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The Future of Graphic Design Careers

October 18th, 2010 by Lauren · 7 Comments

This is a bit of a departure from our usual Boss of You fare, but I found myself wondering the other day what the future holds for print designers, and I thought I’d put down some thoughts here in case they’re of interest to some of you.

At this historical moment, there’s still work out there in the print world, but a lot of the paper-based design work that was the bread and butter of many of my designer friends a decade ago (book & magazine layouts, album covers) is taking a back seat to digital media (e-books, Kindle & iPad books, iTunes purchases). (I’m even wondering if we’ll start to see a decline in product packaging as its environmental costs become less savoury – but perhaps we’ll simply continue following the current trend of using more eco-friendly materials.) It’s long been the standard at design schools that screen-based and interactive design students have had to study print design first and specialize later. A lot of design students seem to graduate with a lot of knowledge about print design and very little about designing for screens, even though in my eyes, print-based design careers are in decline. (I’m no alarmist and I won’t say they’re dying altogether – I just think print will become a niche specialty rather than something you can build a whole career on. I for one hope that my favourite magazines never die – I love their print incarnations too well.)

Here’s how I see the future for graphic designers. (Design students, especially: take note.)

  1. Brand & Identity work: Logos will continue to be hugely important, I think, and this type of design requires a specialist. Airlines will always want their mark to be stamped on their planes, on-board pillows and blankets, and so on. And as we live in a visual age, companies will continue to hire designers to create icons that encapsulate the essence of their brand promise. I think logo designers (and their familiarity with a wide range of media where those logos are used) will continue to be in high demand.
  2. Screen and interactive design: I’ll lump web design in with design for mobile phones and computer software, as in my experience many of the principles are the same. The sheer quantity of applications and websites being developed now should guarantee screen design specialists plenty of work for a long time to come. Sub-specialties include icon design.
  3. Motion graphics: With online video flourishing, video games emerging as a huge player in the entertainment industry, and animation finding its way into all kinds of unexpected places (think everything from online advertising to the increasingly elaborate title sequences for film and TV shows), this niche should afford plenty of career opportunities for a long time to come.
  4. Environmental design: Signage is perhaps more important today than ever before. When I walk down a busy avenue in an urban shopping district, I see a lot of competition for my attention. And I see live events continuing to be popular, despite the supposed threats of television and video on demand. Sports arenas, museums, galleries, public transit, libraries, hospitals – all the public thoroughfares we use everyday – they all need wayfinding tools and other signage. And I don’t see the demand for billboards slowing down, although they seem likely to make the switch to digital before long.
  5. Data visualization and information design: I see this niche, currently occupied by a small but highly innovative set of Edward Tufte devotees, as the one on this list most likely to grow rapidly over course of the coming decade. Designers like Jer Thorp (a local favourite) and many others are taking vast amounts of information and mapping it into incredibly useful and illuminating art. For some beautiful examples of data visualization in practice, browse through The New York Times’ Multimedia section, and look for the items tagged “Interactive Feature.” (Unfortunately, I can’t find an index containing only their data visualizations.)

In my view, looking at the above list, design schools could stand to shift their focus to place far greater emphasis on digital media. I’ll reiterate that I don’t think print will disappear – but I do think that there’s a need for greater digital literacy and that there’s a lot less print work to go around these days. The print designers I know – and we’re talking about people who’ve made careers in print, not just recent graduates – are scrambling to learn their way around the digital landscape; advertising designers are being asked by their clients to design online campaigns, brand designers for animated logos, and CD cover artists for digital artwork that can be uploaded to the iTunes Store.

Of course, it bears saying this is just one web designer‘s opinion, and I’ve probably left something critical out of the above list, but I hope it provides some food for thought. I’d love to hear others’ ideas on where the industry is heading.

Anyone interested in this topic may also want to read AIGA’s “Defining the Designer of 2015,” a great overview of the competencies that are in highest demand. I like that their focus is on problem-solving skills rather than on particular applications, although their “Trends” section points to some specific areas of growth.

Tags: Business Advice · HR for the Self-Employed · Thoughts

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Matt Cumming // Oct 19, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    Thanks for sharing your idea on future graphic design. :)

  • 2 Lawn // Oct 21, 2010 at 9:07 am

    Thanks for this article. I’m a print designer with a decade of experience who was recently laid off from a long term position due to the fact that my employer decided to outsource print. I’ve taken several web development courses and worked as the designer on a few CMS implementations, but there is always this nagging feeling with crossing over to web design – do I know enough? Will I enjoy it? Is this why I got into design in the first place? I’m excited about the new changes with HTML 5 and CSS3 as I think it makes the web a more design-friendly place, but it saddens me that the print work does seem to be drying up. Thanks for putting together a (somewhat) positive looking forecast for designers.

  • 3 Marta Spendowska // Oct 22, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    Thank you for this article.
    I actually don’t agree.
    I think logos are not going to be as hugely important as they were for the past few years.
    They will exist as a part of identity and branding, but they won’t be the major part of any design requests.
    I think campaigns will make them important, but without clever and accurate application, they won’t be served as a separate design service per se.

    And we know that newspapers provide old news, since everyone can find out what happens quicker than tomorrow..
    But there will be a huge demand for magazines, marketing materials and product printing ( flexo etc).
    So, we’re all good;) We just need to adjust the seat we’re in and drive our design car a little more responsible and have fun;)


  • 4 Kim // Jan 1, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    I have given this topic alot of thought as well, after working at both a traditional advertising agency and a purely digital shop. It’s always been my sort of philosophy/desire to work somewhere where both print and digital are not fighting with each other, but the creatives understand how to use whatever best fits the project, brand, etc.

    I still love paper. I’m a tech weenie. I’d like to think that the evolution of the agency of the future is a little bit of both.

  • 5 David Mc Nish // May 13, 2011 at 4:53 am

    When the TV was invented in the 1950´s everybody was going on about that this would be the end of the radio! Well it did´t really turn out that way! Do you see my point!

  • 6 Lauren // May 13, 2011 at 7:52 am

    David: True, but radio did change & evolve. Radio plays were no longer as popular once the option to watch drama on television was available. Some aspects of radio content shifted in significant ways: talk radio came front & centre, FM radio became all about the (stereo) music, and so on. New media doesn’t erase old media, but that doesn’t mean it has no impact.

  • 7 Mannie // Jul 5, 2012 at 4:03 am

    I am an undergraduate contemplating about majoring in CS or Graphic Design. As I am responsible for researching resumes in the Creative Design Department I am noticing because of the change of technology and how we interact , many companies are seeking designers with interactive design experience. Experience that will grow with the ever change of technology and design. One co-worker predicted websites will eventually have their own app and there will really be no need for desktops or laptops. I can see this happening. Understanding CSS & Coding is important as well.