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How to Become a Graphic Designer in College

If you’re looking to become a graphic designer as a college student but thinking “where do I start?”, you’re not alone. How am I supposed to find clients? How much should I charge? It can take a bit of testing the waters to truly figure it out. In celebration of graduating from university next week, I’ll pull together some insight into how I built a 800+ customer, five-figure graphic design business on the side over the past year while attending college full time.

Tutorials, Tutorials, Tutorials!

I’d say that 80% of my graphic design skills are self-taught with the remaining 20% coming from design school itself. The good news here? You don’t really need to go to design school to become a successful designer—it’s all about having the drive to learn and better your skills on your own time.

Online tutorials are probably the #1 most powerful way to learn graphic design—the wealth of information at your fingertips online is astounding. Lynda.com, Skillshare, and Adobe are all wonderful resources that are great ways to learn the basics and get comfortable using a variety of graphic design tools and programs. Once you have those down, YouTube and Pinterest are amazing for finding more niche tutorials that will bring your design skills to the next level (and allow you to have fun while doing so).

What Software Should I Use?

My recommendation to someone looking to dive into graphic design would be the Adobe Suite all the way—specifically Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, and Acrobat Pro (perhaps Lightroom too if you’re working heavily with photos). These are the pretty much the holy trinity of graphic design—learn the uses for each tool and when it’s appropriate to use them (ex. logo designs in Illustrator, magazine layouts in InDesign).

Luckily, Adobe offers a pretty kickass student discount that makes it affordable and definitely worth a subscription.

Beyond this, some of my top-used tools in my belt include:

  • WeTransfer (sending large files to clients)
  • Coolors.co (a seamless way to put together color palettes)
  • Trello (for organizing and keeping track of client projects/other to-dos)
  • Toggl (for keeping track of time spent on projects)
  • AND CO (awesome invoicing, proposal/contract, and expense tracking tool)
  • Hipsum (you’re going to want to show this to everyone you know)


Where to Get Clients?

I’ll let you in on a little secret—all of my clients so far have been inbound. That’s right, I haven’t once put out a sales pitch (yet—planning on it in the future!). So, how did I achieve a steady pipeline of clients as a total beginner without a degree or portfolio?

My (not so) secret ingredient is—an Etsy shop!

Here are a few magic things about Etsy that make it the perfect tool to jumpstart your graphic design career:

  • It has so much traffic to offer. Get your keywords and search optimization right and you’ll have a much higher pipeline of people checking out your work compared to the traditional build-a-website and organically-grow-traffic route. It’ll be smart to build yourself a website down the line once you have a meatier portfolio, but Etsy will get you much more traffic at a much faster pace.
  • The creative freedom that selling templates online gives you is powerful. When you’re creating templates to sell, you have no client to work for, therefore you can design products exactly how you want, which is a great exercise in helping you find your personal style (and keeping things interesting!).
  • You have the chance to start building an email list way early on in your career as a graphic designer/creative. Some hints on how to do this—add a link to your email signup at the bottom of your email signature, offer a 10% discount off your products if customers sign up for your email list, add the signup into your thank you note that Etsy automatically sends out to your customers.
  • It puts you in touch with a global network of clients, which is amazing networking-wise, but also fulfilling to know that you’re helping people out across the globe. In my first 1.5 years of selling on Etsy, I’ve completed custom client projects for businesses and individuals in over ten countries and sold templates to clients in over fourty. Don’t underestimate the power of a local network, but how cool is it to have that sort of reach right off the bat?!

Once you’ve found your groove and put products up in your shop, the flood gates will open and you’ll start receiving inquiries for custom designs—it’s portfolio building time!

Tips for Designers Selling on ETSY

  • Templates, templates, templates! And no, I’m not talking about the awesome design templates that you’ll be selling. You’ll find that you’re going to receive the same questions over and over again once your shop starts getting noticed. Every time you answer a new question copy and paste your answer into an easy-to-access doc or notepad so that you can use it again later and streamline your question-answering process.
  • Create an Etsy section titled “Custom Jobs” or the like and create listings for each of the common custom services you offer (example here!). This will let visitors know that you’re open to custom jobs, inform them more about budget and project specifics before they get in touch with you, and overall raise the quality of the inquiries you’ll get because they will (usually) have checked out the info on your custom services already. This puts your clients and yourself on the same page and sets reasonable expectations, making your job easier.
  • Generally, charge for custom jobs through Etsy’s platform. The amount of fees taken out of the order may be higher than those of Paypal, however, your client will be able to leave you a sparkling review, the sale will count towards your overall order count, and you can consolidate all your earnings in one place. However, if it’s quite a large custom job, these benefits may not be worth it to you—it’s smart to judge this on a case-by-case basis.
  • Recycle “custom job” listings to save a TON of time by eliminating the need to build an entire listing for each. I usually have three listings that are dedicated to custom job payments. Whenever there’s a payment for a project due, I reuse one of these listings that has already been paid by a previous client, adjust the title to be something like “Custom Listing for Julia - Logo Design”, and adjust the price accordingly. Send the link to your client and you’re good to go!

So, do you think you’re leaning towards setting up shop and diving headfirst into the freelance world as a college student? Here are a few more points to consider when deciding if it’s right for you.

Benefits of Freelance Designing in College

  • You can set your own schedule (and work from your bed!)
  • It looks great to future employers and shows your drive, initiative, and entrepreneurial spirit. Plus, by building a network of clients, this can open opportunities for you in the future when you’re on a post-grad job hunt (or decide to freelance full time)!
  • You learn a lot beyond what’s taught in your classes—both hard and soft skills
  • You can blast music while getting your work done, all while in cozy sweatpants :)

Drawbacks of Freelance Designing in College

  • You can set your own schedule...and work from your bed…
  • Finding the balance between schoolwork, design projects, campus clubs, a social life, and anything else you’ve got going on. It’s hard to study for that test when you know you’ve got a design deadline coming up and vice versa!
  • You’ve got to be careful about people walking all over you. The people around you will often ask “can you make this quick flyer for me?” and you’ll be tempted to do it for minimal pay or for free. Sometimes it is absolutely the move to help a friend or family member out, but it can become a slippery slope. Two hints in general: charge more than you think you should, and ALWAYS have a contract clearly outline the scope + number of revisions.
  • It’s more lonesome than a traditional on-campus job.

Overall, the one thing that I truly believe you need to have in order to balance a full course load + a design business is passion. Generally, when working on a design project, I don’t even feel like I’m working at all—that’s how much I love what I do. I’m not sure it’d be an easy feat to succeed if your heart’s not in the game. However, if graphic design is your thing (or at least you think it may be in the future and you’re excited to put in the work and learn), there’s a wealth of opportunity out there for you, even without the design degree and no previous experience under your belt.

Graphic designers in college (or any other graphic designer for that matter!), how do you make it work? Are there any tips + secrets I missed? Leave a comment below!

Let’s stay in touch!

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