Whether you’re just starting, need a refresher, or want to hone the fundamentals, this reference guide is the foundation of graphic design work.
This reference guide covers all the fundamental procedures of graphic design. It includes things like making selections, creating shapes, and using the tool bars in most of the mainstream design applications. In it, you will find links and explanations for everything you will need to get a head start on your own design work.
The creative side, the aesthetic decisions, the style development . . . that’s up to you. However, this guide will benefit anyone who wants to do the following:
- Take the reins on frequent, simple stuff they need designed.
- Understand what a designer does and what goes into graphic design.
- Improve design skills through self-education.
- Get back up to speed after taking a break from design work.
No matter which program or app the guides below explore, they’re all approved and safe for use. So, bookmark this article for future reference because it could be a real life saver.
File Types and How They Work in Design
In this section you’ll find resources explaining the very basics of design software — and tasks you’ll need to learn before getting started. However, they are also a reference to return to again and again once you’re producing work and need to know how to prepare for the next steps. Understanding how each app uses different file types and how they work together is fundamental.
The difference between raster and vector files is an essential principle of design work. Everyone starts here because getting this right is everything. Getting it wrong . . . well, you just don’t have to worry about that now.
Another fundamental is how raster images interact with resolution and files size.
Especially in design for web, you’ll be making flat images for websites often, as well as proofs or examples of your work in small files to email and share through message services.
How files interact with each other is important. This teaches you what’s possible and what isn’t.
The packaging of art files in InDesign, specifically, is a major component of working with the powerful layout app.
As a bonus, learn to convert files to PDF for proofing and showing your work to people who don’t have design software.
Add Years to Your Life With Keyboard Shortcuts
Of all the work I’ve proudly shown, all the successful campaigns I’ve been a part of, the logos with multi-level concepts that visually stun . . . nothing wows other people like whipping through some laborious menu process using keyboard shortcuts. While someone drags their mouse cursor through menus and submenus, I’m over here spreading my fingers across the keyboard without looking. In a couple of strokes, I’ve done something mundane that impresses the heck out of the art editor looking over my shoulder.
Besides the wow factor, keyboard shortcuts save you time, as your brain passively automates processes and commits actions you’ll perform thousands of times to muscle memory. There is no reason you should use menus for anything but stuff that is not commonly done. Everything else? Keyboard shortcut. Learn ’em now.
What’s that? There are too many, and you can’t remember where they are? I made a Periodic Table of the Elements-style chart for you to pull up on-screen or print and hang, listing the very best shortcuts for each Adobe design app. And it’s a free download. No excuses!
These Colors Don’t Run . . . or Bleed or Something
After gaining a basic understanding of functionality, color spaces are essential to the foundation of your graphic design education. You absolutely must adher to the color space for colors to render correctly.
Sometimes, if you use the wrong color space, the results are impossible to adjust. Some RGB color blends are simply impossible to reproduce in CMYK, and vise versa, so I’d say that’s pretty important to know.
Here are some specific articles for a deeper look into color space once you master the basics.
- RGB Definition: What is RGB, How Does RGB Work, and More
- What Is CMYK? Spot Color and Process Color in Print Designs
And here are some articles concerning how to think about color so you can use the technical knowledge better. Fine tune your new skill.
- Design Tips: Using Spot Colors in Adobe Photoshop
- What is a Color Scheme: Definitions, Types, and Examples
Your New Design Tool Box
In this section, get the basics of each app down with some tool guides. You can now put all the knowledge above to good use now. Go forth and create your art with confidence using these tool guides.
If you’re working with vectors in Illustrator, get started here. These guides will show you how to create illustrations using the tools that make and manipulate shapes.
- Revealing the Secrets of the Shapes Tool in Illustrator
- An Easy Guide to Using Live Corners in Adobe Illustrator
- Ultimate Guide to the Pathfinder Panel in Illustrator
First, learning how to make selections is imperative for Photoshop. Whether you need to selectively edit or cut, paste, or mask parts of an image, the selection you make is crucial to the final results.
- Get to Know the Best Practices for Working With Photoshop Layers
- 5 Easy Ways to Make Better Selections in Photoshop
- Design Essentials: How to Cut Out an Image in Photoshop
These Photoshop editing guides will show you the basics, then help you along to the next stages of manipulating images, no matter how complicated it seems.
- Basic Photo Editing: How to Use the Crop Tool in Photoshop
- How to Edit Photos in Photoshop: 5 Techniques You Need to Know
When you have a bunch of designs you made on an artboard or canvas, you can learn how to align them how you want, with the precision of the app’s processing behind you. Don’t eyeball things — having some element a micron off can throw an entire layout into dizzying imbalance.
This is a good primer for InDesign. From here you can get going quickly and then search for more specific how-tos in our blog.
Type and Text
Typography is a whole world of design unto itself. Type tools, however, are concrete and teachable, so here are a few of the most important guides to help you understand how to bring your ideas to life.
- The Differences Between Kerning, Leading, and Tracking in Typography
- How to Use the Type Tool in Illustrator to Alter Sample Text
- 5 Text Layout Tips for Setting Headlines in Your Design
Bonus: Design Like a Pro
This section is a little more advanced, but when you’re ready, you can use these guides to get deeper into the creation of custom designs.
Far from a comprehensive list, at the bottom of each will be links to even more guides — or use the search function at the top of each article to look for what you’re trying to do. Smart money says we have a guide for it.
- Demystifying the Mystical World of Photoshop Blend Modes
- You Should Be Using Photoshop’s Adjustment Layers
- Learn How to Create Digital Brushes in Adobe Illustrator
- Everything You Need to Know About Gradients in Design
- 10 Essential Procreate Tips Every Illustrator Needs to Know
- 7 Tips for Finishing and Refining Your Design Work
This should get you thinking and designing faster than, say, tapping away at some search engine. We have much more in the vault for you to discover as you grow and need more advice, too. Much more. Then, when you’re putting concepts into action or need some style guides or inspiration, that’s all here too. We’re building a giant collection of design knowledge, adding to it constantly, and it’s all for you, for free. So get designin’ now!
Cover image via aurielaki
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