Not long ago, someone asked me for advice on learning graphic design without enrolling in a degree program. I’m far from design mastery, but I’m happy to offer some suggestions. (I guess that can be a dangerous combination, so take this or leave it…)

Learning graphic design breaks into three areas: tools (technique), ideation (strategy), and posture (professional attitude). They all overlap, but I’ll talk about them separately.

Learning the tools

  • Be honest with yourself about how your brain focuses so you can set yourself up for success. If you find it hard to hold yourself accountable with a schedule, sign up for a program with built-in coaching, class times, and assignment due dates. If you find it hard to study alone or glaze over when watching online tutorials, look for group or one-on-one learning experiences. Programs at your public library or at your community college might be right for you. Otherwise, if you’re good at being a lone wolf, devise for yourself a learning curriculum and calendar—pretend you are a teacher and build in projects, rewards, and progress reviews in your plan. Learning the software is key, and worth the investment to do it efficiently.
  • Pass on software books. By the time they’re in a store, books on software are already kind of outdated. Spend the money on a better desk chair instead. Or chocolate. Or other kinds of design books, which I’ll talk about later.
  • Know the industry standard softwares, and what they are typically used for: Adobe InDesign (publication layout), Illustrator (vector artwork and lettering), and Photoshop (photo manipulation). Learn the basics for each one individually, or else you may get mixed up with keyboard shortcuts for commands, which don’t always agree across these softwares. You’ll likely need at least basic proficiency in all three programs and eventually, particularly strong skills in at least one.
  • Be patient with yourself. Adobe products are industry standards because they are pretty much all-powerful. The learning curve is steep, but once you reach a certain level, you realize that if you can imagine something, you can figure out how to make it come true. As Walt Disney didn’t say, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
  • You don’t have to switch to a Mac to be a graphic designer. No one will laugh at you, and if they do, then you’ll know that you don’t want to be their friend anyway. Use the type of computer that you can hit the ground running with.
  • Those sleek, minimalist photos of what a designer’s desk looks like? They’re true! (Although those are probably staged, because no designer actually works like that.) All you really need is: a computer, a mouse, a keyboard, and a subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud. Extras are: a desk, a chair, a ruler, a pencil, and a notebook (and it doesn’t have to be a Moleskine). Super extras are: a large monitor, a printer, a scanner (or app), a Wacom tablet (for illustration), a subscription to stock images, a budget for nicer typefaces, and a microfiber cloth to wipe off fingerprints from annoying passersby who can’t help touching your screen because what you’re making is so irresistible.

Tomorrow, I’ll share some suggestions on developing your ideas as a graphic designer. (Here is the post!)