How to Learn Graphic Design: A U.S. News Guide

If you want to learn graphic design, the tools are at your fingertips. You can pick up these skills on YouTube or in online courses and make logos, posters, social media graphics and more.

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“There is no budget limitation to becoming a graphic designer,” says Lindsay Marsh, graphic design instructor at online learning sites Udemy and Skillshare.

Here’s a closer look at graphic design and what classes can help you get started.

Graphic designers use visuals, text and color to communicate a message.

“When you’re a graphic designer, you’re selling a product or a service; you’re not just creating pretty stuff,” Marsh says. “There is intentionality to everything you create. There’s a sales goal. There’s a communication goal.”

Because graphic design is such a broad field, there are few limitations on the types of projects designers do.

“You hired a graphic designer (and) they did your business cards, your logo, they might even design your website,” says Daniel Walter Scott, digital designer and lead software trainer at Bring Your Own Laptop.

While graphic designers are in charge of their designs, they may collaborate with copywriters, photographers, studio managers and others throughout the process. The amount of teamwork depends on their work environment.

Freelance designers work directly with the client and wear many hats. They often take on more stress, Scott says, because freelancers have to manage every step of the project, from designing to billing. Additionally, budgets are usually smaller for freelance work.

Agency work tends to involve bigger budgets and projects, more collaboration, and less client interaction. Agency designers may have less creative control over a project, Scott says, but they’re given clear parameters to work within.

“In an agency, you’re allowed to focus as a designer a lot more,” he says.

To understand what clients want, designers need a clearly written brief, a plan that lays out the project’s goals and scope. Having a marketing or business background can help designers understand the brief and how they can execute it.

The brief also defines the tone of the project, its target audience and the competition. To start a project, designers might put together mood boards – collections of color swatches, magazine pages and other media – for inspiration.

“There is a problem to be solved,” Scott says. “And it can be really tough in the beginning if you don’t get a clear brief, then you have no idea what you’re solving.”

Throughout the process, feedback from clients is essential and keeps the project on track.

“When there’s a clear brief, the feedback can often be a lot more concise, and it might be just a different interpretation of what was delivered,” Scott says.

Start learning graphic design by exploring the theory involved in making design decisions.

Key topics within design theory include color theory, typography, contrast and scale, balance, alignment, proximity, rhythm, and design psychology. Different teachers may emphasize different aspects of each topic, so it’s important to seek multiple sources of information.

Lessons span from copyright and trademark laws in design to Pantone and other color systems, the psychology of color in branding, and past and current design trends.

To complement beginner courses, reading graphic design books is a great way to learn about the field. Check out some of the books below.

  • “Graphic Design School: The Principles and Practice of Graphic Design” by David Dabner, Sandra Stewart and Eric Zempol gives an overview of the visual communications field, with a focus on design specialties.
  • “Burn Your Portfolio: Stuff They Don’t Teach You in Design School, But Should” by Michael Janda is a practical guide for the industry.
  • For learning the tools of branding, “Designing Brand Identity” by Alina Wheeler guides readers through defining a brand.
  • “Thinking with Type” by Ellen Lupton is a guide for how to use typography in visual communication.
  • “Logo Modernism” by Jens Muller and R. Roger Remington explores logos, modernism and graphic design in relation to corporate identity.
  • For a look into how graphic designers approach their work, “How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer” by Debbie Millman examines design psychology through interviews with pivotal designers.

Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator and After Effects are widely used for graphic design.

The Adobe Creative Cloud products enable designers to work on photography, design, video, web and user experience creations. A subscription to the Adobe collection of more than 20 apps and services costs around $50 a month for an individual.

“Adobe is clearly the No. 1 software of choice,” Marsh says.

Affinity also has photo editing, desktop publishing and graphic design software. Affinity products cost around $50 each and aren’t bundled like Adobe’s. The products include Affinity Photo, Affinity Designer and Affinity Publisher, which are comparable to Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign, respectively.

Spending a lot on software might not be necessary. Lessons on general design topics typically aren’t tied to a particular type of software.

“I have a lot of students from developing countries who don’t have the financial resources to go to a two- or four-year institution,” Marsh says. “But they can come and take a Udemy class, pay $10, pay $15, find cheaper alternative software and they can literally start a career, or start making money for their family.”

Both Adobe and Affinity offer free trials of their products. Additionally, beginners can opt to use free graphic design software available online, including Canva for simple designs, Vectr and Inkscape for vector graphics like logos, and GIMP for cross-platform photo editing.

To get more experience using the software, look for design challenges online. Scott runs challenges for his students to design works of their own, receive feedback and ultimately create portfolio pieces. Other design challenge resources include Sharpen.Design, a random design challenge generator, and Briefz, a project brief idea generator.

After you have the software, the only prerequisites to learning graphic design are passion and a laptop, Marsh says.

Get to Know Adobe Photoshop

Designers use Photoshop to manipulate photos and digital graphics. Photoshop courses teach you how to edit photos by working with layers, shapes, colors, text, cropping, retouching, masking, shadows, filters, smart objects and more.

In Marsh’s Adobe masterclass, she includes a lesson on using Photoshop to create YouTube thumbnails and images for other social media.

Look for courses based on your skill level. Don’t start with a masterclass, which is usually the more intensive option, if you’re a beginner, Scott says. Instead, consider courses with “essential” in the name.

