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How to become a designer without going to design school


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.

Update: I first published this blog post over a year ago. Since then I’ve gotten hundreds of emails asking for more guidance and easier to follow steps, and I finally found one: Designlab. This course wasn’t around when I was learning, but man do I wish it was – it would have made the whole process a lot less daunting. What I really like about it is that it gives you project assignments, and then connects you to a design mentor who gives you feedback (they have really good ones who work at Facebook).

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

116 Comments

  • This is an enormously helpful guide, thank you so much!! I’m working my way up to this, starting with redesigning my public library’s app, which has always struck me as one of the most unintuitive apps in the world. Thank you for your help!

  • Hi Karen,

    I’ve read about you on a few platforms and I am so thrilled for you. I, too, am seeking employment as a new graphic designer, however, I do not have a formal education in that field. I have worked for Ad Agencies on the account side and would love to move over to the creative side. If you have any suggestions for building a portfolio, or if you have any kind words of encouragement, I would LOVE to get your input. Thanks in advance!!

  • Hi Karen!

    I’ve come back to this article so many times. I can’t thank you enough for writing this and opening a new world for me!
    Thanks once again. Please continue doing what you do.

    Love,
    Tharini

  • I think your main strength and something I am envious of is your persistence with everything you do. I think people with this amount of persistence can move mountains and make anything possible. If we all follow your tip to do something every day towards our goal we can all achieve our dreams but I think many people (I’m guilty too) give up after a while because it’s too hard or we lose motivation. You are truly an inspiring woman!

  • Hey,
    This article was a really good boost for me.I am a web and mobile designer.I have been working for a year and I am just a beginner.Thanks a lot!

  • Thank You Soooo much i admire your lessons infact i av learned something from it and i am very happy

  • Thanks a lot for your great helpful guide. I haven’t any chance to learn graphics in any design schools but I am searching a way to start successfully. This is really good guide for me. Wishing your success.

  • This is such an optomistic and encouraging post. Thank you for sharing! I have been building a portfolio and doing free work for 8 months and am about to uproot and move to Paris with my partner. Hopefully I have the confidence to push through it and keep improving my design skills. Getting work there is going to be a challenge. Definitely going to look into web development, too!

  • Its very sad reading your last paraghraph which say that “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.”

    Im sad to know that what im tried to create doesnt what i imagined in my mind .. i have bookmarked this page, hope it will work on me… can i learn to draw a good things ??? when i got no experience and never draw a good things before ??

    so sad … why i should learn it now ?? why i didn’t learn it few years ago .. i will seriously learn and follow your step miss .. hope it will work on me too.. thanks for your article…

    Rizky 😀

  • Hi Karen,

    Thank you for this amazing and insightful post. It has really motivated and inspired me to crack on and pursue my new career/hobby.
    :)
    Elham

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