Becoming a Graphic Designer: How Hard Is It?

We’ve all been there:

Should I pursue a career in graphic design?

It’s a tough question that can save you a lot of time, frustration, and disappointment.  But don’t worry, I’m going to give you actionable advice that can help you take the plunge.

Are you ready?

Becoming a graphic designer is not hard if you have the right attitude, predisposition, and passion for becoming a designer.  However, IT WILL TAKE TIME.

Want to know if you have what it takes to become a graphic designer?

In this this post, I go into great detail to describe what graphic design is, what graphic designers do, and what you need to learn. I will show you that becoming a graphic designer it’s not that hard if you first understand some general criteria.

Let’s dive in.  

First Things First: Do You Know What Graphic Design Is?

Understanding what is graphic design is will give you a good idea of how hard learning graphic design would be for you. This is the first step in knowing whether you can actually stick with it long enough to become a designer.  

As a profession, graphic design is concerned with the strategic communication of concepts, ideas, and emotions through visual means.  

In other words, graphic designers are visual communicators who must come up with effective solutions for communicating to an audience through visual representations.

Sounds cool, right?

It is.  But the task of graphic design entails much more than simply creating graphics on a computer.  

Graphic designers are communicators and their skills go beyond the graphic aspect of the profession.  

How Do You Know If You Should Become a Graphic Designer?

Now that you have some understanding of what graphic design is, you’re probably asking the big question:

How do you know if you have what it takes to become a graphic designer?

Well, judging from my own learning journey and my experience teaching college-level graphic design, I’ve seen over and over certain characteristics that separate my most successful students from the least successful ones.

Answer the following “quiz:”

  • Do you have at least a little bit of talent?
  • Are you a creative person or regularly get the need to create something?
  • Do you have a need to communicate something?
  • Do you have a passion for art and design or enjoy other people’s artwork or creations?
  • Do you know what you like in terms of design (how things look, feel, or what they represent)?

If you can truly answer yes to at least 3 of the previous questions, you probably have the right aptitude to pursue graphic design.

But no so fast:

This is no guarantee that you will succeed.  Ultimately, success will always be determined by your level of commitment in terms of studying design principles, practicing, and getting involved in actual design projects.  

However, understanding whether you fit within this description at least will give you some idea if you would enjoy graphic design as a line of work.

Having said that, the next part is important for understanding what you will specifically be doing as a graphic designer.

What Skills Do Graphic Designers Need to Master?

A graphic design career entails much more than just sitting in front of a screen drawing stuff or retouching photos.  

In fact, design is a very dynamic career in which you need to engage in different processes before you even start to design.  As visual communicators, graphic designers must be good at planning, strategizing, and researching and evaluating information.

In general, graphic designers must be proficient in the following skills:

Research

Designers must be good at evaluating and investigating ideas, entities, and strategies in order to produce visual products that are appropriate, unique, and effective at communicating (a logo, for examples, entails a lot of research before even sketching a design).

Theory

Graphic designers must have a solid grounding in the theory and fundamentals of design.  They are always learning and fully understand the principles that underlie both good design and communication.

Communication

Designers understand the fundamental principles of communication as they apply to visual language.  For example, they know how to appeal to people’s emotions, about the psychology of color, and clear channels of communication.  

Aesthetics

Designers understand what works visually and what does not . They have developed a sense of beauty and functionality through experience, observation, and modeling their favorite designers.

Apart from these macro-skills, graphic designers at least must master the following visual skills:

  • Color
  • Layout
  • Composition
  • Type
  • Proportion
  • Design elements and principles

Do you think it would be cool to learn these skills and knowledge?

If this sounds neat, you probably have the right attitude to pursue graphic design.  If you’re indifferent, maybe you need to think harder before committing in full.

Do you need a Degree To Become a Graphic Designer?

This is a difficult question that can be answered only with some context (leave a comment below about your story and maybe I can give you more guidance).

However, the general answers is YES.

You definitely can become a graphic designer without a degree.

Now, don’t get me wrong:

School or university education can help you a lot in achieving a career in graphic design.  The thing is, it’s not required.

Let’s analyze this in more detail.

There are some pros of getting a degree: for example, it will give you a clear path as to what you need to learn and the skills you must master.  It will provide you with expert guidance and assistance from a professional along the way. It might even help you find a job or internship experience right out of school .  

But don’t be fooled:

I’ve seen many recent graphic design graduates who are no better, or worse, than self-made designers.

In addition, school can be expensive, will take time, and results are not guaranteed.  Ultimately, it depends on the person.

In sum:

A graphic design degree makes sense if you:

  • Need pressure and external motivation to get things done
  • Have the economic resources to pursue it
  • Need external validation factors (such as grades) to improve
  • Need someone to tell you what to do to get organized
  • Need constant external pressure to accomplish tasks and assignments
  • Are in no hurry to become a graphic designer (you will have to take courses other than graphic design, go at the pace of the curriculum, etc.)

If you are diligent with a degree, you can actually end up with a great portfolio, which is, ultimately, the only variable that will land you a graphic design job, period.  

But a self-made graphic designer could also accomplish a reasonable portfolio probably before the four-years it takes to get an undergraduate degree, given the person is diligent and passionate about it.

In the end, it boils down to this:

The path you take depends on many factors, such as your motivation level, economic resources, time restrictions, and your eagerness to become a designer.  

It’s All About The Timeline

In the end, learning graphic design is not that hard, if you at least have an aptitude toward art, design, and creativity. BUT IT DOES TAKE TIME. It’s a fact you need to accept off the bat.

You have to internalize this: You can’t become anything without sweat, consistency, and persistence. Period.

At first, you will probably suck at graphic design. If you stick with it, you will slowly but surely get better.

The trick is to continue practicing, figuring out problems, studying, and learning to understand what makes up good design.

You need to be very persistent and patient.  

I look at some of my fist logos and I am ashamed. They are absolute crap!

However, I got better with time, finally getting a firm sense of what’s good design and what isn’t. In addition, keep in mind that you will not suck for the entire time you’re learning.

You will go through different levels and each level will bring you new projects, opportunities for revenue, challenges, and, most importantly, learning experiences.

You will be worth your experience and level, but you can even make a little money as you learn!

Also, learning on your own doesn’t mean that you’re not getting “formal” education.

You will learn from books and great quality courses, and also from actual designers on the internet.

In sum:

You can learn to design in different ways, and it all boils down to the time spent on the actions that matter the most:

  • Learn design principles and theory
  • Start practicing with software
  • Get involved in as many design projects as possible (go do a postcard for your mom, a business card for your brother, a logo for a friend. etc.)

When I look back at my own process of becoming a graphic designer, I don’t think it was hard. I just see that it took me time.  

Learning graphic design is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. I am still on mine.

If this is what you want, your only regret will be that you didn’t start any sooner.  So start right now: get a book, download free software, and start on your very project.  

Icon by Arthur Shlain for the Noun Project.

Do you want to know if you have what it takes to become a graphic designer? Tell me your story in a comment below and I will let you know what I think.  

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Which Graphic Design Software to Learn? [Why It Really Doesn’t Matter]

If you’re asking which graphic design software you should learn, chances are you’re just starting your journey in graphic design.

Here’s the big idea:

Start learning vector and pixel software with programs that make sense to you in terms of access, price, equipment availability, and quality. In the beginning you shouldn’t concern yourself too much on whether your start out with Illustrator, Inkscape, Photoshop or Gimp but on learning how to use vector and pixel graphics in general.  