Get to Know Adobe Illustrator

Adobe Illustrator lets designers create illustrations, icons, typography and logo designs for branding. The program uses vector graphics, images created with mathematical formulas. These images can be enlarged without affecting their appearance, making them well-suited for responsive web designs, referring to designs that adjust to different screen sizes.

Marsh teaches Illustrator with tracing worksheets for students to practice tracing shapes. Look for free Illustrator courses on YouTube to get an introduction.

Get to Know Adobe InDesign

InDesign is a program used to create layouts and page designs for print and digital media. Designers use the software for magazines, books, posters, brochures, interactive PDFs and more. InDesign tools let you style graphics, images, text and tables to create appealing layouts. Look for beginner tips for InDesign on YouTube.

Get to Know Adobe After Effects

After Effects is for creating film special effects, infographics, motion graphics designs and moving type. You can practice by creating animated pie charts and bar graphs, lower thirds graphics, opening credits, and other animations. Look for beginner courses on After Effects on YouTube.

“My most popular course on Udemy by far is my UX course for Adobe XD; it’s crazy big,” Scott says.

Here’s a look at UI and UX design and how they relate to graphic design.

UI Design: User interface design focuses on the look of websites and apps, including the text, colors and images, and function of elements like icons, buttons and responsive design.

UX Design: User experience is the way someone interacts with a company and its products and services. Therefore, the user experience design of a web-based product focuses on how it makes users feel and whether they can easily accomplish a desired task.

UI and UX designers help companies achieve the goals they set for their web pages or an app. For example, if the company wants people to sign up for a newsletter, Scott says, the UI designer finds ways to steer people toward that choice and the UX designer helps quantify how well different options are working. Often, the same person is responsible for a product’s UI and UX design.

To test whether certain elements are effective, these designers create a hypothesis, conduct A/B testing and gather feedback throughout. “(Clients) don’t just want things that look good based on the trust of the designer,” Scott says. “They want the designer to prove what works best, and that ends up happening through user testing.”

Having UI/UX skills may increase your chances of getting hired.

“Graphic design is a harder industry to be in these days because traditional print is not around as much and the real value of being a designer has been shifted to UI/UX,” Scott says. But for someone with a graphic design background to learn UI/UX design, it’s not a big hurdle, he adds.

One of the easiest ways to develop a portfolio is to take online courses with built-in projects.

Look for courses that assign homework rather than just take you through slides, Scott says. Doing practical assignments gives you experience using the software.

A strong portfolio expresses the type of work you want to do, Scott says, so create pieces for the job you want. Even if you want to work in print media, you need a digital portfolio, he says. Only rarely will an employer ask for a printed copy of your portfolio.

Having an online presence is also important and can help you find a community of graphic designers and other artists to share ideas and feedback. To improve your work, you must take criticism.

“If you look at something for so long without getting someone else’s eye on it, you lose focus,” Marsh says. “You lose that outsider’s perspective.”

Designers can look for these communities on social media, and Marsh suggests seeking out local creatives to meet with at coffee shops. On sites like Behance and Dribbble, you can post your work for feedback from a larger audience of designers.

Instagram is a good source for inspiration, Scott says, and Facebook and LinkedIn groups are useful for sharing industry information. You can learn what other graphic designers bill for their work, offer support, and share frustrations about clients and freelancing. On Twitter, you can follow design professionals and stay on top of what’s new in the field.

Graphic design online courses are available for just about any level of learner. Online learning marketplace Udemy has a range of courses, some that are free and some that cost upward of $100. Skillshare has free courses and offers monthly and annual subscriptions, $15 or $99, for full access to its platform. Coursera has free courses, though some cost around $49.

It’s important to take classes that allow you to experiment and explore. Start by taking introductory courses on graphic design basics and Adobe or Affinity software.

Graphic design classes may have projects covering web design of icons and layouts; magazines and books; logos; branding for apparel, banners, posters and business cards; social media advertisements; and email campaigns.

Online courses make one-on-one coaching for graphic design projects difficult. Marsh acknowledges it’s impossible to review the work of each of the 200,000 students she’s had so far, but she conducts live reviews through her community Facebook group.

Students looking for more individual attention can find it in four-year college degree programs or in-person courses. The student and faculty network, classroom resources, and exposure to a range of design topics are all part of the college experience.

“There’s huge benefits to a four-year college degree in graphic design because you get colleagues, you get fellow students, you get critiques from instructors, you get a lot more hands-on learning,” Marsh says.

Professionals come from backgrounds in marketing, tech, visual arts and communications, among others, to learn the basics of graphic design and make a career change.

“Nobody cares if you’re self-taught or whether you went to the best design school,” says Scott, who has taught graphic design online for more than 15 years.

Pick an area to specialize in and become an expert, whether it’s visual, motion graphics or marketing design, among others. “You can’t be a generalist graphic designer these days,” he says.

Be prepared to show your skills with examples of the work you want to do in your portfolio.

You can work as a freelancer, in-house at a company or at an agency, or do a mix.

Keep learning new design skills, practice, interact with your design community and seek feedback.

“There’s free, open-source software, (and) education costs are so much lower,” Marsh says. “It really opens the door now that graphic design is not an expensive field as it used to be.”

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