Making a Living

By Shel Perkins

April 30, 2005

Every year, thousands of hopefuls seek to enter the design profession without quite knowing what it's all about, and without having a clear understanding of how a design career is different from that of, say, a fine artist or an illustrator. If you're getting ready to write a big tuition check to enter a design degree program, or if you've just graduated and are wondering what to expect in the working world, this article's for you!

Creative Careers

If you're a creative person, there are many possible outlets for that creativity—ranging from music to fashion, from architecture to filmmaking. More specifically, if you're interested in visual communication, you may be attracted to a career in fine art, photography, illustration or design. However, it's important to understand that each of these visual career options fits a different personal temperament. All of them involve the creation and use of images, but they are not the same in terms of psychology and work process. It's important to choose the one that's right for you.

Fine Art

Fine artists tend to work alone, selecting their own themes and setting their own standards. The work is all about personal exploration and self-expression. If you choose a career in fine art, you'll be able to set your own schedule and you'll have sole control over your output. Once you are satisfied with a piece, such as a painting or a sculpture, it's finished and will not change after it leaves your hands. To build a successful career, you must enjoy working independently and be good at motivating yourself to get work done. Your income will be generated through the sale of individual items, so you must produce a sufficient quantity of pieces and do a good job of calculating unit prices. Most sales of fine art are made through galleries on a consignment basis. The gallery takes a large commission on each transaction. Some fine artists also pursue grants to support personal projects. The money, which usually comes from nonprofit foundations or government agencies, is a subsidy—it does not have to be repaid. Understandably, there is intense competition for fine art grants.

Photography & Illustration

The careers of some photographers and illustrators are centered on fine art as well—particularly those individuals who create personal images to sell through galleries or who generate personal projects like limited edition books. However, many more photographers and illustrators accept commercial assignments from business clients. Producing work that meets the needs of a client is very different from producing work just for you. Commercial clients specify the imagery, size and media, and you must meet whatever technical specifications are required for the use or reproduction of the work. You must be comfortable in accepting feedback and making any requested revisions. Budgets and schedules must be respected and, all along the way, you must communicate effectively with the client and keep them happy. To get assistance in lining up commercial assignments, you may want to establish a relationship with an agent (sometimes called an artist's rep) who will promote your services, then negotiate the price and terms of each project on your behalf. In exchange, he or she will take a commission. You might also have opportunities to generate licensing income if you have retained ownership of your commercial images and they can later be used in additional ways.


Unlike fine art, the focus of design is not on self-expression or the exploration of personal issues. Being a professional designer means solving business and communication problems. You are providing expert advice and strategic services to clients to help them succeed in a competitive environment. The impact and results of your work will be measured by multiple sets of criteria—both yours and the client's. Each project must meet high aesthetic standards, but it must also meet specific business objectives. Most professional design assignments span several different media such as print, online or broadcast. This means that most assignments require a multidisciplinary team. Projects evolve through an iterative process of multiple design directions and refinements, so you need to be very comfortable with the give-and-take of close collaboration.

There are different ways of structuring teams and different ways of charging for design services. If you are a freelancer who is subcontracting with an established creative firm, meaning that you've been brought in on a short-term basis to help with someone else's project, you'll be paid a freelance rate. If you accept a staff position as part of a creative team, you will negotiate a payroll rate. However, when you're selling services directly to a business client, it's common for design projects to be negotiated on a fixed-fee basis. Some designers are also able to generate income from licensing. Again, this assumes that you have developed and retained ownership of intellectual property, such as product designs or software applications, for which there is additional demand.


For some individuals, teaching might also be a career option, but chances are that it will not be full-time. Most schools of art and design bring in working professionals to teach specialized courses on a part-time basis. There are several benefits to this approach. It gives students access to the latest information and techniques. It also gives them opportunities to develop their personal networks, perhaps learn about internships or freelance gigs and maybe even meet a potential employer. For these reasons, it's common for instructors of art or design to teach in addition to their client-related activities.

Design Skill Sets

If you're interested in becoming a professional designer, there are four essential skill sets that you must possess:


The first requisite is talent. You must have an instinctive ability to exercise good judgment in manipulating the formal elements of visual communication such as contrast, scale, color, pacing and typography. You must be able to use them effectively to develop new and appropriate visual solutions to complex communications problems. If you don't possess this creative ability, or the potential to develop it over the course of your education, then you are not cut out to be a designer.

Technical skills

The second requisite for a successful career is technical expertise—mastery of the current tools that are necessary to produce and implement your solutions. Technical skills are a moving target because design tools are constantly changing. For example, twenty years ago the tools of graphic design included T-squares, stat cameras, waxers and Rapidograph pens. Eventually all of those went out with the trash. Today's basic tools are primarily digital, including such things as QuarkXpress, Adobe InDesign, Illustrator, PhotoShop and Acrobat, as well as Macromedia's Dreamweaver and Flash. However, twenty years from now these in turn will be gone—replaced by even newer tools. This means that each of us must constantly work to expand our technical skills and stay on top of new developments.

