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How to become a designer without going to design school


Update: I first published this blog post over a year ago. The books I reference in this guide are classics, but some of the online tutorials are out of date. If you find great online tutorial resources or outdated information in this guide, please email me at karenxcheng (at) gmail (dot) com with suggestions so I can update this post. Thank you!

I got my job as a designer without going to design school. I had hacked together my own design education in 6 months while working a full-time job. I didn’t think I was ready but started applying for jobs anyway – and got a job at a great startup, Exec.

To be clear, I’m nowhere near as good as those design prodigies that come out of a 4-year education at an elite school like RISD. But I’m definitely good enough to do my job well. I’m the only designer at Exec, so I do a pretty wide range of things – visual and interaction design, print, web, and mobile app design.

Maybe you want to change careers and become a designer full-time.
Or you want to learn some basics for your startup or side project.

This is a guide to teach yourself design.

Step 1. Learn to see
The biggest mistake is jumping into Photoshop too fast. Learning Photoshop does not make you a designer, just like buying paintbrushes does not make you an artist. Start with the foundation.

First, learn how to draw.

  • You don’t have to sit in a room with a bunch of other artists trying to draw a naked woman.
  • You don’t even have to get that good at drawing. Just learn some basics so you can be comfortable sketching with a pen.
  • You only have to do one thing to learn how to draw: get the book You Can Draw in 30 days and practice for half an hour every day for a month. I’ve looked at a lot of drawing books and this is one of the best.

Learn graphic design theory

  • Start with the book Picture This. It’s a story book of Little Red Riding hood, but will teach you the foundations of graphic design at the same time.
  • Learn about color, typography, and designing with a grid. If you can find a local class to teach the basics of graphic design, take it.
  • Go through a few of these tutorials every day.

Learn some basics in user experience

Learn how to write

  • Here is a sure sign of a bad designer: their mockups are filled with placeholder text like Lorem Ipsum. A good designer is a good communicator. A good designer thinks through the entire experience, choosing every word carefully. Write for humans. Don’t write in the academic tone you used to make yourself sound smart in school papers.
  • Read Made to Stick, one of my favorite books of all time. It will teach you how to suck in your readers.
  • Voice and Tone is a website full of gems of good writing examples.

Step 2. Learn how to use Photoshop and Illustrator
Hooray! Now you’ve got a pretty solid foundation – both visual and UX. You’re ready to learn Photoshop. Actually, I recommend starting with Illustrator first and then moving on to Photoshop after. Illustrator is what designers use to make logos and icons.

Learn Illustrator

  • There are a ton of books, online tutorials and in-person classes to learn Illustrator. Choose the style that works best for you. Here are the books I found especially helpful to learn the basics of Illustrator:
  • Adobe Illustrator Classroom in a Book – It’s boring, but if you get through at least half of it, you’ll know your way around Illustrator pretty well.
  • Vector Basic Training – This book teaches you how to make things in Illustrator that actually look good.
  • Now for the fun stuff! Follow these online tutorials and be impressed by what you can make. Here are two my favorites – a logo and a scenic landscape.

Learn Photoshop

Step 3. Learn some specialties
Do you want to design mobile apps? Websites? Infographics? Explore them all, and pick and choose the ones you enjoy to get better at them.

Learn Logo Design

  • Learn how to make a logo that doesn’t suck: Logo Design Love
  • You’ll want to take it a step further than a logo though. Learn to create a consistent brand – from the website to the business cards. Check out this book, Designing Brand Identity.

Learn Mobile App Design

  • Start with this tutorial to get your feet wet on visual design for mobile apps.
  • Read this short but very comprehensive and well-thought out book on iPhone design: Tapworthy. It will teach you how to make an app that not only looks good but is easy to use.
  • Geek out on the apps on your phone. Critique them. What works and what doesn’t?

Learn Web Design

Now for the hairy question of whether you need to know HTML/CSS as a designer: It depends on the job. Knowing it will definitely give you an edge in the job market. Even if you don’t want to be a web developer, it helps to know some basics. That way you know what is possible and what isn’t.

There are so many great resources to learn HTML and CSS:

  • My favorite free one is Web Design Tuts.
  • My favorite paid one (pretty affordable at $25/month) is Treehouse. If you’re starting from the beginning and want someone to explain things clearly and comprehensively, splurge for Treehouse tutorials.

Step 4. Build your portfolio
You don’t need to go to a fancy design school to get a job as a designer. But you do need a solid portfolio.

