The reality is, getting started in graphic design is no easy task.
If you take the right steps to learn graphic design, you can teach yourself graphic design more efficiently and effectively.
So, here’s the deal:
After years of experience teaching graphic design to myself and others, I’ve found the crucial first steps you have to take to become a self-taught graphic designer.
These are the 9 most important first steps you need to take as a beginner to teach yourself graphic design:
- Find your motivation
- Get passionate about design
- Learn the principles of design
- Get started with graphic design software
- Find and study design resources
- Look for inspiration
- Start working on a project
- Differentiate talent from practice
- Be patient and consistent
Below, I explain in detail how these fundamental steps helped me become a self-taught graphic designer, so you too can get on your way on the right foot.
Step 1: Find Your Motivation
There are different reasons for getting into graphic design. Maybe you want to:
- Create a logo for your website
- 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 will still be the same:
Your motivation to learn graphic design has to be powerful enough to keep you focused on the goal, which is to become proficient at graphic design.
This motivating factor must be the fuel that powers your quest to learn.
What motivated me was the fear of not having practical skills as a media studies professor in a very competitive field.
One powerful motivating factor can be earning extra income on the side. The good thing is that you don’t have to work as a graphic designer to earn money as a designer, which can motivate you to study, learn, and practice as much as you can as quickly as possible.
My point is this:
By taking the first steps toward generating a new revenue stream from graphic design, you are actually creating a motivation engine that will sustain your journey into graphic design.
No matter what your motivation is, there is a compelling reason to learn graphic design skills:
We live in an increasingly visual culture.
This means that we value images over words as a society. We are surrounded by visual interfaces. Content is mostly organized around images. Today, images are the most important and powerful form of communication.
In today’s world, those who have skills in visual forms of communication are the most likely to succeed in their respective careers.
So what’s the bottom line:
No matter what your motivation is, at the very least having graphic design skills will give you a professional advantage in a world in which images are the main form of communication.
So go ahead and find the motivation that will power your learning.
Step 2: Get Passionate About Everything Visual
You have to be passionate about graphic design in order to become a designer.
In the Web 2.0, anyone can become anything he or she wants. But most of the time, people fail not because they don’t have the talent or the skills 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.
So why do so many fail?
The reason is lack of passion.
What I have learned from my own journey and my students is that the capability to learn the necessary skills to become a graphic designer comes from passion: persistence, discipline, and the courage to put yourself out there.
So, learn what motivates you to become a graphic designer but also what makes you passionate about it.
Are you into websites? Facebook memes? Typography and lettering? Logo design? Video game graphics? Comics?
Finding out what particular areas of graphic design you really like are key for becoming passionate about learning.
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 is what exactly leads to the next step.
Step 3: Understand the Difference Between Talent and Practice
Graphic design is not primarily about talent.
Do you need talent to be great at design? Sure. 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 have a certain orientation or aptitude that draws you to graphic 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 of us, talent is just a lot of practice.
You don’t have to win an award or be featured in the most important publication or teach an online course to be a graphic designer.
You only have to be effective. Talent, for the most part, is forged during the process.
You can go from having no idea about graphic design to being effective. It takes some theory, experience, 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!
Step 4: Learn the Principles of Design
Every discipline has a foundational set of rules that guide its best practices.
Graphic design is no exception. You must learn the fundamental concepts that underlie the practice of design from the very beginning in order to become proficient and gain experience.
What are design principles? The principles of design are the minimum framework needed to achieve successful results as a graphic designer.
In other words:
Design principles are time-proven and tested concepts that guide us in terms of what works and what doesn’t, visually speaking.
If we follow these principles, we will be able to create visual designs that are appealing, effective, and memorable.
If you want to understand how design principles work, we need to study them first.
It will take time to understand and internalize, so start as early as possible.
Fortunately, the list of design principles is relatively short. People give different names for each, but we can pretty much boil them down to 6 major principles:
- Totality or Gestalt
Want to hear the good part?
You don’t have to learn design principles before actually starting to create something. You can study and apply them as you learn software skills, techniques, and formats.
There are many resources in Self-Made Designer and other websites that will help you understand the principles of design.
Step 5: Get Started with Graphic Design Software
Graphics editing software is a big part of graphic design. There are different types of software for different types of tasks.