Ten years ago, I was right there in that very same position. Knowing this from the start can save you time, money, and frustration.

When you’re starting out learning graphic design, which specific programs you start to learn are not as crucial as learning the principles behind the type of software used to solve graphic design problems.

In other words:

Start learning a program that makes sense to you as long as it is a vector or pixel program that is professional grade.  

That said, I truly believe that Inkscape and Gimp (for vector and pixel graphics, respectively) are among the best choices for beginners to learn graphic design, and I’ll explain why in this post.  

Let me show you what I mean in more detail.  It’s simpler than you think.

Different Types of Graphic Design Software

There are many types of graphic design software and many brands.  For example, you have

  • Vector and pixel graphics software
  • 3D animation software
  • CAD (Computer Assisted Design) software
  • Publication and layout software
  • Font creation software

And there are many brands as well: Adobe produces well-known programs such as Illustrator (vector), Photoshop (pixel), and InDesign (publications and layout). And there’s also Corel Draw (vector) and Canva (mostly pixel).

In sum, there is a long list of both vector and pixel programs.

How many you ask?

Check out these lists comparing the vector and pixel software available:

Comparison of vector graphics editors

Comparison of raster graphics editors

As you can see, there’s a lot of programs!

But here’s the deal:

In graphic design, basically all software are based on either vector or pixel graphics, or a combination of both.  

What does this mean for you?

That all vector and pixel programs behave in the same way.  

The reason is that they are built on the same basic principles, functions, and operations.  This applies to both vector and pixel programs.

These programs, no matter the brand, behave pretty much in the same way, have the same basic tools, and can accomplish the very same things.  

This means that you can learn your vector skills with one program, say Illustrator, but feel perfectly comfortable using other vector programs such as Corel Draw or Inkscape should you need to change software. The learning curve for getting accustomed to these other programs would be an easy one.  

Here’s an analogy:

Commercial pilots are sometimes qualified to fly different aircraft, Boeing 737s or Boeing 757s or even jets from different manufacturers, such as a Boeing 737 and an Airbus 320.  They are able to do this with ease because they already have the fundamental knowledge and skills to fly commercial jets.

Which graphic design software to use?
Once you know how to use vector software, the interfaces of Illustrator and Inkscape look very familiar

What does this analogy mean for you?

If you concern yourself with learning the fundamental principles and skills of vector and pixel graphics, you’ll be able to apply these skills to different vector and pixel programs, no matter which they are.

Focusing on the skills of the type of software instead of the specific software you’ll be using is a much sensible approach because it gives you the piece of mind and confidence that there’s no right or wrong answer and open up the possibility of using different graphic design software depending on your needs and objectives.  

It’s All About the Macro-Skills

As you’re thinking which graphic design program to start learning, also learn about vector and pixel graphics in general.  Learning about these types of software in general will teach you what I call “macro-skills” in graphic design, which will allow you to handle different brands of software.

With vector graphics, you use lines and shapes to create drawings, such as digital illustrations, icons, and logos.  You can create from simple drawings, such as minimalist icons, to very impressive, realistic illustrations.

These are some of the macro-skills you learn with vector graphics:

  • Shape creation and manipulation
  • Vectorization of pixel images
  • Use of typography
  • Uses of nodes and their manipulation for drawing
  • Geometric balance
  • Grid-based shape construction

Vector graphics are commonly used to create logos, icons, all sorts of illustrations, and even some graphics for print, such business cards or posters.  

Do you want to know more about vector graphics?

I wrote a detailed explanation of vector graphics that’s really useful: What Are Vector Graphics Used For? (Features and Examples)

Pixel graphics are different. Instead of relying on lines on a screen, they rely on “dots” on a screen. Basically, a pixel canvas has many tiny “squares” that get filled-up with color in order to produce a specific drawing.  These little squares are called pixels.

The photos you take with your phone, for example, are made up of pixels.  

Pixel graphics are most useful for manipulating “real-life” images, such as pictures for a magazine.  

These are some of the macro-skills you learn with pixel graphics:

  • Image clean-up, such as red eyes, skin blemishes, contrast, and brightness
  • Image manipulation, such as changing hair color
  • Image liberation, or “cutting” the shape of an image (say, a person) and placing it in a completely different background
  • Working with layers
  • Understanding color nuances
  • Image resolution  

Which Software to Use at the Beginning

It is true that the graphic design industry relies heavily on commercial graphic design software, such as Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.  

However, it is also true that many boutique studios and small design firms more and more are using free professional-grade software such as Inkscape and Gimp.

The reason is that they can accomplish virtually the same results as with commercial software but don’t have to pay the heavy licensing premiums that go along with these programs.  

For example, Adobe charges a licensing fee for using its graphics software. As of 2019, if you want to use Illustrator for a whole year, it costs you 239 US dollars, prepaid.  This can be a stiff cost if you’re just learning graphic design or have a small design studio.

As a beginner (and possibly self-made graphic designer in the making), I recommend that you start with Inkscape for vector graphics and Gimp for pixel graphics.  Don’t be fooled: these programs allow to accomplish amazing graphics with professional results indistinguishable from commercial software.

The main reason is simple:

These programs are professional-grade graphics software that you can download for free.  

This means that:

  • You don’t have to pay expensive licences to start learning to design
  • You don’t have to illegally download pirate copies of commercial software or outdated versions of the programs
  • You can start learning right away, from your own laptop or computer knowing that you’re running a robust, latest version of software

Some will say that Illustrator or Photoshop have many ways of making your life easier.  That may be true in some cases.  

But here’s the added bonus of using the free software:

Because they might lack some of cool buttons and shortcuts for some operations that some commercial software have, you’re able to actually learn how to understand and deal with graphic design problems, only sharpening your skills and mastery of graphics.  

Still, you would be surprised how advanced and sophisticated are open source programs such as Inkscape and Gimp.  

For example, Inkscape, allows you to create amazing, realistic artwork.  You can check out some cool examples with images in this other post, What is Inkscape, and find out about some of the best features and uses of this program.  

You can also check out what people in the wild can create with Inkscape. Nick Saporito is an amazing graphic designer who exclusively uses Inkscape in his studio.  Check out his professional logos here:

12 Professional Logos Made with Inkscape in 2018.

Conclusion: Learn Software that Makes Sense to You

To sum up:

In the beginning, it’s better to focus your learning efforts on the type of software you learn, especially vector and pixel programs, instead of the specific brand of software. This will help you gain the necessary skills for mastering the types, instead of the brands, of software.  

And remember:

Learn pixel and vector graphics first, as other types of software (such as publication, layout, and even animation programs) are mostly a combination of these two standards.

Vector graphics will teach you fundamental skills in drawing, layout, and shapes while pixel graphics will teach you about manipulating real-life images, retouching, and lighting (brightness and contrast, for example), among many other fundamental skills.

Also:

When you choose a program, choose it if makes sense to you in terms of:

  • Access
  • Price
  • Equipment
  • Availability
  • Professional quality

Specific programs can come and go, but vector and pixel graphics are here to stay!  

Which programs will you choose? Let me know in the comments below and will let you know what I think.

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What Are Vector Graphics Used For? (Features and Examples)

As a beginner graphic designer, one of the first questions you may ask is what are vector graphics and what are they used for.

