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How to Become a Graphics Designer or Digital Animator

The early days of the Internet were defined by crudely formatted text, underlined hyperlinks, and a very modest color palette. Images were considered too bandwidth intensive to send through dial-up connections, and animations were pretty much non-existent.

Before the birth of the Internet, this same dynamic was present in the movie and television industry. The earliest computer animation for films began in the 1970s, but it was primitive, and exceedingly complicated and expensive to create.

Today's graphic designers and digital animators work on the cutting edge of their respective technologies. Modern graphic designers help create colorful products, fully immersive web sites, and mobile apps featuring dynamic content and other web-based innovations. Modern digital animators add incredible special effects to movies and television shows, and help create dazzling computer games with photo realistic characters and environments.

What Do You Want to Learn About?

Graphic Designers


As the saying goes, "Everything can be designed." Graphic designers can be found in most major industries -- anywhere a group has a message it wants to convey through the design of its digital and/or physical materials. These types of designers are most commonly found in marketing and communications departments, publishing houses and software development companies.

Here are the core competencies of the graphic designer job role:

  • Listen to clients and product managers, and determine their design requirements
  • Give accurate estimates for design project schedules and related costs
  • Create original design concepts, or work with existing designs
  • Understand how different design elements are used to convey specific messages
  • Use established layout principles with innovative options to achieve a desired design
  • Be familiar with all digital media formats, knowing which to use for optimal results
  • Understand and respect copyright laws and other content-related legal requirements
  • Be an expert user of design software, with an emphasis on Adobe applications
  • Develop original logos and illustrations for use with physical and digital properties
  • Work with other specialists (illustrators, photographers) to enable well-integrated designs
  • Build information objects (charts and graphs) that are easily understood by readers
  • Select color palettes, fonts, shapes, and other design choices
  • Incorporate changes to a design based on client feedback

Graphic designers work with small businesses, large corporations and all levels of government and related agencies like law enforcement and the U.S. Armed Forces. These designers can be found in any organization that has an online presence (which is every organization these days) or has a requirement for hard copy materials, branded merchandise, or any other physical collateral. Successful designers possess a mix of technical ability and strong communication skills. On a given day, a designer might have a "meet-and-greet" with a new client, contract a photographer to produce a specific image, design the layout of a Web page and make requested changes to a corporation's annual report.

As designers gain experience, they are often given the opportunity to supervise junior designers and take a more active role in project planning. This career path can evolve into managing a design team or department, getting involved in the recruitment and hiring process and creating annual budgets based on top-level business or organizational goals.

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Due to its combination of technical and artistic proficiencies, there are a number of different education paths open to those looking to break into graphics design.

A Bachelor's degree is still the preferred education level for most employers when they hire new designers. In this case, the Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in graphic design is the industry standard. There are some variants of these bachelor's degrees, including the following:

  • Visual Communications Design
  • Computer Graphic Design
  • Design and Digital Arts
  • Applied Visual Arts

A bachelor's degree program in graphic design typically takes four years of full-time attendance at an accredited college or university.

Another option for potential designers is the associate degree in graphic design. An associate degree program in graphic design typically takes two years to complete, and is on average less expensive than a full bachelor's degree program. An associate degree can often help budding designers get their start in the industry in an entry-level position.

Graduate studies for this job role primarily consist of the Master of Arts (MA) degree in graphic design. An MA in graphic design usually takes three years of full-time studies at the graduate school of a college or university.

There are a few schools which offer a doctoral degree in graphic design. For example, the Harvard Graduate School of Design has a Doctor of Design (DDes) degree program. However, unless an existing designer is looking to become a professor of design at a college or university, the applications for such a degree are somewhat limited.

What Training Do You Need to be a Graphics Designer?

Graphic designer training is generally split into two categories: core competencies and software proficiencies. A typical bachelor's degree program in graphic design will cover a large swath of both categories. That said, it's not uncommon for new designers to need to expand their software proficiencies, as there are many different software tools used in the design industry.

Here are some of the core competencies and software proficiencies students can expect to learn as part of a graphic design degree program, or will need to add to their skill set through additional classes. First, here are the core competencies for graphic designers:

  • Design History and Principles
  • Illustration
  • Drawing Fundamentals
  • Color Theory
  • Digital Photography
  • Typography and Print Design
  • Digital Media
  • Computer-Assisted Design
  • information Design
  • Designing for the Web
  • Website Development
  • Graphic Design for Business

Software company Adobe Systems is the industry giant when it comes to graphic design software. Training on Adobe products is available from Adobe itself, and from many technical schools and extension faculties of colleges and universities. Here are the most relevant software proficiencies for new designers entering the industry:

  • Adobe InDesign (desktop publishing)
  • Adobe Photoshop (digital photography and raster graphics editor)
  • Adobe Illustrator (vector graphics editor)
  • Adobe Acrobat (electronic documents)
  • Adobe Dreamweaver (website design)
  • Blender (3D graphics)
  • Corel Draw (vector graphics editor)
  • QuarkXPress (desktop publishing)

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Graphic design is an evolving field that continues to grow. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects overall employment of graphic designers to continue to grow from 2008 to 2018. Increased demand from advertising and computer design firms will contribute to this growth.

