Finding Your Competitive Advantage as a Graphic Designer

A career in graphic design can be a rewarding experience. It bridges both the technical aspects of communicating messages through visual media and the creative elements of art and illustration.

As such, you have opportunities to work on a wide range of projects across industries as diverse as advertising, science communication, and animation to name a few. Not to mention that you can operate as a freelancer, giving you the flexibility to dictate your own hours and work from wherever in the world you happen to be.

However, alongside the many benefits of a graphic design job, you also need to acknowledge the fact that you won’t be the only candidate pitching for a position. Indeed, the Bureau for Labor Statistics has projected that graphic designers are likely to face strong competition for roles over the next decade.

This shouldn’t discourage you, though, and it doesn’t mean that you should give up on your ambitions in the field. Rather, it’s just important that you take time to build a skill set that gives you the competitive edge.

So, what can you do to give yourself the best advantage in the field of graphic design? We’re going to take a look at some areas that can help to ensure you can not just gain a role as a designer, but also have some longevity.

Develop Agility

One of the biggest mistakes that you can make when embarking upon a graphic design career is focusing too much on one area. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have a signature style or utilize a certain type of aesthetic. After all, these things can help you to build your brand.

Develop Agility
Illustration by Amy Buller via Dribbble

However, slavishly sticking to a single method can see you draw yourself into a corner. This isn’t a recipe for being competitive. Alongside your unique perspective, you also need to make sure that your talents as a designer can be applied to various types of projects, messaging, and clients. You must be an agile contributor.

This should involve applying your visual sensibilities to a variety of skill sets. You’ll find this can be especially important if you plan to break into graphic design freelancing.

You don’t want to show a client that you can provide them with a logo, but that they’ll have to go to someone else to take care of translating it to billboard advertising or producing a relevant typeface. You’ll be a far more attractive prospect if you can provide a client with a full package offering, rather than piecemeal elements.

Build proficiency in everything from photo editing to prototyping, and develop tangible technical skills in the full range of industry software. You’ll also generally find that this can make you more comfortable in selling yourself, as you can be confident in the knowledge of your expertise.

Make sure that your agility is evident in your portfolio of work. Where possible, show quality examples of how you’ve applied a client’s message successfully across different formats — banner ads, social media posts, print.

Demonstrate that you can take a concept and be proficient in applying it no matter what the medium. If you don’t have much professional experience, create an example business and show how you would produce a comprehensive campaign.

Hone Your Digital Proficiency

We live in an increasingly digitally-reliant world. A significant amount of business is being undertaken in online environments, and audiences are consuming more media through digital channels — social media, streaming services.

While you may be more comfortable designing using analog tools, to remain relevant to clients you need to ensure that you upskill in your digital proficiency.

This goes beyond simply learning industry-standard software like Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator, though this is important. Rather, it’s about ensuring that you can contribute to companies’ campaigns utilizing a raft of tools.

For instance, businesses that are hiring you to design for an online rebranding project are also likely to require web development services to complement it. Taking a degree course in computer science can help you to hone the coding and programming skill sets you need to excel in front and back end website building, and even the software development abilities that can be useful when clients are building apps.

This kind of education means that you can be a valuable contributor and therefore a more attractive investment.

But even if you’re not ready to go all-in on development and coding skills, you can still gain digital abilities that are purely grounded in graphic design. Video on social media and streaming services is still one of the main ways of creating engagement with consumers.

As such, it’s worth learning digital animation and motion graphics. Proficiency here adds another dimension to your portfolio, meaning that you can not only provide still images to your clients. You’re also able to take the assets you’ve designed from those elements of the campaign and apply them to more varied and engaging visual storytelling.

Learn to Effectively Network

Never Stop Networking

Not everybody considers themselves a social butterfly. Indeed, some people specialize in freelance graphic design because it allows them the independence they crave. However, to be competitive in the field, you need to be able to keep finding new work, regularly making positive impressions upon clients and other industry figures. This means, as much as you might not be entirely comfortable with it, you have to develop your networking skills.

In our contemporary world, this is perfectly achievable through primarily online means. Utilize social media, particularly professional platforms like LinkedIn — which has various groups that you can join.

However, whether you’re operating on social media or joining online forums, it is important not to approach your professional networking from a transactional perspective. Making connections here can help get you jobs, but it is most valuable as a mutual support system.

In a competitive environment things are occasionally going to get tough, and as such relationships with fellow designers who understand your struggles can be a key to helping you overcome your career and emotional obstacles.

It’s also worth stepping outside your comfort zone and attending conferences aimed at industries you’re interested in serving. Large and small corporations alike will often have booths and representatives at large trade shows, and these can be opportunities to make connections.

Even if a company isn’t currently hiring graphic designers, take the time to have conversations with reps. Talk about their company’s values, their goals, what they’re interested in. This can give you great insight into how to tailor an appropriate portfolio when you later send a pitch package to them.

Become a Marketing Ninja

As a graphic designer, you’ll likely be involved in marketing to some extent at points throughout your career. Not to mention, if you choose to go the freelance route, your very ability to survive as a contractor will often depend on your ability to market yourself and your services effectively. As such, you should allocate some focus and energy toward forging the skills and knowledge that make you an expert in advertising.

Your first port of call is to look at what methods and tactics companies are currently focusing on. One of the primary forms at the moment is search engine optimization (SEO). This involves tactics that ensure business’ websites and campaigns have a high ranking in online searches and is increasingly used to establish expertise or a significant local profile.

Your clients are likely to require designers who understand how to include these elements on websites, social media posts, and blog content that help direct traffic toward their business. Undertaking some training in this area can be important for you, too, as you can also utilize this method to draw the right clients toward your website and portfolio.

You can also be more competitive by establishing your marketing expertise in brand building. Every company is keen to be seen above the noise of a global business environment, and creating a solid set of brand assets is key to achieving this.

Get as much experience as you can working with strong sets of guiding principles that you can communicate through your design concepts. This shows that you understand how to translate company missions to visually engaging forms, which is increasingly valuable.

Don’t forget to put as much attention into your branding, though — if a client sees that you are unable to represent your own brand well, they’re hardly likely to have confidence that you can be successful in establishing their identity.

Engage in Problem-Solving

Engage in Problem Solving
Illustratin by Deemak Daksina via Dribbble

When considering how to gain a competitive advantage in graphic design, you need to consider why clients need services like yours. It isn’t just to create an attractive or engaging image.

Rather, you are a tool in helping them to solve a specific problem — this could be gaining the attention of a certain demographic, improving checkout conversions, effectively communicating an idea, or establishing a fresh new reputation in the market. As such, you need to demonstrate that you can be actively involved with problem-solving.

This is largely a matter of experience, and you’ll develop strategies that help you to understand the problems and devise solutions as you go along. However, don’t just rely on clients to bring you challenges, you should be practicing by creating some of your own.

Push yourself in different ways, review the concepts you come up with, and pay attention to how you’re approaching issues and where you can improve. Most importantly here is making certain that you include examples of your design process in your portfolio.

You don’t just want potential clients to see a finished product, you want them to see how you got to that point, your different iterations and thought processes along the way. This helps to communicate your skills in problem-solving effectively.

Conclusion

Graphic design is an enriching path, but it is likely to be increasingly competitive for the foreseeable future. As such, you need to hone those skills and knowledge that can help you to stand out among the noise of other talented contributors.

It’s not always easy, but with regular, consistent effort you can forge a long and fascinating career.

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