“One of the most important lessons you need to learn to succeed as a graphic designer is how to value your work, whether you are an in-house designer or a freelancer.”

Jessica Greenwalt is the owner of Pixelkeet, a web design and development firm in San Francisco, California. She is also a freelance graphic designer. She designs everything from websites and product packaging to smartphone apps.

Jessica has a Bachelor of Science in Graphic Communication from California Polytechnic State University. She has collaborated with clients from all over the world to produce award-winning designs.

In your own words, what is a graphic designer?

A graphic designer is someone who produces commercial art, which is art that promotes a product or service. A graphic designer can work in areas such as web design and development, advertising design, packaging design and branding. An up-and-coming area of graphic design is application design for smartphones.

I develop designs for a wide variety of products. I am currently working on advertising campaigns for LinkedIn. I also provide marketing consulting services to my clients to help them come up with new ways to advertise their products.

What level of education is necessary to become a graphic designer?

You do not necessarily need any degree to become a graphic designer. Your success depends on how much effort you put into learning, regardless of the environment you are in. You could develop your skills by researching design techniques in books and on the Internet and be just as successful as you would be studying the same information in school. A benefit of being part of a school program is being surrounded with people in the same industry who you can learn from.

The experience of going to college will help you learn to interact with people. You have to have strong people skills to succeed as a graphic designer, and getting a degree in any field will likely help you acquire and practice those skills.

Why did you decide to become a graphic designer?

When I was a kid, I always wanted to be an artist, and I wanted to own a business. I didn’t know what options were available for artists, but I found out about graphic design in high school and realized that I had discovered the perfect career. Now I get paid for doing what I love.

What were the biggest misconceptions you had about becoming a graphic designer?

One of the biggest misconceptions I had about becoming a graphic designer was the idea that I would spend every day creating art that I would find frame-worthy. Unfortunately, that is not usually the case. Because designers normally create designs for companies, they may work on things like pharmaceutical packaging or construction company marketing materials. Those aren’t the pieces of art that kids dream of making when they decide to become artists, but that is the bulk of what graphic designers do.

I also didn’t realize that design requires the ability to work well with others. I thought I would just focus on designing, but the truth is that I have to talk to clients all of the time. The most important part of graphic design is understanding exactly what my client needs, and I couldn’t do that without good interpersonal skills.

What do you enjoy most and least about being a graphic designer?

What I enjoy the most about graphic design is the freedom of working on my own as opposed to working for a company. I can decide which project to work on, when I work and when I take a break. Design is also just something that makes sense to me. I feel as though this is my calling.

What I enjoy least about graphic design is the industry’s dependence on the economy. When clients don’t have as much money as they are used to, they try to spend less on design work, resulting in less impressive projects. The slow economy has actually been good for my business, however, because I own my own design company. I’ve found that large companies lay off in-house designers when the economy is in recession, so they find independent graphic designers to work on their projects.

What is a typical day like for you?

My work days vary depending on the projects I have to complete, but I start the day by going through e-mails from clients. When I get a new project, I draw up a draft design based on the information I received from the client and send it over to them. After they tell me about any revisions they would like, I start working on the mock-up, which is a full first draft of the design. I go through the same process of revising the design and sending it back to the client until they are satisfied. If I can’t think of an idea for a design I might brainstorm or take a walk to find some inspiration.

Depending on the client, I might have quite a bit of decision-making control over the design. Some clients aren’t entirely sure what they want, so they usually accept my suggestions. Larger clients, like companies and universities, have set style guides that I have to follow. I have very little creative control over those projects.

How do you balance your work and your personal life?

That is one of my biggest challenges as a freelance designer. I don’t have a boss telling me to work, but I work from home, so I am constantly surrounded by half-finished projects waiting for my attention. I have to force myself to stop working every once in a while so that I can maintain my personal life.

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

You need to be good at managing your time to succeed as a graphic designer. At least as a freelancer, you won’t have anyone constantly demanding anything from you. You have to be able to set your own goals and make sure that you meet them.

You also have to be good at dealing with clients. Some clients will not share your point of view or design taste. And every once in a while, you will get clients who are just mean. That is part of every client-based business, and you will have to be able to deal with it if you want to succeed as a graphic designer.

Looking back at your formal education, is there anything you would have done differently?

If I could go back to college, I might have gone to an art school. I would have had the chance to meet more people who went into my industry. I have also noticed that people who went to a specialty art school have a great education and do fantastic work. On the other hand, art school is expensive. Cal Poly, where I went, is a technical school and is known for being a good value.

Are there any extra-curricular experiences that you think a student interested in becoming a graphic designer should pursue?

You should try to get one or more internships if you want to become a graphic designer. An internship can help you build your portfolio, get a sense of what it is like to work as a graphic designer, and help you find a job when you are finished with school.

What classes did you take during your schooling that you have found to be the most and least valuable for the work you do today?

Typography and color theory are the most useful design classes for the work that I do today. Typography is about different fonts and how to arrange text, which is a really important part of design. An advertisement will look unprofessional if the typography is off.

Color theory is about the events and emotions that people associate with different colors, both in this country and in other parts of the world. Color is so important that I select my color palette first, before working on any of the details of a project.

The least useful course for me was calculus. I have not had to do any advanced math as a graphic designer.

If you decide to become a graphic designer, you should try to develop a range of artistic skills so that you are flexible in the type of art you can create. Most of the time, you will design something according to what a client wants, not according to your own tastes, so it helps if you can work in more than just the styles and media that you like.

What words of advice or caution would you share with a student who is interested in becoming a graphic designer?

One of the most important lessons you need to learn to succeed as a graphic designer is how to value your work, whether you are an in-house designer or a freelancer. If you want to work for a firm, do your research and find out what a company in your area should pay a designer. Look up salaries in your area at Glassdoor.com, which will show you a person’s individual title and salary range. Other good salary websites are Salary.com and Monster.com.

If you become a freelance graphic designer, it is also important not to undercharge. That brings down the value of graphic design for the entire industry and limits your ability to make a living. Refer to The Graphic Artist Guild Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines, which is a comprehensive list of design projects and how much a designer should charge for each.

Also, even if you want to do freelance work, consider working at a design firm when you first start your career. You can learn more about the industry and understand what type of pressure graphic designers work under when they are at a firm.

Finally, don’t accept a project unless the client pays you part of your fee in advance and signs a contract. Some designers don’t take those precautions, and it is too easy for someone to not pay for a mock-up or to steal a design.

Want to learn more? read our next interview.