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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About the Author:

Ruben Ramirez teaches Digital Media at the University of Puerto Rico and started Self-Made Designer for his students. He likes skateboards, guitars, and vector graphics.

Follow on Instagram: @iconocracia

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