Teach yourself graphic design

graphic design written on a blackboard in blue

This article comes with a warning: easily offended graphic designers please do not read on!

Graphic design is not rocket science, nor does it depend on artistic talent – it just takes a lot of practice.

Some designers love to say that graphic design is a God-given talent that only a select few special people can have. Others will say that you also need an art college education. I say you need time and application – something we all have.

They are very angry about people who, with some knowledge of graphics programs and web promotion, can advertise themselves and do business as web designers without any training. I’m not. I say more power to them.

So what if some developers with limited design experience make some dreadful websites? They are only learning from mistakes that other “designers” did invisibly in college.

Let’s start with a definition:

What is graphic design?

Graphic design is usually described as visual communication of graphic elements and text to represent an idea or concept. A graphic designer improves the conversation between the client and the customers. A person who can combine the left brain thinking of the corporate world with right brain creativity.

So maybe somebody that is tremendously talented in the creative arts will be best suited to becoming an artist rather than a graphic designer.

two men talking with a city backdrop

Compromise and communication

Some graphic designers continuously complain that their clients don’t appreciate their designs. A good graphic designer will listen to the client in order to understand the market.

There may be differences between the designer and the client about how to communicate the message. This is where experience comes to the fore: How do you square the circle between a client’s instinct to hard sell and the designer’s need to simplify the narrative to the end user? No amount of talent nor hours in the classroom is going to help you with this one.

So, how do you learn graphic design?

Just do it!

I have laid out what you need to be a graphic designer in terms of software, hardware and resources. But the most important thing is yourself and your network.

You have your family, friends, colleagues, and, of course nowadays, an online army of people who can help you in forums, groups and social media. Show your work to the world and invite feedback (a thick skin is needed). Ask people how to do things. See what others are doing. Watch. Learn. Adapt. Above all else, keep an open mind.

Conclusion

There is a tendency for some old school designers to sit back, congratulating themselves on their god-given talent which impedes their development in the newest areas of the industry and damages their relationships with clients.

Design doesn’t sit still. There are new areas of expression, new trends and new designers coming along everyday. People without a design background can learn design and find new ways of expression. I believe this has happened in the last few years with web design standards being set by people with all sorts of backgrounds – and all sorts of talents.

I would never discourage anyone from becoming a designer due to a perceived lack of “talent”. Who defines the word “talent” in design? Specifically the people who will benefit from the exclusivity of the profession. And what are you referring to when you say talent? The talent of dealing with clients? The talent to understand a brief? The artistic talent? This term is so subjective that an attempt to define it only hinders creativity.

So, don’t worry about your talent – worry about getting work!

Comments

  1. says

    Bold statement, This should be an interesting debate.

    Personally I feel that artistic talent is needed to be a ‘good’ graphic designer.. along with many other qualities.

    But everyone is entitled to there opinion.

  2. says

    Hi Steven, yes I appreciate that many people will disagree with this. I like to have people disagreeing with me as much as agreeing. And you’re right, there are indeed many qualities a designer needs apart from artistic talent.

  3. James says

    Hmmmm….. Kind of an irrelevant point in my opinion. “All you need is practice”, could be said of any profession. I could be an amazing brain surgeon if I had enough practice, or an incredible pilot if crashing a few planes was part and parcel of getting there.

    Fact is the ‘eye for design’ does exist. Yes you can teach yourself the applications required to ‘produce’ websites, leaflets and the like but not necessarily design them. Much in the same way that you can learn a musical instrument but that doesn’t make you a composer.

    I am sure a lot of non-designers may look at these sorts of post on a daily basis and brim with optimism and dreams of a life away from spreadsheets, accounts and the like but I disagree with them whole-heartedly.

    …….just my opinion

  4. says

    This is a rather broad subject to tackle in one blog post. Designers generally do have thick skins so articles like this do not offend me in particular. I do think that anyone who knows how to communicate well can develop what is needed to be a good designer. There are some rules of composition and typography that can easily be learned. To be a great designer you need that extra something but this is the case in all fields.