How do you build a portfolio if you’re just starting out for the first time? The good news is you don’t need to work on real projects with real clients to build a portfolio. Make up your own side projects. Here are a few ideas:

  • Design silly ideas for t-shirts.
  • Find poorly designed websites and redesign them.
  • Got an idea for an iPhone app? Mock it up.
  • Join a team at Startup Weekend and be a designer on a weekend project.
  • Enter a 99 designs contest to practice designing to a brief.
  • Do the graphic design exercises in the Creative Workshop book.
  • Find a local nonprofit and offer to design for free.

Resist the temptation to include every thing you’ve ever designed in your portfolio. This is a place for your strongest work only.

Steal, steal, steal at first. Don’t worry about being original – that will come later, once you are more comfortable with your craft. When you learn a musical instrument, you learn how to play other people’s songs before composing your own. Same goes for design. Steal like an artist.

Go to Dribbble for inspiration on some of the best designers. Check out pttrns for iOS inspiration, and patterntap for website inspiration.

Step 5: Get a job as a designer
When I first started learning design, I went to a job search workshop for designers. I walked into a room full of designers who had much more experience than I did – 5, 10, 15 years experience. All of them were looking for jobs. That was intimidating. There I was, trying to teach myself design, knowing I was competing with these experienced designers.

And yet 6 months later, I got a design job. There was one key difference between me and many of the other designers that gave me an edge: I knew how to work with developers.

The biggest factor to boost your employability is to be able to work with developers. Learn some interaction design. Learn some basic HTML and CSS. Designers in the tech industry (interaction designers, web designers, app designers) are in extremely high demand and are paid well. That’s where the jobs are right now.

If you don’t have any experience working with developers, get some. Go to Startup Weekend, go to hackathons, or find a developer through a project collaboration site.

Make a personal website and make your portfolio the centerpiece.

Go out and make serendipity happen – tell everyone you know that you’re looking for a job as a designer. You never know who might know someone.

Research companies and agencies you might be interested in. Look on LinkedIn for 2nd and 3rd degree connections to people who work at those companies and ask for intros. The best way to get a job is through a connection. If you don’t have a connection, there’s still a lot you can do to give yourself an edge.

Once you’ve got the job, keep learning
I’ve been at Exec for a year now and have learned a ton on the job. I seek out designers who are much more talented than I am, and learn from them. I find design classes (good online ones are Skillshare, General Assembly, Treehouse, and TutsPlus). I work on side projects. I geek out at the design section of bookstores. There is still so much to learn and to improve on.

Keep your skills sharp, and always keep learning.

Questions? Say hi at @karenxcheng.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” ― Ira Glass

94 Comments

  • Thank you so much for the article with so many nice links!! I will definitely be going through a few of the links, and even contemplating a few of the books…! I can’t spend time going to school for graphic/web designing, but I love it, and would love to have the skill set to utilize in other places and projects I am working in and on!

  • Similarly, learning how to code can be intimidating if you’ve never done it before. But whatever you don’t know is bound to hold you back from learning. I’ve been hearing for years that designers need to learn to code. At first I thought I’d just end up doing two jobs instead of one. But the better I get at coding, the more I understand how connected they are. As a designer in the digital spectrum, you realize that your very work–your material, which exists in the world–is code. How can you design something if you don’t know how it works? So, designers, step into the ring.

  • Holy shit this is an awesome article! I graduated from college 3 months ago and I already discovered my degree has nothing to do with what I want to do. I felt like a complete idiot. But recently I’ve been getting really passionate about design. I’ve been trying to hack together my own design education, but it’s still all over the place. This article was so helpful in defining it into several actionable steps.

    Also, I was looking at my parent’s old bookshelf for fun and I randomly found “The Design of Everyday Things”!! And this is right after I read this article. That has to be some kind of a calling right?

    Thanks for sharing this Karen.

  • Thanks for the advice! I really love your ways of setting goals and utilizing the right tools to gain the proper skills.

    One of the most helpful articles I’ve ever seen!

  • “Here is a sure sign of a bad designer: their mockups are filled with placeholder text like Lorem Ipsum. A good designer is a good communicator. A good designer thinks through the entire experience, choosing every word carefully. Write for humans. Don’t write in the academic tone you used to make yourself sound smart in school papers.”

    Sorry, this is just silly. I think you are misunderstanding the point of lorem ipsum. As Nicole said above, it’s simply placeholder text. Many, many designers use it because it looks more natural than repeating the same phrase over and over. Let me illustrate:

    “Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here.

    Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here. Place text here.”

    versus:

    “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Donec a urna at lectus gravida molestie nec vel sapien. Vivamus sed nunc vel turpis cursus tristique. Ut ac quam ut nisi auctor congue ut ac odio. Curabitur hendrerit felis eu purus facilisis, sed dignissim ipsum congue. Vivamus arcu odio, fermentum eget nulla sit amet, auctor auctor quam. In at sodales orci. Aenean viverra nulla lacus, in ultrices est fermentum at. Nulla facilisi. Sed at pharetra purus. Donec non quam varius, dignissim dui in, faucibus dui. Sed ac lorem iaculis, semper erat ut, adipiscing libero. Fusce interdum, dolor ut interdum pulvinar, nunc lacus bibendum dui, non suscipit diam arcu a libero. In in nunc sit amet risus adipiscing viverra. Quisque viverra massa elit, eu blandit tortor tincidunt nec. Morbi congue quis elit non ullamcorper. Donec porttitor scelerisque justo, a dapibus diam.

    Nulla at urna sit amet elit volutpat luctus quis ac erat. Quisque rhoncus, nisi id elementum lobortis, tortor purus pretium neque, vel rhoncus urna felis eget nulla. Aenean cursus condimentum elit vel interdum. Mauris at facilisis tellus, eget aliquam massa. Aenean at velit vitae magna faucibus gravida. Maecenas lorem justo, ultrices sit amet tempor vitae, faucibus eu libero. Quisque magna erat, pulvinar a luctus eget, luctus ut sem. Pellentesque vel tortor pharetra, venenatis eros mattis, ultricies metus. Nullam vel vestibulum ante. Vestibulum mollis aliquet nibh nec fringilla.”

    If you were to simply glance at both of those examples, the first one is quickly recognizable as obviously being filler text while the second — because it has variation of word length and letter usage — has more of a random layout to it like real text would. This is commonly referred to as “Greeked” text, and it allows you to concentrate better on the graphical elements without your eye being drawn to a giant block of unnatural text full of rivers and right angles.

    And like Nicole also said, it typically isn’t the job of a designer to write copy — that’s what copywriters are for. “A good designer is a good communicator,” yes, but many (if not most) designers concentrate on being good VISUAL communicators. Maybe this is something that you aren’t used to because you have to wear so many hats at your job, which is understandable! :)

  • Although I have an MFA from Cal Arts and have been known to teach design classes now and then, I enjoyed your post. If everybody had the initiative, passion and determination you exhibit, the world would be a beautiful, functional, compassionate place for all of us to enjoy.

  • Great article Karen.

    Anna
    I am looking at Shillington for the fall or next winter. Would like to hear about your experience.

  • I ran into this post of yours at good.is. I’m a self taught budding web designer as well (well, I have a college degree in architecture but my web skills are self taught) and this post really inspired me. I was wondering where to find back-end developers to team up with now I know where to find them. Good job. I’ll be following your blog.

  • Love the article, bookmarked it and very interested in reading the books you recommend, I am just starting out and looking forward to learning the art of design from scratch. Thanks a bunch Karen.

  • You’re constantly under pressure to deliver something that’s not only compelling, but also relevant, something that matches gamers’ expectations on what they think a game should be about. You also have to be aware of the competition. I know designers that don’t play other people’s games or pay attention to the gaming press or even real world news and what’s hip and cool in pop culture. But it’s part of your job as a game designer to stay up-to-date on all those things. You can’t just lock yourself in a room and create some random thing. You have to be big picture.

  • Hi! My friend sent me this article and I’m really excited to tacke the resources and links you provide here :) I’m trying to get into UX design, so it’s always nice to hear success stories of people who like me, are self teaching everything :)

    Way to go, and thank you!

  • I’m emphasizing “experiences” here deliberately, even though that isn’t always how others would describe the job. I think one of the crucial things instructional designers can (and should!) do is make sure that students have opportunities to actively practice what they are learning.

  • Thank you for all the advice and it can be too helpful if there are pictures of what we are talking about for easy and simple learning. Otherwise thank you.

  • Hi Karen,

    A friend sent me this article a few years ago when I was trying to figure out how to transition into a design career. At first, I was really discouraged about making this transition. However, I took your advice and read a bunch of books and did a lot of tutorials (thank goodness for the Internet!) and have recently joined a start-up as a visual designer. I couldn’t be happier!

    Thank you so much for writing this article and for sharing your secrets! I’m sure you’ve helped many other people as well.

    Best,
    Kelly

  • Pingback: The Creative Twist

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