People skills

The third requisite is a solid set of interpersonal skills. This means being a good listener and a good verbal communicator who is able to build and sustain positive and productive relationships with others. It means being able to establish and maintain mutual respect. It means having a positive outlook and exhibiting grace under pressure. These positive qualities will motivate others to seek you out. Co-workers will want to have you on their teams and clients will want you on their accounts. Career opportunities will be severely limited for any designer who is perceived to be a lone wolf—defensive, territorial, uncooperative or difficult to understand.

Business skills

The fourth essential skill set for a designer is business savvy. In order to advise our clients, we need to clearly understand their business challenges, trends and options. On each new account, we have to come up to speed very quickly. We also need to be just as smart when it comes to our own marketing, financial and management issues. Business savvy is what makes our careers sustainable over the long haul.

Range of Design Disciplines

The field of design is quite large, spanning many different disciplines. This creates a bit of a paradox. A good designer must be enough of a generalist to see the big picture and develop strategies that are comprehensive, but at the same time he or she must be a specialist in one particular design discipline in order to execute strategy successfully at a tactical level. Each individual component of a system must be delivered in well-crafted detail. Ultimately, of course, it's not possible for one person to know and do everything. You must choose an area of concentration based on your talent and interests, then keep sight of how that piece fits into the larger strategic puzzle. For freelancers and sole proprietors, this means developing personal expertise in a specific area and developing a network of peers in complementary disciplines with whom you can collaborate on an as-needed basis. Larger design firms are able to hire individuals in a range of creative specialties, putting them together in multidisciplinary teams. Together, they are able to plan and execute comprehensive systems with components that span as many different environments and media types as necessary. Depending on the firm and the nature of the client work being done, the following disciplines may be represented:

  • Design planning and research
  • Corporate identity design
  • Communications and collateral design
  • Publication and editorial design
  • Brand identity and packaging design
  • Advertising and promotion design
  • Information design
  • Interaction design
  • Motion graphics design
  • Environmental design
  • Industrial design

Different Team Roles

In addition to bringing your specialized design skills to the group, you will also be functioning in a particular team role. Depending upon the project challenges, teams might include individuals in the following roles:

  • Strategists
  • Designers
  • Implementation specialists
  • Programmers
  • Project managers

There are other possible roles as well, and some people wear more than one hat. In a small firm, it's likely that you will switch back and forth between roles from one project to the next. In a large firm, however, your role may be less flexible.

Potential Employers

The next step in planning your design career is to decide whether you want to be part of an in-house creative department, join an outside consultancy or remain independent. You need to choose the environment where you'll be most comfortable and will be able to do your best work.

In-house department

Many designers accept staff positions within client organizations. If your goal is to become part of an in-house creative team, there are many large businesses that hire design employees on a regular basis, including:

  • Publishing houses
  • Entertainment companies
  • Broadcasting companies
  • Online businesses
  • Major corporations

Staff designers are often responsible for maintaining an existing identity system and making sure that there is creative consistency in all materials produced. In-house teams tend to work on recurring projects. Key assignments often come back on an annual cycle that reflects seasonal promotions and major industry events. One of the biggest advantages of working inside a large organization is the opportunity for ongoing collaboration with product managers and marketing executives. For a young designer, this is an incredible chance to participate in long-term strategy development and to see creative challenges from the client's side of the table. Another advantage that should not be overlooked is that, because of its size, a large company is often able to offer a more extensive benefits package as well as some degree of job security. One negative aspect is that you may have to deal with corporate politics. In a large company, there's always a certain amount of tension between departments over resources, budgets and decision-making authority.

Outside consultancy

Working in a design firm or an advertising agency is a great option for a young designer because it involves a wide variety of creative assignments from clients in different industries. It's also a great way to learn the ropes. You'll have a design mentor plus you'll learn about business practices and pricing. Corporate clients buy a range of creative services from outside consultancies. Most creative firms position themselves as specialists in a particular discipline, such as corporate and brand identity, marketing and communication systems, public relations, advertising, technology services, interactive design or industrial design. Many advertising agencies belong to large holding companies that are publicly traded. In contrast, most design firms are small and privately owned. In fact, it's estimated that half of the design firms in the U.S. have five employees or less. Even larger design firms rarely have more than fifty employees.

Your own company

Finally, you may decide that you don't want to be on anyone else's payroll. You can choose to remain independent. In the U.S., the Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps track of employment trends in a wide range of occupations. Their information indicates that three out of ten designers are self-employed, compared to one out of ten in the overall workforce. Anyone who chooses to be self-employed must come up to speed on a range of important small business issues, including financial management and the basics of business law. In addition to producing great design, you're also responsible for all of your own marketing and sales. Your long-term success will be very dependent upon the amount of personal networking and self-promotion that you do.

Staying Flexible

At the start of your career, it's important to get yourself onto the path that is the best match for your interests, talents and temperament-one that will give you opportunities for personal growth and satisfaction. Once you're on that path, though, it's also important to stay flexible and remain open to new opportunities. The design profession has changed significantly in recent years and it is continuing to evolve. Larger economic shifts are taking place as well. The U.S. economy is moving from being manufacturing-based to knowledge-based, and employment is shifting from permanent staffing to short-term projects that use independent contractors or temporary workers. This places a growing emphasis on expertise, peer networking, collaboration and technology. Designers are at the cutting edge of all this. Success requires brainpower, entrepreneurship and flexibility. As you advance in your career, always look ahead and keep a broad view.