    I don’t get angry about people with no training entering the field as my clients can definitely tell the difference. I do think that people who have no or little training are setting themselves up for failure. I would encourage people to learn more about the field and at least train themselves so they don’t get eaten up by tough clients. I actually like it when clients know a thing or two about design as they appreciate the work that goes into it.

    The more people know just makes everything that much more professional.

  5. says

    Hello James, as I said graphic design isn’t as important as flying planes or rocket science – no one’s going to die if you make a bad design – and not as artistic as painting or composing. What is your evidence for the fact that the “eye for design” exists? Don’t worry about the dreams of the readers of these posts – they don’t take themselves too seriously!

    Hello Rich, I’m not saying that all people who take other opinions about the design industry are angry! It was just an extreme position I was using to juxtapose my own. As you say, it’s a broad subject for a blog post and I’m not saying that some brilliant designers weren’t born with artistic talent – I just think it’s a bit over-rated.

  6. says

    A distant analogy could be made between a scientist and an engineer.

    A scientist pursue discoveries (mostly) through self-indulgence. An engineer on the other hand – has to apply such discoveries to serve the public.

    Being a graphic designer is about serving the client, not himself (ie artist exploring ‘whatever’) – and hence has to be more accommodating and less egotistical, diplomatic and business-like.

    • Lester says

      I think as soon as you forget about your client…. It doesn’t matter how much talent you have being a graphic designer. Remember that it’s the client that puts food on your table! All clients are different. They can be corporate or they can be your little league sports team that needs a simple design.

      Practice and persistance are the keys to success. Now a days there are countless resources that can help just about anybody achieve what they want in life.

      Practice, Tradition and exploration came way before any institution.

  7. says

    Exactly, Henry. Graphic designers are providing a service to a client. I think designers who think they are doing something else will find the process difficult.

  8. Dana says

    Graphic design is not rocket science, nor does it depend on artistic talent – it just takes a lot of practice.

    Absolutely, “not rocket science”–I agree. However, you have to have a little bit (at least) of artistic talent to create somewhat appealing pieces. A lot of practice will make you a good desktop publisher, but not a designer.

    Dana

  9. says

    Hi Rob,

    This is interesting to me because I have thought that there is a large difference between art and craft for some time now.

    The way that you stated that design can be done without artistic ability has been shown over and over again. Just look at any of the mass-produced paintings of fruit or at furniture. These are not art, but they do take design skills to create.

    Having said that, graphic design is something that I have dabled in, but only when I needed to. There are tons of great designers out there, but much of the time it is overkill to hire someone to color in a picture. Sometimes, it is better to have a picture that is a little less polished for a book cover, for example.

    I don’t want to take anything away from the many talented graphic designers out there, but there are so many of them. To find one who does something special is really difficult.

    Finding someone who can properly make a good looking web 2.0 button is very easy. Learning to do it yourself is only a couple of clicks away.

    Good thoughts!

    Have a great day!

  10. Mike says

    Indeed, Graphic Design is not Rocket Science. However, there is volumes to be said about experience and skill that separate pros from rookies.

    The ability to translate what a client expresses in words into rich media and images, in an efficient professional manner takes both specialized knowledge and a practiced hand.

    Intimate knowledge of software suites, design concepts, typography, artistic styles, these are only a few of the things that experience touts over beginners.

    Graphic Design is aptly named… the word Design suggests a procedural approach wholly different from Art where expression and interpretation are often subjective.

    Talent is not a prerequisite for Graphic Design, although those with some artistic ability may have an easier time impressing people with their designs.

    It will almost always be experience that empowers a designer to deliver on time and on budget.

  11. says

    Hi Dana, thanks for your comment, lots of people think artistic talent is necessary.

    Hi mark, you make a really interesting point that there are loads of good designers but finding one to do something a bit different is very difficult.

    Hi Mike, you put it better than me. The ability to channel the client’s message into an acceptable and correct format that works and looks great takes a lot of experience. On time and on budget, even harder!

