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How to Become a Graphic Designer Without Going to School

Igor Ovsyannykov March 31, 2021 · 11 min read
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A good design school will absolutely get you on the right track to becoming a talented, qualified professional. However, it’s simply not in the cards for everyone. Fortunately, you can still fulfill your dream of becoming a designer without a formal education, as long as you have the drive and dedication to pull it off.

Design School: Important or Not?

Design School As far as the design industry is concerned, the debate rages on. You can’t really blame people for thinking that design school is not really as important as the industry makes it out to be. After all, the most important aspect of creating fantastic design is creativity, something that people are born with and develop through time, and not something you learn from textbooks and modules. But then again, your creativity alone will not really get you anywhere if you don’t know the basics of design. No matter how unique your concepts are, you would also have to present them in the most professional way possible, especially if you want to make a serious career out of it. This is where the value of proper design education comes in. It teaches you the basics and the ins and outs of every possible tool and theory that you will need to progress in the specific niche you want to concentrate on.

Design School Drawbacks

The drawback to design school? It’s pretty simple. Not only does it cost a fortune to go to design school, it also takes up at least four years of your life. This is something that is just not possible for many people, especially if they don’t have the financial capacity. A lot of kids have to start working the moment they reach legal age, so how can they keep their heads above water in the short term without having to sacrifice their long-term dream?

Meet Karen X. Cheng

People who frequent YouTube will probably remember Karen Cheng as the girl who taught herself how to dance in just 365 days. The video she made out of the entire experience was truly inspiring, causing it to go viral online. But for those in the field of design, Karen Cheng is the former Lead Designer at Exec. And yes, she never went to design school. In a recent Quora post, she shared her story. “I didn’t have four years and $100,000 to go to design school,” she says. Did this stop her from becoming a designer? No, it didn’t. And to add an even bigger load of surprises, she admits that she has no discipline. “People thought I have discipline because I was able to teach myself how to dance in just 365 days,” she states in an interview, “The truth is, I don’t have discipline. It’s just that I loved dance, I just did what I love.” This is exactly what Karen advises to people who want to do the same groundbreaking accomplishments that she had. Do what you love. She had been working on Microsoft Excel for two years when she realized that this was not what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. She knew that she was meant to do something else. This is what made her think about moving into a different industry. This is what got her started in the field of design. “I had no design-related skills. I did not want to go back to school.” For Karen though, that was not a problem at all. She would breeze through her day job and rush home, and devour material that allowed her to learn more about the basics of design. She put together her own curriculum, covering everything that she felt she needed to learn in a span of six months. Just like that, she plunged into the job market, now as a designer. Of course, it wasn’t easy. She did not have as much training as the other people who were eyeing the same positions she wanted, and she definitely did not have relevant experience. But she didn’t give up. She decided to find ways to set herself apart from everybody else. That’s how she got the job as a designer at Exec, and from there, went on to lead the entire design team. Inspired by Karen Cheng’s story? Well, you know that if Karen did it, then you also can. You just need to get started and start grabbing opportunities that not a lot of people would take. Here are a few steps that could help you get started and inch closer to your dream:

Building Your Foundation

Building a Foundation At first, Karen was probably not as good as those people who went through four years of design education. But she still did her job well enough to take her places in the industry. She just had to learn how to start. Her biggest mistake? Jumping straight into Photoshop. Just because you buy a paint brush does not mean that you’re already an artist. You have to start with the basics. And for a career in design, you have to start from scratch.
  • Learn how to draw first. You don’t even have to enroll in an art class. Karen recommends the book You Can Draw in 30 Days. Allot at least 30 minutes of every day for a month just trying to draw. Once you’ve learned the basics and have given your hands used to the daily workout, move on to the next step.
  • Learn graphic design theory. The book Picture This is what Karen recommends when you get to this step. It gives you the basics of typography, color, and designing with a grid.
  • Next, you must learn a few basics in user experience. Some books that Karen recommends are Don’t Make Me Think and The Design of Everyday Things.
  • Text also plays a huge role in design, so you should also learn how to write. You’ll see mockups using the standard Lorem Ipsum text, but you have to be creative in every aspect. Get a feel for words. Give the audience the entire package by showing them the emotions they’re supposed to feel not just through the graphics, but through the words you use as well. Try visiting the website Voice and Tone, it should give you great tips on how to talk to your audience.
  • Lastly, learn how to slaughter your work. This is one basic reality about design that a lot of rookies fail to get. When one design does not work, get rid of it and start anew. Don’t waste your creative juices by trying to improve something that’s not all that. Just let go of it and create something fresh and completely different.
These should pretty much sum up the foundation-building part of your training. Now that you’re equipped with the basics, it’s time to move on to more complicated things.

