How To Learn Graphic Design Without Going To School

Dana NicoleGraphic DesignLeave a Comment

Last updated on September 20th, 2019

Learn graphic design without going to school or without a degree. If you would like to become a graphic designer, you can do so for free or by taking affordable courses. I taught myself graphic design and have helped many others learn to become designers through this article. Keep reading and you got this!

So you want to learn graphic design? You’re in the right spot! I’m going to teach you how I became a graphic designer with zero experience and without holding a degree in graphic design. I am now a professional freelance designer who makes a living doing what I love (while working from home for myself).

First, let me say that this article isn’t meant to undervalue those who do go to design school.

Designers who spend years working on their craft are obviously very knowledgeable and do amazing work.

But sometimes school isn’t in the budget for everyone and you might want to learn graphic design on your own, so let’s dive right into how to become a graphic designer!

Steps to Learn Graphic Design

Step 1: Learn to Draw

The first thing you will learn in design school is to learn to draw and learn the fundamentals of art, thus, when teaching yourself graphic design you should start with this step.

My drawings used to look like they were done with my feet. I’m not going to lie, I was not a good artist.

I’m creative, sure, but could I draw freehand? Nope! So if Mark Kistler’s book You Can Draw in 30 Days: The Fun, Easy Way to Learn to Draw in One Month or Less can get my drawings to look good (and help me understand the principals of drawing), then it can do the same for you.

This resource is worth the investment (which is only a few cups of coffee)!

I could have never hand-drawn the flower in the logo prior to reading this book:

This book doesn’t actually teach you how to become a graphic designer, but it teaches you the most important first steps when learning graphic design: the basics of art.

You learn all sorts of incredibly handy information, such as object shading and highlighting, how to give your designs more depth and structure, and different techniques that you won’t come across if you dive straight into learning Adobe Illustrator.

You might be asking “but what’s the big deal? Graphic design software has rulers and the ability to draw straight lines! So why would a drawing book help me if Illustrator already does all that for me?”

I had the same questions! Why should I learn how to draw if all I want to do is learn graphic design? What gives?!

Well, if you want to know how to become a graphic designer, learning to draw is important.

Illustrator (which is a program you’ll use to design your work) doesn’t tell you when your shadows are all in the wrong direction or when you have got the proportions all messed up.

And Illustrator also doesn’t tell you when you are trying to draw a face and the eyes are half the size they should be. But this book does. It helps you through it all.

I can’t tell you enough how important it is to learn how to draw first before you teach yourself any graphic design.

Step 2: Learn Graphic Design Theory

Your next step in learning graphic design is to learn some theory.

“But theory is so boring”. I know, I know. Graphic design theory is rarely fun but I’m here to tell you how to become a graphic designer and this is super important.

If you want to become a graphic designer you’re going to need to learn some of the boring stuff before jumping into the fun stuff.

Just because you are teaching yourself doesn’t mean you get to skip out on everything that’s is boring!

Knowing what types of fonts and colors go together and what doesn’t go together is going to help your designs immensely.

So teach yourself graphic design theory!

For example, did you know that lime green Comic Sans font is not a good choice? (If you answered no, please see this article on why designers hate comic sans. In fact, you should just read this article anyway as it offers a gentle introduction to typography). 

In regards to theory, I suggest starting off with learning the basics of color, typography, shape, space, lines, texture and size.

A great read to get you thinking of basic graphic design theory is the book Visual Grammer.

These books are some of my top picks for becoming a graphic designer and learning graphic design theory:

Step 3: Get Some Graphic Design Tools

As a bit of a digital nomad, my office moves around a lot so I like to keep it minimal when it comes to the tools I use. Luckily, graphic design doesn’t require lots of gadgets and gizmos (or oozits and whatzits #thelittlemermaid).

But the one thing you will need to become a graphic designer is graphic design software – this is non-negotiable 🙂

You can purchase Adobe Creative Cloud here which contains:

  • Illustrator: will be used for logos and other vector-based graphics
  • Photoshop: will be used to create special effects and edit media
  • InDesign: will be used to create materials for print or online such as brochures, PDF’s, books etc.

Plus many other programs that you can use as you grow!

Here’s where you may want to bookmark this article. Because when you are first learning how to become a graphic designer you aren’t going to need the below item, but after you’ve figured out the theory, how to draw and are comfortable in the above programs, you might find that you need some type of tablet.

The tablet I recommend is the Wacom Intuos Draw Tablet. It’s a very affordable piece of equipment that I couldn’t do without.

I’ve had mine for over two years and am kicking myself for not getting it sooner!

This tablet makes illustration and logo creation a breeze and lets me have way more control over my designs than when I was just using a mouse.

I actually developed tendinitis in my finger from using my mouse so much, and my designs took much longer to create as I tried to draw with a mouse.

Now, I use my tablet for just about everything including hand-lettering, logo creation, masking in Photoshop…and let’s just say I don’t know what I would do with it.

And that’s it! You don’t need to have a closet full of supplies to get started as a graphic designer.

Step 4: Learn the Tools of Graphic Design

Now that you have the tools and the know the foundation of graphic design, it’s time to actually learn the tools (yes! You finally made it to the step where you are going to actually learn how to become a graphic designer that can make designs)!

