Career Overview: Design

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Posted by The Editors on December 3, 2012
Overview
Career Overview

Designers have a hand in virtually every industry, from textiles (clothing design) to publishing (graphic design). There are even package designers who design the packaging enclosing the goods you see on the shelves of your local supermarket or department store. Designers devise arrangements of materials, colors, shapes, and textures with the goal of making end products that are aesthetically pleasing and serve specific purposes. There are designers for every type of industry, from graphic designers who create stunning print products and advertising campaigns, to interior designers who make our living spaces look great, to landscape designers who conceptualize lush gardens and green areas. Set designers ensure that the theatre productions you see look fab, while fashion designers ensure that you do, too. Product designers think about every curve, switch and button to make the things you use every day more convenient and attractive. (Can you say "iPod"?) Even architects are designers, creating the buildings that become part of our history.

The list goes on and on. The work of designers is everywhere around you. Designers contributed to the look and usability of the computer on your desk, the car you drive, the magazines you subscribe to-even the Web page you're looking at right now.

Some design careers make sense for engineering types, who like to use design to solve particular kinds of problems. Other design careers are great for more arts-focused creative types who prefer a regular paycheck, and a greater chance than their starving artist peers of getting their work before a wide audience.

What You'll Do

What you'll do as a designer depends largely on the design specialty you choose. Some design specialties require the use of highly technical knowledge, like electrical or materials engineering; others, like graphic design, are more about understanding how to arrange form and color. And the kinds of people you might deal with as a designer vary wildly depending on your design specialty: Circuit board designers, for instance, will deal with project managers and hardware engineers and other technology manufacturing types, while exhibit designers will deal with museum curators and artists.

Designers work on projects ranging from the staid to the cutting edge. Sometimes you'll have creative freedom; often you won't. If you're designing coffee table books, your creation may be considered art. If you work on packaging for a Procter & Gamble product, you may simply find satisfaction in seeing your design work in nearly every shopping cart in your local supermarket.

Who Does Well
Good design marries style with function, so designers typically have to be as focused on functionality as they are on aesthetics. Often, the best designs are those you notice least: a chair, a T-shirt, or a page in a book. If you crave flash over functionality, you might be in for a bumpy ride in the design field unless you opt for some of the most creative and unstructured environments-i.e., fashion design and progressive advertising or print design work.

Expert designers are creative and have technical mastery over their tools. They have an understanding of the raw materials they use-for instance, different kinds of fabrics, in the case of a furniture designer or a fashion designer, or metal, plastic, chrome, and glass, in the case of an automobile designer. In Web design, that means learning new programs and understanding how visual elements will work together.

Because you're designing things that will be used by others, as a designer you'll need to be able to understand who will use your design as well as how they will use it. In other words, you'll need to know what the market you're designing for wants and needs in the products you're designing. If you're designing a banking website, for example, you might make it as beautiful as possible, but if the bank's customers can't figure out how to check their balances using the site, your design is worthless. If you go into design, you'll probably work collaboratively with engineers, illustrators, administrators, production people, and others in other departments within your organization. You'll need to be aware of who will use your design as well as how they will use them. Whether working on a movie poster or a new toy, you'll be translating someone else's idea into something with shape and form. As a result, strong communication skills-including good listening skills-are essential. Account management skills can also help.

Requirements

The most important skills in most design fields are artistic talent, the ability to understand the practical needs of the market for which you're designing, and the ability to communicate effectively with others. A strong portfolio of your work is essential. Designers need to be creative, be able to solve problems, keep their work fresh and innovative, and stay on top of trends.

Virtually all design careers require training of one sort or another. Of course, the skills an automotive designer needs to design a new minivan are quite different from those a floral designer needs to create a perfect bouquet for Valentine's Day. Floral design requires only a high school diploma and a flair for color and texture. But graphic, interior, and industrial design all require a liberal arts or fine arts education, with a minimum of two to four years of study.

Graphic Designers
Graphic designers should know about the history of typography and the manipulation of images, and have a firm understanding of communications theory. They should also know programs such as Quark, Photoshop, and Illustrator.

Industrial Designers
Industrial designers should have a BA that links a study of visual arts to technology, and a background in the social sciences. They should also be familiar with areas of physical science such as engineering and should understand principles of ergonomics; they might do well to consider obtaining an advanced degree in one of the aforementioned fields.

Interior Designers
Interior designers work in a highly regulated industry and must know state and federal building statutes and safety codes. They must also join professional organizations and pass the National Council for Interior Design qualifying examination.

