Graphic design is a career that instantly jumps to mind when you think of creative jobs. However, being creative in the graphic design industry isn’t always strictly black and white, so to speak.
As an Associate Professor of Graphic Design and the Assistant Chair of Art and Design at Troy University, Chris Stagl is a creative thinker. However, he would never describe himself as an artist. Instead, Stagl prefers to think of himself and his students in the Bachelor of Science in Graphic Design program as storytellers.
Stagl began his storytelling career as a student journalist before being lured away by the world of design.
“When I was at high school in Florida, we had a very small journalism department that published the student newspaper and yearbook,” says Stagl. “I quickly transitioned from writing stories to the visual side of things. I liked doing the layout, the typography and photography.”
His passion for visual storytelling continued through junior college, where he became the editor of his college newspaper. He later studied graphic design as an undergraduate, and animation and multimedia design at graduate school.
“Graphic design really is just creative communication,” says Stagl. “It’s the creative visual communication of advertising and messaging and telling good stories.”
What Is a Graphic Designer? A Storyteller
Stagl explains how he establishes this concept of communicating visually when explaining to his students what being a graphic designer is all about. It all starts with the fundamentals of storytelling.
“I try to encourage my students to be good writers and good creative thinkers before they even touch a computer or look at graphic design software,” says Stagl. “They need to have a good concept and story and then let the technology aid in telling that story. Graphic design is at the crossroads of good storytelling and being able to translate that visually into whatever medium or context you need to show. Everything starts with that story.”
According to Stagl, it’s not just graphic designers who have evolved to become more visual communicators. The general public is also increasingly informed by design.
“Graphic design is important because that’s how people learn today,” says Stagl. “People aren’t sitting down in front of newspapers and just reading, reading, reading. They need bite-sized information. That information needs to be visual and it needs to be fast. You’ve lost your demographic if you can’t communicate quickly and clearly.”
Telling a good story also means communicating the story to a client — and not just visually. Carolina Hechart, a graduate of the TROY program, recalls that, initially, this concept didn’t come easy to her.
“As an introvert I hate to admit this, but communication is so important,” says Hechart, who now works as a lead designer with a marketing agency. “It can be difficult at first, especially in a new environment, but it is very evident when it is lacking. Being able to express what you need for a project, answer questions and discuss your creative choices are all things you will probably have to do at some point in your creative career. Refining your communication skills early in your career will greatly help you in the long run.”
The Changing Face of Graphic Design
Much has changed in the design landscape since Stagl first became interested in graphic design as a high schooler.
“Graphic design has become this amalgamation of media,” says Stagl. “It can’t just be print design anymore. You have to think about how things will look on your phone, on a tablet, on a big screen TV or a kiosk.”
These changes have been incorporated into TROY’s bachelor’s degree program.
“We took the opportunity to look at what the industry was doing and model the curriculum after the industry,” says Stagl. “It was important that students have more than print classes behind their skill set. They now have diverse graphic design portfolios of print, web, video and motion graphics skills.”
TROY students also become well-versed in the various digital art software packages used in the design industry. Primarily, students use the Adobe Creative Cloud Suite of graphic design software, including Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, After Effects and Premiere.
Stagl explains that students access this software with their personal computers or on the computers in TROY’s two graphic design labs.
“It is a very diverse degree and our students learn a lot about the technology,” says Stagl. “But more important than that, they learn how to properly use that technology by building their visuals around a strong concept. We pride ourselves on not just teaching technology but teaching that technology and wrapping it around a good story or a good idea.”
On Campus + Online Graphic Design Degree
Along with modernizing the curriculum, Stagl seized the opportunity to take the degree in graphic design online. It was a natural evolution of what TROY has been doing successfully for many years with other academic programs.
“TROY has been one of the leading universities in the country for online education for a very long time,” says Stagl. “Making the program available online was about taking the curriculum and realigning it with where the industry was headed.”
By offering the program both online and on campus, TROY is also able to extend its reach to more non-traditional students.
“The majority of students in the online graphic design program have full-time jobs, families to support and other responsibilities,” says Stagl. “They’re people looking for a change and transition to the next phase of their lives. They’ve maybe always wanted to be a graphic designer but never had the time to do it.”
Hechart herself used her experience in the program to move in a different career direction.
“I was always interested in art but never thought to pursue it professionally until college,” says Hechart. “After deciding my previous major was not what I was truly passionate about, I decided to give graphic design a shot — and I never looked back!”
Stagl explains that the online program is 100% asynchronous, making it even more accessible for working students.
“That doesn’t mean that you’ll never see me face-to-face or you won’t have my one-on-one support,” says Stagl. “It just means you get to work at your own pace. We do have weekly deadlines that you have to meet. But you have an entire week to hit those deadlines and there is flexibility when students need it.”
Stagl explains how having a strong online presence goes hand-in-hand with TROY’s blend of national and international focus.
