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Design School. Two relatively ordinary words, but once put together take on a distinct meaning – a glorified institute subliminally pushing the notion that the combination of art and academia is the recipe for success.

Let’s start off by stressing how getting an education is important, is a personal achievement, and is a tool that helps in attaining a successful profession or career. Having said that, getting into art or design school is not just the only way for you to have a career in the design industry. In fact, many designers today – especially those who’ve switched careers – didn’t have a four-year art education.

The debate between attending design school and doing a DIY curriculum goes on. But you can’t blame people for believing that design school isn’t as vital as the industry renders it out to be. After all, the key element in creating brilliant design is creativity – a thing some individuals are born with and can be developed over time. Raw creativity is also something you can’t find in textbooks and syllabus.

However, creativeness alone won’t do you any good if you don’t understand the basic principles of design. Regardless of how special your ideas are, you’d have to present them professionally. This is especially true if you intend to make a serious career out of it. This is why the need for proper design education is important. It explains the essentials and the particulars of every design tool and theory that you’ll need to succeed in the design niche you want to focus on.

What’s the downside of attending design school?  It doesn’t only break the bank, it also demands four to five years of your life. Both are simply not practical for lots of people, particularly if they don’t have the financial capability to pay for the classes. And so, while a great design school can certainly get you on the right course to become a skilled, competent designer, it’s really not in the cards for all.

The good thing is, you can still become a designer without attending a design institution, as long as you have the drive, determination, and dedication to achieve your goals. Read on as we list down the basic principles, tips and tricks, and guidelines on how you can build your own education without attending design school.

Things You Need to Know First and Foremost


  • Designing is one-part creative talent, one-part business skill.

If you want a career as a designer, you will have to represent someone else’s goals and visions. You must learn how to analyze data, as well as to master how to calculate efficiency and success. You need to figure out how to produce, develop, and extend brands. You must become an expert in carrying out goal-driven tasks. Designing as a career is more than just about expressing your art or following your dream. As much as creativity is valued, design work will demand business proficiency out of you.

  • Design rarely sells itself.

In the course of your career, you will have to present your creation to a client and prove to him that your work is what he needs. You’ll need to be convincing. You’re going to reiterate the client’s business goals from the past meetups back to him. And you will extensively explain how your design will lead to those goals being met. Your design can only do so much. If you want to succeed, you literally and figuratively have to work for it.

  • Learn to ask questions.

Design is the deliberate means to fix a problem or predicament within a set of limitations. If you’re unaware of what the problem is, you can’t efficiently design an answer as you would have no clue what matter your design needs to solve. Therefore, the first phase in any design exercise is to be familiar with the problem. To do that, you must ask questions. Figuring out what questions to ask, who to pose them to, and how to ask them is a design skill you must also master.

  • Learn how to say ‘No.’

At one point or another, you’ll be undoubtedly asked to work for free. You’ll be instructed to work against your personal beliefs and passions. You’ll be asked to create based on whims. Most of the time, all of these things fail. And the failures, even if they’re not entirely your fault, will be on you.

As a good designer, it’s your responsibility to give your work your 101%. You can only do this if you learn to protect your name, reputation, and work by saying no. Being able to refuse a project or an element of work without coming across as a sulky unprofessional is a skill that many people don’t have. It’s something you need to work on yourself.

  • Design the right thing.

Like every profession, designing comes with an ethical element. Designers create. You make things from scratch, and that’s pretty powerful. But you also have to realize that you’re a gatekeeper to the designs you present to the world. You have to make sure that the things you create are safe and fair for everyone. This means you need to consider contexts which are not entirely your own. Your job is to provide a solution to a given problem. And while there are a lot of problems in the world, you sometimes just have limited resources. So make certain the problems you fix are worth solving.

Designing Your Own Curriculum: 


Learn, Learn, and then Learn Some More

Step 1: Start with the Fundamentals

  • Draw all the time.

One of the biggest – and earliest – mistakes you can do is dive into Adobe Photoshop at once. Remember, learning the ins and outs of Photoshop doesn’t make you a designer, much like shopping for an easel and a paintbrush doesn’t make you an artist. Photoshop, your easel, and your paintbrush – these are just tools. They are pretty useless if you don’t learn the basics. So, the first thing on your DIY curriculum is to start building your design foundation. You begin this process by learning how to draw.

Drawing is part talent, part skill. The latter is something you can get good at by practicing as much as you can. Take time every day to sketch with a pen and paper. You don’t have to be in a room with other artists and draw a basket of fruits or a naked woman. You don’t even have to be great at drawing. The goal here is to learn the basics to get you comfortable translating the ideas in your mind. Drawing regularly also helps in sharpening your creative imagination.

It’s very important to draw, compose, and layout design ideas on paper first. Don’t get frustrated if your sketches look like the work of a three-year-old. Just like making a blueprint before building a house, it’s critical to think through ideas before constructing them. It’ll save you time, resources and a headache if you work through a plan before carrying it out.

A good resource to learn basic drawing is You Can Draw in 30 Days by Mark Kistler.

  • Learn the basics.

