How to make it as a Graphic Designer (without a Design Degree)

Let’s be real — do you need a Design degree to have a career as a graphic designer?

Hellllllll no!

But here’s the truth - without one, you’ll need to work harder, be incredibly self-motivating and and make smart choices. Here are my top 5 tips to make it in this career without a degree in Design (from someone who has):

#1: Don’t have a paying client? Start doing work for friends, family and yourself.

Just starting out and can’t find work? Start doing work for friends (either for free or cheap - whatever you can get!), family, or yourself! Design custom invitations to a party you want to throw, or help a friend with making their website (even though it may be your first). 

You won’t get the honest and much-needed feedback you’ll need to improve with these clients (that’s later in the list), but you WILL get experience and practice. It’ll force you to start somewhere - to open the programs, punch your fear in the face and get started.

#2: Redesign a (fake) website for your favorite brand.

Think about this scenario for a second:

“If your absolute favorite brand hired you as their Creative Director tomorrow and said, “Do whatever you want with our branding and site experience!” How would you approach it?”

This is a great exercise to stretch your creative muscles and be able to design with NO limitations! And what’s more fun than that!? Even better, start thinking about the concept - the big idea, not just the design. What is the brand story? How are you telling it through design? Once complete, it’s another great portfolio piece that shows your chops and really what your aesthetic is and what you're capable of.

The below example is a conceptual Chanel UI design from Mark Maynard.


#3: Sharpen your Skills.

Use the time when you’re starting off to master the ins and outs of Photoshop, Illustrator, and After Effects if you’re ambitious! Watch tutorials and practice, practice, practice! 

#4: Find amazing Creative Directors and learn from them!

I’ve had some amazing Creative Directors in my day (as well as some truly awful ones), but it’s the former who inspired, pushed, and believed in me. They made me want to be better, do better and break through the f’ing glass ceiling.

I attribute a lot of what I know and the opportunities I’ve had because of those few CD’s who have taken me under their wing to be my mentor. Find these people and hold on tight. 

#5: Bust your ass.

Take the Production Designer role if that’s all you can get, but take a job that gets you doing the work and getting your hands dirty.

The best jobs I had in my 20s were at digital advertising agencies where I worked my way up the corporate ladder starting from Production Designer to Creative Director (in MANY years, in many different companies, don’t be fooled!).

This is where I thrived — I learned the basics, got pushed beyond belief, worked with countless big-name companies as their lead designers on the account, presenting to executives of these companies and perfecting my craft. It takes time, but if you keep it it and work your ass off, you can do it too - just like I did.

Not having a degree in design won’t hold you back if you don’t let it.