How to Become a Designer Without Going to Design School

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You don’t need a fancy four-year degree to become a designer if you follow this self-taught designer’s detailed step-by-step plan to teach yourself. 

By Karen X. Cheng (Designer, Exec)

I got my job as a designer without going to design school. I had hacked together my own design education in six months while working a full-time job. I didn’t think I was ready but started applying for jobs anyway – and got a job at a great startup, Exec.

To be clear, I’m nowhere near as good as those design prodigies that come out of a four-year education at an elite school like RISD. But I’m definitely good enough to do my job well. I’m the only designer at Exec, so I do a pretty wide range of things – visual and interaction design, print, web, and mobile app design.

Maybe you want to change careers and become a designer full-time. Or you want to learn some basics for your startup or side project.

This is a guide to teach yourself design.

Step 1. Learn to See

The biggest mistake is jumping into Photoshop too fast. Learning Photoshop does not make you a designer, just like buying paintbrushes does not make you an artist. Start with the foundation.

First, learn how to draw.

  • You don’t have to sit in a room with a bunch of other artists trying to draw a naked woman.
  • You don’t even have to get that good at drawing. Just learn some basics so you can be comfortable sketching with a pen.
  • You only have to do one thing to learn how to draw: get the book You Can Draw in 30 days and practice for half an hour every day for a month. I’ve looked at a lot of drawing books and this is one of the best.

Learn graphic design theory

  • Start with the book Picture This. It’s a story book of Little Red Riding hood, but will teach you the foundations of graphic design at the same time.
  • Learn about color, typography, and designing with a grid. If you can find a local class to teach the basics of graphic design, take it.
  • Go through a few of these tutorials every day.

Learn some basics in user experience

Learn how to write

  • Here is a sure sign of a bad designer: their mockups are filled with placeholder text like Lorem Ipsum. A good designer is a good communicator. A good designer thinks through the entire experience, choosing every word carefully. Write for humans. Don’t write in the academic tone you used to make yourself sound smart in school papers.
  • Read Made to Stick, one of my favorite books of all time. It will teach you how to suck in your readers.
  • Voice and Tone is a website full of gems of good writing examples.

Step 2. Learn How to Use Photoshop and Illustrator

Hooray! Now you’ve got a pretty solid foundation – both visual and UX. You’re ready to learn Photoshop. Actually, I recommend starting with Illustrator first and then moving on to Photoshop after. Illustrator is what designers use to make logos and icons.

Learn Illustrator

  • There are a ton of books, online tutorials and in-person classes to learn Illustrator. Choose the style that works best for you. Here are the books I found especially helpful to learn the basics of Illustrator:
  • Adobe Illustrator Classroom in a Book – It’s boring, but if you get through at least half of it, you’ll know your way around Illustrator pretty well.
  • Vector Basic Training – This book teaches you how to make things in Illustrator that actually look good.
  • Now for the fun stuff! Follow these online tutorials and be impressed by what you can make. Here are two my favorites – a logo and a scenic landscape.

Learn Photoshop

Step 3. Learn Some Specialities

Do you want to design mobile apps? Websites? Infographics? Explore them all, and pick and choose the ones you enjoy to get better at them.

Learn Logo Design

  • Learn how to make a logo that doesn’t suck: Logo Design Love
  • You’ll want to take it a step further than a logo though. Learn to create a consistent brand – from the website to the business cards. Check out this book, Designing Brand Identity.

Learn Mobile App Design

  • Start with this tutorial to get your feet wet on visual design for mobile apps.
  • Read this short but very comprehensive and well-thought out book on iPhone design: Tapworthy. It will teach you how to make an app that not only looks good but is easy to use.
  • Geek out on the apps on your phone. Critique them. What works and what doesn’t?

Learn Web Design

Now for the hairy question of whether you need to know HTML/CSS as a designer: It depends on the job. Knowing it will definitely give you an edge in the job market. Even if you don’t want to be a web developer, it helps to know some basics. That way you know what is possible and what isn’t.

There are so many great resources to learn HTML and CSS:

  • My favorite free one is Web Design Tuts.
  • My favorite paid one (pretty affordable at $25/month) is Treehouse. If you’re starting from the beginning and want someone to explain things clearly and comprehensively, splurge for Treehouse tutorials.

Step 4. Build Your Portfolio

You don’t need to go to a fancy design school to get a job as a designer. But you do need a solid portfolio.

How do you build a portfolio if you’re just starting out for the first time? The good news is you don’t need to work on real projects with real clients to build a portfolio. Make up your own side projects. Here are a few ideas:

  • Design silly ideas for t-shirts.
  • Find poorly designed websites and redesign them.
  • Got an idea for an iPhone app? Mock it up.
  • Join a team at Startup Weekend and be a designer on a weekend project.
  • Enter a 99 designs contest to practice designing to a brief.
  • Do the graphic design exercises in the Creative Workshop book.
  • Find a local non-profit and offer to design for free.

Resist the temptation to include every thing you’ve ever designed in your portfolio. This is a place for your strongest work only.

Steal, steal, steal at first. Don’t worry about being original – that will come later, once you are more comfortable with your craft. When you learn a musical instrument, you learn how to play other people’s songs before composing your own. Same goes for design. Steal like an artist.

Go to Dribbble for inspiration on some of the best designers. Check out pttrns for iOS inspiration, and patterntap for website inspiration.

Step 5: Get a Job as a Designer

When I first started learning design, I went to a job search workshop for designers. I walked into a room full of designers who had much more experience than I did – 5, 10, 15 years experience. All of them were looking for jobs. That was intimidating. There I was, trying to teach myself design, knowing I was competing with these experienced designers.

And yet six months later, I got a design job. There was one key difference between me and many of the other designers that gave me an edge: I knew how to work with developers.

The biggest factor to boost your employability is to be able to work with developers. Learn some interaction design. Learn some basic HTML and CSS. Designers in the tech industry (interaction designers, web designers, app designers) are in extremely high demand and are paid well. That’s where the jobs are right now.

If you don’t have any experience working with developers, get some. Go to Startup Weekend, go to hackathons, or find a developer through a project collaboration site.

Make a personal website and make your portfolio the centerpiece.

Go out and make serendipity happen – tell everyone you know that you’re looking for a job as a designer. You never know who might know someone.

Research companies and agencies you might be interested in. Look on LinkedIn for second and third degree connections to people who work at those companies and ask for intros. The best way to get a job is through a connection. If you don’t have a connection, there’s still a lot you can do to give yourself an edge.

Once You’ve Got the Job, Keep Learning

I’ve been at Exec for a year now and have learned a ton on the job. I seek out designers who are much more talented than I am, and learn from them. I find design classes (good online ones are SkillshareGeneral AssemblyTreehouse, and TutsPlus). I work on side projects. I geek out at the design section of bookstores. There is still so much to learn and to improve on.

Keep your skills sharp, and always keep learning.

Questions? Say hi at @karenxcheng.

This post originally appeared on Karen’s personal blog. Photo credit: Juhan Sonin via Flickr.

Design pros, what other resources or tricks would you recommend for newbies?

karen cheng headshotAbout the blogger: Karen lives in San Francisco and is a designer at Exec. She enjoys creating something out of nothing, whether it’s a song, a logo, or the design of an app. She also likes to write and perform music and plays in a band, Electric Villain. At the moment though, her instrument of choice is cello.