This is a very important question to ask.

In a nutshell, vector graphics are a method for generating computer graphics that are fundamentally composed of lines on a computer screen (a canvas).  Vector graphics allow us to create digital drawings in a way very similar to how we draw (such as creating lines on a piece of paper).

Vector graphics are one of the primary methods for creating computer graphics and are widely used today for creating logos, websites, 3D renderings, and animations, among many other examples.  

In this post, we look at vector graphics in more detail and answer some important questions, such as what are their features, applications, and their most important uses.  

Let’s dive in.  

History of Vector Graphics and How they Work

Before we go deeper into the features and advantages of vector graphics and how they work, let’s look briefly at their history and importance in today’s world.  

Vector graphics have been around at least since the early 60s and were one of the first effective ways for generating graphics on a screen.

Ivan Sutherland pioneered one of the very first computer programs for generating graphics on a screen. He used his software Sketchpad for drawing lines on a screen. This program was a precursor of CAD (Computer Assisted Design) software, which relies heavily on vector graphics.  

However, the theoretical grounds for vector graphics date back to at least the 1800s with the concept of Euclidean vectors. Basically, a mathematical equation is able to describe two points on a plane by determining their locations and direction.

Why does this matter?

It’s important for understanding how vector graphics work: Vector graphics are basically coordinates on a plane.  

But what does this mean?

It means that if we know the position of at least two points on a plane, we are able to draw a line between those two points.  This has many important implications in terms of the graphics we see today, but it is a very simple principle.

Remember those connect-the-dots drawings from our childhood?

Vector graphics are like connect-the-dots drawings
Vector graphics are like connect-the-dots drawings

This is pretty much how vector software renders drawings!

The software generates the lines that make up a drawing because it knows where all the points needed for those lines are located on the canvas (the screen) and their direction.  

In sum:

Vector graphics use a system of coordinates for rendering drawings.  Pretty cool!

Features of Vector Graphics

Vector graphics have a very specific set of features that make them unique and powerful.  They are all around us and we see them everyday. In fact, distinguishing vector images in everyday life is a great way for learning some their key features.  

These are some of the most important features of vector graphics:

  • They have “infinite” resolution
  • They are lightweight (small file size)
  • They can produce realistic results
  • They are multipurpose
  • They are easily manipulated

Let’s look at each feature more closely:

They have “infinite” resolution

You may have heard that vector graphics do not lose their quality or that you can zoom in on them indefinitely. And for the most part, this is true.

Because vector graphics do not depend on pixels (dots on the screen) but on coordinates on a plane (dots connected by lines, so to speak), we can scale (make bigger) a line, curve, or shape to whatever magnitude we want and always see their exact features.

Since the software always know what the points are on the screen, it always knows the line that goes with them, so to speak (it knows the position and direction between two points).  

If we were to zoom in on a line, let’s say at 3,000%, we would see a black screen indefinitely (unless our screen is one of immense digital billboards on the side of buildings!).

They are lightweight (small file-size)

Vector files have less information in the them than, say, pixel files (such as a picture taken by a phone or digital camera).  

They only contain in them a bunch of coordinates instead of more complex information, like the thousands, or even millions, of pixels in a digital photo.  

This comes as an advantage of vector files, since they can have very compressed drawings in them that require less information to produce.  

They can produce realistic results

Vector graphics can produce drawings that look very realistic.  

But here’s the catch:

In my experience, only inanimate objects can achieve this realistic look, although animals can look pretty realistic too.  

You can draw amazing people with a vector program.  However, they will always look more like a painting than a photograph.  

Pixel, or raster graphics, are better suited for dealing with actual images of real people and things.

They are multipurpose

One cool thing about vector graphics is their versatility.  Vector graphics programs, such as Inkscape or Illustrator, can do so much more than only lines on a screen.

Here’s a few of the things you can do with vector programs:

  • Draw shapes, such as rectangles, circles, stars, polygons, and spirals.  
  • Create and manipulate text by changing their shape, scale, tilt, and so on.
  • Make certain transformations to pixel images, such as clipping them into shapes or adding filters to them.
  • Create color gradients and adding them to drawings.
  • Adding a great deal of filters to drawings, such as textures and other effects.
  • Applying extensions (mini-programs) that let you transform drawings even further.

They are easily manipulated

You can manipulate vector graphics easily and precisely.  

Because the program knows where two points on the screen are at all time, it allows you to easily add other points along that stroke (called nodes) and even infer where some other points adjacent to the main nodes, which allows you to create curves or arches (called Bézier curves).  

You can also easily add color to the strokes you make, even gradients.  You can create shapes with lines (such as a square) and then manipulate that shape in its totality by skewing, rotating, or scaling it.  

There’s even more:

You can even transform the little nodes that make up a stroke or shape by rotating them or changing their intersections.

Uses of Vector Graphics

Vector graphics are extremely useful for graphic design. Also, they are extremely common and versatile. They are all around us and we see them everyday.

In fact, distinguishing vector images in everyday life is a great way for learning some its key features.  

If you look around closely–apps, advertisements, websites, business cards–you’ll notice that vector graphics are a very important aspect of visual communication.

This is what I mean:

The aesthetics of vector graphics have come to dominate the look and feel of contemporary branding with a minimalist, clean look with expressive, colorful illustrations and clean, geometric icons.

What are the best examples of this:

Think Apple and Google!

When you think about today’s uses of vector graphics, you’ll notice how these uses actually affect design trends.

Vector design examples
Vector graphics strongly influence current design trends

These are some of the most common uses for vector generated images in graphic design today:

  • Creating all sorts of digital illustrations, from simple to very complex and realistic
  • Creating icons for apps or web applications
  • Creating mockups for apps or websites
  • Logo and logotype making
  • Creating one page publications, such as flyers or posters
  • Creating 3D-looking objects or renderings
  • Creating video-game characters, imagery, and settings

While raster graphics are beyond the scope of this post, but here’s a great article that explains what they are:

Advantages of Vector Graphics

The advantages of vector graphics are closely related to their features and uses.  

In a nutshell, you can get started using vector graphics with relative ease, with powerful, free software available for immediate download (such as Inkscape).  Files are lightweight and serve multiple purposes, including the creation of PDF files or PNG images.

But probably the main advantage is this:

Vector graphics’ versatility (which allows you to work with shapes, lines, color, text, and even raster functions, such as filters, gradients, and some pixel manipulation) make vector graphics an excellent option for design and a superb starting point for learning graphic design on your own.  

These are some of the main advantages of vector graphics:

  • Create images that look modern, clean, and minimalist
  • You can upload pixel images to vector software to add text, filters, and drawings
  • Best way to create icons, logos, and shape-based visuals (such as buttons or other attention-grabbers)
  • Excellent at handling and manipulating text
  • Excellent for creating grid-based drawings
  • Allow you to create something from nothing

When Not to Use Vector Graphics?

Vector graphics, of course, are not the only way for creating computer graphics, and that’s because their uses and applications are not infinite.  

In general, vector graphics can’t be used to edit pixel images (such as pictures you take with a digital camera or smartphone).  If you want to edit a red eye, hair color, or change the background of a pixel image, you need to use a raster program such as Gimp (which is free and open source) or something like Adobe Photoshop.  

difference between vector and raster
Vector and pixel (raster) graphics use different approaches to rendering objects

The bottom line:  

If your projects primarily deal with images of real things (that is, images that are not drawings or illustrations), then you will not be able to rely on vector graphics software.  

