How to become a graphic designer without quitting your day job

You're looking to kickstart a new career in graphic design. But you can't afford to take a whole three years out of work to earn a university degree?

Image licensed via Adobe Stock

Image licensed via Adobe Stock

Don't worry; you're not alone.

Many people in 2019 are seeking to retrain as graphic designers in a flexible way that enables them to keep their day job going. And several college courses have sprung up to help make that possible.

At Shillington, we have campuses in the UK, USA and Australia where three-month intensive courses can also be taken on a part-time basis across nine months.

Best of all, we have a proven record in getting people into graphic design jobs at the end of it. Indeed, Shillington’s courses are often taken by graduates who want to be more industry-ready than their more theory-based degrees have prepared them for.

The qualities you need

So what's important in making you industry-ready? In this article, we’ll look at some typical phrases from real-life recruitment ads, and how they reveal the specific qualities you need to get your first job as a graphic designer.

Then we’ll go through each of these qualities in turn, and how a part-time design course at Shillington can help you fulfil them – all without needing to quit your day job.

1. Craft

  • Real-life job requirement: “We're seeking a skilled and passionate junior designer who has an eye for detail and who can produce pixel-perfect work that has been through a rigorous QA process.”
  • What they’re looking for: Someone ready to go, and doesn’t need in-house training

For more companies, the days when graphic designers could be trained on the job are long gone. Fierce competition between design studios and ever-tightening client budgets mean that creatives directors don’t have a lot of time or resources to train new recruits formally. Instead, they need someone who can hit the ground running and require minimal guidance.

It’s that old Catch 22: ‘Can’t get a job without experience. Can’t get experience without a job.’ Which is why Shillington’s classrooms are designed to replicate a real-life, fast-paced, studio environment.

While you’ll begin with a thorough grounding in design theory, that’s only the start. From here, you’ll build from the fundamentals to learn the technical skills and disciplines that are in demand in the design industry right now.

You’ll learn by doing, in an environment led by professional designers and crafted to be as close as possible to the real thing. Which means you’ll have a great head start over graduates of more theoretical courses that lack a strong practical component.

2. Process

  • Real-life job requirement: “Ability to work through design problems from beginning to end: translating research insights into ideas that form disruptive new products and features, then designing the workflows and detailed interactions to realise them.”
  • What they’re looking for: Someone who understands what it takes to fulfil a client brief

Every design studio lives and dies on keeping their clients happy. And the art of fulfilling a client brief is a very different beast to just crafting eye-catching visuals that look nice on your portfolio and get lots of likes on social media.

It’s about really digging into the client’s needs and business goals, coming up with original and inventive ways the studio can help fulfil those goals, and then executing them to perfection.

This can’t be taught in the abstract; it’s mostly a skill that you master with experience. So on Shillington’s design courses, you’re given real-world briefs and expected to fulfil them to completion, delivering technically precise assets for print, digital or physical production.

By taking you out of the lecture hall and into this kind of real-world environment, where leading professionals judge your work, you’ll be thoroughly prepared for your first design job; and recruiters will not be slow in recognising this.

3. Time management

  • Real-life job requirement: “Ability to manage a heavy workload and prioritise multiple projects. Flexible to adapt quickly to changing priorities within a very dynamic environment, work under pressure, solve problems and deliver on required timelines.”
  • What they’re looking for: Someone who can deliver on time

It’s one thing to know your design craft, and how to fulfil a client brief. It’s another thing actually to do it within a tight timeframe.

Managing tight deadlines in a real-world studio environment is easy to promise, but difficult to do; even experienced designers can struggle. So how can you persuade a recruiter that you have the right stuff?

In truth, the only real evidence that will convince them is an actual track record. And that’s why Shillington’s design courses don’t give you endless time to complete your projects, but tight deadlines that reflect what you’d have in the real world; anything from two hours to two days.

In a sense, you’re treated more like an employee than a student. And while that might sound scary, it will give you a real boost of self-confidence that you can meet the demands of a real-world job, and help you convince a recruiter you can do so, too.

4. Software

  • Real-life job requirement: “Intermediate skill level across Adobe Illustrator, Indesign and Photoshop”
  • What they’re looking for: Someone who doesn’t have to be handheld

When recruitment ads demand proficiency in a long list of design tools, it can be difficult to read between the lines. After all, there probably isn’t a designer alive who’s mastered every single aspect of Photoshop. What if you’re not so hot on Illustrator, but you’re a whizz at Sketch? What qualifies as an ‘intermediate’ skill level anyway?

It’s best not to be too obsessive about this kind of stuff. While employers’ requirements will vary depending on their specific focus, they’re unlikely to, for example, give you a written test in a particular tool, or ask you to explain how its different functions work. Instead, they’re usually be looking for designers who have (a) a broad understanding of the major software, and (b) the ability to use them to realise real-world projects.

In this spirit, Shillington teaches full-time students and part-time students the industry-standard design software - Adobe Suite, InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop - as well as the digital prototyping app Sketch. You’ll start from square one with software demonstrations, sharing best practices, tips and shortcuts, and teachers are available for one-on-one technical guidance.

But more importantly, by moving quickly into real-world briefs, you’ll learn how to get the software to do what you need it to do; just like working designers do in the real world.

5. Think creatively and collaboratively

  • Real-life job requirement: “Ability to solve problems by being collaborative, creative and analytical”
  • What they’re looking for: Someone who’ll be an asset, not a dead weight

Although design is a business, it’s not a production line. So as well as looking for reliable people, employers are looking for people with talent, imagination and that spark of inspiration that means they’ll proactively generate ideas, not just sit in the background and wait for instructions.

At Shillington, you won’t work on projects independently, as you might on a more academic course; you collaborate with fellow students just as you would in a real studio. You’ll also receive a continuous stream of feedback and constructive criticism, both written and verbal, as you conceive, develop and produce your ideas. This all requires a bit of a thick skin but gives you an excellent grounding when you have to do the same thing in your first job.

6. Explain your ideas

  • Real-life job requirement: “You can clearly and effectively communicate creative processes, ideas, and solutions to teams
  • What they’re looking for: Someone who gets to the point

There’s no point in having great ideas if you can’t explain them quickly, clearly and promptly. Clients don’t have time to wait for your finished assets before they decide whether they like your idea or not, so communication is one of the critical skills a designer has to develop.

At Shillington, you’ll learn to explain your ideas, process and results in a way that both clients and creative directors can easily follow.

That means developing a level of empathy in terms of what different people need to know as well as crafting a story that explains the evolution of your ideas and the purpose of your design. Because, in the real world, people are busy and don't have the time to stand around and listen to you waffling.

7. Portfolio

  • Real-life job requirement: “A portfolio of digital design work, either personal or professional. We’d like to see not only the final work but also the .psd document itself.”
  • What they’re looking for: Kick-ass work presented professionally

The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating. And no one is ever going to give you a job as a graphic designer unless you can show them some impressive work in a portfolio. But it’s not just about visual eye candy.

You’re not an artist; you’re a designer. The difference is that design solves a problem. And so employers will also want to see something of how you approached the problem, and how your design solved it.

At Shillington, you’ll emerge from your graphic design course with an industry-level portfolio featuring a variety of projects and styles, including digital, print, packaging, UX/UI, branding, campaigns and more. That portfolio will clearly show how your idea evolved into your final design, plus you’ll have developed the skills to expand on this eloquently during your interview.

If you want to change careers and become a graphic designer, Shillington covers all the requirements that will allow you to confidently and successfully apply for a position in a competitive industry. Choose between studying three months full-time and nine months part-time in New York, London, Manchester, Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane. For more details, visit

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