The designer's guide to becoming Adobe certified

Mass celebration with confetti falling from the ceiling onto the crowd

Although many creatives aren’t aware of it, you can actually get a qualification in software like Photoshop CC, Illustrator CC and InDesign CC. You just need to take the Adobe Certified Expert Exam (ACE).

However, these qualifications are not (usually) necessary to get work as a designer, illustrator or animator. So why exactly should you bother?

There are several reasons you might want to become Adobe certified. Your employer might insist on it, or suggest it will help you get a raise or promotion. Having an official ‘Certified’ badge on your website may help you win clients as a freelancer. You may wish to teach Adobe skills to others. Or you may just realise there’s a lot of things you’ve never learned to do within the software, and fancy a challenge.

Badge reading "Adobe Certified Associate"

If you pass the test, you get a certificate and can put this badge on your site

That’s exactly what spurred Jamie Carroll, a graphic artist based in Missouri, to pursue Adobe accreditation. “After working as a designer for many years, I knew I didn’t necessarily need the certification,” he recalls. “But I needed a new challenge at the time and I was ready to learn new things, and test my knowledge of the software.” (You can read about his experiences in detail in this blog post). 

It was a similar story for Garrett Scott Shue, a graphic designer for the marketing department of Liberty University in Virginia. “My reasoning for taking the test was to push myself to learn as much as I can,” he explains. “This test is the industry standard for design and I wanted to prove that I had mastered these programs.”

In this post, we’ll explain how to go about becoming Adobe certified and offer tips on how to succeed.

01. What the test involves

Homepage of training website

The Adobe training website is your first port of call to getting certified

To become an Adobe Certified Expert (ACE) in, say, Photoshop you need to pass a test that involves multiple choice questions about the different tools and functions within the software. 

Just to be clear then: you don’t actually have to do any creative work at all. You’re not tested on your ability to design, illustrate or animate; only your knowledge of the software. That means that even if you’ve spent many years using the software in question, you'll still need to read up on the tools and features you’ve never needed to use. 

To give you a flavour, here's a sample question from the Photoshop test. 'How could a user apply a non-destructive vignette to an image?' The possible answers are: 

  • A. Use the Burn Tool to selectively brush in image edge darkening
  • B. Add a Photo Filter layer and adjust the vignette slider for each edge
  • C. Apply a Black to Transparent Gradient to the edges of an overlaid empty layer 
  • D. Select the Multiply blending mode and use the Brush tool to paint the darker areas

 (To find the answer, scroll down to the bottom of the post).  

02. How do I book a test?

Map of test centres near London

The website will point you towards your nearest test centre

To book a test, you’ll need to create an Adobe ID if you don’t already have one; you can create one here. Then head to the Adobe Certification Exams website and scroll through the options to find the specific software you wish to take the test in and click on the blue ‘Schedule an exam’ button.

You’ll be given the option of taking the test at a physical test centre, or taking the test online. If you choose the former, you just enter your address and will be presented with the nearest test centres and a list of available dates and times. If you opt for the latter, the website will check that your system is compatible, so it helps if you apply on the device that you’ll be using to take the test.

Oh, and did we mention you have to pay? Right now, it costs $180 to book the Photoshop test, whether you are taking it online or in person.

03. What might trip you up?

Feet of person who has stepped in chewing gum

However well you know your software, there may be some traps along the way

Desmond Du, a Singaporean currently studying motion media design in Georgia, found one thing particularly surprising about the test. “The most challenging part was the ambiguous phrasing of some of the questions and answers,” he recalls. “Based on how you interpret the questions, you might arrive at two plausible answers, but there can only be one correct choice.” 

Carroll agrees. “The most difficult part of the test is the way the questions are worded,” he notes. “The answers are generally similar and worded in a way that makes you second guess your choice.” For this reason, doing as many practice exam questions as possible in advance comes highly recommended. 

Also be aware that what you commonly use Adobe software for may not be the whole story. “When I took the tests the biggest surprise for me was that InDesign has a large part of the questions based on animation,” recalls Shue. “This completely caught me off guard.” 

One thing particularly struck Du when took the Photoshop exam (which he details in full in this blog post). “You have to know every nook and cranny of the software, such as the function of some shortcuts,” he stresses. “If you don’t, you’re bound to fail.” 

Shue takes a similar view. “You need to to study hard, and make sure you just know the full program,” he says. “It’s easy to master your day-to-day work flow, but it’s very challenging to master parts of a program you never use. This is not a test for beginners, and I would recommend many years of experience before taking the test.”

“I have received a few personal messages from designers that have attempted the test and not passed,” adds Carroll. “My advice is to focus on preparation and diversify your training resources. I took the preparation very seriously and studied for several weeks leading up to the test, dedicating much of my free time to preparation. Many hours.”

04. How to prepare for the test

Young woman studying on her balony

You can't wing this test; you need to study

How the best prepare for the exam will of course depend on the software in question, your level of expertise and experience, and your personal study pattern. But in general, Du offers the following tips. 

  • Examine the software. Open up the software which you will be tested for, and examine every single button in there. If something seems foreign and confusing, research and clarify your doubts about their functions. 
  • Read the manual. This might be a little extreme, but I actually printed the software manual PDF for After Effects and read it like a textbook to study for my exam. Having a hard copy to read was more comfortable for my learning than reading the PDF off the screen.
  • Read a book. Of all books that I found, Adobe Photoshop CC on Demand is the perfect book to prepare you for taking the Photoshop exam, as it covers almost everything you need to know about Photoshop. It is detailed and concise with each spread covering one or two specific components of the software.
  • Test the waters. Take the Photoshop exam first because it is the easiest compared to the ones for After Effects and Illustrator. That way, you can understand the structure of the exam and gauge your knowledge of the software." (Du has written separate guides to the Photoshop test,  Illustrator test and After Effects test.)

05. The joy of passing

Man jumping for joy

Pass the test, and it can be a boost to your design career

If all this sounds like a big headache for something you don’t necessarily need, then note that there are also many benefits to getting Adobe-certified. “Although I would always put more emphasis on a designer’s portfolio than credentials, the certification does set you apart,” believes Carroll. 

“Since getting the certification, people will contact me more frequently asking for freelance work,” reports Shue. And for Du, it was life changing. “In retrospect, studying for the Adobe Expert exams became my first step to rebuilding myself after being rejected by local universities,” he explains. “I would have never foreseen that it would someday help me get into one of the best art schools in the world [The Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia].

“On a technical level, studying for the exam made me realised there are so many hidden functions inside Photoshop that can improve my workflow, such as automation using Create Droplet," he adds. "On an interpersonal level, my peers respected me more and trusted my skills in the software, so much so that I even got offers to become a software instructor.”

If you do decide to pursue Adobe certification, then we wish you the best of luck. Oh, and that sample question? The answer was C.

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