For example, if you’re working with a fashion magazine, a photojournalism blog, or some types of advertising, then you will need to use a great deal of pixel programs (such as Gimp or Photoshop).  Retouching the picture of a model or modifying the illumination of a portrait are some of the operations that require a pixel graphics program.

Conclusion: Vector Graphics are Excellent for Learning Graphic Design

In this post, I showed you the features, uses, and advantages of vector graphics in design.  

This is the bottom line for vector graphics:

  • They are historically one of the first methods for generating computer graphics.  
  • They have very important features, such as resolution, file-size, and multi-purpose capabilities, that make them ideal for many applications, including some raster operations.
  • They are frequently used today for creating a clean, minimalist feel and have heavily influenced current design trends, especially in all things digital.
  • They allow you to create drawings and illustrations from scratch, with very realistic results.
  • They are an excellent tool for learning graphic design because they allow you to gain confidence and experience with shapes, geometry, color, text, layout , and even raster operations.  

There you have it! start experimenting with vector graphics right now.  

How would you use vector graphics?  Let me know in the comments below to give you some guidance!

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What is Graphic Design all About? (No-Nonsense Approach)

So you want to know what graphic design is all about?

It’s a completely reasonable question.  It’s a question I asked many years ago and one that gets asked by anyone trying to learn graphic design.  

It’s not only a reasonable question, it’s completely crucial, since in order to learn something we need to define the boundaries of what has to be learned.

In order to become a graphic designer, you first need to understand what exactly graphic design is, it’s purpose, and why it’s important.  

This can be a lot, but we can define graphic design in simple terms:

In a nutshell, graphic design is the process of strategically combining and manipulating information in order to present it visually.  Simply put, it is the act of creating visual representations for the purpose of effective communication.

Let’s look at graphic design more closely.

First, a definition of design in the general sense

Before plunging into theories and principles of design, graphics software, and skills tutorials, take a moment to think about the nature of design work.

Graphic design itself is a branch of design in the more abstract, or broad, sense.  Design, as general discipline, has many levels of complexity, areas of application, and degrees of difficulty.  

Design in this broad sense implies the full understanding and mastery of a process that applies to any act of human creation. That said, there are many sub-specializations of design: engineering design, interior design, information design, aeronautic design, etc.  

Each has its own application and operation, each has its own level of complexity.  

Design can then be defined as a process of creation.  It is always purpose-oriented: it seeks to accomplish some well-defined purpose. The process of design, at the very least, implies strategy, hierarchy, selection, and manipulation.

But here’s the deal:

We can’t call every single act of creation “design,” since the act of designing implies a process of very specific actions or operations.  

Some types of creation, say painting, may follow a broad plan or no plan at all. they may come from a “gut feeling” or from the “heart”.  

But not design:

Design entails steps that are repeatable from project to project and that can be learned.  

Let’s see in more detail what I mean:

What exactly is graphic design then?

If we see graphic design as part of design in the broader sense, we can say that graphic design is the process through which we strategically combine elements and principles in order to create visual artifacts of high communication value.  

It’s important to describe the task of graphic design in order to understand what it is and, more importantly, what it is not.  By doing this, we demystify graphic design as an essentially artistic activity. We get to see its procedural nature, which renders the task of learning graphic design easier and more approachable.  

Below, I discuss key characteristics of graphic design in order to show you that it is a process that can be learned.  Pay attention to what makes graphic design unique and how it’s different from other creative processes, such as creating art.  

1 . Graphic design is different from art

Many times, we have heard that the artist works from the “heart.” This means that he or she follows some kind of instinctual voice, a “gut feeling,” that defines the creation as an inspired object.  If you watch an artist work, such as Jean Michel Basquiat, you will see a “spontaneous” act of creation, a process that doesn’t have a fixed or guaranteed outcome.

We also often hear that art is always “open for interpretation.” Its effect is closer to an experience than to a specific message.  Art “speaks” to us, but in ways that depend on context, history, frameworks of knowledge, and culture.

We can be both looking at a Pollock painting at the same place and time and yet experience different emotions and interpret different messages.  

Art can be different from the graphic design process because there’s more room for improvisation and “gut feeling”.

Even if most artists prepare themselves for the act of creation (in terms of planning, organization, or mapping), we tend to think of the artistic process as something that controls the artist, rather than the other way around.  Art will take you where it will take you.

The graphic designer is different from the artist, and graphic design is different from the work of art.  

The main difference lies in the primary purpose of graphic design: communication.  

The primary objective of graphic designs are to render ideas, concepts, and events into a visual language for someone in some context.  This language cannot be open to different interpretations and must be created according to predetermined parameters.

A graphic designer can be an artist, but you do not have to be an artist to be a graphic designer.  

2. Graphic design is a form of visual communication

To say that graphic design is a form of visual communication is to acknowledge the importance of images in everyday life.  

We live in a visual culture, and images have become the primary way of receiving and interpreting information.  We rely on the visual for interpreting data, for making diagnoses, for expressing authority, and for selling stuff.  Screens surround us and have become the quintessential channel for delivering images.

For visual communicators and graphic designers, images are a powerful vehicle for delivering messages because they are able to pack emotion and complexity in the most immediate, effective way.  

To design is always to communicate.  Communication, in this sense, is always a purposeful act, driven by clear objectives and processes.  

3. Graphic design is strategy driven

Graphic designers create images that will accomplish a primary purpose, and this process of creation is guided by research, a specific message, technique, and an execution plan.  

Graphic design is strategic
Graphic design is a strategic process.

Graphic design does not occur by chance nor is the product of pure instinct. It is not random.

On the contrary, graphic designers take care in studying and really understanding their source material.  They establish clear objectives based on a strategy for accomplishing their communication goals. They follow a system of production and workflow.  They understand that simplicity and efficiency are essential elements of the creation process.

In other words:

The process of graphic design is a series of calculated steps that require skills, research, and strategy.  It is planning and following through that plan to achieve a visual product.

4. Graphic design is a hierarchical process of selection

Graphic design concentrates on the minimum conditions that will render a message effective, and no more.  In order to do this, graphic designers select what is most suited to accomplish a task. Excessive use of form or the over-manipulation of visual elements becomes an obstruction to clear communication.  

A visual message carries within an intention.  This intention must be distilled and rendered into its purest form.  Selection becomes a crucial aspect of separating the important from the unimportant, the effective from the ineffective.

To select is to choose.  Graphic designers are always choosing what is most effective to the task at hand.     

5. Graphic design is manipulation

The first crucial step for graphic design is to “read”.  

What I mean is this:

“Reading” here is a conscious absorption of content, a form of interpretation according to a code.    

Design, as an objective-driven endeavor, implies the reading of the environment, the reading of messages (linguistic and otherwise), and the reading of the world.  

Once graphic designers have read their source material (what they need to represent visually), they must engage in a second important step: to translate.  

To translate means to take that knowledge, that understanding of the world that has been absorbed from the source material, and transport it to another plane of communication, the visual code.  

In this sense, graphic designers manipulate language in order to communicate things in different ways.  They also manipulate form (objects, icons, colors, textures) in order to create messages that are effective in communicating visually.  

Conclusion: Graphic design is a process that you can learn

One of the main takeaway from this post is this:

You don’t necessarily have to be an “artist” in order to become a graphic designer.  