Mastering the Software

Mastering-the-Programs You don’t think you could escape those computer programs, could you? Even if you want to go old school and would like to create things by hand, you can never deny the fact that the entire world has gone digital. Therefore, you also have to be prepared to create work digitally.
  • Adobe Illustrator. Yes, it’s still not time to learn Photoshop yet. Better start with Illustrator first. You’ll find so many video tutorials online, and you can also try out a few textbooks. Adobe Illustrator Classroom in a Book has all the basics, and going through the first half of it could give you pretty much everything that you need to know.
  • Adobe Photoshop. Finally, it’s time for you to learn how to Photoshop. Again, you can find so many tutorials online, but make sure you choose only the best. Try to find stuff from PSDTuts and TutsPlus. They have great tips that are easy to understand and could really help you master the craft of Photoshopping.
There are so many other design programs out there, but these are two of the most popular. You can try to learn the other programs one by one as the need arises. For instance, if you’re going to do any print design, you’ll definitely need to learn Adobe InDesign.

Finding Your Specialty

Finding-Your-Specialty As a design guru, you have to figure out what you want to specialize in. You don’t want to be the jack-of-all-trades when it comes to design, you want to be the master of a specific niche. You have to choose one area for you to focus on so that you could have a clearer path set out for you, especially when it comes to figuring out the next few steps that you’re going to take.
  • Logo Design. Interested in building logos for a brand? This is a great choice. If you think that all there is to logo design is the logo itself, you are greatly mistaken. Most of the time, a designer is signed on board to create not just a logo, but an entire brand identity. This means that you would also have to imagine that logo on a wall, on an office door, on a piece of stationery, and everything else that comes with it.
  • Hand Lettering. If you enjoy hand lettering there is alot of demand for it right now. People are in love with hand crafted and personalized designs. Why? Because it brings a human element to design. In today’s digital world brands are seeking a hand-made aesthetic. You can find great hand lettering courses on Skillshare.com, Seanwes.com, Youtube.com, and Lynda.com.
  • Mobile App Design. Mobile apps are obviously very much in demand, but you also have to be ready for a lot of competition. Tapworthy is one book that you may want to go through should you want to concentrate on this niche.
  • Web Design. Obviously, this is one of the popular choices when it comes to specialization. Try reading The Principles of Beautiful Web Design as it has all the basics you need. Feel free to jump from one website to another as well, taking note of the design aspects that you like the most about each website you see.
From here, it’s so easy to start building your own portfolio. Start out with a few concepts and then bring them to life. Find friends who may be needing your services, and try to pitch some of your ideas. Mind you, the first few attempts at trying to get your first clients would be challenging. But once you make the first one happy, everything else will just fall into place.

Start Your New Career Right Now

Before I let you go, I would like for you to take a look at these important bullet points. Everybody loves bullet points, right?
  • Always Be Creating. Experience is very important. Nobody will want to hire you without it. Use your free time to create, learn, and educate yourself. Find tutorials, try different side projects, and focus on creating a large quantity of work.
  • Be Exceptional. Do something that separates you from the crowd. Find a niche or come up with a unique idea that will make you a hot commodity. A good example of this is Sean McCabe. During his free time he really enjoyed hand lettering. He started posting his work on Dribbble, Twitter, and Instagram. People took notice and now he is known as the hand lettering guy among the design community. Even though there are hundreds, if not thousands, of talented hand lettering artists out there, he comes to mind first.
  • Learn the business of design. If you’re planning on taking the freelance route, you should learn some basic business principles. You should focus on learning client negotiation skills, how to create a proposal or design brief, how to price your work, how to write a contract, how to track your time, and how to invoice your client in a professional manner.

