the graphic design space is incredibly competitive. You’re competing with people who are willing to work for two, three, four, five dollars an hour – sometimes even less than that – and that’s very difficult to compete with, especially if you’re a US-based creative where the cost of living is much much higher.

Low-Level Opportunities

And so, what I would categorize that as is an opportunity of just being a graphic designer and doing nothing except for graphic design. You’re probably going to be a level one or level two type of creative at that point because you’ll be starting out in your career, which will equal out to you being broke.

Now, as you continue to get more work, build more case studies, build a reputation, get reviews, do all these great things, you’re going to start to scale beyond just doing graphic design. You’re going to start to learn how to do other things, like working on a website, doing some more sophisticated branding designs, and coming up with business cards and stationeries. You may even start working on some YouTube stuff. When you start to expand your skillset and add things on, like marketing, SEO, and web design, you start to increase your ticket price and that opportunity starts to grow.

Mid Level Opportunities

Now you go from level two or three opportunities to a level five opportunity. This is where you go to start being comfortable, you’re no longer making bad money – low income, you may be not making great money but you’re making enough to actually pay your bills, have some extra money at the month and just get by. Right, this is the area that I was in for many years and I stayed stuck there for a very long time. That’s a big part of why I’m doing what I’m doing today; I don’t want people to stay stuck in that zone. Because I got the design, then I got the marketing, but I really didn’t understand how to build an agency or be a great business owner.

This is an area for you to level up from being a level two, three, or four business owner to a level five or six business owner, and ultimately to a level seven business owner. Let’s talk about seven. What does seven actually look like? Well, this is where you go from being a freelancer or consultant and working in just a kind of “for yourself” capacity, or maybe even as an employee, to elevating your game. Now you have a job, you have consistent work coming in, and you want to take the next step. You want to start taking these processes and systems and design work and success that you have and using other people’s time and leveraging other people’s skills to make you more money.

High-Level Opportunities

And so this is the area that I stepped into in 2015. That has been a crazy journey for me, a lot of learning lessons, a lot of stumbling along the way. I’ve really had to go from being a level five business owner to a level six. I don’t think I’m a level seven yet, but I know I will get there. But I’m enjoying the journey of where I’m at because being at level seven – that’s the top-level business owner you can take – but I also was operating for many years in a level five opportunity.

It wasn’t until I really took the Instagraphics brand to heart that I really saw clearly what the opportunity is. For example, the opportunity for Instagraphics is to build a software product, to have a podcast, have courses, have an academy, and have a group coaching program. We actually just released our own group coaching program called the Instagraphics Pro Group. The opportunity is starting to get very big, so now I can start to serve people on YouTube, in courses and content and education, and through software.

The opportunity now becomes endless, where I have a very furious and relentless dream and vision of being a bigger and more established company than Adobe. I’m coming for Adobe as number one in the graphics industry, and I know that it’s possible; that is what we would call a level 10 opportunity that’s going to require a level 7 business owner to achieve that Adobe or bigger level of success. There’s a trajectory that you need to go on and you need to be able to assess the size of the opportunity that you’re in.

Graphic Design Career Types

If you’re a very skilled graphic designer doing world-changing work, and all you’re doing is only graphic designs, you’re only hurting yourself. It’s time to elevate your game and find a bigger opportunity, especially if you’re an employee that has a small opportunity that’s limiting. There’s a ceiling on that, and I want you to smash through it.

So I want to ask you what level of opportunity are you in right now? Are you an employee, a hobbyist, a freelancer, or an agency owner? I want to know, so drop a comment below. When I started out, I said I was only doing graphic design and making $30 on a flyer. At my very best, I was making $10-15 an hour. Which got me by at the time, but it wasn’t a great living. Basically, I was just able to survive. Then I added printing and that increased my ticket price and started to increase my income.

And that’s when I moved into the six-figure mark. So what kind of opportunity are you currently sitting in right now? Maybe you’re sitting on a level 10 opportunity but your level of skill isn’t there yet. So you need to raise that skill set and start to figure out how you can put yourself around people like me, people like Chris Do, or other leaders out there in the industry that can help you level up your skills in this massive opportunity that you’re sitting on.

Pay Scales along the Graphic Design Career Path

The next piece of information you’re probably wanting to know is your pay. Knowing whether the graphic design career path is a good choice is really going to depend on what you’re getting paid. If you’re a starving artist and you’re eating cold food out of a can because you can’t afford anything else, and you have to have 17 roommates, it’s probably not a very fulfilling feeling.

You want to get paid well for what you do, even at the very beginning of your career. $10 to $15 an hour isn’t amazing, but it’s a livable wage – maybe not $10, but $15 an hour. And depending on where you live, can be a livable wage. As you continue to earn your reputation and earn that build that portfolio and become a better creative and better designer.

