Design theory is a body of concepts and precepts that explains the operation of graphic design.
Because of their complexity and strength, these tools require some training before usage.
Compile conceptual pieces for your first portfolio while honing your abilities.
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In this article I will teach you everything you need to know about becoming a graphic designer.
There are certain skills and a certain mindset you’ll need to develop in order to be successful.
First, I'm gonna tell you my story about how I became a graphic designer.
Next, I will give you some tips and recommendations, so that you can get there much faster!
I broke it down into 5 steps for you to follow in order to become a designer.
I was born in a small town called Zamość in Poland, Europe.
When I started out as a designer, I was only 16 years old (I was still in high-school).
Now, I’m 35 years old, and I live in Brooklyn, New York, from where I run my small design studio.
I’ve gone through it all, from doing freelance work on sites like Upwork (previously Elance).
To getting hired as a full-time designer—for example, I worked for one of the best branding firms in Poland — BNA.pl
To obtaining an MFA at one of the best art schools in Poland (Academy of Fine Arts).
To winning a scholarship and studying abroad in Logroño, Spain. (Escuela Superior de Diseño)
To getting an apprenticeship at one of the best identity firms in the world—(Chermayeff&Geismar&Haviv) and coming to New York.
Here, in New York I’ve also worked for a few other design agencies as a freelancer (through a hiring agency CreativeCircle).
Where I had an opportunity to work for some of the biggest brands like CNN, Aquafina or Pfizer just to name a few.
I’ve come a long way, and now I want to share my tips with you, so that you can create an exciting career for yourself.
There are a lot of ways in which you can begin your graphic design career, but I’d strongly advise you to master the basics of design theory first.
To put it simply, design theory is a collection of ideas and principles that explain how graphic design works.
If you can master some fundamentals like: composition, typography and color—it will set you on the right path.
This will help you critique your design work so you can get better much faster.
You simply won’t make as many rookie mistakes early on as I did—just look at some of my early designs.
BTW—I was surprised to discover that some of my early design work is still actually in use, for example this website and this website and this logo or this one.
Me personally, I started out as self-taught graphic designer by learning from forums, blogs, books and magazines.
Then, I'd also analyze the work of sone of the best designers out there, trying to figure out how it's done and what makes it so great.
However, later in my career I also obtained MFA in Graphic Design so I learned some basics at school as well.
Along the way I’ve also completed many bootcamps and tutorials (for example, I obtained Adobe certification).
I went through it all and while the design school was a cool experience overall—I don't think it’s worth the time and money investment.
How to become a graphic designer without a degree?
If you’re an ambitious person, and if you have some self-discipline—you can just learn graphic design from the internet.
Whether it's just watching YouTube videos, there are many creatives with channels where they share design tips for free!
For example, If you wanna become a logo designer—Then check out my YouTube video about logo design process.
Just find some courses, blogs and podcasts about graphic design in general, and then go for something more specific.
Also go on Behance and Dribble to find designs you like so you can later on try to replicate them in Photoshop or illustrator.
That way you will learn the software and develop your design taste as the same time.
But before that, you will need the equipment—the right hardware and software to be able to do your design work.
Design software (like Adobe) tends to be quite demanding these days—You will need plenty RAM and disk storage.
You can get either a laptop, like Macbook Pro for example, or a stationary computer if you work from home.
A quality 4k monitor would be much appreciated by any graphic designer as well.
If you're into drawing and illustration, then consider also getting a drawing tablet.
When I got first got the design software like Photoshop and Illustrator—I just started playing with it.
However, I quickly understood that these are very complex and powerful tools, so I had to learn how to use them first.
So I went through many Adobe tutorials before I was able to feel comfortable with the software.
For the software, you should preferably go for the whole Adobe CC All Apps, that way you won’t limit yourself in the future.
For example—I’m a logo designer, so I use Illustrator for logos (vector graphics) but I also use Photoshop for mockups (raster graphics).
For a beginner designer—that's a good combo to start with.
However, I also use InDesign for creating style guides and sometimes I use Adobe XD for web design or After Effects for logo animation.
If you can, invest in your career and it will surely pay off later!
There are also other tools for graphic designers like Sketch, Figma, Cinema4D—depends on what type of design you do.
There are countless in-depth video tutorials out there—just browse websites like: Udemy, Skillshare, Domestika or CreativeLive, or simply find them on YouTube.
I'd advise you to master the basics first, like the interface and how to perform basic tasks.
Then, you will be able to just learn on the job, by googling whatever you don't know.
Next, you might wonder—how to get clients?
Well, in order to get hired as a designer—you need a portfolio!
But isn’t that an irony?—To get clients, you need a portfolio, but to build a portfolio, you need clients.