      Job TitleProjected 2012-2022 Growth
      Graphic Designers-U.S.6.7
      *This data is sourced from the 2014 BLS employment report (BLS.gov)

Job prospects, according to the BLS, are expected to be especially strong for graphic designers with animation and website design experience. As print media gives way to interactive sources, it's expected that more and more graphic designers will be responsible for online marketing campaigns. Increased demand for online graphic design will create jobs, though other graphic design jobs will be lost by slowdown in the print publishing industry.

There are many talented individuals vying for jobs in graphic design, but those with interactive media experience and business acumen will have the best prospects, the BLS says. Additionally, the most recent survey of design leaders from AIGA, the professional association for design, showed the highest confidence levels since 2005, which many in the industry believe will lead to increases in hiring.

What is the salary for graphic designers?

Salaries of graphic designers vary based on experience, industry and location. Here are the latest median salary numbers according to the BLS:

      *This data is sourced from the 2014 BLS employment report (BLS.gov)

Location also plays a role in how much graphic designers earn. According to the BLS, Washington, D.C., New York and California had the highest average graphic design salaries in 2010.

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Computer Animators


Computer animators bring characters, images, logos and text to life for everything from animated feature films and live-action movies and television, to online advertisements and computer games. They also work with larger production teams to develop storyboards and demos, create original characters or discover new takes on classic animated stars and provide specified pieces of animation for special effects teams to use in larger creative works. Because almost all animation is done on computers today, the people in this job role are often just referred to as animators.

Here are the core competencies of the digital animator job role:

  • Must have excellent patience, and strong communication skills
  • Possess excellent drawing skills and the ability to work with physical models
  • Produce sketches, storyboards, and digital demos during project development
  • Understand how color, texture, and shadow are used to create an emotional response
  • Be an expert user of computer animation software tools and peripheral devices
  • Collaborate with other animators, artists, and technical specialists to create the desired product
  • Know the principles of working in both 2D and 3D animation
  • Work with the output from CGI and motion capture technologies
  • Incorporate changes to animation sequences based on editorial requests or client feedback
  • Learn how to use proprietary animation software apps created by animation studios
  • Have the flexibility to work on contract or as a freelancer if required

Animators are employed in a number of different industries. They work on mobile apps and games for iOS and Android devices. Many major computer entertainment studios have large in-house animation departments that create the characters and action sequences for games, some of which sell millions of copies. Movie and television studios directly employ or contract dozens of animators to create feature films and weekly cartoon series, or to help with the production of special effects. Marketing companies use animators to create entertaining commercials for television and the Internet.

Senior animators may end up supervising teams of animators, or even managing an entire department. Moving up into this type of role requires learning additional skills beyond those of digital animator: people management, budgeting, project management and communicating with senior leadership.

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It has taken time for schools to create dedicated degree programs in digital animation, but today these programs are available from select colleges and universities across the country. These programs are primarily based around associate degrees and bachelor's degrees. These degrees may be found as one of the following variations:

  • Digital Animation
  • Digital Media Production
  • Digital Art and Animation
  • Computer Animation
  • Computer Game Animation
  • Animation Design
  • Multimedia Entertainment

A bachelor's degree program in digital animation usually results in a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree. These programs commonly take four years of full-time attendance at a college, university, or technical institute. An associate degree program in digital animation typically takes two years to complete, making it a more affordable option for students.

A few schools offer a master's degree graduate program in digital animation, mostly as a Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Fine Arts (MFA). An MA or MFA typically takes three years of full-time study at an appropriate graduate school.

What Training Do You Need to be a Digital Animator?

Training for digital animators can be divided into two categories -- core competencies and software proficiencies. The majority of this training will be covered by a bachelor's or associate degree program in digital animation. However, candidates may find themselves wanting to augment their degree program with additional courses or self-study options in order to strengthen their post-education resumes.

Here are the core competencies for digital animators:

  • 2D Animation and Character Design
  • 3D Animation and Character Design
  • Drawing Anatomy
  • Digital Image Editing
  • Modeling and Rigging
  • Rendering for Animation
  • Animation and Voice
  • Environment Animation
  • Visual Effects for Cinema and Television
  • Game Design
  • Virtual Reality

Many animation companies use a blend of "off-the-shelf" software and custom in-house software tools. Here are some commonly used commercial digital animation software products:

  • 3ds Max
  • Blender
  • Cinema 4D Prime
  • Flash Professional
  • Maya
  • MotionBuilder
  • Mudbox
  • Mari 2.0
  • Toon Boom Studio
  • Unity Pro 4

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Computer animators are in demand in a variety of fields, including film, television, advertising and video game design. Even non-animated movies and television shows still rely on computer-generated imaging to create backgrounds and special effects.

      Job TitleProjected 2012-2022 Growth
      Multimedia Artists and Animators-U.S.6.3
      *This data is sourced from the 2014 BLS employment report (BLS.gov)

Gaming is a fast-growing component of the industry, and investment banker Paul Heydon put the market capitalization of public gaming companies at more than $100 billion in 2010.