Graphic design is a systematic, repeatable process that follows specific principles, actions, and objectives.  

These principles and processes can be learned.  With experience, practice, and understanding of what graphic design is about, you will be able to learn the basics of graphic design and start creating effective visual communication.  

Summary: Remember these key points

  • Graphic design is different from art: The product of graphic design should not be open for interpretation.
  • Graphic design is driven by processes: Graphic designers work according to specific rules and steps.
  • Graphic designers are visual communicators: Get your communication strategy first, then create graphics accordingly.
  • Graphic design involves “reading” and “translating”:  Graphic designers are really good at “reading,” or deeply absorbing, their environment.  They focus on the details of things. The look at things very closely. Only then can they “translate” what they absorb into a visual language.  
  • Graphic design can be learned: You don’t have to be born an artist to be an effective visual communicator. Mostly, you will need knowledge, discipline, and experience.  If you keep practicing, you will develop an eye for graphic design.

Now that you understand some key concepts about what graphic design is about, you can start to learn about the main principles that power effective visual communication and composition.  

What do you think is the most important aspect of graphic design?

Let me know in a comment below and we’ll discuss it.

Featured image icon credit: Smashicons
Photo credit: JESHOOTS.COM

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How to Learn Graphic Design (7 Essential Steps that Worked)

You want to become a graphic designer, but don’t know how or where to start.

Many will tell you to start learning software or take a online course, but these tactics will lead you to failure if you don’t take these crucial steps first.

After years of experience teaching myself and others, I’ve come to realize these are the 7 essential steps for learning graphic design:

  1. Understand why you want to become a graphic designer
  2. Develop a passion for design and graphics
  3. Understand the difference between talent and practice
  4. Learn the principles of design
  5. Find and study design resources
  6. Start working on a project
  7. Be patient

In this post, I explain in detail how these fundamental steps helped me become a self-taught graphic designer, so you too can get on your way to becoming a graphic designer.

But first…

Becoming a graphic designer on your own is scary

How can anyone become a graphic designer on their own? There’s so much information out there, different software, so many people doing amazing things.


Learning graphic design on your own can be scary.
Photo by Gem & Lauris RK on Unsplash

I know. It can be daunting… and scary.

What if I tell you it is possible to learn graphic design online for free, with no experience and without a degree?

For me, it all began about ten years ago, just starting a career in academia. Job descriptions were increasingly asking for applied skills in design, programming, and all sorts of production software. I didn’t quite have any of these skills. Right out of the Ph.D. program in media studies, I couldn’t find a job. I was doomed.

But instead of curling up into fetal position, I decided that this would become my golden chance to learn. I became obsessed with learning HTML and programming my very first website, graphic design included.

Fast forward: I became a self-made graphic designer and web developer in the process.

Today, I teach graphic design at the college level, co-designed a platform that won a prestigious entrepreneurship award, develop websites for fun and profit, and simply enjoy designing for myself and the communities I’m involved with.

Can You Become a Self-Taught Graphic Designer Too?

After years of teaching and designing, I have realized this:

There is only one way of “being” something, and that is by “becoming” it.

Let me explain:

A degree in creative writing or journalism will not make you a writer or a journalist. Only by “writing” incessantly can you become the writer, the painter, the programmer you want to be.

The good news is:

In today’s world of flowing information, it has never been easier to learn and become virtually anything you want. You only have to focus on what matters the most to you and your objectives.

Like anything worthwhile, it won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick. But it will be fun, rewarding, and deeply satisfying (and potentially lucrative).

You want an example of an outstanding self-taught graphic designer?

There are many examples out there of graphic designers who are self taught. Today, in a world of information, video tutorials, and online learning, it’s absolutely possible to become an actual designer.

One designer that has really inspired me lately is George Bokhua. He is a master of icons and logos. I was blown away to learn he’s a self-taught designer!

George Bokhua is a self-taught graphic designer who does amazing work.

You can see George Bokhua’s work on his Instagram page here.

The 7 fundamental steps you need to take right now to start learning graphic design

Now that you know it is possible to learn graphic design, follow these absolutely crucial steps that will pave the way for your success.

Step 1: Understand why you want to become a graphic designer

We all want to take this path for different reasons. Maybe you want to:

  • Create a logo for the website of your small business
  • Express yourself and be creative
  • Learn a new skill
  • Learn to use complex software
  • Make a career change
  • Make money online

The reasons can be endless, but the objective is still the same.

No matter what your reason is for learning design, there is a caveat:

The reason has to be powerful enough to keep you focused on the goal, which is to become proficient at graphic design.

The reason must be the fuel that powers your quest to learn.

For me, it was primarily my conviction of diversifying my skills and pursue an inclination toward creation that I always had. But one general compelling reason to learn graphic design concepts and skills is that we live in an increasingly visual culture.

This means that, as a society, we value images over words as vehicles of communication. We are surrounded by visual interfaces, and content is predominantly organized around images. Images are a very powerful and complex form of communication.

In today’s world, it’s those who have basic fluency in these forms of communication who are most likely to succeed in their respective careers.

It helps to really understand what graphic design is all about? Read this article if you want to learn more about graphic design: What is graphic design all about?

Step 2: Become passionate about design, graphics, and everything visual

This step totally relates to the previous step. You have to be passionate about graphic design and becoming a designer. The best way to be passionate is to understand why you want to become a designer in the first place.

In the age of Web 2.0, the rhetoric seems to be that anyone can become anything he or she wants. Many times, this is simply not the case, but not because most people don’t have the talent or the skills or the luck to become what they want to be.

In other words:

Today, it’s simpler to become whatever you want, and yet the road is more difficult.

The reason is lack of passion.

What I have learned from my own personal journey, my students, and some successful designers I know is that the real capability to learn the necessary skills to become a graphic designer comes from passion: persistence, discipline, and the courage to put yourself out there. This is actually true for any undertaking.

But you might be thinking: it’s not only about passion:

“I am not a talented person,” “I can’t draw,” or “I’m not good with computers.”

This leads me to the next step:

Step 3. Understand the difference between talent and practice

Graphic design is not primarily about talent. There, I said it.

Do you need talent to be great at design? Definitely. The most successful designers I know and who inspire me every day are super talented. However, absolute talent is not required. This is key and you need to understand it.

If you have read this far, chances are that you already have talent, or are in the process of polishing your talent in the raw. You know you have what it takes, even if you (still) don’t have the confidence or the advanced skills to let it shine through.

You have a certain orientation. This is what draws you design in the first place. This, believe it or not, is what most graphic designers had when they began.

Here’s the deal:

For most people, talent is just a lot of practice.

And even so, maybe you don’t have to be a graphic designer. What I mean is, you don’t necessarily need the identity of a designer for understanding and applying the fundamental concepts of graphic design and visual communication.

Perhaps you want to learn graphic design skills for enhancing your business, for helping out a friend with her startup, for making your blog more appealing.

That is:

You don’t have to win an award or be featured in the most important publication or teach an online course.

This is the only thing that matters: You only have to be effective. Talent, for the most part, is forged during the process.

People can go from having no idea about graphic design to being effective. It takes some theory, experience (that is, action), and persistence.

It takes time, but not necessarily years. Some of my best students (with no previous graphic design experience) have accomplished excellent results in only one semester. One of my students even got a job after only one semester of work. Sweet!

