Whether you’re an aspiring creative, a small business owner, or a budding marketer, learning design on your own is very possible. Follow these 12 tips for a successful self-taught journey.
Cover image by Africa Studio
Learning a new skill is never easy, but that can especially be the case when you decide to teach yourself. For those looking to add design to their repertoire of talents, it can seem especially daunting. But with commitment, organization, and a bit of inspiration, learning design on your own is possible. Here are 12 tips for you brave self-taught designers.
1. Create a Lesson Plan
We know — creating a lesson plan doesn’t sound terribly exciting. Sure, you could wing it, but the truth is that your self-teaching will likely go a lot smoother if you give it some structure. Giving yourself a loose syllabus to follow can do wonders to keep yourself motivated and provide a clearer path of the journey ahead.
If you need some inspiration, look up existing design-school syllabi (like this one), which can often be found as PDFs online. A lesson plan will ensure you never waste time wondering, “Okay, what should I be learning next?”
2. Take Advantage of Online Resources
Image by Jacob Lund.
When it comes to learning design on your own, many aspiring creatives have come before you — and more than a few have left behind digital breadcrumbs you can follow (including tons of articles on the Shutterstock blog). Visit YouTube channels like those from PHLearn, Will Patterson, The Futur or websites like Creative Bloq and Abduzeedo, and you’ll find no end of unofficial mentors eager to remotely guide your learning. Devour whatever you can online. But that being said…
3. Read Lots Of Books
Image by Alix Kreil.
Resist the temptation to draw all your learning from online resources. There are books and magazines that have guided designers for years and they’ll do the same for you. Consider subscribing to magazines like Creative Review, Communication Arts and How Design. When you seek out instructional books about design, be sure to give yourself a nice mix of design-school curriculum standards (Designing Brand Identity) and non-textbook alternatives (Paul Rand’s Thoughts on Design). Hit the library to peruse some titles and read as many as you can. If you can afford it, consider building your own at-home reference library to refer to throughout your career.
4. Work Towards a Dream Project
Image by Idutko.
Chances are, if you’re teaching yourself how to design on your own, you have an end goal in mind. You have an image in your head of what you’d like to be able to do, or a career path you want to take.
It can be helpful to also imagine a dream design project as a goal — something like a book cover, movie poster, or website layout that you can’t wait to realize once you have the skills to do so. Write it down, pin it somewhere, and look at it every day. It will not only give you a concrete and achievable finish line to aim towards, but also provide a de facto roadmap for what skills you’ll need to learn in the months ahead.
5. Learn the Rules First
You’ve likely heard “You have to learn the rules before you break them” a billion times in a billion different contexts, but there’s a reason for that. When you embark on developing a new talent — especially when you’re teaching yourself — you need to learn the basics to give yourself the foundation to build everything else on. Design is no exception. So, take the time to learn the fundamentals of design until you know them inside and out. You may have avoided design school for a reason, but truthfully pairing up textbooks with hands-on homework is the best way to get ahead.
6. Study the Design All Around You
One of the best ways to excel at design is to constantly be studying other designers’ work — but don’t just focus on designers you admire. Open your eyes to the design that’s around us all the time: Subway ads, Starbucks menus, book covers, or your favorite mobile app. Study any design work you see and make it part of your curriculum. Ask yourself if it’s good or bad, and determine what makes it work or not work. Absorb the answers as lessons that will continue to deepen your knowledge. Consider writing down the lessons you’ve learned so you start to create your own reference book to consult later on.
7. Be Consistent
Image by This Is Me
Creativity is a muscle that has to be constantly exercised in order to develop. That means you’ll get nowhere fast in learning design if you’re not consistent and committed. An hour every two weeks isn’t going to cut it. You need to learn or practice as much as you can to become fluent in design. Help yourself, then, by identifying the best times in a given week for you to do that, then set that time aside and make it sacred. No interruptions, no rescheduling. Close doors, turn off your phone — do whatever you have to in order to get that work done distraction-free. Routine and diligence will lead to mastery far more quickly, and become a habit that will serve you well down the road.
8. Experiment Broadly
As you develop and apply your new design skills, you’ll likely notice that you’re drifting towards certain creative styles or approaches that you love. It can be tempting to settle into that comfort zone, but try to resist developing a niche at the start. Rather, take advantage of tools like Shutterstock Editor to try on different styles, and use workbooks like David Sherwin’s Creative Workshop.
Experimenting has the benefit of exposing you to a spectrum of designing possibilities. And, who knows? You may surprise yourself with what you’re drawn to.
9. Don’t Be Afraid of Incomplete Work
Image by iChzigo.
Not everything is going to be easy when you’re learning design. You will face some exercises, projects, or concepts that you’ll struggle to complete. When you hit that wall, consider stepping back. Struggle and failure can be instructive: Ask yourself why you’re having a hard time. Identify what you need to learn to make the project easier, and invest your time in that. That may mean re-reading a chapter or blog post, or practicing a particular technique a little more, but it will pay off and empower you to put that unfinished project to bed.
10. Leave Your Isolation Chamber
Image by wavebreakmedia.
Because self-teaching is an inherently solitary act, one downside is that when you start applying your learning to create actual design work, it can be hard to evaluate your own progress. You have no sounding board, aside from maybe your inner critic. Be sure to seek outside feedback, whether it’s a mentor, a local meet-up of designers, or a supportive and constructive online group. Don’t be afraid to reach out to fellow aspiring designers to develop feedback loops, and maybe even friendships. Having someone to regularly bounce ideas off of will do wonders for improving your work.
11. Revisit Your Earlier Work
You’re going to amass a significant amount of work as your design skills develop over time. As you get better, go back and revisit your earlier work. It will not only give you a confidence boost to see how far you’ve come, but offer a useful exercise: Use your current skills to identify what makes your previous efforts lacklustre, and then use your findings to make further improvements.
12. Document Your Journey
Self-directed learning can often create a kind of tunnel vision where you learn how to do an individual task, but you don’t necessarily know how you feel about it, or what you like about it.
Think of how designers you love often talk eloquently about their larger design philosophies and processes. Some of those philosophies come with time and experience, but even in the early stages they can emerge. You’ll likely find yourself gravitating towards certain principles or routines. When you’re working away, however, it can be hard to identify them — so make a point of documenting them. Keep a journal or dictate your thoughts to your phone. In the process, you will learn not just what you can design, but who you are as a designer.
If learning design is a journey, these design skills tips will hopefully set you on the right path.
Want more tips and insight on the beginning of your design career? Learn the ins and outs with our free guide, How to Start a Successful Freelance Graphic Design Career.