Graphic Design Positions

So there are really only three categories that I like to put people into. Two of them are business owners, and we’re going to talk about those in a bit. But the first one is being an employee. This is usually the first place where graphic designers start after they’re just doing it on the side as a side hustle or in college. They want to get a job, they want to get an internship somewhere, and be an employee and do graphic design because they’re passionate about being a creative in this area.

Graphic Design Employees

If you look at the actual statistics online, you can Google this yourself: what does the average graphic design employee make? You’re looking at thirty to fifty thousand dollars a year. Ugh, I remember what that was like. I will never go back to that rate because my skillsets have become so sharp. At the same time, though, everybody starts at zero. So don’t feel bad if you have to start as an employee or start as an intern to get your chops and build your portfolio and build your experience. Everybody starts at zero, but this is the first place you need to start and this is something you need to be expecting.

If you’re stepping into that world with your college degree, you’re not going to go out and make six figures – it’s just not going to happen. Unless you’re like some world-renowned artist that’s been doing it for years and all of a sudden has award-winning work – that’s the exception, not the rule. And I want to talk about what the truths are and what the general rules are. Being an employee, you’re going to get the lowest income possible.

Freelance Graphic Designers

Now, as you start to elevate your game, you start to increase your skills. This is where you step out of just being an employee and maybe start to supplement your income as a freelancer. And then, once your freelancing business really explodes, you can be a full-time freelancer.

This is where the incomes really start to shift and change for you; now you start to be comfortable, like I said in the first part, that comfortableness is going to put you anywhere between the 50K and 100K a year range. Now you can start to go on trips, put money away, make investments, and start making strategic decisions to move either towards a more serious graphic design career, an authoritative position as you’ve built a bigger portfolio and have more experience, or start your own business. This is where the third piece comes in and this is where your income becomes limitless.

Creative Agency Owners

This is what I call the creative agency owner. You go from just being a solopreneur/solo freelance business owner and working on side projects for this company and that company, and really capping your income out about the $100,000 a year range, to now you step into a much bigger opportunity and a much bigger pay by upselling other services or selling the time of other people who are on your team. You hire a web designer and get an amazing web designer. They go out and start selling web designs. You charge five, ten, fifteen, twenty, or even twenty-five thousand dollars for a web design.

Now, your thousand-dollar-a-year client or your thousand-dollar lifetime value client becomes a hundred thousand dollars, right? I have dozens of clients and each of these clients pays me a minimum of six figures a year. Imagine what that would be like for you if you were able to get 20 clients that all paid you six figures a year as an agency owner, and all of those tasks were completely delegated to people who were as talented as you – if not more talented.

Skills and Possibilities in Graphic Design

What kind of money could that bring to you and all you had to do was oversee the business and be a great delegator? You can’t do that without a lot of systems and processes and documentation in place, but it’s a journey again—it’s all part of increasing your skillset. So these are things that you need to be thinking about when it comes to calculating and estimating pay at each of the various scenic overlooks along the graphic design career path.

It’s just knowing where you fall along that graphic design career journey. I want to know where you’re at in your journey. There’s no shame, and no matter where you are, whether you’re the most seasoned veteran out there and you’re reading this article, or you’re a brand new newbie who hasn’t even started downloading the design programs yet, it doesn’t matter. I want to know who you are, what brought you to this article, and what part of your career you’re in. Are you an employee, a hobbyist, or a freelancer? Or are you a full-time agency owner? I want to know who’s reading this so I can help create more content that’s going to be able to serve you at an even higher level.

Fulfillment along the Graphic Design Career Path

The last piece is not the least, but it’s the last because it’s very important. I really want to send you guys home with this fulfillment. A lot of people like you and I do what we do because we’re passionate about creating things – an idea that comes into our mind and putting it into the real world. There’s nothing cooler than seeing a hat with your logo on it, or seeing a coffee mug with your logo on it, right? Something that you created that came from your mind, out of nowhere, and all of a sudden is now in a physical product or in a website or something.

There are just a few things that are as fulfilling as seeing your creativity expressed out into the real world, and for creative people, getting fulfillment from what they do is a big part of being a graphic designer. So if you’re creative, you’re an artist, and you like to put things out into the world, graphic design can be a very fulfilling job. If you’re the creative type, like me, you may like to just draw or create or do digital illustrations, or whatever it is that you love to do and create for fun.

Potential Pitfalls

But there are certain aspects of your personality that may limit your success and a lot of these things are really limiting beliefs in your mind that anybody can overcome because a lot of people think that introverts are not good salespeople or people people. However, this is not true. It is actually scientifically proven that introverts are better salespeople because they don’t over-talk and over-speak as extroverts do. Like I do a lot of times, even in these articles, really being honest with yourself and asking yourself a few questions is going to help you narrow down if this is the right career field and if you’re going to get fulfillment for this.

