Graphic design is something marketers can always benefit from learning, even without formal education. In those cases, we enter a world of do-it-yourself education and learning graphic design, with repeated recommendations like “learn Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign” or “read a book on basic design principles.” And as much as they help, learning the basics, navigating new tools, and developing a personal style makes it a tricky balancing act.
That’s why we’ve put together this list of tips we wish we had at the start of our DIY graphic design journeys, along with a few tools that can help you with them.
Tips for learning graphic design
1) Always keep your ear to the ground.
As marketers, we already know how much we can learn from influencers. After all, 49% of people trust people they know above anyone else for product or service recommendations, and in the digital age, that includes influencers.
Influencers are “individuals with an online presence who influence the opinions and behaviors of their target audience” and are often willing to share the secrets of their success in their content. By making a point of listening and interacting with them, you’ll become more familiar with the world of online design, which can help you discover more tips from other industry experts, get comfortable with relevant terminology, and stay on top of trends.
Wondering how to get involved? Look to Twitter or Instagram as a place to start conversations with these influencers. You never know who will answer your questions, and any positive connection you make can only help you learn more. Going ahead and joining the exchange can naturally lead you to become part of a design community that will support you throughout your journey.
Add a variety of influencers to this list: a mix of those who are well known among most designers, those who inspire you personally, and those whose work you don’t enjoy. That last point might seem counterintuitive, but constantly looking at that group’s work can help you understand why you don’t like it, which is a key part of understanding design.
2) Collect inspiring works.
Once you decide to learn how to design, start creating a catalog of work that you consider successful. That can be as simple as bookmarking images in your web browser, creating a Pinterest board, or saving items to a folder on your computer. Like a list of influencers, a catalog of inspirational work will help you identify past and present trends in design as you begin to recognize patterns in the work of others. You will also begin to understand your own personal style, preferences, and interests. If you find yourself continually saving infographics, you can start looking for specific resources to learn how to create them.
Carving out time in your day to review these sites can be difficult on top of your workload. One way to naturally incorporate it into your day is to use the Panda app, which replaces your “New Tab” in Chrome with an aggregated stream of content from various sources, including Dribbble. Every time you open a new tab, you can discover and save something that catches your eye. However, an app like this could be distracting for some.
3) Dissect the process.
One of the most pivotal moments in my design journey was when I recognized that every illustration, infographic, and icon I had ever laid eyes on was the product of someone who had mastered combining shapes and lines. That’s not to say that other factors don’t play a role, just wait until you try to learn meshes in Illustrator, but fundamentally, these designs were built from simple shapes.
Analyzing the process behind a design will allow you to understand the steps required to produce a workpiece. Depending on your current skill level, you may have a head start in knowing which tools were used or which look was created first. But don’t let that stop you: examining the construction of a design will allow you to exercise your creativity. Educated guesses will do a lot more to teach you than doing nothing at all.
4) Be specific with your online search queries.
Do you want to learn graphic design? specificity
When you start creating your own designs, you will likely hit a roadblock where you think, “Hmm. How the hell do I do that? Chances are, others have wondered the same thing. Like many self-taught disciplines these days, most of my own technical design knowledge was gained from watching a YouTube tutorial while actively following it.
The key is to be specific with your searches to find a highly relevant tutorial. Searching for something like “how to create an icon” can lead to really broad search results. Instead, write what you want to learn, like “how to create a flat icon with a long shadow.” Boom.
5) Play your favorite play.
Let me be clear: under no circumstances should you infringe anyone’s copyrighted work. Never reproduce someone else’s work and try to pass it off as your own.
That said, re-creating a design you like without advertising it as your own work will help you gain a deeper understanding of design techniques. As with dissecting a design, it will help you learn new technical skills that will come in handy when creating your own designs.
You’ll need to be creative with the method you choose to recreate the design, so this exercise will use both the left and right sides of your brain. Don’t get frustrated if you can’t duplicate a design exactly; Remember, the process is more important than the result.
6) Accept negative space.
Both beginning and advanced designers often overlook the proper use of negative space. What is negative space (or “white space”)? It is the space in your design that is not occupied by any visual or written elements. A design piece that doesn’t incorporate enough negative space is like a sentence without spaces: it’s hard to understand.
Jan Tischold, one of the most influential typographers in history, stresses this importance: “White space should be seen as an active element, not a passive background.” Effective use of negative space is just as crucial as the design itself. Do you not believe me? It is scientifically proven that white space improves readability and understanding.
7) Don’t be afraid to get feedback.
Do you want to learn graphic design? Learn from constructive criticism
On some level, everyone is afraid of criticism. We fear that our ideas will be shot down and sent back to square one. Accepting constructive criticism is no easy task, but it is key to becoming a better designer.
Conclusion: Design critics allow us to incorporate the points of view of others in our work and improve our ideas. You always have the option to decline comments, but considering them first is what’s important. Design is subjective in nature, and just because someone else has a different opinion doesn’t mean you’re wrong. In fact, trusting your intuition is just as important. Just make sure you have the means to back up your design decisions.
8) Choose an exciting project.
If you only hear one tip from this post, let it be this one.
We all know how hard it is to work on something you don’t want. It just sucks. Choosing a project that you are not passionate about will likely lead to frustration as you will likely be reluctant to put in the time and effort required to complete the project. And I’d be remiss to ignore the fact that at some point in his career, he’s going to have to design something that he’s not that excited about.
But that probably won’t happen until you’ve learned a thing or two and advanced your design skills. At first, it’s okay to focus on exciting projects.
Passion is a great motivator when you take the time to teach yourself graphic design and the consequences, like lost money on a wasted design class, are minimal. When you choose something that matters to you, you will force yourself to overcome the frustration that comes with the sometimes tedious nature of the design.
Align your interests or current situation with your projects. If you are a blogger, try creating the header image for your next post. Express your willingness to work on an offer with your content team. Looking for a job? Redesign your resume and try to promote your personal brand by creating a logo. There are several ways to incorporate design into your everyday life, but it’s up to you to choose something that matters to you; don’t design something just because you think you should.
And above all
It is important to start. It’s easy to be intimidated by the sheer amount of learning associated with graphic design, but remember that even the most talented designers were once novices too.
The creative field is so special because everyone’s journey is unique: there is no one way to approach DIY design. You will find your own ways to discern what you want and need to learn.