7 Fundamental Tips to Effectively Learn Graphic Design Online
You want to become a self-taught graphic designer, but don’t know how or where to start. What if I tell you it is possible to learn graphic design online for free, with no experience and without a degree?
I share with you the 7 fundamental truths that helped me become a proficient self-taught graphic designer so you can get on your way to becoming a graphic designer on your own.
How can anyone become a graphic designer without a degree? There’s so much information out there, different software, so many people doing amazing things. I know. It can be daunting… and scary.
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 have any. 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, graphics 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. A degree in creative writing or journalism will not make you a writer or journalist. Only by “writing” incessantly can you become the writer, the painter, the designer, or the programmer you want to be.
The good news is that 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.
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).
Below, I discuss 7 fundamental tenets that will help you learn graphic design online successfully.
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, 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 we value image over word as a vehicle 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.
By the way, do you really understand what graphic design is about? This article can help you define why you want to become a graphic designer: What is graphic design?
2. You have to be passionate
This relates to the previous point. You have to be passionate about graphic design and becoming a designer.
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 true true, but not because most people don’t have the talent or the grace or the luck to become what they want to be.
In the post Web 2.0, it’s simpler to become whatever you want, and yet the road is more difficult.
What I have learned from my own personal journey, my students, and some successful designers that I know is that the real capability to learn the necessary skills to become a graphic designer comes from derivatives of passion: persistence, discipline, and the courage to put yourself out there. This is 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.” Which leads to the next truth.
3. Graphic design is not primarily about talent
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.
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 to you design in the first place. This, believe it or not, is what most graphic designers had when they began.
Even so, maybe you don’t have to be a graphic designer in the strict sense of the word. 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 found her startup, for making your blog more appealing. 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 at it. 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 20 contact hours. I even got one a job after only one semester of work.
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. Therefore, you must study 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 website that will help you learn graphic design theory. This article will familiarize yourself with the principles of graphic design: http://emergentdesigner.com/principles-design-beginners/
5. All the resources you need are at your fingertips
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 learn 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. I know of people who run successful graphic design business on these software, which are as powerful as the main commercial software available, but without the pricey licences and cost. Check out, for example, the work of Nick Saporito, who has successfully built his practice using Inkscape and Gimp:
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 give an example of the wealth of tools and information out there for learning graphic design online:
6. Find yourself a project to work on, then another, and another
If I were writing this 20 years ago, I don’t think I would be stating, with such confidence, that it is actually possible become a self-taught graphic designer. All you need is readily available to you.
But there is also a lot of information noise that can make the process of teaching yourself graphic design more difficult than it should be. There is so much content now 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 would be 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. The more problems you are able to solve, the more experience you get, 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 car, a logo for your sister) and organize your learning around it. It is the best way to learn.
7. 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, and the like, is TIME.
Any lasting 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 will you gain the insight, skills, and perspective needed to become an effective, if not a great, designer.
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.