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Igor Ovsyannykov

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48 Comments
  • Too late for me, I already went to school. From what I see, people who teach themselves often do have the most unique styles (I've taught myself many things, including music, and design to a point) but in the case of design, for people who teach themselves the emphasis tends to be on mastering software. They tend to miss the fundamentals, the history, the advanced theory, etc. 7 years ago
  • I wasted 2 years and a lot of money going to a really sucky design school. It wasn't worth it because I ended up teaching myself anyways. Something that always helps me is reaserch. There's tons of design blogs I follow just to get inspired by other designers. And @Sean Coady is right. A lot of people focus on Photoshop especially but I like Illustrator and InDesign better. Each program has its own specialties and people don't realize that. Plus there's tons more to design than the software. 7 years ago
  • The class I learned the most from in school was Design History, and the information I learned in that class doesn't appear on many design blogs. 7 years ago
  • That's where books come in! 7 years ago
  • Never mind, at least I got a nice bit of paper that says I'm good... I keep it in a frame. 7 years ago
  • @Sean Coady We'd love some design history articles! :) 7 years ago
  • Consider it added to the list @Josh Johnson! 7 years ago
  • Good article, however, I think there is room for both theories. I personally taught myself all of the software but without knowledge of why you are doing what you are doing i.e. why choose a certain colour or the effectiveness of connotation in design, there is a disconnect. I feel a lot better equipped to work in the industry after going through University. It also has opened up a lot of doors in terms of career paths! 7 years ago
  • Design school was one of the best things that I did. People may be able to teach themselves the basics and learn how to use the software but being a designer is so much more than the technical skills. Being a successful designer means learning how to think and see the world in a entirely different way than the average Joe, and being able to communicate that effectively. 7 years ago
  • In our country if you don't go to a design school then landing a job at company is 0 unless you have high connections. We even have two types of design levels. One is at what we call MBO level and the other one is at HBO (that's higher). Right now if you have just MBO it's really hard to land a job because design companies are looking for way more. 7 years ago
  • In school we had work reviews by faculty and they helped us develop our individual and consistent style every time. I learned the programs on my own by practice. 7 years ago
  • Its not for everyone that for sure, but I can tell you with all honesty, if you have a degree youll be taken more serious by employers and likely command a higher wage. Seen it time and time again. I learned more in the real world than I did earning my degree but am thankful I earned it before stepping out. The self taught school of design sends shivers up the spine of most seasoned creative that I know. Doesnt mean theres not room for those in our field but do not be surprised if you find bias along the way... 7 years ago
  • As someone who hires designers frequently I have to say 99% of the people who apply WITHOUT a degree I can't even consider. Even with experience, the quality and refinement isn't there that comes with 4-5 years of constant peer review and critique from school. I suggest you follow your passion, but realistically, the majority of people don't have enough self dedication to teach themselves what I need in a new hire. While the technical skills like learning Photoshop and what CMYK means is important, the underlying talent and design eye can be seen in a portfolio a mile away. That comes from years of critique and harsh project reviews. I suggest do everything above AND go to school. ;D 7 years ago
  • Thanks...I will read the books asap!!! 7 years ago
  • Thank you! I was able to get almost every book you listed here from my local library. 7 years ago
  • maybe you can teach me, lol. to be honest, your blog is so awesome. 7 years ago
  • I work for a company who hires so called self-taught designers and then there's me, someone who went to design school and has a degree. While they can use the software they do not understand things like hierarchy or implementing grids or the idea of communication as the goal of graphic design. They understand "make it pretty". In the end it's not pretty. It's a bunch of bold black Times New Roman type with some drop shadows and pixeled low res images on a page! It makes my work life very stressful. And of course, you can't tell them anything. They think they know it all. 7 years ago
  • I agree about studying design history, @seancoady. I recently excavated my old course notebook and have begun to re-read everything. 7 years ago
  • Hi there, You are right bro. Web designing is an art, not a science. You can not explore it until you do not have a creative mind. Thanks for sharing your professional experience. 7 years ago
