If you feel like you’re the right kind of person to start your own graphic design business, planning is essential. Poor planning could result in you missing the opportunity to ever start your business or you may start your business just to find that you were unprepared and are unable to continue. In our opening chapter we listed the ABCs of what you will need to get started with your own business. In this chapter we will review how you can be sure you have the right training and experience you need to make it. We will also have advice on how to maintain those skills and improve them as the industry changes and evolves so that you’re not left behind.

As professors and professionals we have found that designers often stumble through experience part of their journey to success. Opportunities open up or dry up and people react to the situation rather than planning ahead of time for what to do when these situations and opportunities present themselves. This winding road of experience will often get you there but with just a little foresight and planning you can get there faster and make it further.

Plan a Future,
Don’t Stumble Into One

You can obtain the training you need through formal education or through experience. Both can be equally valuable but both will be more valuable if you plan one or the other a combination of the two rather than waiting for the next opportunity to present itself. Start by considering what kind of designer you want to be. Do you want to specialize in web or print or do you want to work on bigger picture projects and focus on branding. It is important to note that training does not just mean that you taught yourself how to use the programs. The applications and devices that we use are just tools and knowing how to use these tools does not qualify you to be a professional designer.

You will need to acquire a solid understanding of communication theory as well as the core principles and history of design (Yes, history is very important in this field). Just knowing how to use software versus having a deep understanding of design theory and its impact is the difference between taking orders from clients or art directors and being a trusted business advisor who people come to for advice on how to improve their business. It’s also the difference between having a salary that tops off between $40k to $65k and being able to earn $100k, $200k, or even more per year.

As mentioned in Chapter 1, you can take the formal education approach and select a graphic design degree program that you feel is appropriate for your location, timeline and budget. Many employers still value a degree over experience (though we expect this to change over time), so it is certainly a safe bet to take this approach. You may consider an MA or MFA in design as well. A terminal degree in design can open a lot of doors in the industry and pave the way for a higher position and a higher salary. With an MFA you will also be qualified to teach college level courses. This can be a great side job or main job while you are getting your own business started.

Teaching adjunct can offer dependable income and benefits while you build your client list. Teaching is also the single best way to master your craft. Many of the designers we spoke to, including Eddie Opara, Chris Do, Bob Shelley, Greatest Creative Factor’s Brenda Foster and Domenica Genovese shared with us that they make time to teach. It’s an important part of their personal development and how they contribute to the design community.

National Graphic Design Education Program Map

Check out or national graphic design program map to see programs near you for program listing or job listings. You can filter by state, degree level, and find links to every program in the country on the map.

If a formal education isn’t an option or a good fit for you, there are many other ways to gain the knowledge and experience you need to be successful. For those of you who have pursued a formal education or intend to, this does not let you off the hook for the steps outlined below needed to stay up to date and remain valuable to your clients. Design is constantly changing in every way from trends and techniques to the technology and tools that we use. If you aren’t learning consistently and working hard to continually educate yourself, you will have a hard time staying in business for very long.

Whether you plan on going to school or teach yourself, we have 4 important recommendations for you to gain the knowledge and experience you need to start your own graphic design business. These practices and resources are for experienced design veterans as well.

  1. Learn the tools
  2. Create a reading list and read it.
  3. Find a professional mentor and build a network.
  4. Get some professional experience.

1. Learn the Tools

Knowing how to use the tools of the trade is the easiest part of being a designer. That’s not to say that it is easy. If you’ve never mastered InDesign or perfected the pen tool in Illustrator there can be a steep learning curve when you’re starting out. The good news is there are many great online training programs that are inexpensive and even free. There are new tools, programing languages, and updates to familiar software all the time. Keeping up to date with the latest Photoshop tricks and new devices is important to being competitive in your field. So even if you have a lot of experience with the software, these resources can keep you up to date and give you a competitive edge as you learn newer and faster ways to design.

Lynda.com is one of the most popular and best learning platforms available and costs a very reasonable $29 a month. Lynda has video tutorials on all the software you will need to master as well as tracks for different skill levels and specialized use. The advantages of a service like Lynda include:

  1. Video instruction that is easy to follow- there’s no fumbling between a book and your software screen
  2. You can view them at your own pace and on your own schedule
  3. It’s kept up to date as software companies update and change their products
  4. It is extremely affordable

One of the biggest advantages of Lynda.com is that it has planned sequences of class material that builds on early lessons as you advance. There are many free tutorials on YouTube and elsewhere but these can be problematic if they assume you have knowledge and skills you may not have learned yet. Some other great resources include Codecademy, Adobe Tutorials, and Udemy. There are many more out there and plenty of individuals on YouTube who post free video tutorials as well. Spending time learning new tricks and staying up to speed on software updates is essential. You will need to make time for this even when your business is doing well and even if you feel you have mastered your craft.


