The thing about the graphic designer is that every company needs one. After all, every company has a look and a feel and – more literally – a logo.
Professionally, graphic designers’ median salary, cost of living and location quotient are highly dependent on where they work. These are the three important metrics that ValuePenguin used to determine what U.S. cities are the best places for these specialized professionals to call home (more on our methodology below).
The 197,540 designers employed in the U.S. in 2014 earned $50,670 on average, or an hourly wage of $24.36, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. After reviewing more data from 347 cities, we found that life as a designer varies in more than one way.
Best Five Cities for Graphic Designers
Of the 347 cities under consideration, these five earned our best score, comprising the factors of median salary, cost of living and location quotient. Four of them are situated on a coastline and all five are – or are near – a major city. Life as a designer is different in each of them, but altogether, life is good.
1. San Francisco, CA
For graphic designers, this is the city of extremes. The highest annual average salary ($77,940) and the highest cost of living – and it’s not even close. In fact, the San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City is approached only by its sister cities of the Silicon Valley in these categories; the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara triumvirate, home to some of the country’s most imposing companies and promising start-ups, ranked seventh overall (see below). But the more-north Bay Area is alone at the top, where there are also 3,030 jobs, plus countless freelance opportunities. A handful of the world’s best firms operate at least a satellite office in San Francisco. In the Bay Area, it’s also clear that employers, from small to the likes of Adobe, are in the hunt versatile designers, those that are also trained or experienced in the emerging fields of mobile products and user experience.
2. New York, NY
The center of design on the East Coast has 52 percent more graphic design jobs than the next most-concentrated city we studied, Los Angeles, which has 9,600 gigs. While not quite as expensive as northern California, it’s 68 percent more expensive to be New Yorker than to live in the average state. Of course, average isn’t a word that fits in the Big Apple. This is the city that is probably more often the subject of design than it is the source. As a result, New York is where many designers are either starting out or achieving senior status; media giants like Time Inc. and national retailers are seeking managers and directors while farming some of their design work out to entry-level newbies or in-house freelancers.
3. Bridgeport, CT
Like the other four cities among our top five, Bridgeport registered a top-10 location quotient, a metric that points to the availability of employment. In this part of southwest Connecticut, whose data also covers the cities of Stamford and Norwalk, graphic designers earn an annual average salary of $69,750, or 58 percent higher than the average of the 347 cities we compared. Bridgeport also enjoys being with 25 miles of Yale University’s second-ranked program for aspiring designers.
4. Framingham, MA
With just 420 graphic design gigs, this Massachusetts city seems like it sneaked into the top five – and it did, thanks to the country’s fourth-highest annual average salary ($68,900). The Boston-Cambridge-Quincy area of the state checked in on our list at No. 20. Framingham, meanwhile, is home to both freelance designers and independent firms like Levine Design.
5. Los Angeles, CA
Los Angeles, whose data also comprises that of nearby Long Beach and Glendale, actually has the lowest annual average salary among these elite five, at $57,500. There are actually five California cities ranked within the top 15. Given the presence of Hollywood, many of L.A.’s design jobs are at companies like Watson Design Group, which have done award-winning work in designing for the movie industry.
Top 30 Cities For Graphic Designers
Cost of Living
|1||San Francisco, CA||1.91||77,940||3,030||200|
|New York City||1.85||65,430||14,620||168|
|Los Angeles, CA||1.62||57,500||9,600||144|
|San Jose, CA||1.33||73,360||1,890||187|
|Santa Ana-Anaheim-Irvine, CA||1.52||52,880||3,290||155|
On Topic: What did your graphic design training entail?
Like their work and the cities they work in, graphic designers come in all shapes and sizes. Some went to design school; others found their way to their career on less traditional paths. All of them ended up in a similar place, where they can look back on their education and share their first experiences in the field.
Karolyn Masters iPartnerMedia British Columbia
"I knew I wanted to be graphic designer when I was still in high school. I went straight into design college right after I graduated and never looked back.
"I went to college for three years. The first two years I took a course called 'Art in Merchandising,' which included graphic design, interior design and display. The graphic design element didn't include any digital devices, so it was all tactile learning, which created a great base and appreciation for that. My third year of college was a 'Graphic Design Technician' course. All the digital aspects of graphic design and the applications used in the design world were taught."
Jeff Davis JD Savage Productions Conway, South Carolina
"I started as a freelance designer straight out of high school. Creating menus, business cards, whatever jobs I could get. I lucked into a few newspaper jobs – political cartoons, illustrations, et cetera – before the local 'papers were all gobbled up by a conglomerate, so that helped me branch out a bit.
"So I'm mostly self-taught. I started college as an advertising manager, but most of my training came on the job."
Amie Olson Promoting Natural Health Charlotte, N.C.
"When I entered college I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I chose a great school, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). I took my time while doing the basic courses to learn all the programs that interested me… With my passion for being creative and technical at the same time, I walked into the design school ready for an interview. I wanted to mesh design, business and photography together. At the time, the school wasn’t offering multimedia major, but I made sure to use all my electives to learn what I needed to, to make it in the real world as a design and one-day business owner. I worked one summer on my portfolio, interviewed at the design school and got accepted. I was going to be a graphic designer with big visions ahead.