  • Anyone can learn the software, that's the easy bit. Design school gives you the time to learn and experiment. I got to try and learn about most of the disciplines drawing, painting, art history, fine art, photography, fashion, printing, graphic design etc etc. You also lean more from fellow students that you do in a class. You just can't get that from learning at home. You could get it from working your way up while learning, but its harder to get your foot in the door. If you are learning at home, soak up everything. If you want to be a web designer, still learn about the history of art, and learn to draw! That is all. 7 years ago
  • Anonymous
    Good article, its meanful to me, thx u. 7 years ago
  • Thanks for the inspiring read. I have always been creative however I had no confidence in my creativity and did a science degree instead. Certainly wish I had done design..... maybe it's not too late to find out what my strengths are! 7 years ago
  • This article is great info, I already had graphic design degree in BA. BA isn't enough, I had study on my own, it do help a lot. I like your suggestion, always want to improve my works everyday no matter what. 7 years ago
  • The comments on this thread break my heart. I didn't go to design school, but did get a Bachelor's in Creative Writing. When a former boss asked if I could build a website because I had experience with photoshop, I didn't know, but I taught myself. Within the last 3 years, I've learned Design and art skills, HTML, CSS, Sass, JQuery, PHP, and more and am already the Lead Designer at a GLOBAL COMPANY that I started at less than a year ago, with the prospect of Art Director in the near future. How's that for SELF TAUGHT? 7 years ago
  • And in my hometown there is no design school available, and if i try to do the course online, the "cheap courses" cost an entire years salary. So should i'm sure design history is great but a google search will just have to suffice. 7 years ago
  • From what I see in the comments there are some of you that got where you are at this point with a "design school" and say that that is the only way. For someone who must be creative and think outside of the box this isn't that much of an outside thinking. If you look at others artistic domains like literature for example there are many awesome writers that were self taught and the funny thing is that they even ended up in the primary school books. Yes being self taught is harder because you have to be able to critique yourself whereas at the design school the teachers do that for you. Yes there are many out there that "only know photoshop" and don't meet your requirements but from my experience, the ones that know how to design properly and are self taught are usually not looking to get hired as they are more happy to work for themselves. As a self taught designer my "students" that critique my work are the other designers that I connected with on Behance, Dribbble, Creativemarket etc and eventually became friends and strive to improve each other with constructive criticism. Going to a design school or learning from home also depends on your personality and your future plans. In the end It isn't that much of what school you went at or how many degrees you have but how good you are and how well you present yourself. Sorry for the long comment! If you read this far give yourself a round of applause haha. Cheers! 7 years ago
  • This is a great article and I am one of them who loves art and has a passion for creativity. My desire was to be a fashion+interior designer but ended up being a computer engineer with a degree in computer science. My career in high tech has been a good ride for me with high paying job, position etc but my passion and love of art and being creative is still alive and hungry and I feel that everyday it's calling out to me to feed it and fulfill it. I like working and I do love my job - I carved my career in the high-tech industry from being an engineer to being a technical product marketing manager and one of the aspects of being in product marketing is being creative. I work with external graphics design vendors to create product data-sheets and solution briefs - I give them content and my design ideas and they create my ideas into great graphical design and the end product is appreciated by everyone! Anyway, to cut the long story short - the reason I read this article today is because I did a google search on "how to become a graphic designer" and I am definitely inspired to do both - teach myself and also may be perhaps explore the option of going back to school to get some formal education ( hoping for a evening/part-time course). Thank you everyone and I firmly believe that doing something we love is the way to live life fully - all we need is the passion, desire and that fire on our bellies to pursue :-) Have a good one! 7 years ago
  • Very attractive post , Its to use full for me actually i recently pass out from MCA and i want to build my career in Graphic Designer jobs field but i don't`t know how it possible but after read your post i have some confusion but other confusion are clear thank s for this information. 6 years ago
  • I totaly agreed with Chelsea Coates, I did one year in a rubish school and I actually learned more by myself in books and the web than in school, however I learned some history at the school though. I am also an Illustrator woman, but every software has its specialty!!! Sometimes life isn't fair enough for some people to follow the right path into a career as myself, but those people are brave enough not to give up! 6 years ago
