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How to Make it Big Without a Design Degree

Creative Market July 26, 2021 · 8 min read
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Jen Wagner is a Denver-based creator who has worked in branding, photography, hand lettering, interior design, and now typeface design. She opened her Creative Market shop in July 2016 and has had loads of success with her beautiful products. Now comes the twist in the story: Jen doesn’t hold a design degree. She started her career in marketing (and holds a degree in that subject), and then decided to take a big jump into design. Today, she shares her story and offers several tips on how to make it big in the design world without a degree. Jen will touch on:
  • How to learn design essentials outside of the classroom
  • Her must read book list
  • Why and when content trumps perfection
  • How to promote and position your products
  • Staying true to yourself in a world full of trends
jen-wagner-about

Get Help from People Who Have More Experience

Pursuing a career in a field where you don’t hold a degree isn’t for everyone. School is a huge asset; if it works for you, and it’s an opportunity you can take advantage of, go for it. However, Jen reminds us, “For those who can not only learn on their own but have the skill level to be seen by companies without a degree (the second half is important in today’s market), do that!” Jen is in the latter group, and she’s quite the self starter. When she decided she wanted to pursue design, she jumped on just about every design tutorial she could find online. While all of those tutorials were helpful, even more essential was surrounding herself with pros. quote1 Jen explains, “Despite all the tutorials I did, I think the most important resource I had was my boss at my first job. Many of us need to learn under someone who can tell us not only that something looks bad, but why it does and how it can be improved.” The big take away according to Jen? “So if you’re starting to learn or have been doing this for a while, find someone better than you! You shouldn’t always be the smartest person in the room.”

Become a Reader

As is true in any industry, knowledge is key for designers. You can’t find success in your ambitious endeavors if you don’t have a clue what you’re doing. Although Jen learned a lot from online tutorials, she’s also a fan of good old fashioned books. quote2 She lists two books that have shaped her career: Reading books may not sound exciting, but Jen explains the key is application, “If you can take what you read in a business or design book and apply as many parts of it as possible, you’ll learn a ton in a very short amount of time.” Jen’s got one more bookworm tip, “go to your ideal school’s bookstore website, find the courses you want to take (get the course numbers from the course catalog), and rent the required textbooks. You don’t get the peer feedback or instructor help, but you wouldn’t believe how frustrated I was in college sitting through four-hour lectures on stuff I already read that week. Just read it yourself!”

Content is King

For most designers, content is what gets your foot through the door. What are Jen’s tips for approaching content? How does that all play out for Jen? It starts with a goal she set for herself to put out 2-3 finished fonts a week. That’s a pretty rapid pace for produce work, but remember, it’s okay to start with an MVP, and this pace helps Jen build a good content base to showcase her skills. quote3 Jen reminds perfectionists, “Just get good stuff out there—you can always work your way back and make improvements as you learn.”

Promotion Is an Important Thing but Not Everything

Free, authentic promotion is a gift that keeps on giving. On Creative Market, this comes in the form of getting handpicked, having a product in our weekly free goods, and/or being added to the “Latest Handcrafted Goods” newsletter. Jen has some experierience in these areas and knows the positive impact they can have for a shop owner like herself. quote4 However, there are some instances in which a good product may not get featured for a variety of reasons. If that happens, don’t let it discourage you. As an example, Jen’s best-selling font, Denver (more on this product in the next section), became popular by itself because as Jen says, “beautiful products will speak for themselves and people will eventually take notice!”

Invest Time in Product Shots

We’re taught not to judge a book by its cover, but in the design world, that doesn’t always apply. The truth is, first impressions can determine whether or not buyers will purchase your goods or clients will want to work with you. Because of this, Jen advises investing time and effort into making your product images excellent. It’s more work up front, but it will pay off in the long-run. Along these lines, let’s take another quick look at Jen’s most popular font, Denver. She told us that when she first released Denver, this was the cover image: denver-cover1 According to her, “It performed terribly. I made hardly any sales within the first couple weeks of it being released and thought it was a dud.” Before giving up on the font, Jen started considering repositioning it (see section below on positioning) and decided to rethink the cover shot. This is the new cover image she ended up with: denver-cover2 After she uploaded the new image, Jen says, “sales went off the charts almost immediately.”

Position Your Product Appropriately

Jen decided to update that cover image based on her thoughts regarding how she had positioned the font. What exactly does that mean? In Jen’s own words: “Positioning is a marketing strategy that basically takes a product and strategically presents it in the way you want your consumer to receive it. It’s the reason Denver went from mountains to roses, and it worked.” Processed with VSCO with a6 preset “If I were my “target market” – a 20-something freelance designer whose clientele is mostly women – I would probably use Denver for wedding invitations, special event graphics, and more feminine artwork. When I looked at my presentation of Denver, I saw a beautiful and delicate font surrounded by beefy mountains and saturated colors, which didn’t make sense! It prompted me to change all of the graphics to fit the feel of the font.” Although it may take some trial and error to get your product positioning just right, the results are worth it.