I’m thankful for all the affordable online courses out there because they will save you months of time trying to piece everything together on your own.

This course is currently less than $20 and will help you figure out how to use the tools and software. Opening up Photoshop for the first time is overwhelming, but knowing the basics will propel your learning forward much faster.

If you want to become a graphic designer, you obviously need to learn the tools and having video instruction will make that process so much easier, so I highly recommend signing up for the above course, but again, bookmark this article and come back to it when you are ready.

After you’ve learned the basics, you can start learning how to really use the tools to make gorgeous designs.

After I had figured out the basics of the programs I was going to be using, I went over to Youtube and followed along with an endless amount of tutorials. YouTube is great because you can learn by doing, seeing and hearing.

Here are some of my favorite YouTube channels to learn graphic design:

  • Spoon Graphics: My favorite tutorial was the Tattoo Inspired Vector Illustration in Adobe Illustrator. Prior to buying a tablet, I searched high and low for some quick way to create stipple shading. So bookmark this tutorial for when you are ready to stipple shade. 
  • Design Tuts: There are some more advanced sports logo tutorials on this channel but it’s really helpful to see the process and how more advanced designs get formed.
  • Will Patteson: His channel is full of great information. Everything from tutorials to Q&A’s about freelancing. This is my go-to channel and helped me so much as a beginner. 
  • Helen Bradley: This channel is my favorite for beginners. I came across Helen Bradley while searching how to make wreaths. Her tutorials are excellent for beginners.
  • PHLEARN: This channel is strictly Photoshop. Verbal instructions make the tutorials easy to follow. Some other channels (not PHLEARN) have tutorials that don’t have verbal instruction and only have music playing, which can be frustrating for a beginner.  
  • Tasty Tuts: If you don’t want to read about graphic design theory, this channel offers video versions for you. I also learned InDesign by going through 15 InDesign lessons offered on this channel. Here is lesson one; the video description contains the other lessons.
  • Skill Share: Videos on a range of creative topics.
  • Matt BorchertThis video on Matt’s channel discusses designer ethics and is a must-watch.
  • Graphic Tweakz: Logo tutorial galore!  

Step 5: Build Up Your Graphic Design Portfolio

My biggest worry, when I was becoming a graphic designer, was that nobody was going to want to work with me because I did not go to school for design.

This never ended up being an issue because of one thing that I unintentionally did.

I created a portfolio for myself as I was learning.

By taking the courses listed in step 4, you’ll have created designs as you are going through the courses – feel free to use these in your portfolio until you have more work.

A lot of people are scared to venture out into doing real work.

“What if they ask for my credentials or my degree?!” Maybe you’re scared of this to? Let me tell you something – I’ve never been asked once in my career for my credentials.

I have, however, been asked to see past work or a portfolio, and when my prospects see my portfolio, they almost always book immediately.

So where else can you find small projects to help develop your portfolio if you want to become a graphic designer?

There are lots of sites that allow graphic designers to pick up work. When I first started building my portfolio I found clients through friends and family, my local sub-Reddit, and 99designs.

I got a lot of graphic design practice through 99 Designs but I personally wouldn’t use it if I was serious about making an income, because you have to design for free and your designs only get chosen if the client likes it best out of the rest of the designs.

I don’t like advising anyone to work for free, but 99 Designs does give you some real-life examples when you are just started out. You can a brief, client information and can see how everything works.

How Long Does it Take to Learn Graphic Design?

Realistically, it can take you a few months to learn to tools, but learning graphic design is truly a lifelong experience and is so much more than just knowing how to use the tools.

I spent a year learning graphic design (in my evenings) before I was confident enough to take on a client.

And even then, I’ve grown so much since then (as have my designs)!

Is it Easy to Learn Graphic Design?

Just because there are only five steps listed here, don’t think you’ll be able to fly through them in a week’s time 😉

Becoming a graphic designer is a long learning process, and each step can take you anywhere from several weeks to several months.

It’s all going to be dependent on how much time you want to put towards learning each element.

Not to mention, this is a very bare minimum guide. As you get going, you’re going to find so many techniques that you’ll want to expand on and try for yourself!

The beauty with graphic design is that it is art (functional art), and like all other forms of art, you can express yourself in a variety of different ways.

Once you get familiar with graphic design, you’ll be able to figure out what you’d like to specialize in.

For example, I think logo designers who specialize in hand-lettering and custom typography are incredible. It’s not something I’ve been able to master myself, but I love coming across some beautiful hand-lettered logos!

More Resources to Help You Learn Graphic Design

In Conclusion: How to Learn Graphic Design

Now that you know how to become a graphic designer all on your own without going to school or getting a degree, let’s quickly go over the steps:

  1. Learn to draw
  2. Learn graphic design theory
  3. Sign up with Adobe Creative Cloud and get your tools
  4. Learn Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign
  5. Build your portfolio

And once you have started to build up your portfolio, it’s time to open up your freelance business as a graphic designer!

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About the Author

Dana Nicole

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Dana Nicole is a freelance content marketer. She has a Bachelor of Business with a major in marketing and has over 10 years of experience in marketing. She's passionate about Instagram marketing, blogging and SEO. Dana currently works with B2B and SaaS clients and uses her blog to help small businesses and bloggers learn online marketing!

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