How to Become a Graphic Designer without any Experience
If there is one question I am asked frequently as a graphic designer it is this: “How do I become a graphic designer?” My short answer: There is no single, correct path to becoming a graphic designer. But have no fear, this article will detail the many options and pathways available to you.
Graphic design is unique as it combines creative, technical, and business skill sets. It’s a broad profession with many niches you can concentrate your work in.
Visualized in the graphic below are many graphic design specialties including logo and branding work, website design, user interface and experience design, package design, print and editorial design, layout design, stationery design, social media ad design, and more.
Design is a rewarding and enjoyable career that offers the ability to work at home as a freelancer or as part of a large company. Some may say that graphic design in the traditional sense is a profession in decline or dying. I love to disagree! Recently, graphic design has become a critical part of driving online sales through social media ads, web design, user experience, and other digital-based experiences.
Now, let’s get into how to become a graphic designer.
Do graphic designers need formal degrees?
Absolutely not! Traditionally, a four-year bachelor’s degree from a university or a two-year technical design school was a requirement for most graphic design jobs. The requirement for a formal design degree is fading as access to online education options grows. A formal degree program can be engaging and worthwhile, however, it is not always accessible to many students because of high costs and the time commitment.
There is an evolution happening in the way that businesses seek and find creative talent. They want to hire designers who are competent in design software tools and can also produce beautiful, professional, consistent work regardless of any formal training.
That being said, what you do need to learn are the foundations of great design and how to produce real-world and practical design projects that are in demand.
So, you want step-by-step. Let’s start here: What do I learn first?
8 graphic design theory basics
To become a confident graphic designer you’ll want to start with basic design theory foundations. Design theory is at the heart of strong design and can include things like color, layout, and typography theory.
Think about what grabs your attention when scrolling through your Instagram or Facebook feed. Ask yourself, “What makes me want to click on that ad?” That is the crucial question you help answer for companies when you are a graphic designer. Was it the headline? The font choice? The size of the type? The way the photo was cropped? The color palette that was used?
This list of vital design theory terms and techniques is essential for entry-level designers to be familiar with.
- Color theory – Know how to combine colors for certain situations
- Color harmonies – Learn the standard color harmonies and how different colors are connected on the color wheel
- Typography – Know the difference between font types like sans-serif, serif, and script
- Font pairing – Pair different typefaces together in one design document and have them look cohesive
- Type and layout hierarchy – Learn how to focus the viewer first on the most important items to the least important
- Layout – Knowing which layouts work best for certain situations
- Contrast and scale – Learn how to use contrast and scale (size)
- Design psychology – Understand how to set the mood and tone for a design piece that matches the desired emotion you want to evoke
Of course, there are many other design theory fundamentals you will want to master that are not on this shortlist, but these are some of the big ones to get you started.
Industry-standard software for designers
Once you feel confident with the basics of design theory, you’re ready to start practicing your design knowledge in practical ways. There are many choices when it comes to learning graphic design software. The industry-standard software is the Adobe Creative Cloud suite of products. The three most commonly used Adobe products are Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign.
There are alternative design programs you can learn if the Adobe Creative Cloud subscription is a bit too expensive for you. One option from a company called Serif is the Affinity suite which includes photo editing program Affinity Photo, vector program Affinity Designer, and layout program Affinity Publisher.
Lastly, there are free open-source software options; they may not have all the bells and whistles as the aforementioned software, but they provide a similar experience. For photo editing there’s GIMP and for vectors there’s Inkscape.
No matter which specific software vendor you use, you should get familiar with the three types of design software:
- Photo editing software (Photoshop, Affinity Photo, GIMP):
Photos can play vital roles in graphic design so learning a photo editing
software is imperative for editing, as well as preparing and creating web graphics headers, social media images, GIFs, and more.
