Earning a graphic design degree gives you lots of career options. When you think about it, almost every human-made thing you interact with during your day has been touched by graphic design, starting at breakfast with your box of Honey Nut Cheerios, carton of oat milk, and morning scroll through Instagram. Every website you visit and app you open, every magazine you pick up and billboard you see, every packaged product you buy (and the ad that urges you to buy it), the logo of every brand you love—in short, any form of visual communication that uses both words and images—was created by a graphic designer.
"Graphic designers make language clear and expressive through visual form, and their skills are in high demand across industries," says Rachel Berger, chair of the undergraduate program in graphic design at California College of the Arts (CCA).
What can you do with a degree in graphic design?
Businesses of every kind use graphic design to display information in memorable and effective ways and make visual sense out of complex concepts and large amounts of data. Whether you want to design a website or a book, a typeface or a corporate logo, there is a job for you as a graphic designer.
"Graphic design is an expansive—and expanding—field," says Berger. "Exciting career opportunities are everywhere, even if the term 'graphic designer' isn't in the job title."
Instead, Berger explains, graduates with graphic design degrees are hired as visual designers, brand designers, product designers, motion designers, digital designers, web designers, logo designers, user interface (UX) designers, and content strategists. They often work their way up the ladder to become creative directors and design managers, leading teams and determining the overall visual direction of a brand.
No matter the job title, graphic design careers embrace both print and digital, still and moving-image design. After graduating from CCA, Denise Kan was seeking a graphic design position at a mission-driven start-up—she now works in-house on brand marketing for online fashion resale platform thredUP. As art director for Heath Ceramics, CCA alum Lisa Ferkel creates video, digital, and print marketing assets; she previously designed cookbooks, including the acclaimed Food52 Genius Desserts, for Berkeley-based publisher Ten Speed Press. Janice Echevarria, holder of a graphic design degree from CCA and currently senior digital designer at Pottery Barn, specializes in brand and marketing design across print, digital, and video platforms.
Other graphic designers pursue careers in adjacent fields to become animators or illustrators. For example, CCA alum Tyson Stryg is putting his graphic design degree to work as a motion graphic designer, animator, and illustrator. He has created album cover illustrations and has worked with some of the world’s top animation studios, including Buck and Nexus Studios.
What can a graphic design career look like?
"A graphic design degree can lead in so many different directions that sometimes the hardest thing for our graduates is choosing a career path," says Marc O'Brien, who teaches the Professional Practice Workshop in CCA's graphic design BFA program.
As a graphic designer, you can choose the type of work environment that suits you best. If you see yourself working in-house—as part of a creative team or a solo designer within a particular company or organization—you can opt for a tech company, a cultural organization, or a nonprofit. If you are leaning toward design agency work, you can look at jobs with large multinational firms or small independent studios, or anything in between. Or maybe you want to work more independently? As a freelancer, you select the projects you want to work on and clients you want to work with.
You can also decide which topics you want to focus on as a designer. Many students who enter a graphic design degree program are looking to establish mission-driven practices after graduation. They seek to apply their visual communication skills to education, public policy, climate change, or the arts.
"Graphic designers can do more than create pretty posters," says O'Brien, who is an advocate for the emerging field of climate design. "They can spark change."
CCA alum Batul Bahrainwala decided to put climate at the core of her practice as a graphic designer. She founded the visual design studio Batul and Co. to provide brand identity and strategy, web design, and packaging design services for sustainability-focused brands. Batul and Co.’s clients include Mindful Knits, a woman-owned sustainable yarn company, and BeeGiving, a campaign aiming to save bee populations in the U.S. through products and education.
Job opportunities for graphic designers
The exponential growth of the technology sector over the last few years has led to an abundance of well-paying graphic design jobs. "All major tech companies are building large in-house design teams and are looking for talented graduates with graphic design degrees," Berger says. "We have alumni working at Apple, Google, Adobe, Dropbox, Microsoft, IBM, Pinterest, Yelp—almost every local tech company."
Tech companies hire graphic designers for both their marketing and product teams. On marketing teams, they focus on brand, visual identity, and marketing campaigns. Graphic designers on product teams collaborate with developers and engineers on the product itself, as visual designers, motion designers, user interface designers, user experience designers, content strategists, and researchers.
In-house job opportunities for graphic designers also abound in the cultural sector, including publishing and the arts. Berger points out that CCA alumni work as graphic designers at almost every museum in the Bay Area, where they design visual identities, signage, catalogs and brochures, exhibition graphics, and marketing and fundraising collateral. Graduates of CCA's graphic design program can also be found at most local publishers, including Chronicle Books and Ten Speed Press, where they work as book designers, design directors, and brand strategists.
Building a graphic design career
"In design school, you concentrate on learning the tools of graphic design," O'Brien says. "After graduating, you decide what you want to build with those tools. In the design world, it's what you build that's important."
What will you build?