Step 4: Understand the principles of design

Every discipline has a foundational set of concepts that guide its best practices, the minimum framework needed to achieve successful results.

In graphic design, you must learn the fundamental concepts that underlie the practice of design from the very beginning.

This will take time to understand and internalize, so start as early as possible.

However, you don’t have to learn design theory before starting to actually create something. You need to do it in a synergistic way, as you learn software skills, techniques, and formats.

There are many resources in this and other websites that will help you start learning graphic design theory.

This post that will get you started with design principles: Design principles: A definition you can use

Step 5: Find and study design resources, tutorials, and free courses

The great news is that all the information you need to learn graphic design is at your disposal.

Great content and lessons are at your fingertips. In fact, one of the objectives of this website is to guide you to readily available content to get you started on your journey to learning graphic design online.

Most importantly, professional-grade graphic design software is available to you for free. I personally use and recommend Inkscape and Gimp for learning vector and pixel graphics.

In addition to being extremely powerful graphics software, capable of competing with Illustrator and Photoshop, they are free and keep getting better. You can create your own personal design studio from a laptop at a café with virtually no startup costs. Open source is a beautiful thing.

The following links are just an example of the wealth of tools and information out there for learning graphic design online:

Step 6: Find yourself a project to work on, then another, and another (and don’t stop)

If I were writing this 20 years ago, I don’t think I would be stating, with such confidence, that it’s actually possible to become a self-taught graphic designer.

But today, all you need to learn is readily available to you.

However, there is also a lot of information noise that can make the process of learning graphic design on your own more difficult than it should be. There is so much content out there that it makes it hard to follow an organized process of learning.

If you want to learn graphic design on your own, my single most important recommendation is to center your learning around a specific project.

The reason is that it is very difficult to learn a skill in the abstract. As you progress on a project, you will encounter specific problems that will guide you to specific solutions.

You will search for advice, tutorials, and knowledge that will be as specific as the problems themselves.

The more a resource helps you, the more the quality of the resource. This becomes your noise filter.

In addition:

The more problems you are able to solve, the more experience you get, and the more qualified you become as a graphic designer.

So, if you want to become a self-made graphic designer, take on a specific project right now (your business newsletter, a business card, a logo for your sister) and organize your learning around it. It is the best way to learn.

Step 7: Be patient and persistent: Time is the only constant variable

I do believe that the internet does provide the tools and information to accomplish many, many endeavors.

However, the only variable that is missing from most of the pep talk about learning something new, changing a personal path, creating a new business, etc., is TIME.

So internalize this: Any lasting, meaningful, and permanent change takes time.

However, you can use guidance, passion, and hacks to shorten the time a dramatic and permanent change in your life will take.

As a self-taught graphic designer, only with time you will gain the insight, skills, and perspective needed to become an effective, if not a great, designer.

So, the sooner you begin, the quicker you will obtain your goal. Plain and simple. The following drawing explains this perfectly:

Conclusion: Start to design right now

The most important takeaway from this post is this: PICK A PROJECT AND CENTER YOUR LEARNING AROUND IT.

As you do this, learn the principles of design. Understand why you’re doing this. Be passionate about it. Aspire to be effective. Use your resources wisely. Understand that it will take time, but don’t hesitate to start.

Why do you want to learn graphic design? Let me know in the comments below. I really want to know!

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Circular Grid Inkscape Logo Tutorial (Step-by-Step + Images)

In this tutorial I show you, in step-by-step detail how to make a logo using circular grids with Inkscape.

We will be creating a version of the Woolmark logo, by Franco Grignani, from 1964.  Grignani was a pioneer in incorporating optical illusion in graphic design.

This logo exemplifies a clean, symmetrical design that is both interesting and timeless.

Follow the step-by-step guide to create your version of this logo.

In this tutorial, you will learn about:

  • How to make a logo with grids
  • Boolean operations
  • Optical illusion logo design

Let’s get started!


Step 1

Overview:

  • Set the grid
  • Create layers
  • Create an equilateral triangle

a.

First, create four layers using the Layers dialog (Layer > Layers).    Name the layers, from bottom to top, like so: Triangle, Level 1, Level 2, Level 3.  This will help us organize our work and deal with the complexity of the design as we move forward.

b.

Create a grid for the document by going to View > Page Grid.  Be sure to set the grid size (spacing) large enough so you can easily work with its scale.

c.

Now, create an equilateral triangle, using the Stars and Polygons tool , by setting its corners to “3. ” Move the triangle to the Triangle layer by selecting Layer > Move Selection to Layer Above or Below, depending the layer on which the triangle was created.

d.

Select the triangle, align its tip to a grid intersection and, pressing the SHIFT and CTRL keys *, enlarge (drag) the triangle so that its height is equal to an even number of squares (mine is 6 “grid squares” high).   You may enable the snapping tool for more accuracy.

*  The SHIFT key makes the object scale from its center of rotation, while the CTRL key makes it scale symmetrically.


Step 2

Overview:

  • Create a perfect circle
  • Duplicate and position circles

a. 

Locate the center of the triangle in terms of its height: In my case, it’s 6 “grid squares” high, so its center intersection lies on square 3. Position the cursor slightly upward off center, as shown.  This will make our rendition more accurate in terms of the original logo.

Select the Circles tool.  While pressing the SHIFT and CTRL keys, enlarge (drag) the circle so that it becomes a perfect circle.  Make sure the edges of the circles touch the edges of the triangle.

Convert the circle to a path by selecting Path > Object to Path.

b. 

Duplicate the circle (CTRL + D keys or Edit > Duplicate).  Move the duplicate to the lower left side.  Press the CTRL key to drag the circle to the bottom, then press CTRL to drag to left, until it touches the left and bottom edges of the triangle.

Duplicate the lower left circle and drag to the right, using the CTRL key.

         

Now you have three cicles within a triangle.


Step 3

Overview:

  • Duplicate upper left side circle
  • Interpolate circles
  • Move selection to layer above

a.

We will now create the circles that will make up the black crescents of the design.

Select the lower left circle and, pressing the SHIFT key, also select the upper  circle.

Go to Extensions > Generate from Path > Interpolate.

In the dialog, select “Duplicate endpaths” and be sure to set interpolation steps to 8.  This is so because the extension will “fill” the space between the circles with duplicates of the same circles.  If you look at the Woolmark logo, each side is composed of 10 circles.

b.

The interpolated circles will be grouped, with a total of 10 objects.   Select the group, then move the selection to the layer named “Level 1.” Turn off the layer (in the Layers dialog, click on the little eye icon to close it).


Step 4

Step overview:

  • Repeat process on step 3 for right side 

a. 

Select the upper and lower circles by pressing the SHIFT key.

Repeat the interpolation process.

Move the selection to the layer named “Level 2” and turn off.


Step 5

Step overview:

  • Repeat process on steps 3 and 4 for bottom side
  • Delete original circles 

Select the lower right and left circles by pressing the SHIFT key.

Repeat the interpolation process.

Move the selection to the layer named “Level 3” and turn off.

Delete the three original guide circles before continuing with the next step.


Step 6

Step overview:

  • Apply the Boolean operation “Difference”
  • Fill black, remove stroke to create crescents

a. 

Start with layer “Level 1”.

Turn on the layer and ungroup the interpolated circles by selecting them and pressing the CTRL and U keys.  You now have 10 separate circle objects.

b. 