Most design fields rely heavily on CAD (computer-aided design) and illustration programs, such as AutoCAD. To most firms, your proficiency in using such programs will be as important as your portfolio. If you haven't learned to use them as part of your schooling, you'll need to take a class or two and become familiar with them.

Designers keep current with the industry by attending lectures, joining professional organizations, learning about new software and technology, and reading industry publications. Keeping up is doubly important if you're considering freelance work, because you won't have the benefit of working alongside others on a daily basis. Finally, the contacts you make through networking will often lead to jobs down the line.

Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2004 and 2014 job growth in graphic design, interior design, floral design, and commercial and industrial design will be about as fast as growth of jobs overall, while fashion design opportunities will grow more slowly than the average.

Competition for most design jobs will remain fierce, as design is a very popular field; employers will be looking for only the most talented people. Illustrators are suffering in the current market; many organizations that would have hired illustrators in the past now prefer to use increasingly available stock images rather than pay artists to render original sketches. However, illustrators and other artists may find an outlet for their talents in electronic art or animation.

Career Tracks

In most design careers, you'll move up the ranks from intern or junior-level designer to senior-level designer, art director, or creative director, based on your ability and the amount of experience you have. At the junior level, you'll usually assist veteran designers.

Most designers start with routine work and gain more responsibility as they gain experience. Careers can advance within the design department of an agency or company, but many designers strike out on their own and either found their own shops or work on a contract basis for others. The work you do is what will establish you: Those with an impressive portfolio can make top dollar.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly a third of all designers are self-employed. If you do end up going freelance, you'll need account management skills along with design skills to achieve the most success. Many designers at agencies or design shops end up handling account management responsibilities in addition to their design job.

Graphic Designer
Graphic designers manipulate type and images to create things like books, catalogs, posters, CD inserts, and corporate logos. Graphic designers find work in publishing, advertising, and in the design departments of companies in nearly every industry.

Most graphic design these days is done on computers with programs such as Adobe Illustrator and QuarkXPress. Projects can vary from page layout on a book to designing a coupon for the Sunday insert of a newspaper. Graphic designers are different from visual artists because their work has immediate commercial use. They often work closely with people in marketing to express a product's brand or a company's image. Graphic designers, for instance, take credit for the corporate logos you see throughout the world.

Industrial Designer
Industrial designers work on mass-produced goods. They design everything from cereal boxes to stereos, though most specialize in a particular area, such as automobiles. Industrial designers usually work in large corporations, coordinating with others to shape products. Many in industrial design come from an engineering background.

Industrial designers need to create products within a budget that can be easily and cost-effectively mass-produced, marketed, and sold-their work requires a high level of collaboration with people in other departments. They also need to think about safety: You won't want to create a toy that a toddler might swallow, for instance, or a lamp that gets so hot it could catch on fire.

Interior Designer
Interior designers focus on researching, planning, developing, and implementing designs for indoor environments, such as living rooms or office lobbies. Many interior designers work at design or architecture firms and specialize in a particular area such as restaurants, private homes, office spaces, hospitals, or hotels. Many specialize even further and focus on, for example, living rooms or kitchens.

As with other designers, if you go into interior design, your work will usually involve interacting with others, including your client, contractors, electricians, and plumbers. You'll need to design to state and federal codes, and your work will attempt to answer needs the client wants met, such as mood or efficiency.

In addition to structuring space and drawing blueprints, you'll be responsible for choosing furniture, carpeting, paint, and fixtures. Much of your planning work will be accomplished on the computer.

Fashion Designer
Fashion designers determine the look of the shoes, dresses, shirts, and pants you wear. As in the other design areas, you'll collaborate with others to create compelling designs. You'll work closely with retailers and their marketing departments, and your work will be driven by seasonal fashion trends. Your materials will be fabric: wool, cotton polyester, and the like, and you'll need to be attentive to detail, style, and function. Many smaller niche fashion designers sell their work to high-end boutiques while other companies focus on the mass market.

Other Careers
If you're in the performing arts, you've probably worked with costume designers and set designers. The last couch you sat on was created by a furniture designer. And the merchandise display at your local department store is the work of a designer. Designers have a variety of career options open to them, because we're surrounded by designs, from landscapes to textiles. In fact, designers can find ways to apply the principles of design, such as form, color, and function, to anything we create. The most limiting factor to design is imagination: If you can imagine it, you can probably find a way to design it.

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