How to Confidently Pick the Right Graphic Designer—Every Time (Part 1)
Updated: Jun 9
Between the self-taught, the fine artists, and designers with degrees, here are the differences of working with each type of designer and what to look for. This is part 1 of a 4-part series.
With easy access to design software and tutorials, it seems like everyone is a graphic designer—but when you need a pro, how can you confidently pick one with the right skillset and experience?
As an experienced graphic designer myself, I’m here to give you some clarity!
Because there’s no regulatory body for designers, and no required license or degree, it can be hard to distinguish between the hobbyists and the legitimate pros. I’ve met “graphic designers” who are in 10th grade with one semester of Photoshop under their belt, as well as designers who work for Adobe and provide professional training. Despite design being largely subjective, there are some objective criteria you can look for. So with literally anyone able to claim the title of "professional graphic designer" here’s my first of 4 tips on how to tell whose skills are up to snuff:
Tip #1: Ask about their design education and training
Let's start with what I consider the most important and telling criteria to consider when deciding who to hire for your design project: a designer's educational background. While there are several different educational pathways one can take to become a designer, they are not all created equally. This blog post will explore the 3 main educational backgrounds of designers as well as the pros and cons of each type.
A self-taught designer is one who does not have any professional or formal training. Their design know-how comes from raw talent, self-directed learning (like from videos or books), and/or figuring things out on their own through trial and error.
Self-taught designers are the most common kind, easy to find, and they are also inexpensive. But while they may be creative and talented, most tend to be unaware of the functional and technical sides of design. Surprisingly, there really are right and wrong ways to create design. Good design clearly includes creativity and aesthetics, but understanding best design and business practices, design principles, problem solving, collaboration, industry standards, and appropriate use of technology is just as important and far less obvious; you just don't know what you don't know. Considering all aspects of design, including the way something looks and how it’s made, may not be necessary for a personal project, but is essential to deliver truly professional results.
If, for example, a designer uses Photoshop to create an illustrated logo with gradients, fine details, and scripty–cursive fonts, and then saves out a .jpg, their client won’t be happy when they find out it can’t be embroidered on shirts, is pixelated on a billboard, or is illegible on their mobile website. And they’ll be downright mad when they have to shell out hundreds or thousands for someone else to redo it when they need their logo to adapt to the demands of a growing business.
Proceed with caution when hiring a self-taught designer for professional work. At the very least make sure you love their portfolio, they’ve satisfactorily answered your questions, have a great track record with clients, and lots of experience with the type of project you need—before you hire them.
Degree in a related field
This type of designer has a professional education, but not necessarily any professional art or design training. If this type of designer has a degree in, say, painting or printmaking, he or she would have received training on basic design principles, since these principles apply to every art field. But a degree in marketing or psychology probably wouldn't have covered those same topics. Like a self-taught designer, artists likely have some combination of natural talent, self-directed learning, and trial and error, with the potential added benefit of a few design courses (if they studied the visual arts).
While a professionally trained artist will likely know how to use creative software correctly (depending on their discipline), their artistic eye, skill, and creativity in, say, animation or sculpture, doesn’t transfer sideways to graphic design. It also doesn’t mean this artist understands the technical side of design (like when to use Photoshop vs. Illustrator vs. InDesign vs. another program), but knowing how and when to use all the different tools in a designer's arsenal is critical for delivering professional and functional design.
Artists, like any professional, are best in the things they’re trained in and do most often. As an example, a primary care doctor probably only treats acne or identifies skin cancer occasionally. Whereas, a dermatologist, who does these things day in and day out and has extra training on those conditions, will give me a better outcome faster with the most current techniques.
It’s exactly the same with art. A professional illustrator or photographer with graphic design experience may be a good choice for your design project if it's illustration- or photo-heavy. But if you're considering hiring an artist (who was originally trained in another field) for a predominantly graphic design-related project, ask if they regularly create the type of project you’re looking for. If not, you’re better off finding a designer with specific training and experience in what you need.
Degree in graphic design
You can expect the best results from a designer professionally and specifically trained in graphic design. While there are a few graphic design degrees you can earn (like associate degrees, Bachelor of Science, or master degrees), I'll focus on the two most common and explain the differences: A Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Graphic Design, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in Graphic Design.
BA in Graphic Design
The BA is a four-year degree focused on graphic design, but is typically a more general art degree that provides some design training and allows graduates to work in related fields like marketing. Like many other degrees, there may be GPA requirements, but as long as a student completes the required classes, he or she will be able to graduate. The degree is well-rounded since it requires about half of its credits to come from traditional academic courses (like math and English), and a typical semester may include only 1 or 2 design-related classes. Since there are limited design credits, these designers may only be proficient in a few areas of design upon graduation. But due to the more flexible curriculum, they may have formal training in several disciplines and consequently be able to offer several additional services beyond design (like copywriting or advertising).
Compared to designers without dedicated design degrees, those with a BA in Graphic Design have considerably more formal design training, and as a result are generally more skilled and would typically charge more for their services. A BA in Graphic Design is a major plus, but when hiring this type of designer don't automatically assume he or she has the skills, proficiency, experience, or creativity needed to create professional design. Because a BA, compared to the BFA, is more broad with fewer requirements, less time spent mastering design, and lower GPA standards, it's important to verify that the designer has a strong portfolio plus a few years of real world design experience. With those bases covered though you can confidently know you're working with a solid pro.
BFA in Graphic Design
The BFA is also a bachelor degree, however, it’s not uncommon for it to take longer than 4 years due to the number of credits and demanding nature of classes. The BFA is a highly specialized, immersive, and rigorous degree that prepares students to work exclusively as graphic designers. A typical semester may consist entirely of studio/design classes, or include only 1 academic class per semester. While there are fewer opportunities to take electives in other subjects, BFA students master the basics of design and have an opportunity to delve into the niches, like branding and web design. The curriculum is also heavy on software, technology, design standards, best practices, creativity, and collaborative work (which is vital for preparing to work with clients). Designers with a BFA leave school with significantly more design training, more refined portfolios, and more real world experience than their BA counterparts, and it’s why a BFA is considered the most coveted, prestigious, marketable, and competitive bachelor degree in visual arts.
I earned a BFA from Southern Utah University and my program required acceptance into the BFA program (which was limited to only a few students per year). Once accepted, I had to uphold a high standard of work, maintain a certain GPA, complete an internship, curate an exhibit and have it accepted into a professional art gallery, and after all of that, receive department approval to graduate to ensure mastery of design concepts (regardless of grades or completed courses).
Because of the competitive nature of the BFA, the time commitment, high standards, and multiple reviews (i.e., many opportunities to be kicked out of the program), very few designers earn a BFA. But those that do are almost guaranteed to be serious professionals who are highly skilled, proficient, creative, and experienced, with a thorough understanding of both the aesthetic and technical sides of design, and have a refined portfolio of work. Because of this they are the most expensive type of designer, but definitely worth the investment! You're getting much more than just aesthetically pleasing work.
So who is right for me?
The right designer for you depends on your needs and budget. For simple, personal projects, it probably doesn't matter who you hire (as much as I hate to say that). But in order to get top-notch creativity, solid expertise, and functional design it's best to go with a BFA grad (and ideally one with a great portfolio that resonates with you and who has lots of experience) for your professional design needs. You'll definitely notice the difference in quality!
(And speaking of great portfolios, stay tuned for tip #2 to learn what to look for in your designer's portfolio...)