Becoming a Graphic Designer in South Africa

In South Africa, becoming a graphic designer is a viable and exciting career path that merges creativity with technology. Whether you have formal qualifications or are self-taught, the graphic design industry offers abundant opportunities for those with talent and a robust portfolio. In this dynamic field, experience and the ability to showcase a strong portfolio often outweigh formal education. With the advent of artificial intelligence and numerous graphic design tools, entering the industry has become more accessible than ever.

Article Highlights

  1. Importance of Experience and Portfolio: Understanding why these elements are more crucial than formal qualifications.
  2. Tools of the Trade: An overview of essential graphic design software, including AI-driven tools.
  3. Becoming a Graphic Designer without Qualifications: A step-by-step guide for self-taught paths.
  4. Becoming a Graphic Designer with Qualifications: Steps for those pursuing formal education.
  5. Tips for Success: Key strategies for building a successful career in graphic design in South Africa.

The Importance of Experience and Portfolio

In the graphic design industry, your portfolio is your strongest asset. It demonstrates your skills, style, and versatility to potential employers or clients. For many successful designers, particularly in South Africa, high-quality work often speaks louder than academic credentials. This phenomenon is common globally, with many top designers boasting modest formal education.


Here are several examples from South Africa that exemplify the importance of a strong portfolio in the graphic design industry:

  1. Lungile Mbokane: Lungile is an independent graphic designer based in Johannesburg, known for her innovative use of color and texture. Her portfolio, prominently displayed on her personal website, showcases a variety of projects from corporate branding to more artistic endeavors, illustrating her range and adaptability to different design challenges.
  2. Siyabonga Mtshali: Based in Durban, Siyabonga has built a portfolio that highlights his work with both local businesses and international clients. His portfolio features interactive elements and dynamic layouts that engage potential clients and display his skills in web design as well as traditional graphic design.
  3. Thandiwe Tshabalala: A Cape Town-based graphic designer, Thandiwe uses her portfolio to showcase her unique approach to design which incorporates traditional African patterns and modern aesthetics. This combination not only highlights her design skills but also her ability to integrate cultural elements into contemporary design.

Tools of the Trade

Graphic design today is highly dependent on software and technology. Tools like Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign are industry standards. Additionally, AI-powered tools like Canva and Adobe Express offer user-friendly interfaces that simplify design processes, making the field more accessible to beginners. These technologies not only streamline workflow but also enhance creativity, allowing designers to experiment and produce innovative work.

Core Graphic Design Software

Graphic design is deeply integrated with digital tools that help create complex and visually appealing designs. Here are some essential programs:

  • Adobe Photoshop: This is the industry standard for raster graphic editing, perfect for photo manipulation and complex digital painting. You can learn more about Photoshop and download it here.
  • Adobe Illustrator: Ideal for vector graphics, Illustrator is used for everything from logo design to intricate illustrations. More details are available here.
  • Adobe InDesign: Used primarily for layout designs, such as magazines and brochures, InDesign is crucial for publishing. Check it out here.

AI-Enhanced Design Platforms

These user-friendly platforms utilize AI to simplify design tasks, making graphic design more accessible:

  • Canva: This platform provides a wide range of templates and design elements that can be easily customized. It’s particularly user-friendly for beginners. Explore Canva here.
  • Adobe Express: Quick and efficient for creating graphics, web pages, and video stories, Adobe Express is designed to streamline content creation. Learn more about Adobe Express here.
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By leveraging these tools, graphic designers can enhance their creative processes and maintain relevance in a rapidly evolving industry.

High School Subjects Needed for Graphic Design in South Africa

For high school students in South Africa interested in pursuing a career in graphic design, selecting the right subjects under the CAPS (Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement) can provide a strong foundation. Here are some subjects that are particularly relevant:

Visual Arts

Visual Arts is highly recommended as it directly nurtures creativity, teaches visual communication skills, and provides an understanding of aesthetic principles. This subject covers practical creation as well as the theory of art, both of which are crucial in graphic design.


Some schools offer Design as a subject, which is ideal for prospective graphic designers. It focuses on practical design work, theory, and the use of different media and technologies, providing a hands-on approach to learning design principles and techniques.

Information Technology

With graphic design increasingly relying on digital tools, knowledge of Information Technology can be very beneficial. This subject covers software applications, basic programming, and information systems, all of which can help students understand the technical aspects of graphic design.


While not directly related to the typical tasks of a graphic designer, Mathematics can be useful, especially for understanding geometric concepts and for those aspects of graphic design that involve grid systems and layout.

Business Studies

Understanding the basics of Business Studies can help aspiring designers grasp the commercial side of graphic design, such as managing client projects, marketing their skills, and understanding economic principles that affect the industry.

These subjects provide a rounded educational background that can help students prepare for further studies in graphic design at a tertiary level or even begin experimenting and practicing design on their own. Choosing the right subjects can significantly impact a student’s ability to succeed in this competitive field.

Becoming a Graphic Designer Without Qualifications

Step 1: Self-Learning and Practice

Start by learning the basics of design principles online. Resources such as Coursera, Udemy, and YouTube offer free and paid courses that can help build your foundational skills.

Step 2: Utilize Free Online Tools

Experiment with free or trial versions of graphic design software. This practice will help you understand different tools and discover your niche or style.

Step 3: Build Your Portfolio

Create personal projects or volunteer to design for small local businesses. This experience is crucial for building a portfolio that showcases your capabilities and style.

Step 4: Network and Market Yourself

Use social media platforms like Instagram and LinkedIn to share your work and connect with other designers and potential clients. Networking can open doors to freelance opportunities and professional growth.

