Becoming a junior graphic designer isn't easy, but there are many ways to get there, number one is your portfolio

Being a Junior Graphic Designer: Everything You Need to Know

While it has been many years since I’ve been a graphic designer, my research tells me that, aside from technology, this career hasn’t changed much. So, I want to share my experience as a junior graphic designer, and why I chose to move in a different direction.

I worked for amazing fun people at a design shop that specialized in pop-up invitations and package design in Reno, NV. They brought me on as a freelancer for a single project and then hired me full-time to work on a range of projects.

Junior Graphic Designer Highs and Lows
Day to Day: What Does Being a Junior Graphic Designer Look Like?
Technical and Conceptual Skill Sets
Graphic Designer Soft Skills
Junior Graphic Designer Salary
Freelance or Full-Time
Where To Find Junior Graphic Designer Jobs
Health Risks for Graphic Designers
How Long Does It Take To Become a Graphic Designer?

Junior Graphic Designer Highs and Lows

Graphic designer benefits

It was amazing getting to come up with creative concepts and fun ideas. I also loved the people I worked with and we had really interesting conversations. The shop was small, so there were just three or four of us in the office at any given time. It felt like a cool club that I got to be part of. 

The owners were great at getting us all together for dinners or having a happy hour to connect outside of work. The work was challenging and interesting some of the time. It’s also satisfying to get recognition for your good work, and we won a Communication Arts award for the work I did with them.

Junior graphic designer challenges

I was dreaming in Illustrator, using the pen tool mostly. I would wake up after hours of dreaming about work, then I’d have to get ready and go to work. And while it’s great to be able to be creative at work, I found that I didn’t have energy when I got home to work on my personal projects. I went from being very prolific as a painter to making and finishing very little work. 

Clients are another challenge. They always want the logo to be bigger. Many artists have good taste, and many clients don’t. It was always hard to see a project go out the door that I thought looked like hell, even if the client was happy with it. I was doing a lot of work for casinos, and their aesthetic was and is nothing like mine. 

Graphic design professional project, designing vodka labels

I also worked with a client manufacturing liquor bottles. That sounds fun, and it was. One client added my birthday to the barcode of one popular bottle I illustrated and helped design. But that industry was very conservative at the time, which meant that most of my favorite ideas went unused. That’s a blow to the ego and it can be difficult to keep inventing when your ideas are constantly rejected.

Day to Day: What Does Being a Junior Graphic Designer Look Like?

I was working 45-50 hour weeks. I was first in the morning, usually going in around 7:30 am, because I liked to start in the quiet. The owners usually came in around 9 am. I’d get immediately to work on my latest project. 

Many projects were simple but time-consuming, like color-correcting a photo or creating vector drawings. Other projects were more collaborative– making small edits with a lot of back and forth on type, composition, mock-ups, and presentations.

I often ate lunch at my desk but had the option to head out for a break. Honestly, I was usually so immersed in the work I’d forget to eat. It took many years for me to create healthy and sustainable work habits.

Technical and Conceptual Skill Sets

I completed my BFA in Illustration, with a couple of classes in motion graphics and what was then-called desktop publishing. My desktop publishing teacher, Bernard Caniffe, was an amazing teacher. He gave me a chance to spend some extra time in his classroom so I could create a portfolio that combined my illustration work with graphic design to improve my job prospects. 

I started doing freelance design projects while I was still in school and formed a solid portfolio to apply for jobs, and my first junior graphic designer job was with CLM Design Group in Reno. 

A lot of learning in graphic design still happens on the job, because the skills you’ll use most will often depend on what the client needs. 

Basic art classes can help you learn foundation skills that lead to career success in design and other disciplines

I came in with strong skills in composition, illustration, and typography. I spent a lot of time working on kerning type and using layers. Planning is also very important when you’re creating large-scale banners or 3D design projects. A single wrong measurement can ruin everything. My hand skills from traditional illustration were also very helpful for creating client mock-ups for proposals.

