What Graphics Programs Should A Pro Graphic Designer Know?

Graphic Applications on my Mac PRo. -
Graphic Applications on my Mac Pro. – Yep, the Big Kahunas are there.

Recently I came across this post on the MacRumors Design and Graphics forums.

“Hello, Got a friend who’s interested in going back to school to become a graphic designer. Wondering what programs graphics pro’s are expected to know.”
Chris7, Mar 10, 2010.

There were a lot of thoughtful replies over a few years, so it might be worth your time to visit the thread and read through them. A lot of good recommendations. It was also very interesting to see the trends in design and publishing software evolve over the multi-year span of the thread. What was common, even essential, even a decade ago falls by the wayside, and new entries rise in prominence and usage. However, I noticed my comments weighed in at article length, so felt they were worth sharing, with some clarifying edits. Hope you find them worthwhile.

If you look at some of the (few) job listings out there, the short answer is, apparently, ALL OF THEM. But the practical reality is: the software your Employer/Client uses in their shop. Which could be state of the art everything on cutting edge machines, to legacy dedicated-purpose applications from the 80s running on ancient Windows NT boxes they can’t update, as the software publisher went under in 1997.

As a battle-scarred veteran of the Desktop Publishing wars, I entered the field in 1980 B.C… Before Computers. When DTP came along in the 90s, it was heavily marketed as a way to eliminate entire art departments. Since then, it has been discovered that training, taste, the ability to draw, and understand principles of Design still makes a difference. This revelation lead to the the idea that giving Creative Pros robust tools and paying them was more effective than giving them to High School interns. However the ubiquity and strength – what nuclear missile guys would call “throw weight” – of our digital tools has put a LOT of talented people to pounding the floors in Walmart, if not on the street. A spectrum of design assistants and outside services I would have employed and used in the 90’s are now all contained within my workstation and software.

But I can saw with absolutely zero irony, if you hope to make it as a purely print designer in this economy, you have to be driven, very very good, and LUCKY, and as good a self promoter as a Designer – or you will straight-up starve to death. We have reached a point that the majority of basic and simple print design can be done directly by clients in MS Office. Maybe not terribly well, but it is damn hard to compete with what’s perceived by many employers and business owners as “free”. Microsoft will quite happily supply a spectrum of templates across all manner of document types and purposes, ranging from hideous to fairly appealing. Even the much maligned Vistaprint [link] now has a not-entirely-horrid online designer interface that most people with reasonable taste can shove something fairly presentable out of.

Our professional market does not start till clients want to look better than what they can do themselves, or are willing to pay someone to do something they would rather not – while busy doing what they are good at. Or by the diminishing market that values our experience and expertise for what it is.

That said – The Adobe Creative Applications still largely rule the Creative universe – but Adobe is not as overwhelming as they used to be, with more and more 3rd party apps coming along to compete legitimately with Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and their other apps. Many creatives on tighter budgets bristle at the pain of a monthly subscription fee for Creative Cloud, creating a market for alternatives. Image Editing Apps like Pixelmator and Acorn among others have seen considerable traction, and Sketch is displacing Illustrator in producing Web and Mobile App Graphics. You will also need the ability to generate and edit PDF files. The advantage of Creative Cloud is you have access to a LOT of professional class software for the monthly fee. This made sense when I suddenly needed to work on a video project in After Effects.

For Print Layout, InDesign is still the reigning industry standard, but Quark Xpress is still out there. Avoid MS Publisher, it’s toxic. The Open Source Scribus has become surprisingly capable, if not as full featured as InDesign.

While Apple’s Pages, Numbers, and Keynote are very capable for Mac users, professionals interacting with the general business world absolutely must still be adept with Microsoft Office – in abut a zillion iterations (as of this writing is Office 365, also a software subscription system ) – who still largely OWNS the Office Suite space in the business world, despite the rise of alternatives like the open-source Apache Open Office and popular and (mostly) free Google Docs and such. Not least of which is the ability to deal with the… let’s just say… variable competence level shown in the content and documents employers, copywriters and clients send us. Also, I have received incessant requests to convert designs made in InDesign into Word Templates, especially letterheads. So much for bleeds, or spot colors, or embossing, I could go on….

If you are going to survive, especially as a freelancer, in addition to Print Design, you’re also going to have to delve into the realm of Web Design and Development. Some Clients/Employers can’t seem to differentiate between the two branches of design, and feel “it’s all the same computer s**t”. Others can’t imagine they have anything in common – If your first assignment for a client is a print brochure, they might often think you can‘t build a web site, and vice versa. But you’ll need to learn HTML, CSS, Javascript, JQuery, PHP, also CMS Systems such as WordPress or Joomla, perhaps frameworks like Bootstrap or Foundation. You might need to get familiar with slick Online Web Builder platforms like Squarepace, Weebly, Wix and their (many, many) brethren. So you’ll need specialty text editors, coding environments, perhaps Web Development apps, and being adept with FTP software. You will need to become adept at Responsive Design, so that your web designs are presentable for mobile users. Beyond Adobe’s Dreamweaver, there is a vast menagerie of Web Development applications, Coda, Rapidweaver, Hype, Blocs, etc… not to mention the aforementioned online builders, you might want to look into Email Design software and services.

If you have the head for it, Mobile App Design & Development is a rapidly growing, even ascendant, space.

But in this age, Designers, especially freelancers and folks in One-person Art Departments – are expected to be essentially Multi-Disciplinary Creative Professionals who will be asked to do Print Design, Presentations, Animations, Web Design, Email Campaigns, Photography, Videos, Podcasts, copy-writing, literally anything creative, as well as being tech support for all things computer (I actually rather resent being introduced by colleagues as a “computer wizard” than as a Designer). You might also be managing Social Media – so be prepared to cross-train and learn – and then discard – a LOT of software and online services over the course of a career. The downside is that you might be expected to be doing all this, at an expert level, at a salary slightly better than a Walmart floor-walker… or unpaid intern. This has become the downside of the ever growing capability of our software tools. There is a perception that the capability and expertise resides in the software and tech, rather than the design expertise and skills of the operator.

This is seriously just scratching the surface, there’s way more, but you get the idea.

However, I’ll end with that I think the entire Design and Publishing community should vigorously push back against any employer or clients desire to use Flash. It’s a dead, (even Adobe is depreciating Flash support) insecure, resource-hungry, depreciated technology and back in the day, sported the most user-hostile development environment I’ve ever seen – requiring the combined skills of a Graphic Designer, Animation Director, and Object Oriented Programmer to make it look half decent and then actually do anything useful. Grrr Arrgh.

Good luck out there, folks.

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