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Self-Taught Graphic Design 101: How to Become a Successful Graphic Designer Without Going to School

Igor Ovsyannykov April 5, 2024 · 14 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 graphic designer without a formal education, as long as you have the drive and dedication to pull it off.

How Important Is Design School for Graphic Designers?

Design School

As far as the graphic design industry is concerned, the debate rages on.

You can’t really blame people for thinking that graphic design school is not really as important as the industry makes it out to be. After all, the most important aspect of creating fantastic graphic design is creativity, something that people are born with and develop through time, and not something you learn from textbooks and modules.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that graphic design schools are entirely useless. With this in mind, let’s briefly review the pros and cons of formal graphic design education.

The Advantages of Graphic Design School

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There’s no doubt about it – creativity can’t be taught in a classroom. 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 graphic design education comes in. It teaches you the graphic design fundamentals and the ins and outs of all the possible design tools and design theory you will need to progress in the specific niche you want to concentrate on.

Next up – practice.

During formal lessons, you can learn invaluable graphic design skills and gain experience that will set you up for success in the design world.

Besides new skills and professional experience, you should leave the school with a solid graphic design portfolio and industry connections. Armed with all of these, you should have no trouble landing a dream graphic design job.

The Drawbacks of Graphic Design School

Let’s not sugarcoat it – formal education doesn’t make or break successful graphic designers. After all, you can acquire all the necessary graphic design knowledge through other means. Online tutorials. Online courses. Even online communities. The internet is a treasure trove of valuable online resources that can help you become an exceptional graphic designer hassle-free.

Best of all?

It won’t cost you a fortune or take up at least four years of your life.

That’s not to mention that many aspiring graphic designers can’t pursue formal education even if they want to. 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 dreams?

The good news is that they don’t have to. They can become successful graphic designers on their own, just like numerous other graphic designers already have. Don’t believe us? Meet Karen X. Cheng.

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?

Who Is 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.â€

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.â€

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 world 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 of becoming a successful graphic designer.

How to Become a Graphic Designer Without a Degree

Now that you know that becoming a successful graphic designer without a degree is actually possible, let’s see how to get it done.

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. Many designers make this mistake.

But just because you buy a paintbrush does not mean that you’re already an artist. You have to start with the basics. And for a career in graphic design, you have to start from scratch.

Step 1 – 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 of graphic designing and have gotten your hands used to the daily workout, move on to the next step.

Step 2 – Learn Graphic Design Theory

Without a strong grasp of basic design principles, you’ll hardly be able to create visually appealing designs that get the job done. 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.

Step 3 – Learn a Few Basics of User Experience

A solid understanding of user experience design is crucial in making your design projects not only visually appealing but functional and intuitive for users as well. Some books that Karen recommends are Don’t Make Me Think and The Design of Everyday Things.

Step 4 – Learn How to Write

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.

Step 5 – Learn How to Slaughter Your Work

This is one basic reality about graphic 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 graphic designer 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, do 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 a digital design.

In the graphic design world, this means that the Adobe Creative Suite, the must-have industry-standard software, will be your best friend.

Adobe Illustrator

 

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Yes, it’s still not time to learn Photoshop. Better start with Illustrator first. You’ll find so many online courses and tutorials, but 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

 

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Now, it’s time for you to learn how to (use) Photoshop.

Again, you can find so many tutorials online, but make sure you choose the right resources. 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.

Other Design Tools You Might Need

There are so many other design programs out there, but these are two of the most popular. You can try to learn about the other software tools in the Adobe Creative Suite (and beyond) 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 graphic 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 graphic design; you want to be the master of a specific niche.

Why?

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. This will also help you develop highly specialized graphic design skills that help you stand out from the crowd and impress potential employers.

Logo Design

 

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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 visual 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

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If you enjoy hand lettering there is a lot 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

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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

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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 graphic design portfolio. Start out with a few concepts and then bring them to life.

Find friends who may be needing graphic designer services, and try to pitch some of your ideas. Mind you, the first few attempts at trying to get clients will be challenging. But once you make the first one happy, everything else will just fall into place.

Staying on Top of the Latest Trends

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Graphic design is an ever-evolving field, and staying on top of new trends is an essential part of the graphic designer career. Well, at least if you want to stay booked and busy. There are always new techniques to learn, new tools to experiment with, and new styles to explore.

But how can you do this? It’s simple, really. You do it online, in the same place(s) where you learned how to become a graphic designer.

Subscribe to channels with YouTube tutorials, read leading graphic design blogs, and immerse yourself in online design communities. This approach will help you make each following design project better than the previous one.

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. Real-world experience is very important. Nobody will want to hire a graphic designer without it. So, use your free time to gain real-world experience from personal projects. Create, learn, and educate yourself. Find online courses and tutorials, try different side projects, and focus on creating a large quantity of work.
  • Be Exceptional. Do something that separates you from other designers. 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, X (formerly Twitter), and Instagram. People took notice and now he is known as the hand lettering guy among the graphic 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. Throw these skills into the mix with solid design skills, and the job opportunities will just keep on coming.
  • Network with other graphic designers. Networking with other graphic designers can open up a world of opportunities. Attend industry events, join online communities, and engage with fellow designers on social media platforms like LinkedIn or X. Building relationships with other designers can lead to amazing collaborations, valuable insights into the industry, and potential clients. Plus, it’s a fabulous way to never run out of graphic design inspiration and ideas.

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Igor Ovsyannykov

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