“To be a successful designer, you have to develop good people skills. It is a serious misconception to think a designer can work alone without dealing with people.”

David Varmecky is an assistant professor of graphic design and photography at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, Missouri. He teaches courses in photography, graphics and web design.

David has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography and Graphic Design, as well as a masters degree in the same subject. Before deciding to teach, he worked as a senior graphic designer at several studios in California.

In your own words, what is graphic design?

Graphic design is a rapidly evolving field in which designers combine artistic and technical skills to communicate a message to the public. It used to involve designing print media, such as books, brochures, posters and advertisements, although the focus has recently shifted to designing websites and other forms of digital communication.

What classes do you teach in graphic design?

One type of class I teach is about Adobe design suites, in which students learn how to use Adobe Illustrator and InDesign, both of which are widely utilized programs for design layout and illustration. Although the preferred software packages change frequently since graphic design is such a cutting-edge career, Adobe is considered standard, so it is important that students know how to use it well.

I also teach courses in graphics, which cover the basic theories and principles behind graphic design production, such as design concepts and problem solving.

Somewhat related to that are my digital photography courses, which are very relevant to graphic design since a lot of our work involves manipulating digital photographs. In this class, students learn about the way a camera works and how to take high-quality photos. Then they learn to use Adobe Photoshop to refine the photographs for use in their designs.

Finally, my web design course can be taken once students have become proficient with various design tools and the theories of graphic production. Then they can implement all those techniques into creating websites with Adobe InDesign.

How long have you been a professor of graphic design?

I have been a professor of graphic design for 5 years now. Before I moved to Missouri to teach, I worked at design studios in Los Angeles and Sacramento, California. One of my jobs focused on branding and corporate identification. I also worked for a computer programming company that created advertisements using graphic design.

Although I enjoyed the work I was doing, graphic design in studios is very deadline-oriented, especially in big cities like Los Angeles. It can wear you out after a number of years. As a solution, I decided to enter the teaching profession and I plan to stay at this university until I retire.

If a student said to you, “I am interested in studying graphic design,” what would your response be?

I would tell students that they are picking a great field because graphic design is a business that is growing in size. There are career opportunities in many different areas. For example, designers are needed by corporations, ad agencies, publications and design studios. It seems like any large organization has at least 1 or 2 graphic designers on its staff.

However, I would also caution students to consider the high-pressure nature of the business. In order to meet deadlines, they will have to produce quality designs in a timely manner, which will require that they develop methods for working efficiently.

In your opinion, what are the biggest hurdles or difficulties that students entering a graphic design program have?

One difficulty that students commonly have is the misconception that they can specialize right away in a specific sub-discipline, like animation. The reality is that graphic designers will be limited wherever a student finds a job, so they will have to do whatever project comes along. They need to have the skills and willingness to do just about anything.

What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as a graphic designer and what traits would hinder success?

To be a successful designer, you have to develop good people skills. It is a serious misconception to think a designer can work alone without dealing with people. Whether you choose to work for a company or for your own business, you will have to sell your work. You will spend a lot of time talking with clients and working out problems with them. This requires that you be able to communicate well and provide friendly service.

Because people skills are so important, it is obviously a significant disadvantage if you are too introspective. Designers that keep to themselves usually end up working in dead end places. You need to get used to putting yourself out there to pitch your ideas to clients and your own employers.

What courses in graphic design are most important for a student to take?

You need to take courses that teach you a wide variety of design tools and web design concepts. Graphic design is a job with many different responsibilities, so you need a very diverse education. In that way, no class is most important because they are all dependent on one another.

Outside of graphic design, what courses would you recommend to a student?

I would certainly recommend that students take basic classes in business and marketing. Graphic design students need to know business and marketing strategies in order to be successful and competitive. Those 2 areas are always good minors for graphic designers to have because so many of them go into business for themselves at some point.

What skills can students expect to gain while studying graphic design?

Students in graphic design programs will learn technical and artistic skills, which are equally important to a designer. On the technical side, they will learn how to manipulate photographs and graphics using tools like the Adobe design suite. Artistically, they will learn to effectively utilize color and typography to communicate. They will also spend a lot of time drawing because it is important to visually express ideas to others. In fact, most of the design process is done on paper. You simply translate those drawings to the computer later.

Can you give a few study tips that would help a graphic design student succeed student succeed?

You will need to be passionate and hardworking to succeed in this job, and those habits should be built while you are studying in school so the work environment does not come as a shock. You should plan to arrive to class early and stay late every day. If you decide to go into graphic design as a career, that is what your job will be like.

For a student who is not interested in an academic career, what is the optimal level of education needed for a job in the field of graphic design?

There isn’t one optimal level of education in graphic design because you do not necessarily have to get a degree to be successful. Most employers are interested less in your formal education than in your portfolio. You can learn the mechanics of graphic design independently, but you have to prove that you are skilled with a legitimate portfolio.

What is the job outlook for students with degrees in graphic design?

There are many job opportunities within graphic design. People commonly pursue jobs at design studios, ad agencies or corporations with in-house advertising teams.

Graphic design has many specialized opportunities as well. For example, one of my students found a niche drawing cartoons for publications in New York and Los Angeles. Other specialties might be illustration and calligraphy. However, jobs that particular are only available in metropolitan areas.

To stay competitive in the job market, I suggest joining a graphic design organization. Go to the meetings and share your work with other designers. That will help you to become part of the community, which will be very important. In this industry, it helps to make contacts who can connect you to job prospects, so you want to make your work as visible as possible.

How can undergraduate students prepare themselves if they are interested in studying graphic design at the graduate level?

If you are interested in studying this subject as a graduate student, you need to start by getting your undergraduate degree in graphic design. I highly suggest earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts rather than just a Bachelor of Arts because it will increase your chances of getting into graduate school. Additionally, you should participate in both the art and business departments at your undergraduate institution so you can gain a broad view of how to be successful in the field.

After your undergraduate program, research the instructors at any graduate institution you are considering. Only pick a school if you have an affinity for the kind of work that its graphic department produces. In grad school, it is crucial to work with people who think the way you do.

What advice do you have for students who are interested in studying graphic design?

If students want to study graphic design, they need to know that it takes artistic skill, technical proficiency and business savvy. They cannot be successful if they neglect any of these areas. They will need to practice drawing every chance they get and become comfortable on a computer. They should also develop marketing and communication skills because they will need to make presentations as part of their career. At the end of the day, designers provide a service and they have to know how to make that service available to clients.

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