    Thank you, everyone, for your comments.

  12. Tina says

    Thanks for this article Rob. The more folks who think they can learn graphic design makes my firm even busier fixing the lackluster image that they create for their clients. For those stating that design is not life or death … it depends on how you look at it. Imagine a small company where first impressions are everything … without a good image and branding (created by a designer with actual talent and not just ‘by the book’ know-how) the business could fail creating larger personal ramifications. I’m just saying …

  13. Kathy LPV says

    Here we go again – debating “art” vs. “practice” !!!

    In the first place, I AM an Artist / & certified “Art – EDU” (Art teacher, K-12).

    In the second place, our SCHOOLING teaches that “CREATIVITY” is:
    a) a useless quality, ergo, they fail miserably to foster it;
    b) ONLY for the FEW … when ALL Artists/ teachers KNOW that is false… ALL children ARE Creative, but schools Kick it out of them (see a);
    c) In reality, Creativity CAN BE LEARNED!!!
    d) ALL endeavors take practice!!!!! including “having an eye for design” … IN FACT, one CAN & DOES develop “an eye” – as they practice their craft / art & grow in confidence;
    e) Yes, I admit, some children do have a better “eye” – but more so, they have better control in doing art … but, that does not mean that other’s can’t learn both,
    f) That one must “BE TAUGHT” Art, is a bit over the top. Yes, there are some benefits to “learning” the basics of art … but one CAN find books, &/or people to help them, but they CAN also learn to “have an eye” & “refine” their skills. MOST IMPORTANT, eventually they MUST go out on their OWN – that’s how we come to have so many styles of art! (Life would be SO Boring if all artists works look the same, now wouldn’t it?)
    g) The IDEA that Art & an eye for design is the “only a few” are “blessed” with Artistic “TALENT” is to ignore the “skill” it takes to do any form of art! I.E. In one of my art classes, I was told … “though you don’t have much talent, you are highly creative … so KEEP UP YOUR ART! Work at it & you’ll “DEVELOP” the skill & talent”!!! – I took this teacher’s advice & have been happily working in several art medium’s ever since. Much of what I’ve done, has come, NOT from my Education, NOT from my “EYE” but from my creative mind … so that teacher was absolutely correct. I DEVELOPED an EYE, TALENT, & the SKILLS to do well!

    SO I agree with what this article says whole heartedly. This comes from both my own experience, my experience with kids in the art classes in school, & my college Art Edu. classes.
    To those who are “easily offended graphic designers” … You can not speak for all … you can only speak from your own “scholastic experience” [see a), b), c), d), f), & g) ]!

  14. says

    You make some good points Rob but I mostly outsource my graphics work simply because I would rather spend my time doing what produces the most return. Granted, good graphic elements can enhance response rates, but seeing as I am better at other things (programming) I leave the graphics work to those who leave the programming to me :-)

  15. Jim L says

    I work at a nonprofit where the CEO (who has anything BUT a good eye for design and has no training to speak of) still fancies himself an art director. I can’t count the number of projects he has trampled on because he thinks he possesses design skills he doesn’t. But I’m constantly told — he’s the one signing the checks…….

    (Don’t get me started. I’m job hunting…) Regardless……..

    Design and aesthetics are subjective by nature, so I am very open to anyone giving an assessment of what they think about a design. But what a designer usually gets in this process is a superficial view of what something looks like, which — don’t get me wrong — is also helpful — but it doesn’t speak to the strategy and execution of the piece.

    A good designer is not solely an artist — but also a grammarian, marketer, project manager, small-scale architect, conflict resolver, compromise innovator — so on and so forth.

    I’m not sure whether I possess a “good eye” inherently — or whether I’ve trained it to be that way. But, either way — through a lot of time and experience — I’ve cultivated a discernible set of skills that make me content I am qualified to call myself a designer.

    Unfortunately, too many people who have *not* invested that time and experience, really digging into a continued process of trial and error, still like to fancy themselves qualified to weigh in about design work. I’m all for being egalitarian, but from where I’m sitting now I say without hesitancy or doubt — some people just aren’t designers. They absolutely could be — if they devoted themselves to the practice — but they aren’t now just because they say they are.