Create the crescents from the circular grid.  Select the outermost circle and the circle that follows.

Apply Path > Difference.  Apply black fill and remove stroke (Object > Fill and Stroke).

You now have your first crescent.

c. 

Repeat with all crescents of that side.  You now should something that looks like this:

d. 

Turn off the layer and repeat with the remaining two sides:

  


Step 7

Step overview:

  • Use the eraser tool to clean paths

a. 

For the final step, turn on all layers.

b. 

Select the crescents whose tips protrude unto the opposite crescent set.

c. 

Select the Erase tool.  At the top of the page, in Mode, select “Cut out from object.”

d. 

Start “erasing” the protruding crescent tips by passing the tool just to the contour of the opposite crescent.  Be sure to remove all parts of the tip while the object is selected.

e. 

Repeat on all sides, according to the fold of the original Woolmark logo.

Turn off unnecessary layers.

DONE!

You now have recreated a version of the Woolmark logo and learned about circular grids, Boolean operations, and logo design in the process.

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Design Principles: An Actually Useful Definition (with Examples)

Design principles have been around for a very long time and understanding them is crucial to learning graphic design. So how do we define design principles?

Simply defined, design principles are a set of time-proven guidelines that  humans have put together through trial and error for understanding how to represent the world.  Design principles serve as a map that we use to arrange visual materials (shapes, colors, lines, etc.) in the best way possible, according to a specific intention, strategy, or objective.

When you look at other design principles definitions on the web, you’ll notice that most only give a you a list of principles, but never go to explain what these principles really are as a whole.  A general understanding of design principles is the most important aspect of learning to apply them later in real design work.

In this post, I explain what design principles are and mean for graphic design and give you some examples of how these principles are applied in design.

Design Principles are a set of guidelines

You can view the principles of design as a set of guiding rules about what works and does not work in the arrangement of visual raw materials.

When I say “visual raw materials”, I mean the different “parts” that make up all the things that we see. For example, all that we see will be composed of many different elements, such as lines, textures, colors, shapes, and shadows. These “raw materials” of visual reality are called elements of design.

These “rules” we call principles do not necessarily work like laws and don’t have to be taken literally.  In fact, each principle always works in relation to one another.

Our objective as designers is to represent objects, feelings, ideas, or concepts through graphic design. Once we learn to perceive the different elements of design, we are able to arrange those elements in certain ways to produce effective representations.

In addition, design principles are not just “human-made” constructs, but a set of time-proven truisms (self-evident truths) about how the world arranges itself visually and how we perceive it.  

These principles are the human description (or codification) of how the natural world is presented to us visually.   

They are constant observations about what works visually.

Design principles never work alone

Design principles can be rearranged or combined. They never work in isolation.

But here’s the thing:

There are different ways of arranging visual content in an effective way.

That’s why they are called are principles and not laws, and we follow them because others before us have mastered and perfected these observations through trial, error, and experimentation.

That is:

Design principles are time-proven guidelines for the best ways and methods for organizing visual elements strategically in order to communicate effectively.

Design principles have been developed over time and that is why they are principles.

Simply put, they are ways of organization. They organize visual information and provide different alternatives for arranging that information, depending on our communication objectives.

Nature can teach you a lot about design principles

We can learn about design principles from nature. We can observe how visual things are arranged in nature and how and why it works.

Take the trunk of a tree. What do we see? It has a special construction, visually speaking.

Trunks have different colors, different shades. They have texture. These are all things that we can appreciate visually.  Now, how is this texture patterned? How is color used and distributed? It’s as if nature knows how to arrange all these elements in beautiful ways!

This is exactly the idea behind design principles. They are the knowledge that guides you in using visual materials and using them to design beautifully and effectively.

Texture will be displayed in a pattern. It will have color, but those colors will have different shades that will communicate different things. For example, does a surface look rough, smooth, glossy?  These are all things we can appreciate visually.

Nature Pattern Design Principle Example
Nature presents patterns and colors in a special arrangement that exemplify design principles.

Design principles in everyday life

We can apply these examples from nature to the images and graphics we see every day.  

A poster in the street will have some information displayed but it will be arranged in a strategic way.  By changing the size of letters, we know that a heading that is bigger and bolder is more important. Changing the size of font serves to structure information.

We use design principles to arrange letters on a paragraph in such a way that it becomes not only readable but pleasant to read. These are design principles at work.

Look at the example below.  Is this information readable?  We can apply design principles to that very same information to achieve a very different outcome.

Here’s another example:

A logo will use shapes and lines and color to represent something about a brand.

We use those shapes and colors and lines in a strategic way in order to communicate specifically what we want to communicate. These are design principles at work that help you arrange visual elements in a strategic manner.

Some examples of design principles

Like I said, in this post we will not go into detail about specific design principles, but I want to show you some examples of principles and, specially, how they work.

Take the design principle of hierarchy:

We can use hierarchy to guide our reader to the information we want to highlight and to structure that information. Headings are great simple example of how we use hierarchy. Imagine we had a book with no headings, no bold letters, no changes in font size. We wouldn’t really know what to read or how to read it: we would be overwhelmed by all that information. How readable is the following example:

Lack of hierarchy as design principle renders text unreadable and ineffective.
Lack of hierarchy as design principle renders text unreadable and ineffective.

When we use headings as a form of hierarchy, we are actually structuring information. We are telling the reader what is important what what is less important. This is a design principle at work.

Another design principle is unity:

Unity as a principle can tell us that elements that are close together have a stronger or closer relationship that elements that are farther apart.

It can be used in different ways:

We can have elements that are positioned tightly together, or very separated through space.  Being close represents kinship or unity.

Or we could have elements that are the same shape, color, or size. This also represents unity.

The closer elements are, in space or appearance, the stronger the bond or stronger relationship they communicate.  

We can see hierarchy and unity working together in real life.

Take a website, for instance. Web designers will use headings of different sizes and colors to structure information and guide your eye in a specific way. What about a button to a call to action? It’s usually red, big, and bold. This is hierarchy at work.

So now you see how design principles actually help you organize visual information. The more you understand design principles, the more you can apply them to anything you design, like logos websites posters business cards.

This is why it’s really important to understand and study design principles, but the most important thing is for you to practice applying these principles.

This is the bottom line:

What differentiates design from something that is not designed are design principles.  

For example:

Often we will go walking down the street and we will see a wall or bulletin board filled with DIY ads searching for a dog or announcing a garage sale.

DIY ads from a public bulletin board exemplify a lack of design principles.
DIY ads from a public bulletin board exemplify a lack of design principles.

Most of those ads will have their information displayed without design principles. Most of them will be ugly and not effective at communicating information. They will not stand out in a wall filled with the same types of ads. They will look amateurish.

Now, we can take the same ad and the same information and apply some design principles to them. That’s why graphic designers exist: they know how to make information look awesome and effectively convey a message.

Conclusion: Start learning design principles right now

Learning design principles, and applying them, are one the most important steps in learning graphic design. Actually, it is the key to actually becoming a graphic designer.

The great thing about design principles is that they can be learned and they can be practiced.  

So the more you study and understand design principles, the more you observe how they are applied in your everyday surroundings, the more you will understand and be able to apply them.  At this point, you will be well ahead in the process of becoming a graphic designer.

Without design principles, we will most likely create work that is uninteresting, unappealing and, worse, unable to communicate effectively.  