2. Create a Reading List

There’s a popular notion floating around the internet that the average CEO reads 60 non-fiction books a year. This might be a bit of a stretch for most CEOs but there are no shortage of articles citing good data that suggests that most CEOs do read a lot of non-fiction books. You should too. Reading about design practice and theory as well as related subjects is essential for staying sharp for your field. As mentioned in the bio, both authors of this resource are active or retired college professors. We’ve put together a list of recommended books that cover everything from basic communication theory to the history of graphic design. Read them. We recommend hard copies since it’s easier to bookmark and refer back to them, but audio books are also convenient if you prefer to listen to the content on your drive to work, while cooking dinner or at the gym.

Recommended Reading List

We’ve asked our colleges at design firms and colleges around the country for their recommend reads. Bookmark this list and check it often for new titles to add your reading lis.

3. Find a Mentor and Build a Network

Reading about best design practices won’t be enough to make you a designer, you’ll need hours of experience as well as guidance and constructive criticism. We recommend that you find a mentor. This could be a friend who is a design professional or you could reach out to a local designer whose work you admire. A good way to find professional designers near you is to join your local AIGA branch.

Ask to meet up with them over coffee once a week (or as often as works for your schedules) and have them critique your most recent projects. Trust their judgement and know that they are offering criticism constructively and that they are basing it on their experiences in the industry. Ask them to let you know if there is one particular area that you should strive to improve in, for example, typography or layout, and try to make progress in that area before you meet with them again. They are offering you their time and knowledge and might not want anything in return, but it would be polite to buy their coffee or lunch as a thank you.

In addition to finding a good mentor it’s important to build a network of fellow designers who are active and innovative. This can be done locally through friends and organizations or it can be done online through social media groups and email. It’s important to bounce ideas off of other professionals and to hear about what people are doing creatively and professionally. You may find that you get some of your best business through these networks in the form of referrals. You might even find yourself subcontracting work to them if you have more business coming in than you can handle. More importantly you will have people around you who challenge you and help you continue to grow as a designer and as a business owner.

AIGA Chapter Locator

There are many design organizations and groups that you can join to start building your network and finding some mentors. AIGA is one of the most recognized and respected. Check out their chapter locator to find a chapter near you and make it out to some events that they’re hosting. You are sure to meet talented and helpful people.

4. Get Some Experience

We do not recommend that you try to take on paying clients before you are ready. Working at a creative firm in an entry level position or as an intern is a great way to get the business experience you need to start working with clients. Pro-bono work is another great way to gain experience, and an opportunity give back to the community in a way your future clients will notice. It will give you a chance to interact with a client on a professional level and understand how your skills can serve their organization and business needs. It will also give you portfolio work that you can show to future paying clients as examples of how you have used your design skills to benefit a real and functioning organization. You can find local listings of non-profit organizations online that may be looking for help with their design and communication needs.

Internships can offer invaluable working experience that you will never get in the classroom. If you are in school or considering going to school we would recommend that you make time for at least 2 internships while you are there. One with a creative agency and one in–house with a big brand. At an agency you will see first-hand how a creative agency organizes time and budgets and how they acquire and retain clients. At an in–house position you will see what clients look for in a creative agency and how do they find specialists for certain kinds of design work. You will also learn what kinds of things clients don’t like when working with agencies, better equipping you to serve them when you do start your own business. If you can see both sides of the business relationship with these two internships you will be in a great position to understand both sides of the business relationships you have with your clients when you start your own firm.

Chapter 2 Conclusion

With a checklist and a little planning, you will have more control over where your career and your business end up.

  1. Consider what kind of design work you want to focus on and what tools you need to master to do that work.
  2. Make a list of books you will read this year and get started. Check our list of recommended books
  3. Join a local design professional organization such as AIGA, attend a local conference, reach out to a few potential mentors and see if they’d like to meet you for coffee
  4. Make a list of possible places you could intern at or apply for a temp design job to get your foot in the door
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