Be Yourself

In the famous words of Dr. Seuss, “There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” By remaining true to who she is as a designer and not flippantly jumping onto fads, Jen trusts her instincts and when it comes to design, she leans towards minimalism. quote5 When Jen opened a Creative Market shop, she saw that script fonts were pretty popular on the site. It was tempting for Jen to jump on that trend because she has a background in calligraphy and hand lettering, and she’s even in the middle of writing a book on the subject. But, when it comes to the designs for her shop, Jen wanted to stick with her minimalistic style.
It’s a decision she’s happy that she has stuck with, “I took what I knew about myself as a designer, not a calligrapher – that I obsess over and hunt for beautiful serif and sans serif fonts – and began creating that content myself. Faroe Thin actually came to be because I had been looking for a font like that and couldn’t find it. Jackson was created when I needed a scribbly calligraphic font for a client.” With this in mind, Jen’s parting words of advice are, “Create products that you love and would look for yourself. You’ll inevitably find others who have been searching for the same thing!” Processed with VSCO with a6 preset screen-shot-2016-12-08-at-5-17-07-pm screen-shot-2016-12-08-at-4-34-08-pm

Keep the conversation going!

For those who are new to the design industry and taking a similar path as Jen, she is living proof that no goal is impossible to achieve if you set your mind to it. The biggest takeaway from her story is that you’re able to be successful in any field with continuous effort and the right resources. This chat doesn’t have to end here! Jen will be hanging out in the comment section below to chat and answer any questions, so feel free to leave a comment if there’s anything you’d like to clarify or something you’d love to learn more about. Products Seen in This Post:
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15 Comments
  • I constantly forget that MVPs exist and are a good thing; thanks for the reminder. As with any designer who understands the importance of a brand, it can be scary to put something out there doesn't doesn't feel 'perfect' or like a perfect representation of the ideal brand image. 6 years ago
  • @Dylan Mierzwinski, you're so right! I struggle with this all the time. I recently watched a TED talk that talked about the importance being brave, not perfect. I now tell myself that each time I send something I worked hard on out into the world. It's tempting to hold on to it forever until I have it JUST how I want it, but if I do that, I'll never finish anything. So I tell myself, "Be brave, not perfect."and off it goes :) 6 years ago
  • @Dylan Mierzwinski Totally agree with you about the value of MVPs! @Jen Wagner makes a great point when she says it's important to get work out fast then perfecting it. A lot of people often forget how crucial it is to build an impressive presence to get buzz over their products. 6 years ago
  • @Dylan Mierzwinski I agree - it can be SO scary to put something out that you know isn't perfect! It actually kept me from doing anything at all for a while, which is worse! But the good thing about creative market is that anyone who's purchased your product can download the updated versions for free, so that's helped me feel more comfortable posting things that could still use a little fine tuning :) 6 years ago
  • Hello @Jen Wagner, this was really helpful. I am currently looking to go into design as well and I've been wondering where to begin. Your article was timely. I'd appreciate if you could please give suggestions on the courses that I can take and maybe some more books as well. Thank you for this again. 6 years ago
  • Hi @Grace Ashama! Have you tried looking up video tutorials? When I spoke to @Jen Wagner about the resources used to teach herself, she credited it a lot to every tutorial that she could get her hands on. 6 years ago
  • Hey @Grace Ashama! If you were wanting to go the course route, Coursera is a great online learning resource where you can take college courses for a fraction of the price: https://www.coursera.org/specializations/graphic-design. I, however, took the learning through experience route, so I did more tutorials as @An Vu mentioned. There are so many resources out there now – I'd start by Google searching "Best Photoshop Tutorials", or "Best Photoshop Tutorials" if you're a novice, and start learning your way around Photoshop. Then, do the same with Illustrator (I absolutely despised Illustrator when I started, but now I use it more than Photoshop!). "Logo Design Love" is a fantastic book. I'm scouring my apartment currently for the other one but can't seem to find it (we just moved in), but I'll mention it as soon as I do! I actually can't say I've read this one yet, but it may be a great place to start: Graphic Design: The New Basics (Second Edition) The real key is practice! Search around Pinterest and find some of your favorite design pieces. Then, try to figure out how to recreate them as closely as possible. (***I'm not saying copying is an appropriate method for creating products, but it's worked wonders in my years spent learning on my own!!). 6 years ago
  • Thanks An Vu and Jen, really appreciate the help. I will start with your suggestions. Cheers 6 years ago
  • I so needed these words of encouragement. Thank you for sharing words of wisdom for those feeling "some kind of way". I will be following you to stay inspired :) 6 years ago
  • Really interesting and useful article! Thanks, Jen! I'll try to fix on your words and ame smth distinguishing; however, now I feel myself a bit stuck in my own thoughts.. 6 years ago
  • Great read. Always nice to read about self-starting successful designers who got where they are by sticking to their guns and not totally losing themselves in trend. I also found the section about putting out good now and tweaking to perfect (or as close as you can get) later on. 6 years ago
  • Great article @Jen Wagner Ive had a successful decorative arts biz but have always wanted to learn graphic design. I jumped into a "college program" and its killing me trying to juggle both. I don't want to abandon either but need to slow it down to breathe.its good to know I can do it. 6 years ago
  • This is very helpful. I'm an Accountant but I've been drawing since I was little...it's good to know that if you are passionate about something you can make it a success without having the 'formal' training. 5 years ago
  • You can do it @Annette Tyrrell and @Anureet Sra!!! ❤️ 5 years ago
  • Thanks @Kelley Johnson I literally cannot wait to come home and create stuff! 5 years ago