These are the main points to remember:

  • Designers must learn to “see” the “visual prime material” or perceive the visual features of things for what they are, not for what we “know” about them.
  • The elements of design are the very raw materials of our perception of things.  Visual things are made up of visual elements.
  • Design principles are time-proven observations about how the world is visually arranged all around us.
  • Design principles serve as a blueprint for arranging visual elements in strategic, effective ways.  

Do you already know some design principles? Which do you think are the most important? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think!

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What is Inkscape and Why You’ll Love It

One of the first questions beginner self-made designers have is: What is Inkscape?

Inkscape is a free and powerful vector drawing software that is available for Windows and Mac computers. It allows you to create graphics and illustrations in a similar way to Adobe Illustrator, and is virtually just as powerful. You can download the latest version of Inkscape (Inkscape 0.92) right now from their website: https://inkscape.org/.

Inkscape: Free Vector Graphics Software

Inkscape is one of the few free vector graphic software out there, and one of the oldest and robust.  It’s first release was 15 years ago and it’s still being developed and updated to this day by thousands of committed users around the world.  

It is efficient and powerful, allowing its users to create professional-grade graphic design indistinguishable from expensive vector graphics software such as Adobe Illustrator.  Because of this, it is the ideal graphics program for beginning and aspiring designers. Not only that, but professional designers around the world use Inkscape to keep costs low and produce high-quality, professional designs.  

Inkscape is the graphic design software I recommend for self-taught designers because it allows them to learn the basics of vector graphics and design right now: they can just download and start creating.  I even use Inkscape in my college-level graphic design courses because my students have access to it on the very first day of class and can start playing with it right away. This actually allows them to learn graphic design faster.  

Vector Graphics Programs in a Nutshell

Simply put, vector graphics programs allow you to create digital drawings that can go from very simple to complex and that can look very realistic.  Vector graphics software allow you to create drawings by using lines (strokes), shapes (circles, rectangles, spirals, polygons), text, color and, most importantly, by letting you transform and manipulate those elements.  

How vector graphics work is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that vector software allows you to create lines (strokes) that be manipulated in a digital canvas and which have infinite resolution (contrary to pixel graphics).  In principle, almost anything you could do drawing by hand you could do with vector graphics software.  

At the heart of vector graphics is SVG, which stands for Scalable Vector Graphics.  

According to Wikipedia:

Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) is an XML-based vector image format for two-dimensional graphics with support for interactivity and animation. The SVG specification is an open standard developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) since 1999.

SVG images […] can be searched, indexed, scripted, and compressed. SVG images can be created and edited with any text editor, as well as with drawing software. All major modern web browsers—including Mozilla Firefox, Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, Opera, Safari, and Microsoft Edge—have SVG rendering support.

What does this mean?

For now, it means that Inkscape’s output is standard and can be read with most web browsers and edited with most vector software, including Illustrator.  

In fact, all vector graphics software function in similar ways because they come from a common philosophy.  This is why learning to use Illustrator after having used Inkscape is not that difficult.

In other words:

Inkscape allows you to learn the basics of vector graphics software.  As you get more advanced, If you want to move on to commercial vector software such as Illustrator, the learning curve becomes so much easier.  

Inkscape and Illustrator function in the very same way because they are both vector software that have the same foundation. So the more you learn to use Inkscape the more you understand the logic of Illustrator, and if you were to move from Inkscape to Illustrator (say, because you found a job as a graphic designer in a standard agency) then you would have very little problem or even no problems at all going forward.  

Who is Inkscape for?

Inkscape is great for both beginners and advanced designers.  It is a great tool for beginners because it teaches you the principles of vector graphics software, which you can then apply to commercial software like Illustrator.

While Illustrator has become the standard in commercial graphic design agencies and studios, Inkscape actually allows you to make creations that are as good as those that are created with commercial software.

Inkscape has many tools that you can use to create drawings (such as the transform tool, ellipses tool, pencil tool) that let you manipulate vector objects in complex ways into whatever you need.  With Inkscape, people can create magnificent illustrations that are very realistic and professional.

What are the advantages of using Inkscape?

Well, one obvious reason for using Inkscape is that it is free.  However, this is not the only reason. Inkscape is an extensive and mature vector graphics program that allows to create professional-grade designs.  It has many versions under its belt and has been around for more than 15 years. Also, it is extremely powerful and allows you to do as many things as you actually would in commercial software.

But there’s also one very important reason:  

Inkscape has a dedicated and passionate user community around the world that produces tons of high-quality resources and tutorials that you can freely use to learn vector graphic design.  

There are countless online resources available to you at no cost –guides, tutorials, and free courses– that teach you how to use Inkscape, from beginner to advanced.  In addition, there are several excellent advanced books you can buy and use as reference, if needed.

What is Inkscape used for?

By now, it should be pretty obvious that you can do anything that a graphic designer does with Inkscape.  You can create logos, fliers, business cards, website dummies, badges, letterhead, and so on.

You can even create ultra-realistic drawings like this one:

Realistic car illustration using Inkscape.
You can draw realistic illustrations in Inkscape.

However, you can also use Inkscape for certain operations that you would only do with pixel manipulation software (such as Photoshop), like cropping images, applying basic filters, scaling down large images, or applying text to photos, for example.

I have personally used Inkscape for many years and I’ve done quite a few different projects in it.  For example, I have created many business cards, websites, software interfaces, logos, posters, flyers… you name it.  I’ve always had the resources at my disposal, on the Internet and elsewhere, to do the job.

I even teach graphic design at the college  level and I’ve always used Inkscape for my beginner students.  

Why?

The reason is that they can download the program right away into their laptops and they can start creating and learning from the get-go, which is the best way to learn how to use graphic design software.  They don’t have to rely on campus computers or expensive licenses: they can continue practicing and, as they become better and better, the software will not budge for a second because every year it gets better, and more powerful.  

Inkscape is so powerful and complex that there’s always something new to learn, no matter how advanced you are.  

These illustrations are a great example of what can be created using Inkscape:

Learn how to use Inkscape

First, you need to learn the basics of the program in order get a feel for it and how vector graphics behave.  Download the software and play around with. Then, start experimenting with all of the tools that are available on the left-hand panel.

For example, you can start using the square tool to make quadrangular shapes or you can use the circle tool to create circular and elliptical shapes.  After creating some shapes, use the transform tool to manipulate these objects you have created and get a feel for the power of vector graphics.   

As you continue your learning, you will need to center around different projects that will become the engine for your experience and growth in graphic design.

In fact, projects are the key to learning graphic design.  

For example, you may want to start with very simple projects moving on to more complex ones.  Start by writing your name and using some effects, like changing its color or transforming its size, maybe even skewing the text from left to right.

You can use the transform tool in Inkscape to change how text looks.
You can use the transform tool in Inkscape to change how text looks.

You may later want to create a logo for your website (for your awesome content!) or maybe a friend or some family member needs a logo for some project. These are great opportunities for you to learn both graphic design software and design that will build your knowledge, skills, and confidence.  

Here’s the thing:

As you move forward with your projects,  you will have questions that will naturally arise from the process.  Search for those questions in Google and you will find answers and tutorials that will contribute to your learning and skills.  The more problems you’re able to solve, the more you will learn.

So, what are you waiting for? Start designing right now!

What would you like to learn about Inkscape? Let me know in a comment below so that I can create a resource about it!

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