  • Her experience is not typical. I have run design depts. and hired many people and a lot of the people need more training. A lot of the schools do not teach real world skills and leave the students without a good foundation in graphic design. Also, reading books will not make you a good designer. You have to have some natural ability to truly understand what is involved. The one thing i totally agree with that she said is...learn to draw!!! It is almost impossible to find young designers these days that can actually draw by hand. Anyone can learn software but hand drawing skills are declining. If you want to make a living as a designer, it is hard work and long hours for little money. So you have to have a passion for it. 6 years ago
  • I found this article very interesting and useful! I have worked in Finance in the UK for over 15 years, ignoring my gut instinct to follow my first love of drawing and design. I recently made the decision to re-train in design to satisfy that decades-long creative itch and have hit many a brick wall in my search for a proper education. Maybe this is an issue only in the UK. I have to continue to work full-time to pay the mortgage, etc. however after a long search I have struggled to find a decent part-time design course for those, like me, who have other commitments but are willing to give up their evenings and weekends to follow a passion and get a recognised and worthwhile qualification. Of those I have found, they are quite clearly an introduction to the basics of photoshop or illustrator only. If I had a spare couple of years without the need for a full time salary or £9k for a 9 month course at shillington then I'd be laughing. Unfortunately until the design courses are provided part-time through a reputable institution at a reasonable price, I'm going to be spending the next 12 months on skillshare, shillington's blogs, scouring libraries/bookstores and working away at home like crazy in the hope of being even a tiny bit as educated as those who have had the privilege to go college. Sometimes you just don't have the choice even though you have the passion, but I will bear in mind all of the comments of the college-educated designers and make sure I fully learn the basics and history as much as is possible. 6 years ago
  • @Lucinda Brown - you just wrote the story of my life, but I'm in Australia and it's been 17 years in finance now! #SoOld I've also learned over my years that sometimes you don't learn anything unless you have a passion and a drive. I think some self taught designers probably have more going for them than some designers who went straight into design school ... however I understand what a lot of you guys are saying about it's so much more than making pretty pictures on a screen. I know I have so much more to learn and would love to do a course when I have the time and money! Till then it's scrounging away on the internet reading everything I can get my hands on and trying new things. 6 years ago
  • Thanks for sharing! 6 years ago
  • I feel like some of the comments on this thread are so self-righteous. It also discourages those who simply do not have the financial means or the same amount of time to pursue an actual 4-year degree from exploring their passions. For anybody looking to become a designer w/o a degree...You can do it. Perhaps it will be harder, maybe validating your skills will be more difficult, but it can be done. You just have to apply yourself. If you want critiquing, there are a million resources around the web where you can mingle with other creatives and share your work for constructive feedback. In fact, I think that's the best way. People have a way of giving you that gritty, harsh feedback a teacher or classmate might not give. When things happen over the net, people are more free to give their raw, unbiased criticism. I was an artist at heart in every sense of the word. I liked to dance, sing, draw, write, and I liked designing things via a computer. Unfortunately, I was scared into the mode of thinking that if I went for anything artsy I would be broke and be a failure. Every adviser, friend, parent, relative, and stranger told me to do something else. As a naive teen, I believed them. This lead me to bouncing between all kinds of majors that I found out I didn't like. Low and behold, here I am. I returned to grass roots with college debt, 2 kids, and a spouse to boot. No way I'll be able to afford a degree at this point. But you know what? That's okay. My motto : Just do it. 6 years ago
  • I'm a Computer Science graduate. But trust me... I've learned only the basics from college. I only know a couple of students who are really dedicated in graphic design and programming.... students who are willing to continue learning. Currently, I've enrolled myself on online short courses for advanced studies, attending FREE tech workshops/seminars (as much as possible) and at the same time doing some freelance work so I could apply what I've learned. Getting a degree is still good, you know... in our country, at least. It means you have higher chance to get a job and be promoted plus a higher salary. If you really don't want to get one, you may as well start your own business. 6 years ago