    I watch a lot of courtroom television shows and really enjoy the law. But it would take huge hubris for me to say I am a lawyer. And I love watching sports on TV and even playing on amateur leagues — but it would be laughable for me to get on the field with professionals…….

    Digest those two analogies — and you’ll get a sense of what designers with many projects and years of experience under their belts feel when someone unqualified suddenly and boldly thinks they should be making design decisions just because they are signing the checks. We just laugh, shake our heads and think: “A fool and his money are soon parted.”

  16. says

    Hello Tina, I appreciate your point that the more people are encouraged to do graphic design the more work for you to clear up their mess! I have been equally well employed clearing up after design agencies who haven’t listened to the client. You may be right that some ‘by the book’ designers aren’t as good as talented designers. But I’m not so sure…

    Hello Kathy LPV, interesting to have your insight from the world of education. I believe that many people pick up the incorrect belief that they’re not able to do things early on. But not from your classroom, obviously! I’m delighted, as an art teacher, you think creativity can be learned and that you’re not saying to impressionable young ones: “you just haven’t got it!” I certainly believe that individuals can develop a talent.

    Hello Michael, in a perfect world we’d all outsource the work we don’t like doing. I need to organize my life better so I do that!

    Hello Jim L, I do sympathize with your current position. I have certainly had times at work where I felt undermined by someone who, I thought, didn’t know as much as I did. The only thing I can say is to go freelance in your spare time and, as the article says, with experience you can learn to persuade clients (but maybe not bosses) to do things “your way”. Just saying to someone “I’m a designer, do what I say” isn’t enough in my experience. I know you’re not one of them but I have to say that I have no time for designers that get enjoyment by taking money easily from foolish clients. That’s certainly not what I’m about and I don’t think anyone would be successful with that attitude. A win/win relationship between designer and client is always the best way forward.

    Thank you everyone for the comments so far. I’ve had roughly equal numbers agreeing as disagreeing so that’s great!

  17. says

    I went to art college for eight years, but some of the best designers I’ve worked with didn’t have any qualifications at all. What made them good designers was talent, hard work, and willingness to learn and develop. They also carried out a huge amount of self education, including reading everything they could about the history of design, so that they understood the ‘rules’ even if it was to break them creatively. I think you make it appear far too simple when you say that anyone can be a graphic designer so long as they practice. I can assure you that there are some people (I’m married to one) who don’t have any notion of aesthetics and practicing until they are blue in the face will not give them good taste or a visual sense. Part of the relationship one has with a client is to bring some expertise (that the client doesn’t have) to the table and to develop something together that is of real value to the client. And yes, you’re right many qualified designers are too up themselves to appreciate that the client’s contribution is of just as much importance as the ‘creative’s’.

  18. says

    Hello Julie, I think you’re right about “willingness to learn and develop” being very important. I wouldn’t say that anyone can learn to be a great designer with practice, but I would say they could if they had a burning desire to do so. But I appreciate not everyone’s going to be with me on this one. And, yes, ability to see the client’s point of view is of paramount importance. Thanks!

  19. says

    Hey,

    I am a graphic designer myself and I loved the content you posted out here for all of us over web. Really Helpful… Great Work… Keep up !!!

    Best,
    Nick Jones

  20. says

    Wow – such a big subject! I’ve taught graphic design for over ten years and I’d say you either ‘have it’ or you haven’t. I’ve taught a person for 2 years and they still haven;t been any better at the end than at the start but another person would just fly with it and create some superb work. In the end, whether you are teaching on a degree or like yourself, giving pointers in the right direction, it still comes down to the raw ingredient (your student) having the right potential in the first place. If you have then great, if you haven’t then it;s going to be tricky to say the least.

    So to suggest that someone might be able to teach themselves is an interesting idea.

