Choosing Where to Live as a Graphic Designer


Perhaps the most important decision you will make after choosing a career in graphic design is where you plan to live and work. For some, the choice is easy; for others, it’s a big world out there and choosing where to put roots down can be a difficult task. Should you relocate for a higher salary? Move to wherever the lowest unemployment is? Or pack your bags for specific design colleges and universities? Putting aside personal preferences such as friends, family, weather, and geographic amenities, let’s take a look at what makes sense when deciding to move to a new city.

On March 27th 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annually updated Occupational Employment Statistics (OES). Why is this important you might ask?

These estimates are the nation’s most reliable source for the number of people employed in specific occupations and areas, and the amount of wages people earn. Now more than ever, getting the biggest bang for your design-buck is essential for living a successful life. Why chase a large salary if your rent eats up most of it? Why move to a location you love only to find the advertising base is lack luster and career opportunities are scarce at best—especially in this economy.

If a high salary is your foremost concern, here are the top five paying cities for graphic designers:

1. San Jose, CA                 $72,820

2. San Francisco, CA         $69,190

3. Framingham, MA            $63,920

4. Washington, DC             $63,670

5. New York, NY                 $63,480


That sounds like a lot right? The salaries above are much higher than the average graphic design salary of $53,400 in Columbus, OH. Think again.

According to Sperling’s Best Places, a reputable cost of living calculator, you would have to earn an equivalent of $103,088 in San Jose, CA to match the cost of living in Columbus, OH on $53,400. That’s more than $30,000 the mean design salary in San Jose. Surprised?

Here’s the list when adjusted for cost of living:

1. San Jose, CA                 $42,552

2. San Francisco, CA         $27,749

3. Framingham, MA            $40,077

4. Washington, DC             $46,641

5. New York, NY                 $31,774


In reality, you pay to be paid. Of all those salaries, not even one comes close to reaching the real amount of money you’ll be taking home had you chosen a city with a lower cost of living and one that has a well-paid graphic design industry. This is why it actually pays to do a little research before moving anywhere. Here are some important factors to consider when deciding to move for a career in graphic design:

Economy: There are no guarantees in today’s rollercoaster job market. Although the economy itself may be out of your control, choosing cities with economies that are diverse with many industries will help stifle recessions when they inevitably do happen. This means you will less likely be out of a job and more likely be working on a new client.

Cost of Living: As witnessed above, just because a city pays a creative well, doesn’t mean he or she will be living a better quality of life, on the contrary, in most cases it is just the opposite. Take time to research specific areas and the cost to live in them. Find the price of living expenses such as housing, food and water, as well as taxes, transportation and other costs.

Workforce: Creative careers flourish in some locations but are hard to find in others. Does the city offer opportunities for artistic expression? Find a city that has a high number of workers in the creative class. Many times the amount of job opportunities coincides with the size (and living expense) of the city. Striking a balance between the two is key.

School: Does the city have a recognized and accredited design school or program? The network of connections and relationships made while attending a design college or university will increase your chances of finding future employment where the school is located. This resource of contacts will be invaluable if you are just starting out.


At the end of the day, where you live and work is ultimately up to you. Whether you find joy in a big city like Los Angeles, or in a smaller place close to family, taking risks and discovering yourself will only make you a better graphic designer. Did you move to city to practice graphic design? Have you ever regretted a decision to leave a location with hopes the grass would be greener somewhere else?

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Employees a Potential PR Risk?

In a world dominated by real-time social media, it’s almost impossible to monitor everything being said about your brand. Businesses must be laser-focused in their efforts to prevent potential public relations crises before they catch fire. Inevitably when something does happen, responding quickly is crucial in keeping things from going up in flames. But what happens if your own employees are the ones setting the fires?