Graphic Designer Soft Skills

It is easy, when you’re on a computer all day, to become antisocial. I still remember one of the owners asking me to come into her office, and I leaped into the day’s work and what I needed from her to move to the next stage of my work. She said, “Good morning”, and I waved it off. She said it again and asked me to remember to say good morning. I was so into the work I wasn’t acknowledging her as a human being. 

So, yeah, being kind and remembering we’re all just people doing a job is important.

If you plan to move up as a graphic designer, developing your ability to accept and use critique is important. So is listening to clients and the team. It’s hard for non-visual people to communicate the vision they have in mind. Over time, you can use your listening skills to make educated guesses that can save everyone a lot of time and hassle.

Junior Graphic Designer Salary

The national average starting salary for a junior graphic designer is about $45,000 a year. But that figure can change a LOT based on your past experience and the location where you work. There are more remote design jobs now than ever before, and that can also skew salary averages.

Freelance or Full-Time

Starting freelance is a great idea when you’re building your portfolio. It’s a good idea to start family or friends who need something. My first gig as a freelancer was designing promotional materials for my sister’s college dance show at San Francisco State. My most recent freelance design gigs have mostly been creating logos and branding for sites my partner runs. These opportunities paid me properly and were easy to find. They were also great learning experiences. 

If you want to expand your reach, getting a professional design internship is another great option. Try to intern in a new city if you can, and get out of your comfort zone. 

Freelancers also tend to make more money as you develop your graphic design experience. But junior graphic designers may have a hard time making enough income if they stick with freelancer jobs alone. 

Full-time positions for junior graphic designers are a great way to build your portfolio and knowledge. Start-ups are also a great option if you want to grow your pay and skills because you’ll learn how to do more than traditional graphic design. 

Adding video, motion graphics, photography, or web design to your graphic design portfolio are all great ways to improve your chances of getting hired for a competitive full-time gig.

Where To Find Junior Graphic Designer Jobs

If you’re looking for your first junior graphic designer gig, start local. Your favorite local design shop may not have any openings now. But if you get in touch, show them your portfolio, and keep trying, something will usually open up. 

There are a ton of junior graphic designer jobs online too. Keep in mind that there are hundreds of people applying for these positions, so it could be more difficult to secure a position this way. 

Building a strong portfolio is the best way to get a job as a junior graphic designer

Persistence is important, and so is constantly improving your skills. If you feel like your portfolio is just a collection of class assignments, start looking at design websites for inspiration. Create your own versions of the best work you see online. Copy the styles you like and play with them to make them your own.

Health Risks for Graphic Designers

Repetitive stress injuries are typical for graphic designers, especially conditions like carpal tunnel because they require so much small repetitive movement. Get a good mouse, keyboard, desk, and chair that work for you. These items can all impact your ability to continue to use your hands freely to create work. Eye stress is also common, so think about lighting in your workspace and practice looking away from your screen every 15 minutes.

How Long Does It Take To Become a Graphic Designer?

For many people, becoming a junior graphic designer is the most difficult step because of the competition. There are thousands of people out there with graphic design degrees. Some schools offer more specialized instruction than others, which has a major impact for graduates in this career when they’re searching for jobs. 

The primary deciding factor is your portfolio. If you have a strong foundation in design, you should be able to build a professional portfolio. If not, you’ll need the energy and investment to keep working in another position while building your portfolio to secure a design job. 

It was very fast and easy for me to secure a full-time job as a junior graphic designer. So easy that I didn’t appreciate the opportunity as much as I could have. I decided very quickly that I could be a great graphic designer if I wanted to, but I didn’t want it enough to push myself. 

I sometimes regret changing paths how and when I did, but I made the best decision I could with where I was at the time.  I’m lucky that I still get to design now and then and that it remains a big part of my life. These are some of my favorite sites to go when I’m looking for inspiration:

It’s Nice That
I Love Typography
The Design Blog

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Post by Jana Rumberger