  • Thanks for sharing 6 years ago
  • After reading this, I realized its not yet too late. I needed this article. You're a hero! Many thanks and I do hope you write more of this. You inspire working professionals like me (not in a design field) who ulitmately wanted to pursue arts and design career but does not have a related degree (and even finances) to backed it up. :) 5 years ago
  • I'm so glad to hear you found this article helpful @Shee Mendoza! We're working on a post with one of our shop owners right now who didn't go to school for design, and she's making a living as a designer. It should be up on the blog in just a few weeks, so keep an eye out :) 5 years ago
  • @Shee Mendoza, that new post on designing without a design degree is now live! https://creativemarket.com/blog/how-to-make-it-big-without-a-design-degree/ 5 years ago
  • I am a self taught and formally educated artist/designer and I have to say; the world doesn't work the way most of you think it does. When I hire someone, I hire with the same brutal expectations as anyone else who hired me - you're going to work very hard for a very long time and you're going to get very little for doing it for as long as your employer can get away with it. The strong survive. The weak die. Don't have the money to go to school? Go home and tell your parents about your troubles. Good guy? Nice person? I don't care; go volunteer at all shelter. Can do attitude and wonderful personality? There's plenty of Walmart greeter openings. If you don't have MORE than a measly little 4 year degree and at least 10 years of constant grinding in personal and professional experience where you're critiqued and constantly maximizing your opportunities to improve, you are absolutely worthless. There is only one thing that matters in this world: strength. Nothing else matters. I don't care how nice you are. I don't care how good you look. I don't care how in need you are. If you want to survive, you have to be the best. Everyone else is a loser. Can't get the education and get the needdd experience AND survive while doing it? Go tell a therapist (if you can afford one). The world is for people who can get results. No one else. Deal with it. 5 years ago
  • As someone who went to school for design, I find myself looking at more "How to" articles more than ever. Just because I went to school for it, doesn't mean I know everything. I think yes, going to school for design/anything is great if you can do it. You learn much more than what you find online, and professors will give you real life examples of the industry. However, I believe you also have to take the initiative to leave the classroom and teach yourself. You'll only know as much as you allow yourself. 5 years ago
  • Very Nicely Written and if anyone going school right now quit it and send money to me :D lol 5 years ago
  • The unfortunate truth is that, in most of the professional design world, having a degree is necessary just to get an interview to show your portfolio. The reality is that artists have a very tiny window between high school and real life in which to act on their desires. Once that window closes, becoming a full-time professional graphic designer is extremely difficult. You might have the talent but most firms will refuse to even look at your stuff. 5 years ago
  • A great and inspring article. I also quitted my previous job, and now I am educating myself in my new profession. The first year I couldn't decide about the specialization, but now I am sure about illustration. I also thought about going to a design school, but I have no 4 years. So, me, books and SKILLSHARE is everything I need to learn. And it is true, there's no discipline needed, you just cant stop doing what you are in love with 5 years ago
  • Thank you for your informative post keep sharing informative post like this.. 5 years ago
  • I'm completely self-taught, and while it takes an incredible amount of effort, persistence, and dedication to improving your craft - it's completely possible to become a successful designer this way. Karen's article is a great read for beginners! I started my blog www.learngd.com to help anyone who's interested in learning how to become a self-taught graphic designer because I felt a bit overwhelmed when I first started. But I didn't have the money or time to go back to school. I think one of the most difficult things in being self-taught is the lack of access to mentors / teachers to provide feedback and valuable insights based on their experience. Otherwise, it really is about understanding the fundamentals and principles of design then applying them in your daily practice. 5 years ago
  • Even without going to school there's a lot of studies involved just like in all the areas, great article! 4 years ago
  • Hi Dear, during my college days I joined computer institute to learn web designing where they taught me Photoshop, Flash, Dreamweaver etc., but due to financial issues I couldn't continue in designing field and I started working in some unrelated field, now its already 15 years past :( Now I want to start learning graphic designing again, I know for me it's like a fresher now, I need some guidelines like should I start self-learning OR join any institution. What are the latest software in use for graphic designing currently. 3 years ago