Graphic Design Learning Pathway
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Every good designer i’ve ever met has been obsessed with details, enhancing technique, and perfecting their work. While design schools can help set you on the proper path and avoid running into dead ends early in your design career, self-teaching and drive is at the heart of becoming a better designer. Today, there are more options for learning design online than ever before, but the hiccups avoided by attending a traditional design school persist. To this end, we’ve compiled a sampling of courses, tutorials, and inspirational spaces into an ordered sequence in the hopes of providing some guidance to self-teaching future designers.
1. Design Concepts and Theory
While a number of design courses jump right into whatever software you’re designing with, a number of principles underlie all good design projects. The following resources center around principles of design, color theory, and textures.
- Check out j6’s “6 principles of design” for information on balance, proximity, alignment, repetition, contrast, and space.
- Also, some color theory is helpful. Check out Creative Bloq’s “How to Master Colour Theory” as well as their post on “How to Choose a Colour Theme.”
(If you’re looking for tools on how to develop successful color themes/palettes, the second Creative Bloq link is helpful.)
- Grid theory is important to keep in mind when moving into new design projects. Check out Creative Bloq’s post on the matter here.
- Finally, a post by Abduzeedo on “Using Texture to Get the Most Out of Design” that covers using texture in print and web design settings.
2. Establishing Style and Learning From Others
“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” –Picasso
Or, perhaps in nicer terms.
“Every idea is a juxtaposition. That’s it. A juxtaposition of existing concepts.”–Steven Grant
Now this doesn’t mean completely rip off other people’s work (perhaps that’s why i’m not a great artist), but there is a lot to be said for scouting out ideas from those who have already fleshed out what you’re working on today. While this is partially just practical–in that sometimes you just need some eye candy to get you past a creative block–there’s also a lot to be said for the use of archetypes, moods, typography, and the like for quickly disseminating the ideas your graphic is supposed to be presenting. Plus, establishing a style of your own will help make your work stand out in the pack. Here are some resources centered around establishing your style and keeping you inspired.
- For a comprehensive look at different design styles and history, check out A Short Introduction to Graphic Design History.
- Creative Bloq’s series on important design movements features explanations and examples of Constructivism, Bauhaus, and Modernism.
- FastcoDesign’s showcase of Pop Chart Lab’s graphic on the history of graphic design offers some even more visual inspiration on many, many graphic design movements here.
- Matthew Butterick’s practicalTypography site offers a 10 minute typography tutorial that guarantees to make you better at typography than 95% of professional writers and 70% of designers by just following 5 simple rules.
- Noupe offers a more comprehensive look at typography in their Crash Course in Typography feature.
3. Design Technique Basics
While there are a number of new design tools that limit functionality but make it easy for beginners to make graphics quickly (check out Canva or Piktochart if you’re interested) professional designers typically use feature-rich Adobe products. Here are some of the best tutorials on basic technique and learning popular adobe products. Design can be a wide-ranging discipline so we’ll just provide descriptions of different Adobe products below as well as accompanying educational resources.
- Adobe Photoshop is used for image manipulation and editing. UNC’s Health Sciences Library has produced a great introductory tutorial on Photoshop here.
- For more targeted Photoshop learning, Digital Arts Online has rounded up 61 of the best Photoshop tutorials and arranged them by subject here.
- Adobe Illustrator is–predictably–used for illustration, as well as manipulating vector graphics. Check out Terry White’s video on “the 10 things beginner’s want to know about Illustrator” here.
- For more targeted and project-based Illustrator learning, check out the free Illustrator courses at Tuts+. They also offer paid courses for a monthly subscription fee.
- Adobe inDesign is used for layout and design with a large number of applications ranging from print to infographics to wireframes. Check out another video by Terry White on how to get started with inDesign here.
- Lynda.com offers over 100 inDesign tutorials on a variety of practical and project-based topics after you sign up for a free trial. Subscribing for a fee also opens up their inDesign and other courses indefinitely. Check out their tutorials here.
You’ll need some creative fodder for your opening foray into your Adobe product of choice. Luckily there are a large number of free images, vector files and icons you can download.
- Creative Bloq’s list of 30 free icon sets for design is a good starting point for common yet sleek reusable icons. Check it out here.
- While they may not have every business-related stock image you need, Unsplash offers a large number of high quality and often beautiful images for free. If you’re looking for an image to play around with, or something for a project, check out their images here.
- Freepik offers a bit of everything we’ve covered in the last two bullet points, but they also provide thousands of high quality vector graphics for personal or business use, free. Check out their offerings here.
4. Learning the Design Process
Professional design involves providing a process through which you can progressively discern your client’s needs and work towards (over)achieving their specifications in a thoughtful and measurable manner. Your own process won’t come overnight, but there are some general industry standards and best practices for dealing with clients as a professional designer. Design process is also important personally as you come to understand what works for you creatively. While this process may vary by type of design you’re engaged in, a number of core design exercises transcend subspecialty boundaries, and some might be worth giving a shot. Perhaps you keep your own documentation on how to perform your favorite tricks across softwares, perhaps you always start with thumbnails, or perhaps a good old fashioned sketch gets your creative mind in gear. Here are some handpicked resources on the design process, from client relations to creativity exercises.
- Graphic Design Blender’s list of “40 tips for brand-new freelance designers” runs the gamut of process tips, from the place of the client, user and you, to how to “productively procrastinate.” All centered around how being a freelance designer is like being a project manager, and running your own business at once.
- HongKiat has a helpful series on being a creative freelancer, the most helpful of which for our context is their guide on how to work better with clients. This article discusses getting on the same page, pitching ideas, and productivity in client/freelancer settings.
- DNN Software’s article “Why Sketching is An Important Part of the Design Process” is centered around website design (something that will only apply to some designers), yet offers a number of reasons why starting your process with a sketch is practical, enjoyable, and speeds up the creative process.
- Tackling the creative side of design process, Creative Market has a good piece by Alisa Foytik at Graphic Market and Nicole LaRue at LaRue and Company titled “From Idea to Product: the Graphic Design Process.”
- Finally, just some good old fashioned exercises in creativity from HowDesign.com through their series “30 Days of Creativity Exercises and Design Inspiration.”
5. Moving Forward
You can work through every resource thus far presented and still have barely scratched the surface of your design career. Being a designer is about bringing a particular problem-solving skill set to the table, having a voracious appetite for learning (in your field or otherwise), and doing what it takes to create quality designs time and time again. Our final section of resources will center around rounding out a quality portfolio, what sites and designers you should follow for news and inspiration, and some career guides for graphic design.
- Creative Bloq offers an awesome resource through their article “Create the perfect design portfolio: 30 pro tips.” The guide is versatile as well, covering physical and online designs, as well as tips for honing in on your goals and selling your skills effectively.
- Though from 2013, Complex.com offers one of the most comprehensive lists of graphic designers to follow in their article “50 Influential Graphic Designs to Follow on Twitter”.
- If you’re looking for entire design blogs to follow, Ciera Design offers a list of their top 100 design blogs that should be followed here. Ciera Design specializes in brand identity and print design.
- Though it’s digitally-centered, the AWWWARDS allow the creative community to nominate and vote on the best, most creative, and most innovative designs online. Looking for some inspiration? They have a valuable blog as well as plenty of inspiration in the form of some of the best designs online today.
- Still wanting some all around tips for pursuing graphic design as a career? 1st Web Designer has produced a helpful guide covering basic education requirements, stats, salaries, and so forth for graphic designers here.