“We’ve always been known as the international university in the state of Alabama,” says Stagl. “Taking the program online made good commercial sense and highlighted our commitment to investing further in online education.”
Yes, But … Do You Need to Be an Artist?
Many times, the fear of not being “artistic” enough can keep people away from pursuing creative jobs. According to Stagl, you don’t necessarily need to be an artist or exceptionally good at art to become a successful graphic designer. It’s more about being open to and embracing new ideas and ways of thinking.
“If I’m being 100% honest, I’m not great at art,” says Stagl. “You do need to be great at keeping an open mind and looking at things differently. Once you move into that space, you’ll have the opportunity to work with great artists, photographers or videographers.”
Stagl explains to his students that he has a master’s in fine art but he can’t sit down and just draw a great picture.
“Design thinking is a much bigger part of the process,” says Stagl. “Part of this is having the creative capacity to know your limitations and leverage the talent of folks around you. This isn’t an industry where you get to work on your own on everything. You need to be a team player and be able to work with technicians who are specialists in their field.”
While Hechart did enjoy her fine art classes and believed they helped her improve and develop basic skills like drawing, she found lessons in time management especially invaluable when it comes to creative practice.
“Creativity is a difficult thing to produce on demand,” says Hechart. “It’s hard to be creative all the time. Reminding yourself that you’re not superhuman is a good start. Learning not to put so much pressure on yourself is also important. Time management and defending or discussing your work and choices are some of the invaluable skills that I learned at TROY.”
The program also focuses on the business skills that graphic designers need to succeed in the industry.
“As a graphic designer, you have to work within certain constraints,” says Stagl. “Those constraints might be budgetary, brand guidelines and even time deadlines. In addition, you have to be a project manager with strong design thinking skills.”
Developing Commercial Skills
Connecting classroom skills and real-world application is something else the program emphasizes. TROY connects graphic design students with local businesses through the university’s Center for Design, Technology, and Industry (DTI.center).
“We have classes where we have actual clients in the room,” says Stagl. “Students learn about project management and how to handle client design issues by working with paying clients.”
As in the real world, projects typically start with a brief and end with students being awarded the commission and paid accordingly.
“Clients initially fill out a Request for Proposal (RFP) form which the students read before creating a brief,” says Stagl. “The students will then work independently for a few weeks writing a concept statement, perhaps putting together mood boards and creating a little visual presentation.”
Students then present their ideas to the client before a winning proposal is accepted.
“We get small businesses in DTI.center all the time,” says Stagl. “They might need a new logo or for us to design websites. So we sit down with them, create the RFP and work out a budget. It could be $50. It could be $5,000. It really doesn’t matter. The students get excited when they’re actually working on client projects instead of just everyday class projects.”
Stagl explains that the client pays DTI.center, and that money is then paid to the student who wins the work.
But it’s not just the chance to earn money that the students enjoy.
“They love being able to work on client projects,” says Stagl. “It sets them apart from just having student work in their portfolio. So, when they enter the industry, they’ve already got real-world client projects in their portfolio, whether they won the actual competition or not.”
According to Stagl, the portfolio the students create at TROY is as important to these future professionals as their degree.
“You can be the best student in the world, you could have straight A’s, but if you don’t come out with a strong portfolio, it won’t matter,” says Stagl. “We try to encourage our students. We know that grades matter. But for us, the creative work is just as important. We tell them, ‘Anybody can get good grades, but not everybody can have an incredible portfolio.'”
Hechart believes the opportunity to work with real clients at DTI.center helped her prepare for the world of creative jobs.
“Every workplace is different,” says Hechart. “But I think the DTI program helped set a standard of what to expect in the real world.”
Jobs in Graphic Design
Stagl explains that graduates of the program typically launch their careers in graphic design with creative agencies or as in-house designers. Many students also use the commercial skills they acquire at TROY and set up their own creative studios as entrepreneurs.
Constantly evolving trends in creative marketing, particularly in digital marketing and social media, require that businesses have agile and responsive design resources available on hand. Stagl believes more organizations are looking to strengthen their in-house design teams.
“I think that companies now, more than ever, have a real need and desire to have an in-house creative person,” says Stagl. “It’s a lot easier for them to pay one person $50,000 a year to be their in-house creative person than working with an agency that’s going to charge them a huge retainer and may not be as responsive.”
According to US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, the industry expects to see demand for graphic designers grow by 3% over the next decade, with 24,800 new positions opening each year.
With tight deadlines and demanding clients, careers in graphic design can be stressful, but Hechart believes the pros of being in a creative career far outweigh any negatives.
“I love getting to create things all the time,” says Hechart. “Even when things get stressful, at the end of the day, I still love that I get to be working creatively all day. I also love being part of a team where we can collaborate and lean on each other’s creativity.”
Explore a Path to Creative Jobs With a Graphic Design Degree
Learn more about becoming a more creative, communicative and entrepreneurial designer by visiting the Bachelor of Science in Graphic Design page on our website.