- Vector-based software (Illustrator, Affinity Designer, Inkscape):
A vector-based program is where you will create most of your logo designs, icons, and illustrations. Vectors are scalable graphics, which means you can stretch a graphic or logo 10 times its size and it remains crisp and clear. Vector software has something called the pen tool, which makes crafting and editing custom shapes a breeze.
- Layout software (InDesign, Affinity Publisher):
Knowing layout software is required if you want to design for books, magazines, and PDFs. Layout software was created to handle a large number of pages. It also has extra paragraph management tools and options that help you create the types of layouts you see in magazines and catalogs.
Practice projects for new designers
It is time to create! Now that you know a bit of design theory and have learned the basics of some of the software, you are ready for real-world practice. As they say, “practice makes perfect,” and that cannot be more true when it comes to learning graphic design.
Now, we’ll look at the most common types of projects graphic designers work on. Moving through each of these design tasks will help you not only understand how to put them together technically but to also help you figure out your design focus and your unique design style.
- Logo Design
Logo creation is consistently an in-demand graphic design task. From sketching concepts to recreating the sketch in vector format to incorporating color, logo design is a rewarding graphic design focus. It takes some time to master, but I encourage you to create one logo design every day while you’re learning or even participate in a Logo a Day challenge to get comfortable with the logo brainstorming process.
- Branded Materials and Print Projects
Companies employ graphic designers to put their brand on all sorts of items from t-shirts, hats, stationery, large banners, signage, and more. As a graphic designer, you need to know how to design a great layout for these products and how to use your software to size and export files for professional printing.
- Digital Design Projects
This can include items like social media graphics, website headers, email campaigns, GIFs, icons, digital PDFs, and more. If you learn how to produce digital-based graphics you can be sure to stay in-demand as a graphic designer.
- Editorial Design
A graphic designer may be in charge of creating an entire magazine layout. This includes deciding where the article’s headlines and photos go on a page, the front cover, and more. This also can include book and catalog layouts. You will also want to know how to prepare and export these files so they can be produced by professional printers.
- Custom Graphics, Icons and Illustrations
Some graphic designers like to do custom illustrations and digitize them. You see this a lot on custom illustrated t-shirt designs, bags, and other types of apparel and home decor.
That is a whole lot to learn! You might ask, “Am I supposed to master all of those project types?” Here is my suggestion: Try out several of the popular graphic design project types listed above to see if you enjoy certain types more than others. There is no way one graphic designer can be amazing at all project types. That is why there are graphic design specialties such as print design or logo design.
Finding a graphic design community
Building a community of colleagues in the industry is a great way to meet other beginners and learn from seasoned professionals? Most formal four-year design programs have classes full of fellow students to relate to and connect with. What about those learning online?
There are several websites that allow designers to provide feedback on your work and to give feedback to others. There are also some great Facebook, YouTube, and other social media design communities you can be a part of too! I have a Facebook group for my students to give and receive feedback. It is a lovely community that provides positive support and advice. Some of the other more common places to find other designers and to post your work are:
I also suggest finding and following designers in your chosen focus area. This allows you to keep up with what is trending and what is successful in the world of design. Following others keeps you motivated and can help you find a little design inspiration.
Finding your first graphic design job
So, I have given you a framework for getting started and perhaps you feel overwhelmed with all that you need to learn. After all, you are learning new concepts, software, and how to put it all into action. Relax, you got this! Take it one step at a time. Becoming a graphic designer does take a bit of patience. But with each new project and course taken, you will gain confidence and experience.
I suggest looking for some non-profit or volunteer work at first to help you continue to practice the design projects I mention above. Start with smaller projects and work your way up to more in-depth projects depending on your design focus
Then, slowly move your way to some paid work. This might involve finding a small job on sites like Upwork. Or it may mean connecting with local businesses to see if they need any design work.
There is also the option of applying to full-time entry-level positions at a company. This would require you to build a design portfolio containing all of the practice work you have created at this point. But that’s an article for another day.
Once you start down the road of this learning journey you will find that graphic design is an incredibly exciting and rewarding career.
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