How To Become A Graphic Designer Without Going To School

Dana NicoleGraphic DesignLeave a Comment

In this blog post I'm giving you the exact steps and resources I used to become a graphic designer without going to school. It is entirely possible to build a successful career as a designer without formal education.

So you want to know how to become a graphic designer? 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, so let’s dive right into how to become a graphic designer!

How to Become a Graphic Designer

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.

Luckily, in order to be a graphic designer you don’t need to necessarily be a good artist, but you do need to know some basics.

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, then it can do the same for you. 

I am definitely not a good artist, and if you talk to many graphic designers they may say the same thing about themselves. 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 becoming a graphic designer 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 learn 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 (and short) read to get you thinking of basic graphic design theory is Molly Bang’s Picture This book.

BONUS: This book is a picture book, it doesn’t get any easier to read than a picture book.

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 book mark 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 a 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.

A graphic design degree can cost upwards of $60,000 but this course is currently less than $20 and is a STEAL!

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.

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 Become a Graphic Designer?

Realistically, you can learn the above software and tools and be ready within a month.

But you also might feel more comfortable going a bit slower, working to build up your portfolio and diving into the above steps in a slower fashion.

This will depend on you as a person and how quickly you pick things up.

More Resources to Help You Become a Graphic Designer

  • Color Design Workbook: This book taught me everything I know about the psychology of color within design. I prefer to have this as a book so I can flip through it and reference it, and use it as a source of inspiration.
  • Logo Type: As my design style is minimal, I love to have this book chock-full of minimal type logos for inspiration on hand at all times. And as a bit of a nerd, I will sometimes sit down and just gawk at all the gorgeous designs within this book. It fills me up with so much inspiration.
  • You Can Draw in 30 Days: The Fun, Easy Way to Learn to Draw in One Month or Less: I already mentioned this book above, but it was very instrumental in teaching me how to draw that I wanted to include it on this list again.
  • Logo Design Love

*some of the links above are affiliate links meaning that I make a small commission for referring this product to you. The price is not inflated at all in order to compensate for my commission earned*


In Conclusion: How to Become a Graphic Designer

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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