Featuring Insights From Jason Early
Read: 4 Minutes
Do you see a simple interface as a thing of beauty? Do you look at a design problem like an unfinished work of art? Does reducing user friction give you a sense that all is right in the world? If you answered yes to all of the above, then the role of visual designer is for you.
Visual designers, sometimes called digital designers, are primarily focused on visual communication and take a big-picture approach. Not to be confused with graphic designers, who use design elements like typeface and color to create a product, and may be more limited in scope, visual designers have a broader reach, working across platforms to build a brand identity’s look and feel in a more holistic way.
The visual designer is in a unique position of strength. A problem-solver at heart, the visual designer takes input from a portfolio of stakeholders and uses digital design tools to achieve business goals with a functionally elegant finished product.
There’s never been a better time to join the ranks of designers working in the digital world. The job outlook is decidedly rosy, with opportunities projected to grow much faster than other occupations thanks in part to the pandemic-related surge in mobile and eCommerce. So whether you’re looking to up your game (and your job title), make a career switch, or are just starting out, it literally pays to know what skills are needed as a visual designer.
According to Jason Early, a distinguished faculty member at GA and a 20-year design professional, what it takes to be a successful visual designer has less to do with design and more to do with ingenuity. “Empathy, inquisitiveness, and a desire to learn and solve problems are the most important qualities for a designer to have. Your job is to help address the challenges of an audience.”
But putting those high-minded qualities to work in today’s competitive digital economy often requires fluency with the bottom line. “As a designer, you are always selling to someone,” says Early. “Whether it’s trying to get buy-in from your team on a design direction, project approval from a stakeholder, or an audience to try your product, communication is key. It’s important to understand the business side of the industry you are in. You may be a designer, but your work provides value to the business.”
Early teaches our User Experience Design Immersive, a deep dive into the design discipline that serves as a career launching pad for students who can make the full-time commitment. In this Immersive, he covers the entire design process and offers opportunities to apply lessons to IRL projects. For those looking to gain a competitive edge in their existing jobs, part-time courses can give structure and background to the design process and help formalize a process that many have already been practicing on their own. Even better? Most courses are available online.
So what does a visual designer do all day? Ask five designers what their day looks like, and you’ll get five different answers. That’s in large part because today’s digital economy is fast-moving and ever-evolving — and the reason the field attracts an adventurous talent pool.
As a visual design consultant, Early mostly sets his own schedule, structuring his time around current projects and clients. “My day generally starts with the most important tasks like reviewing project updates, addressing feedback, code reviews — anything to unblock progress. Next, I’ll work on production iterations and improvements, then do email and communication check-ins. Afternoons are usually open for whatever needs my attention. I may be reviewing analytics, generating performance reports for clients, developing new client leads, reviewing my own marketing efforts, or spending time learning about a new tool that I may need for a project.” He adds, “Remember, I’m an independent. In-house roles can look dramatically different.”
Keep in mind that design departments can be staffed differently from company to company, with job titles remaining mostly consistent. A visual designer is tasked with the visual communication of the design, including the look and aesthetic of the product and making sure the use of color, typography, imagery, and layout are working together to satisfy a goal. A user experience designer, on the other hand, is focused on the overall experience of a design, taking into consideration the understanding of an audience and creating a strategic approach to address any challenges the user may face. More traditional job titles such as graphic designer and art director are holding fast, as long as they evolve to meet the needs of the digital economy.
“An art director is a leadership role and manages a team of designers through a project,” explains Early. “The design director is often the next level of leadership up from art director. They are responsible for overseeing the entire design team. A chief creative officer is a C-suite level of leadership for the design team in an organization. They have the widest scope of responsibility as they oversee anything creative in an entire organization, such as product, marketing, or software.” This is just one example of how a visual design department in a large company may be structured.
And what about compensation? What can you expect to earn from a visual designer salary? “This will depend on your market, but the average salary range in the U.S. is around $75K to $140K, according to Glassdoor. This, of course, depends on candidate experience, regional market, industry, and the ability to negotiate. Plus, there can be a difference in salary if you work at an agency vs. independently. Agencies can offer a lower wage and longer hours, but there can be more opportunity to work your way up to higher wages. As an independent, I set a project rate based on the goals the client is trying to reach.”
Early advises working in a team with well-established leadership if you’re looking to fast-track your career. Agencies are great for this as they usually have a well-defined hierarchy. For emerging designers, joining a firm where you will be part of a team of designers offers the most robust opportunities to learn on the job.
If you choose to strike out on your own as an independent designer, it’s a career path that can pay off in many ways. “The benefits of starting your own business are many, including flexibility of time and potentially higher pay.”
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