Becoming a Graphic Designer With Qualifications

Step 1: Pursue a Relevant Degree or Diploma

Enroll in a degree or diploma program in graphic design at institutions like The University of Johannesburg or Cape Peninsula University of Technology. These programs provide structured learning and access to industry-standard tools.

Step 2: Internships and Practical Experience

While studying, look for internships or part-time jobs in design studios. This real-world experience is invaluable and often provides insights that theoretical learning cannot.

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Step 3: Develop a Professional Portfolio

Throughout your educational journey, compile your best work into a professional portfolio. This portfolio will be essential when applying for jobs post-graduation.

Step 4: Continuous Learning

Even after earning your degree, continue to learn and adapt. The graphic design field is ever-evolving, especially with new technologies.

List of Places to Study Graphic Design in South Africa (colleges and Universities)

List of Places to Study Graphic Design in South Africa (colleges and Universities)
List of Places to Study Graphic Design in South Africa (colleges and Universities)

Here’s a list of institutions where you can study graphic design in South Africa, along with relevant links for further information:

  1. University of Pretoria – Offers comprehensive programs in graphic design with a strong focus on both practical and theoretical aspects.
  2. University of Cape Town – Known for its rigorous design programs, UCT provides a robust graphic design education that blends creativity with technology.
  3. University of the WitwatersrandWits offers a range of art and design courses, including graphic design, focusing on innovative and contemporary practices.
  4. University of Stellenbosch – Provides a dynamic graphic design program that encourages creative thinking and practical skills.
  5. Cape Peninsula University of Technology – Known for its technology-focused programs, CPUT offers graphic design courses that prepare students for the digital design industry.
  6. Nelson Mandela University – Offers a Bachelor of Visual Arts in Graphic Design, which focuses on developing creative and practical skills necessary for the design industry.
  7. Vega School – A leader in branding and design education in South Africa, offering various courses in graphic design.
  8. Inscape Design College – Known for its focus on creativity and innovation, Inscape offers both degree and diploma courses in graphic design.
  9. Red & Yellow Creative School of Business – Offers specialized short courses in graphic design that are available online.
  10. Oakfields College – Provides extensive training in graphic design with opportunities to develop a substantial portfolio.

These institutions offer a variety of programs, from short courses to full degree programs, each with its own unique strengths and focuses. Be sure to visit their websites to explore more about their offerings and admission requirements.

Tips for Success

Whether you are formally educated or self-taught, continuous learning and adaptation are key to success in graphic design. Stay updated with new tools and trends, and always look for opportunities to improve and refine your skills. Remember, in graphic design, your creativity is your greatest asset.

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” – Steve Jobs

What qualifications do I need to be a graphic designer in South Africa?

In South Africa, entry into the graphic design industry typically requires a National Senior Certificate that meets the requirements for a diploma or degree course. Most employers prefer candidates with a Bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design or a closely related field. However, diplomas and certificates in graphic design, offered by numerous accredited institutions, are also widely recognized.

The educational landscape for graphic designers is evolving, with a growing emphasis on digital skills such as UX/UI design and multimedia design, in addition to traditional graphic design competencies. Therefore, emerging graphic designers should consider integrating courses in digital design and software proficiency into their education to stay competitive.

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How long is a graphic design course?

The duration of graphic design courses in South Africa can vary significantly depending on the type of qualification:

  • A Bachelor’s degree usually takes three to four years of full-time study.
  • Diplomas might require two to three years.
  • Certificates and short courses can range from a few weeks to one year.

Given the rapid technological advancements in design software and tools, short, continuous learning modules and online workshops are becoming essential for keeping skills up-to-date, leading to a trend towards ongoing, lifelong learning in the field.

Do you need matric to study graphic design in SA?

Yes, matriculation (Matric) is generally required to study graphic design at the tertiary level in South Africa. Specifically, universities and technikons will ask for a National Senior Certificate with admission to diploma or degree studies, depending on the institution’s requirements. However, certain private colleges and academies might offer preparatory courses that can lead to a qualification without traditional matric, focusing more on practical skills and portfolio development.

Are graphic designers in demand in South Africa?

Yes, graphic designers are in high demand in South Africa, particularly in urban areas like Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban. The demand is fueled by the growing needs of digital marketing, e-commerce, and corporate branding, which require professional visual content. The trend is moving towards digital and interactive design, with a notable rise in opportunities in UI/UX design, web design, and multimedia production.

How much do graphic designers charge per hour in South Africa?

Graphic designers in South Africa charge varying rates based on experience, specialization, and the complexity of the task. On average, freelance graphic designers might charge anywhere from R250 to R600 per hour. More experienced designers or those with specialized skills in digital media might command higher rates.

How much do junior graphic designers make in South Africa?

Junior graphic designers in South Africa, typically those with less than three years of experience, can expect to earn an annual salary ranging from R120,000 to R180,000. Salaries can vary based on location, type of employment, and specific industry sectors.

Which subjects are required for graphic design in grade 10?

For students in Grade 10 interested in pursuing graphic design, it is beneficial to focus on subjects such as:

  • Visual Arts, to develop an understanding of aesthetic fundamentals and creative expression.
  • Design, a subject offered in many schools that directly correlates with skills needed in graphic design.
  • Information Technology or Computer Applications Technology, for gaining proficiency in the software and tools frequently used in graphic design.

These subjects provide a solid foundation in both the creative and technical aspects of the field, preparing students for further education and a career in graphic design. Additionally, involvement in extra-curricular activities related to art and design can enhance practical skills and portfolio development.