One of the most common types of software are vector and pixel editing systems.
There are many makers of graphics software, but one of the most popular and recognized is Adobe, with Illustrator for vector graphics and Photoshop for pixel (or raster) graphics.
Generally speaking, vector graphics are used for creating shape-based drawings and digital illustrations, such as logos, stylized text, and technical drawings of objects.
Pixel graphics are used for editing photos and photo-realistic renderings, such as photography, magazine montages, and image manipulation.
As a beginner, you shouldn’t worry about learning one brand or another, but on understanding the logic of each type of software.
It boils down to this:
All vector and pixel software work in the same fundamental ways because they derive from the same philosophy and structure.
The most important thing is that you gain access to graphics software right away and start familiarizing yourself with vector and pixel editing.
In this sense, I’m biased toward free, open-source software.
The good news?
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, respectively.
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.
Download the software and start experimenting right now.
Step 6: Look for Inspiration
One of the best ways to learn graphic design is to emulate artists, designers, and creators that inspire us.
When we look for inspiration, we will naturally gravitate to the styles and trends that we like, and we will start to recognize what works and what doesn’t.
Getting inspired by designers we like or admire gives us a roadmap of what we need to learn. Also, imitating the work of others allows us to learn and improve on new skills.
After all, as children we learn by imitating the people around us. The same is true for graphic design.
Start looking for inspiration and learn what you like or don’t like. Start noticing which trends might apply to what you see and which designers are doing amazing work.
Here are some ideas for getting inspiration:
- Start following high-quality graphic design Instagram accounts.
- Follow specific graphic design hashtags on social media, such as #vectorgraphics, #logodesign, or #designinspiration.
- Do searches on Google Images for keywords such as “logo inspirations” or “best website designs.”
- Go to Pinterest and look for graphic design group boards.
- Follow graphic design social media such as Behance or Dribble.
Step 7: Find and Study Graphic Design Resources, Tutorials, and Free Courses
The great news about becoming a self-taught graphic designer is that all the information you need for learning graphic design is at your fingertips.
High-quality tutorials and lessons are available to you either free of charge or for a small price, at least compared to college education. For example, beginner online courses from sites like Udemy, Skillshare, or Domestika are inexpensive compared to college and are of the highest quality.
But you need to understand this:
A self-taught graphic designer doesn’t magically learn to design. You still need to study, read, and practice using all kinds of different sources, from academic books to YouTube videos and online tutorials.
A self-taught graphic designer still needs to learn what others learn in college. However, you can do it at your own pace and without spending thousands of dollars.
At any rate, you can begin learning graphic design on your own and later take formal design education, especially in an area of specialization (videogame, information, or product design, for example).
So, get yourself an introduction to design book, download free vector and pixel software, and start following some good tutorials on YouTube.
You will find that the amazing thing about this approach is that you will begin right away, focused on what matters the most to you.
Step 8: Find Yourself a Project to Work On, Then Another, and Another (and Don’t Stop)
If you want to become a self-taught graphic designer, 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 thin air.
If you start on a particular project, you will encounter specific problems that, in turn, will guide you to specific solutions.
You will search for advice, tutorials, and knowledge that will be as specific as the problems that come up.
For example, you could take on the challenge to design a logo for your Instagram account.
You could begin to design your future website.
The more a resource helps you, the more the quality of the resource. This becomes your noise filter to all the resources out there.
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.
Maybe you need to create a newsletter for a group, a business card for your friend, or a logo for your Instagram profile.
By taking on a project that matters to you as an excuse to learn, you will learn so much faster and gain experience as you grow.
Step 9: Be Patient and Persistent: Time is the Only Constant Variable
I do believe that the internet provides the tools and information to accomplish many, many endeavors. I also believe that you can learn graphic design faster.
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.
You can use guidance, passion, and hacks to shorten the time a 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 effective, if not a great, at design.
So, the sooner you begin, the quicker you will obtain your goal. Plain and simple.
Conclusion: Start to Design Right Now
I have given you the first most important steps you need to take in order to learn graphic design. Take these steps and I promise you that you will lay a solid foundation for teaching yourself graphic design.
Now, the most important takeaway from this post is this:
PICK A PROJECT RIGHT NOW 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.
You will see that it is possible to learn graphic design on your own with the resources available to you.