Question One

The first question you need to ask yourself is if you’re an introvert and all you want to do is create and you don’t want to deal with people, then you may just need to be a career employee and focus on doing design work, which will bring you fulfillment. Sometimes, you may have to sacrifice your income to get the fulfillment you want. You’re not going to be able to be the salesperson or business owner.

You may just need to come alongside somebody who is a visionary, like myself, that sees your incredible gift and talent and is okay with you being behind the scenes. It’s not that you’re going to get horrible money, and you can work up over time, but the real truth is that if you’re introverted and you’re not dealing with people or doing sales or relationship things, you’re really going to cap your income because you’re probably going to stay in that employee role.

Question Two

the second question you have to ask yourself is if you are a people person you are extroverted and you do want to help people and serve people and meet people face to face you need to ask yourself if you have the business acumen and the business skills or traits yet to move from employee to freelancer or from freelancer to agency owner it takes a lot of skills a lot of experience a lot of knowledge and If you haven’t done any reading on business, like the best books for graphic designers we’ve covered before, or have any experience in running a business, dealing with clients, or any of that stuff, the first place you want to start is by researching those topics.

So, being a part-time freelance graphic designer who first gets some experience to see if you even like dealing with clients is an important place to start. This is something you want to ask yourself; you have to be super honest with yourself because understanding that fulfillment side is important. If you go out and deal with people, and you go out and have a lot of problems, you’re going to end up burning yourself out and leaving the industry entirely. Maybe that’s really where your heart and your passion were; you just didn’t have the business skills yet. So this is just an important question I think you should ask yourself: where are you at along your journey?

Question Three

The third question you need to ask yourself is huge. I asked this in the Instagraphics Pro Network the other day–and if you haven’t joined that, you really should–do you want to work on a team or do you want to work alone? If you have no interest in delegating and telling somebody what to do and managing them and their personal problems and their business problems and their inefficiencies, then maybe just being a solo freelancer doing some great design work charging some high tickets because you’re really good maybe that’s the answer. Maybe just being a freelancer and staying as a freelancer is where you should be.

Just because you’re a career graphic designer, it doesn’t mean you need to do what I’m doing. My journey isn’t for everybody – trust me, it’s not an easy journey. But if it is for you, you won’t want not only found the right person but you’re going to be able to get the wisdom, the connection, and the community from surrounding yourself with a team and that’s going to lift you up. That’s going to raise your skill sets. It’s going to force you to learn things that you didn’t even know about yourself. So this is why I love entrepreneurship, why I love being a business owner; it’s forced me to become a better communicator, a better leader, a better boss – and all of the things that come along with that. If that’s something that you really want, then being an agency owner is a really good way to get that. 

Question Four

The last question I want you to ask yourself is: Do you value your time and having control over your calendar, or are you one of those people that needs discipline, structure, and a set of task lists to go in and knock out, in order to feel like you’re done for the day? If that’s the case, then you may want to stay an employee. Working your way up from an entry-level intern designer to a senior-level designer can be a great thing for some people. Others want to control their calendar: they want to be able to wake up when they want to wake up, go to bed when they want to go to bed, and deal with clients when they want to deal with clients.

I have complete control over my calendar: for me, that was initially what sparked me to be a business owner. I was working 60, 70, 80 hour weeks in the car business for seven days straight, 14 days straight… It was crazy. They say that when I show up, they get on me if I’m not on time; all the different things just weren’t for me. I’m too much of a rebel, free thinker, and free spirit to ever be an employee. So you just need to be honest with yourself and understand that.

Who do you want to control your schedule? Do you want to control your schedule and your time and how you use it, or do you want somebody else to control that? These are important questions to ask yourself. You really need to take these to heart and think about them. This is all leading back to the question that I said in the beginning: is the graphic design career path a good choice? It’s really subjective and it’s all about the perspective of how you look at it – is it glass half full, or is it glass half empty?

Final Thoughts on the Graphic Design Career Path

These are important things to think about, whether you want to pursue a graphic design career path or not. Graphic design careers can be an amazing choice, but it can also be a horrible one if you’re working in a sweatshop in a third-world country making only a dollar an hour. However, if you’re a creative and get to lead or run a team, or do everything you love to do on a day-to-day basis, then that’s fulfillment.

That’s really what I want for you guys, and that’s what I hope you guys walk away from in this article. Thank you guys so much for reading my thoughts on the graphic design career path and graphic design career types, and make sure you check out the Instagraphics Pro Network on Facebook. This is my invitation as always for you to join – I would love to see you guys there! Make sure you fill out all the questions and I’ll see you guys on the next article. I’m Adrian Boysel, and as always keep looking up!

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