Barneys New York, an upscale clothing retailer based in New York City, had to deal with exactly that. Last week, one of the brand’s interns committed a major fashion flub by accidentally posting this to Barney’s some 200,000 Facebook fans:

“Beyond livid. Studied my ass off for my exam, and when I got to the test did the first 5, and ran out of time having to frantically guess all of the rest. Who gives 21 accounting word problems to be done in an hour??! Fml:(”

BarneysNY Facebook Page


As social media becomes further integrated into the lives of employees, the risks can begin to negatively affect the workplace. Employees are brand ambassadors, and those in communications especially must be apt in using the tools of social media. A small mistake like this can be damaging to a major brand’s image. Maybe it’s time we start thinking twice about giving the job of communicating with hundreds of thousands of consumers to an intern. Yes we all make mistakes, and as a college student I have made plenty of them. That’s not the point here. Businesses need to understand the power of social media and why it is so important to entrust the brand’s reputation with those who understand the complexities of the medium and its impact.


Here are a few points to consider when staffing communications positions:

  • Hire someone with a public relations degree. More, hire someone with extensive social media experience who is qualified to handle such an important and integral part of the company brand.
  • Provide training classes or a mentoring system for interns and those professionals to whom you plan on asking to engage the public through social media.
  • Know what you are looking for. What are the job responsibilities? What is expected of the employee and who will they report to? It can be argued that those in social media are accountable to the entire company, but developing an accountability structure will help prevent communication mistakes.


The potential for mini public relations crises are greater now than ever before. In the unforgiving world of social media, word travels fast, and your brand’s reputation can be impacted even faster. What advice can you give to brands who staff social media positions with interns? Have you ever accidentally posted something on your workplace’s Facebook wall?

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Where to Find Graphic Design Inspiration

Inspiration to graphic designers is like love at first sight. We crave it, we need it, and sometimes, we struggle to find it. It can come at any time, from any thing, in any setting.

But before beginning any graphic design project, we first must understand our client’s needs and expectations, the target audience, and develop a strategy that best accomplishes our communication goals. That’s the easy part. What comes next requires internalizing all of that research into an original idea and producing beautiful, clever works of art that knock the socks off of our clients. This can prove maddening when deadlines are looming.

With that said, when you are in a bind and need to get your creative juices flowing, here are some of my favorite places I look to find inspiration.


The Environment

AppleAh, the great outdoors. The number of inspirational opportunities that are presented by the world around us is astounding. When I’m lacking inspiration, one of the very first things I do is get some fresh air away from the problem at hand. Try taking a walk in your local community and just–walk, don’t try to force any ideas. Instead, soak in the shapes and textures of your surroundings and the colors and patterns of the environment. Listen to the hustle and bustle of traffic, the flow of water, or a gust of wind through the trees. Study the architecture around you, and look for ways these elements can be implemented into your designs.


My Hobbies

LetterpressFind inspiration in the things you already love to do. As a graphic designer, I know it can be difficult to maintain hobbies outside of work and friends, but strive to find something you are passionate about away from your career. I love painting, traveling, music and photography. I can’t tell you how many times the things that have appeared before my camera lens have crossed over to inspire my graphic design work. Whatever your hobby is, remember to make time for it and let it be an inspiration for solving visual communication problems.


Other Graphic Designers

Staralfur MP3 PromoMaybe the most common way to get the creative juices flowing is by looking at what other designers have done before you. Remember there’s no harm in looking; just be sure to avoid plagiarizing another creative’s hard work. Look at communication magazines such as Communication Arts and Print. Go online and browse through photo galleries like Flickr, design archives on AIGA, and read graphic design blogs such as Design Champ! Further, make time to go to graphic design events, listen to speakers, visit urban art galleries, and network with other communication professionals in your community.


My Inspiration File

Inspiration FileIf you haven’t already, I encourage every graphic designer to develop and maintain a personal inspiration file, either digitally or physically. This can come in handy if you need a creative pick-me-up. Paul Rand said it best: “The artist is a collector of things imaginary or real. He accumulates things with the same enthusiasm that a little boy stuffs his pockets.” So every time you are out and about remember to collect samples of clever advertising, color swatches, photo clippings, inspirational textures and patterns, business cards, and even restaurant menus. What you put in your inspiration file is completely up to you; just make sure you’re inspired by it.


