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Editorial

How to Get Started in Graphic Design

How do I get started in graphic design? This is a question I get on almost a daily basis, and it’s a very difficult question to answer. People want a list of steps to follow or a guaranteed formula for success. The problem is, that doesn’t exist. There is no one formula for gratifying recognition or success. There’s only your way, your journey, and it’s different from everybody else’s. There are, however, some general guidelines that will probably help you achieve what you want. You just have to fill in the gaps.

Learn Skills, Not Tools

It’s tempting to dive head first into learning tools like Photoshop or Illustrator. But, buying a hammer doesn’t make you a carpenter… You need to develop a skill set that makes proper use of the tools first. In design there are certain principles that you need to focus on in order to become a true creative professional. This requires an investment in learning and the patience to avoid putting the proverbial cart before the horse.

Focus on learning the mindset of a designer. You need to think like a designer before you can act like one. It’s a bit like learning a foreign language if you’re not already immersed in it. This quote from Steve Jobs says it all…

Design is not just what it looks like and how it feels. Design is how it works.

A true designer understands how to see things from an end-user’s perspective and makes decisions based on what’s best for their intended audience and the proposed function of the piece they’re creating. This is a special skill that must be honed over time. It requires research and an investment into learning about the effects of design on the human brain.

In order to master the mindset of a designer you’ll also need a strong understanding of the principles of design like layout, typography, and color theory. Reading books, watching online courses, and maybe even attending some in-person classes are all great options. But once you’ve introduced yourself to the basics, go out in the wild and look at how other designers are applying these principles in their work. Try to understand why they’ve made certain choices. Put yourself in their shoes, try to understand who they were targeting, and then examine how they’ve used the aforementioned skills to accomplish their goals.

Learn to Communicate

Talking to other designers is another key piece of the puzzle. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and learn how to communicate with them. Joining organizations like your local AIGA is a great way to find networking opportunities in your area. Discuss their creative process to get a feel for how they work and communicate with their clients. Their approach may or may not work for you, but it will at least give you an idea of different approaches you might piece together to form your own unique game plan.

In addition to learning how to speak to your colleagues, you’ll also want to spend some time learning how to speak to your clients. This is basic customer service 101. You need to learn the proper way to introduce yourself, how to write good proposals, how to conduct a creative briefing, defining scope of work, how to prepare and deliver an invoice, and most of all… how to fire a client, when necessary. While most of these skills will take time to develop as you get more experienced, you should practice extensively before you even attempt to woo your first real client.

You’ll also learn how to speak about design to your clients, which is very important. Making sure they understand the why of what you’re doing is essential to ensuring they feel like they are a part of the process, and it will empower them to carry forward a design thinking mindset to what they do going forward.

Explore Specialties

Any time someone says they want to be a designer, my initial thought is to ask what kind. A doctor, for example, might specialize in orthopedics or oncology. The same is true of designers today. The spectrum of creative professional positions is wider than its ever been, so it’s important to know and understand which one(s) suit you and your skills.

Take some time (maybe a week or more) to examine different design careers. For instance, you might read a book on UX design or job shadow a logo artist. Keep track of what excites you, what you could see yourself doing on a daily basis. Learn about the different career options for each specialty you explore. Will you work at an agency? Will you be a freelancer? What does the career path look like long-term? All of these are things you should consider before going down a specific road.

Once you’ve settled on a specialty, or specialties, that you want to pursue, you will have a stronger grasp on the specific skills and tools you’ll need to master in order to make it happen. That might mean learning how to write basic HTML or taking calligraphy classes. The possibilities are endless and are completely dependent on your personal preferences.

Invest in Tools

While it may be tempting to make do with cheap(er) versions of software, you really should spend money on industry-standard tools. This will ensure that you’re well-equpped to handle more complex projects, and help you collaborate with other designers when necessary. This is another area where building a network of peers will be important. Ask fellow designers what they’re using and why. While most of what you’ll be doing can be tool-agnostic, there will come a time when you have to sit at a computer and execute with some type of software. Knowing what to use is just as important as how you use it.

