Whether you’re a freelancer or just starting out as a professional graphic designer, here are some must-have skills you’ll need to get ahead. Some people have a formal education in graphic design, others are self-taught creatives. Luckily, the design industry is a vast market, so if you’ve got talent, you’re already en route to landing a good design gig.
And yet, talent can only get you so far. If you want to land the graphic design job of your dreams, here are 10 skills you should consider acquiring. Some of these technical skills are pretty essential for graphic designers, so if you already have some know-how, consider perfecting these important skills to get ahead of the competition.
On the other hand, some skills from this list fall into the category of the so-called “soft skills” so if you’ve been cooped up in your room, working on your technique, this is another side of professional design you need to pay a little attention to.
Essential technical skills
Let’s start with the most essential skills: the ones you need to actually design. There are lots of different design programs but hiring managers will generally ask for skills in some of these most popular ones.
1. Adobe Photoshop
Photoshop is one of the most widely used design programs. This raster graphics editor allows you to work on a range of design projects, from photo manipulation to digital painting.
While there are some great free options, a professional designer needs a professional program. Photoshop used to be available as a boxed copy which cost around $700, but now you can use this design software by subscribing to Adobe Creative Cloud for as little as $10 per month.
2. Adobe Illustrator
Illustrator is another major brand name in the design industry, that you’ve probably heard of even if you haven’t used it yourself. This vector graphics editor and design program is used for a variety of digital and print production graphics. Illustrator is better suited for logo design and graphical illustrations, while Photoshop should be your choice for photo editing and photo-based graphics.
Adobe Illustrator is only available via subscription and costs $19.99 per month. If you’re looking to improve you can also download a 7-day free trial version.
Sketch is one of the most popular programs used for web design, like user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design.
UI and UX design are very specific types of graphic design, so don’t expect them listed in every job description. Still, bear in mind that web design is generally paid more than other types of graphic design so if you’re looking to make more money, these are definitely the skills you should work on!
4. Adobe InDesign
The last design software from the Adobe Creative Suite you should definitely try to master is InDesign. It’s a desktop publishing and typesetting program.
InDesign is more complex than QuarkXPress (a similar software we talk about in the “Other skills” section). So if you’re just starting out as a print designer, it may not be the most beginner-friendly option. However, it’s compatible with more operating systems.
Knowledge of basic design principles
Whether or not you have a formal education in graphic design won’t determine how successful you will be in your graphic design job. Nonetheless, a basic understanding of some key graphic design principles is a must for anyone with a graphic design job. Knowing why something works will also help you improve your visual communication skills, allowing your designs to fulfill their intended purpose with greater efficiency.
5. Alignment and Balance
The alignment of different design elements is used to create the balance and stability of the overall design. Balance can be symmetrical or asymmetrical. The first concerns the even distribution of design elements, while the latter uses scale, contrast and color to achieve a stable design or create a good flow.
Hierarchy is extremely important in professional design, for example when designing infographics. A skilled designer will know how to make sure that the most important design elements take the main focus.
Non-designers might think that repression makes for lazy design, but this is actually one of the key design principles. It’s especially important for brand identity design since good branding requires repetition for visual coherence.
8. Color theory
Color theory is the foundation of sound graphic design. It’s based on the color wheel and concerns the different types of colors (primary, secondary etc.) and how colors are mixed (hues, tones, etc.). Graphic designers use color theory to create different combinations of colors, like contrasts or complementary colors.
Additional software skills
Professional designs rarely stand on their own; they are usually needed for a certain purpose. So some additional technical skills used for either publishing your designs or editing for a certain context can be very useful.
WordPress is perhaps the most popular free content management system (CMS), used by global brands such as BBC America, PlayStation, Disney, etc.
Understanding visual communication is critical, but knowing how to add your designs to the company platform can be a tremendous help to your team.
10. Word processing software
Text is one of the key design elements and although designers don’t write it, they need to know how to present it. This includes choosing knowledge of typography, but also might require additional skills in the realm of word processing software. For example, some knowledge of Microsoft Word or Adobe Acrobat will be useful for print designs.
Not technically a word processing software, but related to the print industry is QuarkXPress. This print production software is used for creating and editing complex page layouts (e.g. for magazines and newspapers).
It may seem like a stretch, but knowing the basics of a coding language like HTML or CSS can put you at a real competitive advantage over other applicants. Of course, this doesn’t mean becoming a web developer. You need to understand enough to be able to communicate with web developers seamlessly and perhaps have a basic understanding of what a certain programmer can or can’t do and design within that framework.
Some of the following skills are present in almost every job description and relate to personal and professional skills which are highly sought after in the 21st century.
12. Time management
Freelancers are usually able to manage their time however they like, however without great time management skills they might find themselves missing deadlines and taking on more projects they can realistically complete.
On the other hand, designers who work as part of a team need to have excellent time management skills to ensure that the different design projects they are tasked with are all completed in good time. This also includes problem-solving skills allowing you to respond quickly to urgent requests or tasks that might come up mid-project.
There are different project management software that can help you with that, like Asana, Trello, or Monday.
13. Social media
If you want to design for social media, it’s very useful to have a basic understanding of how certain channels work. And we’re not talking about just the technical side of things like image sizes or format requirements. You should also try to keep up with the current social media trends as much as possible so that you can better understand and respond to creative briefs when designing for platforms like Instagram, Facebook, or YouTube.
14. Communication skills
It’s clear by now that a graphic designer needs an incredibly wide skill set. Despite the common belief that design work involves sitting alone in a room waiting for inspiration to strike, the reality is that graphic designers often work in teams. They might answer to a creative director or project manager, but when it comes to actually creating the work they collaborate with writers, marketers as well as clients from different walks of life.
Not everyone (if anyone) of them will know the design industry jargon, so refined communication skills are really important to ensure that everyone stays on the same page. Of course, having strong technical skills and knowledge of design principles will certainly come in handy when you need to explain your design decisions to others.
We hope this list will help you determine potential areas of design where you might want to improve or give you useful suggestions on how to expand your skillset.
Don’t forget that ManyPixels works with plenty of creative agencies, so if your design team lacks expertise and skills for a specific project, one of our skilled designers can help!