That’s why you need a "fake" portfolio when you’re starting out.
What I mean is that, you simply need to create concept work for imaginary clients.
That way, you can show off your skills to potential clients and get hired for a real project.
So eventually, you will be able to update your portfolio with real client work!
If you’re a logo designer, then you can create some concept logo redesigns of famous brands.
For example, check out my concept redesign of Skoda.
Every client wants to see in a designer's portfolio the type of work they’re hiring for.
Believe me, the only thing that got me hired over and over again as a graphic design was my portfolio.
Not my resume, not my education, and certainly not my looks!
Having a portfolio on Behance and Dribbble is a must for any designer.
This is because a lot of clients (and recruitment agencies) know about these websites—they’re actively searching for talents out there.
You can also build your own website using tools like Webflow, WordPress or Squarespace.
Just remember—if you want to get hired as a logo designer, then you need to build a portfolio with logo design work.
If you want to get hired as a web designer, then focus on building a portfolio that shows only web design work.
Just keep improving your skills and building your portfolio at the same time.
So once you have your portfolio ready, then where do you find your first clients?
As I already mentioned, clients can notice you and start reaching out to you on Dribbble and Behance.
I found my first clients on forums and job boards and websites like Upwork (It was called Elance before).
When I got better, I started getting referrals.
I also got hired by reaching out to design agencies.
I'd just find agencies I like and ask them if they’re looking for help with ongoing work.
I'd also go to many networking events—I basically tried everything I could that would get me new clients.
The point is that there are plenty of opportunities out there.
You can leverage them all to get a few clients and to be able to get some real work experience.
You can look for clients either on online job boards or on websites for freelancers like, Toptal or Upwork.
You can even try 99designs and Fiverr at the beginning.
There are plenty of websites for freelancers, just search for "graphic design freelance gigs" on the internet.
The ultimate goal is to get a few clients and get things going for you—start small, and grow from there.
Another way is to apply for an internship at some of the design firms that you admire.
This is exactly how I got my apprenticeship at CGH in New York.
I simply sent a short email to the firm, asking if they're looking for an intern, with a link to my portfolio of course.
Since my portfolio was all about identity work, which is very much aligned with what they do, soon after I found myself on a Skype call with the founders.
The interview went great and a few weeks later (I had to get visa) I came to New York to do my graphic design internship.
I've learnt a lot which later on gave me a lot of confidence to start my own design business.
Once you got some work experience, then it's time to work on your own brand.
The sooner you start building your own website and some social media presence, the more money you will be able to make as a graphic designer.
Because websites for freelancers like Upwork or Fiverr—they can only get you so far, because there's too much competition out there.
They’re ok if you’re just getting started as a graphic designer.
Clients who go there often look for the cheapest option, and they care less about the quality.
Professional designers, on the other hand, focus on building their portfolio on sites like Behance and Dribbble.
This is because serious businesses know that this is the place to go in order to find quality designers.
But if you're looking to get hired as an in-house designer, there are also plenty recruiters out there as well, who are constantly looking for new talents.
If you can start a Blog, Podcast or a YouTube channel, or even if you can just regularly post Instagram or Facebook—that help you attract new clients and get you new career opportunities.
If you can start creating some content about graphic design, whether it's about sharing your own work, or reviewing other people's work.
You can also interview famous designers or experts in respective sub-disciplines like: logo design, UX design, packaging etc.
There are many ways to create content about design, but your primary goal here is to establish yourself in the space.
Remember, ultimately it's not only about your skills as a designer, it's also about who do you know (or rather who knows you).
For example—I wrote a blog post featuring some examples of cannabis branding. (I've reviewed other people's work).
I did some SEO, so that when my client googled something like “cannabis branding”—then my article came up.
They scrolled through the article and clicked my CTA "Start a project" and they booked a call with me.
That’s exactly how I got my client—Medihuanna, a business from Australia that needed new branding.
You don't need a degree to become a graphic designer—these days you can learn everything on the internet.
However, you need to stay hungry for knowledge because being a graphic designer is a constant journey.
You have to be open to learn from other designers.
You must be willing to master the software and learn shortcuts (very important!).
You can either read books about graphic design, or watch video courses, YouTube tutorials, or listen to podcasts and interviews.
But first and foremost—you must always practice what you learn!
After all, the best way (and quickest way) to become a graphic designer is through practice!
Focus on building a solid portfolio on website like Behance and Dribble.
Start off by doing concept work, then update your portfolio with real client work (freelance, internship).
Eventually build your own website and social media presence.
This will help you get bigger clients as a freelancer, and better opportunities as an in-house graphic designer.
I'm a branding expert and graphic designer based in NY. I specialize in the development of brands: brand strategy, identity & web design. Need help with your project?—Get in touch