Next you will want to heavily invest in learning the tools you’ve chosen. This goes for both hardware and software. Get to know every inch of your new computer. Practice drawing with your new Wacom tablet. And read/watch everything you can about using Creative Cloud (or whatever your app of choice). Signing up for a subscription to a training website like LinkedIn Learning isn’t a bad idea either. As tools evolve, you’ll want to evolve the way you use them. Staying up to date on the latest technology trends will enable you to work smarter and faster.

Avoid Copycat Syndrome

In most cases people are inspired to become a graphic designer because of someone else’s work that they’ve seen and admired. That oftentimes means they will try to imitate that person’s work because they see that as a standard of success. But what makes you a great designer isn’t your ability to recreate an established style; it’s your ability to create and define your own style that will ultimately make you successful.

It’s possible to draw inspiration without flat out copying. Many artists take cues from other artists, but they put their own spin on it to make it unique. Michael Jackson was famous for his dance moves, for instance, but much of what he did was inspired by people like Fred Astaire and James Brown. He was able to take certain aspects of their moves and make them his own, thus becoming one of the world’s greatest entertainers who many artists still borrow from today. Design should be evolutionary, not derivative.

Work for Yourself First

Advertising yourself for hire won’t automatically open any doors, so you’ll need to start somewhere, and doing stuff on your own is a great way to do that. This is your opportunity to express your creativity, put together a working portfolio, and maybe even generate some initial income for yourself.

There are opportunities out there to sell stock assets like logo templates, brochure designs, website themes, and so much more. Be your own client, fill out a brief, ideate, sketch, and execute your ideas. After building the finished product, put them up for sale in some of these online marketplaces. Any sales you generate is money in your pocket and the experience you’ll gain and work samples it will generate should help you land clients in the future too.

Build Up Your Personal Brand

I’ve written about why personal branding is so important for designers, and if you’re new to the game it’s probably even more important for you than anyone else. Establishing your online presence announces who you are to the world. The internet is like the world’s largest trade show, so you need to be out there shaking hands and passing out business cards, and having a rock-solid personal branding strategy is how you do that.

Join sites like Instagram, Behance, and (if you can get an invite) Dribbble. Social networks that are primarily focused on imagery are great places to establish yourself online. Of course you’ll still need the traditional Facebook and Twitter profiles too, but making sure you’re a part of these niche creative communities will help to define you more so than the latter.

Part of a personal branding strategy is content creation. Whether it’s blogging, podcasting, or creating YouTube videos, there are endless ways that you can put yourself out there. All of these media types are marketing materials for your business. Use these to position yourself as a thought leader in the design community.

Your branding should focus on your strengths. Don’t allow yourself to go down too many rabbit holes with what you create and share. By limiting the scope of what you showcase you avoid revealing major flaws in your repertoire. This also gives prospective clients a clear view of who you are, what you do, and how they can best use your talents to suit their needs.

Be Patient, Focused, and Thick-Skinned

Becoming a designer isn’t going to happen overnight. It might not happen in a year. You have to have the patience to stay the course and pursue your dream. Remember, there’s no right or wrong road as long as you reach your final destination.

Continue learning and never lose that laser-like focus that you had in the beginning. I see so many people burn themselves out just attempting to break into the industry. Pace yourself and keep your skills sharp.

Don’t be afraid of failure or criticism. Both will happen to you on a regular basis. Clients will be unhappy with your first drafts. They’ll tell you your work is garbage. Some may even fire you. That’s ok. You’ll have just as many praise you along the way too. Drink it in, but don’t let it get to you. Every project is a learning experience that prepares you for the next one, and there’s always a next one.

Conclusion

I realize this probably isn’t the clear-cut laundry list of steps that most people are looking for when they ask me how to get started in this industry. But it’s honestly the best advice I have. You don’t have to follow a strict path. Nobody can hand you a recipe for success. You have to put in the work and force the industry to make space for you. It’s crowded, no doubt, but there’s always room for one more, so just start creating.

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