Considering these trends, it's easy to see why the BLS predicts multimedia artists and animators will be the fastest-growing group of professional artists from 2008 to 2018.

What is the salary for computer animators?

While exact salary varies, computer animators generally earn above-average wages. Professional experience, location and industry all play a part in determining salary. The BLS states that the motion picture and video industry employed the largest number of multimedia artists and animators in 2009. Artists and animators in California tend to earn more than those in other states; after California, New York and Washington are the states with the most multimedia artists and animators.

      *This data is sourced from the 2014 BLS employment report (BLS.gov)

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UX Designers


If you've ever had a frustrating time trying to figure out how to navigate through a company's ecommerce site, or been stuck trying to use a new smartphone app that's a hot mess of confusing buttons, fields, and menus, then you already know the value of the user experience (UX) designer. A UX designer is responsible for designing, developing, and delivering a user interface (UI) that provides users of a digital product or service with the best experience possible. UX designers must take a multidisciplinary approach, implementing interface and industrial design best practices to produce a comfortable and intuitive UI for applications, kiosk services, or web sites.

Here are the core competencies of the UX Designer job role:

  • Understand what makes a UI design great or poor
  • Collaborate with product managers, software developers, and customer support staff
  • Improve existing UIs based on customer feedback
  • Know software development fundamentals as they apply to building UIs
  • Provide any special requirements for users with accessibility issues
  • Work with graphic designers to produce attractive UI elements (icons, lists, etc.)

UX designers are found anywhere software products are being developed. These designers are particularly active in the creation of mobile apps, which continues to be a high priority for companies, organizations and government bodies. UX designers work with banks to create better ATMs. They help property owners create user-friendly map and information kiosks for shopping malls and professional buildings. They also help create the onscreen interface that appears on touch-based devices and consoles used in hospitals and factories, or found in vehicles, planes, spacecraft and home appliances.

Designers who also have software developer skills may find themselves employed to perform both roles in an organization. Alternatively, those who also have graphic designer skills may be called upon to create the visual elements to be implemented in a user interface -- including buttons, dialog boxes, menu screens, text fields and notifications.

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    There isn't any one education track for UX designers. The skill-set involved is incredibly diverse, spanning areas such as software development and design, user research and psychology and software product testing, not to mention a large dose of business savvy and excellent communication skills.

    Most user interface experts enter the industry with a bachelor's degree, as this is the preferred education level for modern employers. That said, there are a number of different ways to go. Here are some of the bachelor's degree programs most closely associated with the UX designer job role:

    • Computer Science
    • Design and Digital Arts
    • Industrial Design
    • Information Architecture
    • Interactive Design
    • Psychology
    • Software Engineering
    • Visual Design

    The majority of the bachelor's degree programs listed above take four years of full-time study at a college or university.

    There are also a large number of associate degrees applicable to the UX designer job role. Many employers would agree that a candidate who has a college or university degree, even if it isn't directly related to a particular job, is more desirable than a candidate without a degree. An associate degree program usually takes two years to complete, and is, generally, less expensive than a bachelor's program.

    What Training Do You Need to be a UX Designer?

    Again, there is no training framework chiseled in stone for people who want to become user experience designers. But, there are some core competencies that definitely fit this particular job role. Here is a list of some of these competencies:

    • Software development lifecycle
    • Software usability concepts
    • User interface elements
    • Mobile app design
    • Accessibility options for the disabled
    • Industry-specific usability requirements
    • Software test procedures
    • User psychology and patterns
    • ISO/IEC standard 11581-1:2000 - User system interfaces and symbols

    User experience designers can benefit from having a basic working knowledge of the most popular software programming languages. Training courses for programming languages are easily found at technical schools, as well as online self-paced courses or home-based self-study materials. Here are some examples of the most popular programming languages in use today:

    • C
    • C++
    • C#
    • Java
    • JavaScript
    • Objective-C
    • Perl
    • Python
    • Ruby
    • Swift
    • SQL

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    While the formal title of UX designer is not part of its database, the BLS reported that employment projections in all but one of the identified information communications technology (ICT) job categories reflect double-digit percentage increases in the years ahead. 2013 BLS data anticipates a stable and expanding tech job market in this field.

    What is the salary for UX developers?

    The BLS does not have a separate job category for UX designers, but the category for "graphic designers" can prove useful here, as the two job roles share many similarities.

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    Graphics and Digital Design Certifications


    The primary source of professional certifications for graphics and digital designers are the software companies that produce the tools used throughout the industry. A key certification vendor in this field is Adobe. Adobe products continue to be used throughout the entire graphics and digital design industry. Candidates can earn the Adobe Certified Expert (ACE) certification on a number of different products, including InDesign, Photoshop and Acrobat.

    Sources

    "Investment banker says global games market's worth $105 billion," VG247, August 27, 2010, http://www.vg247.com/2010/08/27/investment-banker-says-global-games-markets-worth-105-billion/

    "Graphic Designers," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2013, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/arts-and-design/graphic-designers.htm

    How to Become a Graphics Designer or Digital Animator

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