Inspiration is out there, we just need to be open to finding it. It often comes from the most unlikely places, and sometimes, the best can be found right in front of us. So what are you inspired by? What advice can you give to other graphic designers with creative block?

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Deciding Between In-House, Agency and Freelance Design

Almost as challenging as crafting the perfect design solution, deciding on where and how to work will shape your career in graphic design. Some designers work in the marketing departments of Fortune 500 companies. Others express their creativity for a variety of clients by working in advertising agencies. Then there are those who work from home in their pajamas.

Only you can choose what type of environment will suit your personality best. What works for you may not work for another designer. Let’s explore the pros and cons of each distinct direction and why all graphic design is not created equal.



In-House Graphic Design Office

Target. American Greetings. Bank of America. Every major company has an advertising/marketing department, and most have graphic designers on staff. These designers are responsible for the company’s marketing and promotional materials, website updates and presentation graphics.

Pros: The greatest asset to working in-house is the stability that it brings both to the company and to the designer (which certainly can’t be understated in the current economic market.) Companies appreciate the assurance of having an “on-call” design department on the cheap, where graphic designers value predictable working hours, assured payment for work, no contracts, and benefits packages such as paid time off and a 401k.

Cons: More often than not, once you go corporate you never go back. It is very easy to pigeonhole your portfolio by working on a single brand for an extended period of time. This risk is even greater for those recent graduates just entering the industry. The workplace can leave you wanting, especially those who thrive in team-oriented environments. In addition, companies expect their designers to adhere to strict branding guidelines with little room for “fresh” design experimentation. After time, many designers’ creative juices dry up and they are left with a portfolio filled with vacuum cleaner ads.



Advertising Agency Office

Advertising agencies offer planning, strategy and creative problem solving to a plethora of clients. Designers are members of a team that develop unforgettable ad campaigns, catchy tag lines and eye-popping graphics. Some agencies specialize in areas such as interactive design, while others may be broader in scope.

Pros: Perhaps the largest advantage to working in an advertising agency is the variety of clients and projects; everything from branding, to print brochures, to website design, to interactive applications, to commercial spots, and so on. You will never be bored and neither will your portfolio. Employees work in a fast-paced environment built around teams striving for top-notch awards and recognition from the advertising community. Agencies are known for inspiring, open work spaces void of cubicles and ripe for creative interaction between employees. If you thrive on collaboration and relationship-building, agency life could be for you. Last, most agencies offer competitive salaries with opportunities for promotion to leadership positions such as Art Director and Creative Director.

Cons: Long hours, creative burn-out and job insecurity are a few of the negatives to working in an advertising agency. When deadlines are set, deadlines must be met, and finishing a project late into the night is common. Because working at such high intensity can lead to creative block and burn-out, it’s important to find balance between work and home to re-energize. Profits are built around client revenue, so when a major account is lost, so could your job. This is an important consideration if you have a family and children who rely on you for support.



Freelance Office

As the name implies, these designers are their own bosses. With great freedom comes great responsibility and the freelance graphic designer will be the first to tell you that developing and maintaining an established clientele is no easy task. These designers have the flexibility to customize schedules around their personal lives and families, as well as budget the amount of projects they take on.

Pros: Becoming a freelance designer or consultant will provide you with the ultimate flexibility and creative freedom. Freelancers have the option to choose what type of projects to work on, and who to work for. As you build a reputation and a clientele, these choices become even more apparent. These designers get to set their own pay rate and in many cases are among the highest earners. Because your schedule is ultimately up to you, balancing work habits with family and outside commitments is easier than in agency or in-house design.

Cons: High Risk. High Reward. As a freelance designer, it’s an “eat what you kill” business model and the absence of a steady paycheck can stressful. This is especially true for recent graduates just entering the industry who do not have the experience or reputation to bring in work. You will be working alone, which can have an adverse effect on the creative process. Freelancers must be organized in order to manage client contracts and billing, legal considerations, as well as business marketing.

What advice can you give readers about where you worked as a graphic designer? Do you prefer one work environment over another?

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