About being a designer in South Africa

Posted by Vernon Joyce
January 8, 2017

The graphic design industry has in recent years, seen quite an increase in young creatives. Designers that have been in the industry for quite some time might even call it saturated. Luckily, this fast-paced industry is ever-growing as new technologies become available and industries learn to recognise the importance of designers. As a result, there is always room for fresh talent. So if you are interested in being a designer in South Africa, continue reading.


First off it’s important to note that the graphic design industry is not exclusively for creatives, but does give you an edge. A business lecturer at the University of Johannesburg once referred to us as “Communication Engineers”. This rings very true as a lot of design work involves analytical thinking. On the other end of the scale; creative designers do still get a lot of opportunities in various design specialities and often branch into other creative fields.

It can take up to two years to figure out where you sit on the scale between logic and creativity; but once you do you will have the opportunity to choose a career path that’s right for your personality. The design industry is usually fast-paced and might involve long hours. You need to be willing to partake in group discussions (brainstorms), work tight deadlines and respond well to criticism. An entrepreneurial drive could also result and freelancing opportunities. Overall being a designer requires a lot of perseverance especially if creativity does not come easily to you.


Being a graphic designer involves a lot of theory which again is why this industry is very analytical. You will also learn through practice in the form of projects and develop your eye for good design. A graphic design degree can vary depending on where you study, but some of the topics covered could include:

  • Theoretical topics like colour theory and shape theory.
  • Communication skills such as pitching ideas or writing good copy.
  • Drawing skills which include using different media, sketching ideas, drawing storyboards or illustrating.
  • Design history: some of the world’s best design comes from legends like Paul Rand or Milton Glaser. The best way to learn is by example and studying the work of others.
  • Practice through projects – by doing practical work like logo design, layout design, web design etc. you are able to hone your skills and learn how to deal with criticism.
  • Some graphic design degrees offer web design, digital design and/or development as a subject.
  • Some graphic design degrees will let you specialise by your fourth year in sectors like advertising, print design or branding.
  • At some universities it is possible to switch over to multimedia design throughout your course.


For many creatives the industry is grueling and dealing with criticism is tough. As a result they often give up or move on to a different industry. If you struggle with being creative then it’s important to be patient with yourself and remember that you learn from your failures. Most designers have what we could refer to as an “eureka” moment.  It might happen to you while studying or only after you’ve worked for some years; but the “eureka” moment is when a designer’s light bulb goes on. Many designers might call it something else, but in essence this moment is when you start understanding design, when your eyes can suddenly see what no one else’s can. Every designer reaches an impasse in their career and this is very natural; so don’t be too hard on yourself and just wait for your eyes to open.


The design industry, in general is large and includes many different specialities. Often designers branch into other fields of study like app development. Here are some of our top picks for careers you could step into with a graphic design degree:

  1. General Print Designer – Print designers handle everything from layout design to branding. “Print” is really a blanket term for any design that involves a printing process and could include various sub-industries. A general print designer would handle day-to-day design tasks and also plays a big role in preparing design work for printers.
  2. Advertising – If you fancy a stressful but rewarding career then advertising is for you. You will start at the bottom and work your way up (see creative director) and often involves long hours and harsh criticism. Advertising agencies might demand a lot of interpersonal skills as it involves a lot of communication between you and your director, the ability to pitch your ideas and (most importantly) a lot of socialising with your colleagues.
  3. Marketing – Marketing, not to be confused with advertising, has to do with strategic ways of communicating with your client. Through market analysis, marketers are able to target specific audiences through specific media. Marketers and advertisers often work closely together to build strategies for effective advertising. Marketers could also move into a marketing director role which is the height of any marketing career.
  4. Digital Designer – A digital designer is responsible for designing anything within a digital space. This could include banners, content for social media (like Facebook banners), choosing appropriate imagery for articles and more.
  5. Web Designer and/or Developer – Many designers today are capable of doing both design and development. Although web design is primarily tied in with a multimedia degree, some designers end up becoming web designers or developers. A web designer would be responsible for designing the layout of web pages whereas a web developer would turn these layouts into an actual website.
  6. UX Designer – A UX (User Experience) designer is tasked with refining or building a user’s experience. It generally involves drawing up wireframes and process flows of how for example an app has to function.
  7. UI Designer – The UI (User Interface) designer’s job is to turn the UX designer’s ideas into buildable prototypes.  A UX designer works out what a button is supposed to do, whereas a UI designer decides what the button looks like.
  8. Brand Manager – A brand manager is responsible for overseeing the brand of a business (or sometimes several businesses). The brand manager will ensure that brand guidelines are followed and that any new design work is true to the persona associated with that brand.
  9. Account Manager – If you love working with clients then this role is for you. It is not necessarily a design role, but having design knowledge is advantageous when discussing projects with clients or when they need to be set at ease.  Your goal is to keep the client happy and as a result requires a lot of interpersonal skills.
  10. Art Director – The goal of the art director is to unify the vision of his or her team while working closely with copywriters and other designers. This role requires the ability to take an idea and turn it into a polished design. Art directors often do the design work depending on the size of the agency, but can at times only be responsible for polishing design work supplied by their junior.
  11. Creative Director – If you are a long time fan of Don Draper from AMC’s Mad Men then you will have a general idea of what this career path involves. Most creatives strive to be in this role as it could be considered the height of their career (other than being a managing director or CEO). The creative director needs to be both very analytical and very creative as he is responsible for overseeing large campaigns from start to finish. It is often expected of the creative director to give creative vision and direction and ensure that the final product meets the client’s needs. Managerial skills are also a must as the creative director often manages a large team.


Having a design a degree empowers you to step into several well-known agencies or design studios. There are a lot of studios in South Africa, but here are some of our top picks:


The best advice anyone in this industry could give you is to never stop learning. This is very true for the design industry as it is an ever evolving beast whether you are in digital or print. There are several short courses you could use to supplement your career: Vega School offers courses in marketing, social media management, brand management and much more. Similar schools include AAA School of Advertising and Open Window. Alternatively, there are mountains of online resources available from Lynda.com to TreeHouse.


There are no required subjects to study graphic design, but there are some that could be helpful to you in the long run:

  • Art
  • Information Technology (or any computer science related subject)


  • Analytical and creative
  • Could easily branch into other industries
  • A wide variety of specialisations
  • Tough but rewarding

Graphic design is a versatile and rewarding industry – there is nothing better than an impressed and happy client. It also offers a lot of fame and recognition, especially for those seeking out awards and rewards. You don’t have to be creative to create something out of nothing, just stick to what you know, persevere and you will enjoy your career. Stay up to date with design trends and never stop learning. Who knows, one day you could be Ogilvy’s Don Draper or be the talked about designer who adds another Loerie award to his wall.

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