    You can tell someone they should appreciate Gill Sans or Helvetica but that doesn’t mean that they will use them properly. Not that it can;t be done but if anyone manages it successfully they would have been a good designer anyway and just needs a couple of nudges in the right direction.

  21. says

    Hello Phil, yes a big subject, and one that certainly gets some people going! It’s interesting that you’re the second teacher here and the first one, an art teacher, agreed that design can be taught. I would say that the person needs the desire to learn but I don’t know. Maybe your student that hadn’t improved in 2 years was committed and had the desire? It would be interesting to know.

    And it is perhaps an important difference between saying “you can teach yourself graphic design” and “graphic design can be taught”.

    Also, I never went to design school but can’t imagine people being told to appreciate Gill Sans or Helvetica! Is that what happens?

  22. says

    Yes you can be taught – but actually knowing how to use the skills you are taught is another thing. You run a workshop with 20 students with exactly the same brief, same materials to work with and exactly the same tuition in how to create whatever you are doing in the workshops and you will get some that produce fantastic work (from the point of view of being graphically coherent and using basic graphic principles and being commercially acceptable) and some that don’t – although they think their work does look ok

    No my student was one of the most hard-working in the group – he just didn’t get it – as in he just couldn’t produce work that would be commercially viable. And it;s not just him – lots of students don;t understand the whole area of design/creativity/cultural referencing and how this subconciously affects our work.

    Appreciating Helvetica is just a starting point. If you study typography, Helvetica (and not just Helvetica but the whole BauHaus and international style of type design) has influenced what we do now graphically.

    If you weren’t to study all this consciously then if you were the type of person who could teach themselves you would have picked this sort of stuff up from the world around you without actually knowing it. If you are that kind of person then you maybe could teach yourself. If you needed it pointing out to you and you still couldn’t get why it look good, then maybe you would find it tricky to teach yourself.

    Education of design is a big subject (which is why I sound so pessimistic about you saying that you can easily teach yourself. There have to be so many things in place in your own head before you start.

  23. says

    It’s great to have this insight into the way graphic design is taught in schools and colleges.

    I’d be interested to know if the student desired to learn design rather than had worked hard at it. The reason I say this is that I would expect someone with the desire would have, as you say, picked up design types etc. from the world around them.

    Great to hear your thoughts on this, Phil.

  24. says

    Another good article Rob I feel that if you can make it in to a site like http://www.cssmania.com your pretty much there (sadly I’m still working on it) :(

    I do believe that natural talent shines through some of the design work out there is simply breath taking but it gives us wanna be’s something to stride too.

    Keep up the good work!

  25. says

    I agree, Derek, there is a hell of a lot of really great stuff out there it makes our job seem daunting at first. But your sites look great. I’m sure you’ll make it there some day!

  26. says

    Cheers Rob :) you made my day! did you see the question on your other article about a place where I can find people like me to team up with?

    Cheers again.

  27. says

    Haha! I said you’d make it there some day! Congratulations! It’s a great link and great publicity for you. I have visited the site and duly given you 10 out of 10 for the design.

  28. mirian says

    Hi I’m so up set with designers!
    How will u be a professional or someone that knows the work, if no one is willing to help u, to work with u…I don’t any money, I just want someone that is in the field already that is willing to help… U have no idea how frustrated I am…By the way I live in Virginia…

  29. says

    Hello Mirian, I’m sorry you’ve had a bad experience with some designers. But I can honestly say that there’s more free information about graphic design than just about any other subject on the web. And many designers will answer an email question no matter how busy they are or how big they are! You need to explain exactly what you want then people will try to help you.

  30. says

    If you mean you don’t have to be an artist to be a Graphic Designer then I agree – but if you mean anyone can do Graphic Design without first studying it and developing it as a skill then I strongly disagree. What you end up with is people imitating what they see in the design world rather than understanding what they are seeing. You have to know the rules of design before you can break them.

  31. says

    Hello Toddsia, no, I’m saying you don’t have to go to school to be a good graphic designer. Yes, you need to develop the skill but you can do that in your own time, not with a teacher.