We see graphic design at work every day.
Everything from logos, posters, magazines, product packaging, ads, and more.
It’s an industry that’s always in demand. Why? Because brands always need designers, whether it’s to create branding assets or design an upcoming event flyer.
If it’s an industry you’re interested in, discover the steps you can take today to learn graphic design and find out what you need to keep in mind as you start your career.
How to Learn Graphic Design
- Learn key design principles.
- Find a course.
- Master design programs.
- Network with fellow designers.
- Practice, then practice some more.
1. Learn key design principles.
Graphic design is a visual communication tool that combines the use of graphics, typography, color, and illustration to communicate a message.
And while there are endless ways to communicate a message (that’s where the creative part comes into play), there are key principles that every graphic designer must follow:
These fundamental concepts ensure that a design is cohesive, impactful, and clear.
In addition to these principles, there are other elements that come into play, such as typography and color theory.
The former relates to the way in which your copy (i.e. text) is arranged while the former refers to how people perceive color and how it impacts messaging.
Once you understand these concepts, you can then dive a little deeper. More on that in the next section.
2. Find a course.
Contrary to popular belief, having an eye for design isn’t an innate trait – it’s a learned skill.
Once you have a broad overview of graphic design, it’s time to dive in with an in-depth course.
A course will teach you about the history of graphic design, the various subdivisions within the discipline, the psychology behind design principles, and the tools you’ll need.
Here are the top online resources for graphic design courses:
- General Assembly
- Vectornator Academy
- LinkedIn Learning (formerly Lynda.com)
Then, of course, there’s always YouTube University. The best thing about this university is that it’s 100% free.
The downside here is that you likely won’t find the same depth in the material on YouTube and you won’t have the support of a professor.
Plus, you’ll likely be tasked with finding your own homework to practice what you’ve learned. However, it can be a good place to start if you’re on a budget.
3. Master design programs.
It’s hard to think of graphic design without immediately thinking of the tools they use.
So much of graphic design work relies on the use of tools like Adobe Illustrator, Adobe InDesign, Adobe Photoshop, and Sketch.
These are all powerful software that allow you to create everything from logos and illustrations to website designs.
While they aren’t free to use, consider them investments in your career, as you will likely use them for every project you take on.
4. Network with fellow designers.
In addition to the knowledge you’ll gain from your courses, it’s important to speak with designers who are currently working in the field.
This will help you get a 360-view of what it’s like working as a graphic designer and what it takes to succeed in your role.
Start on social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn. You’ll find plenty of design communities and groups that share information and opportunities.
You can also use sites like MeetUp to find designers in your area who are interested in meeting up as well as Eventbrite to find fun events you can join.
Networking across is as important as networking up. Make sure you lean on your community for support and advice as you develop your skills as a graphic designer.
5. Practice, then practice some more.
Now that you’ve learned everything you need to know, it’s time to put that knowledge into action.
When learning anything new, practicing is key. It’s not enough for you to take in the knowledge, you have to use it and learn how it works in real time.
So, now that you understand design principles and have learned from the experts, it’s time for you to gain your own experience. You can start by searching for graphic design exercises online.
For instance, Type Connection and KernType allow you to test your typography skills. You can also use sites like Sharpen to find design prompts to work on. They have prompts in various categories, from branding to marketing and user experience (UX).
Once you feel confident in your ability, consider taking on a design project of your own. It could be a passion project you give yourself or one you seek out.
This will help you get real-world experience in what it takes to start a project from start to finish and all of the non-design implications you must consider.
9 Tips for Learning Graphic Design
1. Always keep an ear to the ground.
As marketers, we already know how much there is to learn from influencers.
They are highly knowledgeable in their niche and are often willing to share the secrets to their success in their content.
If you seek out their content regularly, you'll become more familiar with the graphic design world, discover more tips from industry leaders, become comfortable with relevant terminology, and stay on top of trends.
Wondering how to engage? Turn to YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram.
And don't be afraid to reach out to them. You never know who might respond to your questions – and any positive connection you make will only help you move further along in your journey.
What to Do Right Now
- Build a Twitter List of influential designers on Twitter, so you can follow their daily insights without having to pick out their tweets from a sea of friends, coworkers, and news sources on your timeline.
- Have a mix of well-known designers who personally inspire you and those whose work you do not enjoy. That last point may seem counterintuitive, but consistently observing the work of that group can help you understand why you don't like it, which is a key part of understanding design.
2. Collect inspirational work.
Once you decide to learn design, start building a catalog of work you think is successful.
That can be as simple as bookmarking images in your web browser, making a Pinterest board, or saving items to a folder on your computer.
Sifting through a catalog of inspiring work will help you to identify trends – both past and present – and can inform your own personal style.
What to Do Right Now
- Get acquainted with leading designer portfolio sites like Dribbble and Behance. These platforms showcase an abundance of high-quality work from leading designers across the spectrum – everyone from web and UX designers, to graphic designers and typographers.
- Set aside time in your day to review these sites and use apps like Panda to make the collection process easier.
3. Dissect the process.
One of the most pivotal moments in my design journey was when I recognized that every single illustration, infographic, and icon I had ever ogled over was the product of someone mastering how to combine shapes and lines.
Analyzing the process behind a design will allow you to understand the steps required to produce a piece of work.
Depending on your current skill level, you may have a leg up in knowing which tools were used, or which aspect was created first. But if you're a beginner, don't let that stop you – examining the construction of a design will let you flex your creative muscle.