"We started with the basics – drawing, 3D, 2D – and then moved to the computer, learning all the necessary design software you need for any project/application be it print design, illustration, web design, etc. All of our teachers believed in the same thing, being able to take a pen and ink and put a design together, not to just rely on the computer. I go back to this sketching a lot in my work, especially when I don’t feel creative at the time or have a hard time developing ideas. Every single time it has helped me get in the groove. I also took photography and printing courses as our school is well known in the industry for both programs and both are very useful for a graphic designer who wants to grow (her) skills and business."
Deanna Miller Sheppard Pratt Health System Baltimore, Md.
"I was an editor at a publishing house and started page layout and cover design to fill in for our designer. I decided that I loved it and was fast, efficient and good, so I started taking design courses and designing full-time.
"In order to keep up with the ever-changing face of design, you have to fully implement a course of study either via accredited schools or by intense self-training and self-learning; taking online courses and workshops; a lot of reading and paying attention to trends in the world of design around you; and applying that to what you already know. It's always in flux and ever-changing."
Katherine Bittner Discount Golf World, Your Electronic Warehouse Quincy, Ill.
"Almost two years ago, a friend of mine was looking for someone to help her design a book jacket. She knew I had experience with a few Adobe programs, so she asked if I could try and piece some of her notes, sketches together. The entire process just sort of came together on its own. She showed the jacket to a group she was involved in, and they liked it. From there I've designed a lot of content for them, including a program they are currently launching called Daughters of Sarah. Word began to spread and I picked up several other projects.
"It started as just a flexible and interesting source of additional income. I never thought I would have the decision to start a business, which we are still in the beginning stages of launching.
"All of the skills I have and use were achieved through a lot of trial and error, research and time. I know I still have a lot to learn about the field, but for the first time I am doing something that I really enjoy. And I have found people who like what I do and are interested in working with me while I grow."
Brit Casady Brit Casady Design Orem, Utah
"My training towards becoming a successful graphic designer came mostly just from experience working in the field but also through college as I pursued my bachelor of fine arts with an emphasis in graphic design. At times, it was definitely rigorous as it demanded my absolute concentration and determination as a top priority. This, however, helped my talents to grow and allowed me to develop a more critical eye of my own work while maintaining a desire to constantly improve and keep my art relevant."
Jennifer Yamnitz University of Arizona Tucson, AZ
"In the late ‘90s, Quark Xpress was the leading desktop publishing software. While I was a receptionist, I learned how to use Quark Xpress. When I finally got my first (public relationship) job, they asked me to design the newsletter because I knew how to use Quark. As I moved on in my PR career, design requests continued. I enjoyed the design work, so I decided to go to art school for professional design training.
"I went to the Art Center Design College in Tucson, which is now called the Southwest University for Visual Arts. At the time, the Art Center had a very trade-focused program. I learned how to use the Adobe Suite in addition to Quark. I took drawing, photography, creative thinking, marketing, illustration, HTML, and graphic design concepts and theory classes."
Faith Amon Frecklefoot Creative Orlando, Fl
"I first started working as a graphic designer for a civil and environmental engineering firm in 2000. I actually had absolutely no experience and learned on the job. I have an undergraduate degree in anthropology and a significant background in photography. In fact. I was assisting for the photographer who was hired to photograph a new brochure for the engineering firm, and when I delivered the film one day -- yes, this is back when we had actual film -- I learned that the graphic design department was hiring, I asked what one would need to apply, and he asked about my software knowledge, of which I had zero. The manager then gave me a VHS video about Powerpoint, I watched it and I presented them my resume in Powerpoint, and they hired me that day.
"I worked for the engineering firm for four-and-a-half years before I decided to go back to graduate school. I worked my way through grad school as a graphic designer for the news and public affairs office at (the University of Florida). Working for engineers was a real important job for me, as it was my first experience in the corporate world. I learned so much about doing business, and I learned a lot about finding design solutions that work with the very word heavy, technical, stuffy, design sense that the engineers had. Working at UF, I had the pleasure to work with a team of very talented designers. I learned so much from them about working together on big projects and each one of us having our own strengths."
These were the three key questions we asked in coming up with the list.
1. What can graphic designers earn in the city?
We ranked the best cities for graphic designers based on the median annual pay. Income is likely the most important factor people consider when starting their career or relocating elsewhere. A high salary in an expensive city, however, may be less attractive than a lower salary in an affordable town. Our next metric takes affordability into consideration.
2. How affordable is it to live in this city?
Now that we have the median salary, we'll look next at the cost of living. The cost of living is a measure of how far earnings can be stretched. Cities with lower cost of living index numbers ranked higher in our study. For example, the average city is benchmarked at 100. A city with a cost of living index of 187, such as San Jose, would mean that generally speaking, living expenses are 87 percent more expensive compared to the average city.
3. What is the location quotient for graphic designers in the city?
A place with a high median salary and low cost of living may seem perfect, but job opportunities may be limited. Our third factor accounts for this by favoring cities with high location quotients. Location quotient measures the concentration of graphic designers in an area as a percentage of all occupations, and then compares that to the national average. We interpret a higher location quotient to mean a relatively higher demand for a graphic designer's services.