Educated guesses will do far more to teach you than doing nothing at all. Plus, you'll likely find that:
- You know more than you think you do.
- When you identify holes in that knowledge, you'll know what techniques or concepts you need to explore to narrow the gap.
- There's more than one way to achieve the desired result.
What to Do Right Now
- Download a free vector or PSD design resource, and dig through the layers to see how the designer constructed the object. You can find a number of those files here.
- Once you pick your file, open it in Photoshop, then open the Layers Panel (which you can learn to use here) and un-collapse some of the folders, so that you can see the layers contained within them.
By simply changing the visibility of the layers, you can begin to see how the designer used each shape to build upon one another. You can also begin to understand how to use Photoshop Effects, like drop shadows and strokes.
4. Get specific with your online search queries.
As you begin creating your own designs, you'll likely hit an obstacle where you think to yourself, "Hmm, how the heck do I do that? "
Chances are, others have wondered the same thing.
Like many self-taught disciplines these days, the majority of my own technical design knowledge was gained by watching a YouTube tutorial while I actively followed along.
The key is to be really specific with your searches, so you can find a highly relevant tutorial.
Searching for something like "How to Create an Icon" might deliver really broad search results. Instead, type in exactly what you want to learn, like, "How to Create a Flat Icon with a Long Shadow." Boom.
What to Do Right Now
Browse a design terminology glossary to find the specific terms for techniques you're trying to learn.
That can help you find what you're looking for online much more easily, in addition to helping you familiarize yourself with the language.
5. Reproduce your favorite work.
Let me be clear: Under no circumstances should you infringe on anyone's copyrighted work. Never reproduce someone else's work and try to pass it off as your own.
That said, re-creating a design you like, without advertising it as your own work, is helpful in gaining a deeper understanding of design techniques.
You'll have to get creative with the method you choose to recreate the design. Don't get frustrated if you can't duplicate a design exactly – remember, the process is more important than the result.
What to Do Right Now
- Find a design piece you think is successful, which should be easy if you've created an inspiration catalog.
- Open up your go-to design software to recreate it.
- Start dissecting the design and recreating it using your own process.
- If you get stuck, use specific search queries and lean on your design community.
6. Embrace negative space.
The proper use of negative space is often overlooked by beginner and advanced designers alike.
What is negative space, or white space? It's the space in your design that's not occupied by any visual or written element. A design piece that doesn't incorporate enough negative space is like a sentence with no spaces: itisdifficulttocomprehend.
What to Do Right Now
Learning to effectively use white space won't happen overnight. You'll have to try out different options to find what works for each design.
- Read some of the articles on this list, compiled by David Kadavy, author of Design for Hackers: Reverse Engineering Beauty. Then, try to put some of these theories into action.
Remember, there's no hard-and-fast rule to using white space. It takes practice. Eventually, you'll find that exercises in resizing elements of your composition and changing the layout will lead to a natural understanding of the amount of breathing room required.
7. Don't be afraid to get feedback.
On some level, everyone is afraid of criticism. We're afraid our ideas will get shot down and we'll be sent back to square one.
Learning to accept constructive criticism is no easy task, but it's key to becoming a better designer.
Paul Arden, who was the creative force behind Saatchi & Saatchi at a pinnacle of its success, wrote this in his best-selling book, It's Not How Good You Are, It's How Good You Want to Be:
"If, instead of seeking approval, you ask, 'What’s wrong with it? How can I make it better?' you are more likely to get a truthful, critical answer. You may even get an improvement on your idea. And you are still in a position to reject the criticism if you think it is wrong. Can you find fault with this?"
The takeaway: Design critics allow us to incorporate others' viewpoints into our work and improve upon our ideas. You always have the option to reject the feedback but considering it in the first place is what's important.
Design is subjective in nature, and just because someone else has a different opinion doesn't mean you're wrong.
In fact, trusting your intuition is equally important. Just make sure you have the means to back up your design decisions.
What to Do Right Now
- Have a one-on-one conversation with an experienced designer. If you don't know anyone in the design world, join an online community of designers.
- Post on Reddit's Design Critiques.
- Publish your work on social media and ask for feedback from fellow designers.
8. Pick a passion project.
If you only listen to one piece of advice from this post, let it be this one.
In your career, you'll likely be involved in design projects you aren't passionate about. And that's OK.
So, in the beginning, give yourself the room to work on projects you can't wait to get into. This is the time when you need the motivation to get you through those tough early days of learning something new.
When you get frustrated, a passion project can fuel you to push through.
It'll also provide direction. Time and time again, the hardest part of learning design is not knowing what to design. Be decisive and choose something you can work on for an extended period of time.
What to Do Right Now
- Align your interests or current situation with your projects. If you're a blogger, try creating the header image for your next post. V
- Voice your willingness to work on an offer with your content team.
- Looking for a job? Redesign your resume and try to further your personal brand by creating a logo.
There are a number of ways to work design into your day, but it's up to you to pick something that matters to you.
9. Just start.
t's easy to be intimidated by the sheer amount of learning associated with graphic design, but remind yourself that even the most talented designers were newbies once, too.
What makes the creative field so special is that everyone's journey is unique – there's no one way to approach DIY design. You'll find your own means to discern what you want and need to learn.
Furthermore, design is an iterative process, so keep reworking your ideas and projects.
As you progress, you'll develop your own workflow, and one day, that design that took you all day will only take you an hour.
Trust me, I'm living proof.Editor's Note: This post was originally published in June of 2017 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.