“It’s all about the grid.” This is something you’ll constantly hear in the design industry, particularly from designers who received formal design education. It can be challenging to study grids on your own, but it’s feasible with the many resources you can use.

You can start with Picture This, a book that teaches the basics of graphic design. While it might seem monotonous to check out grids all day long, studying grid structure will be an enormous help in your career. Sites like the Grid System (for web) and Designers Insight (for print) are great resources you can tap.

Also, study about typography, colors, and composition. Get acquainted with fonts, and not just the freebies. Learn the distinction between Serif and Sans Serif. Work with different styles and weights.

Review your primary and complimentary colors. Practice with shade pairing. Discover how a particular color elicits a mood and what cultural importance it has. Also, familiarize yourself with the color systems (CMYK, RGB, and PMS). As with composition, fiddle with symmetry and asymmetry, dimensions, and emphasis in your design elements.

To get the hang of the basics, work with a number of tutorials every day.

  • Learn how to write content.

One of the most neglected areas of design presentation, and a sign of a mediocre work, is textual content. Most newbie designers present their mockup stuffed with placeholder text. Avoid using the infamous “Lorem Ipsum.”

As stressed earlier, a good designer must also be a good communicator. A great designer thinks about the entire process and experience which includes choosing the right words with care. One of the universal goals of any design is to get a response from the people who see it. So, design and write for people. Avoid using an academic tone just to make yourself sound wise and intelligent.

Learning how to write also means learning how to properly communicate via email. A huge percentage of your ability to succeed is based on how well you are able to communicate. The majority of your client communication will be via email exchanges.

You need to learn how to read client email. This means sorting out the important details and figuring out what he really wants to say. After this, know how to respond to him in a productive manner. Learn how to compose professional, short, and to-the-point emails. Also, you have to know when the appropriate response to an email is a phone call.

Step 2: Master the Programs


  • Study Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.

Once you’ve learned (and can actually work with) the basics, it’s time for you to explore design software. These days you’ll find numerous resources about design programs open to both amateur and professional designers. Depending on your market and focus, you’re likely to use one program more than the other.

Design experts encourage newbies to start with Illustrator first, then move up to Photoshop after. Illustrator is the go-to program for designers to create logos and icons. There is a wide range of books, online courses and in-person sessions to learn Illustrator. Pick the fashion that works for your time and skill. You can also read Adobe Illustrator Classroom in a Book. Though it’s quite tedious, if you manage to finish even half of the book, you’ll be pretty adept at using Illustrator.

If you’re thinking about web design, you can’t do better than using Adobe Photoshop. But straight up, if you’re just starting out, it’s a beast. Learning Photoshop takes time, patience, and determination. However, the pay-off will be worth it.  

Online resources for Photoshop tutorials can be overwhelming. There are hundreds and thousands of them online. Your job is to find the best one that fits your learning process. Also, to make sure that your resource is actually credible, a go-to online source of many prolific designers is EnvoTuts+. Go through online Photoshop tutorials everyday – for an hour or two – and you’ll be pleased by how fast you improve.

As for coding, you don’t necessarily have to be good at it. There’s not a lot of people who are both great at coding and designing. But it’s useful to know some rudimentary code, and certainly to be aware of your limits. In fact, whenever possible, team up with a coder. The collaboration can turn into an invaluable partnership for future projects.

  • Teach yourself some specialties.

The design industry is an extensive field, but trust that you’ll get some competition in whatever niche you focus on. This is why you need to be an expert on something. Find a design specialty.

Do you like designing for websites? Smartphones? Marketing paraphernalia? Check them all out, and choose the ones you prefer to improve on. Here are some resources you can explore:

  • Logo Design – Discover how to build a reliable brand – from the company logo to the company website – with Designing Brand Identity.
  • Mobile App Design – Start with the basic tutorial from TutsPlus. And then find time to read Tapworthy, a comprehensive book about iPhone design.
  • Web Design – To design a website that is user-friendly and easy to find, pour yourself into Don’t Make Me Think. If you want to design a site that looks good, make time for The Principles of Beautiful Web Design.

As for learning HTML/CSS as a designer, this would be a case-to-case basis. It really depends on the job. Of course, it’s an advantage, but like codes, you can easily collaborate with a web developer for any of your HTML/CSS needs.

Step 3: Try Other Forms of Education


  • Enroll in several design courses online.

Treat the online world as your personal design school. There are several topnotch resources for everything you need to know about design. Here are some of the outstanding sessions you can attend online:

  • Coursera – The courses here tend to be more on the conceptual and visual side. The site offers courses in UX design, UI design, and graphic design.
  • Lynda – The online sessions include design principles and design tools.
  • CreativeLive – The site offers both art and design sessions, in addition to design principles and tools.
  • Skillshare – The classes range from calligraphy to photography. The site also offers lessons on design tools and programs.

    Ask for feedback.

Another great way to enrich your skills is to get feedback from fellow designers, the design community, and even designers (or regular folks) you admire online. Getting a feedback is a gift. Any designer who attended design school would tell you that a critique is a building block of the entire school experience. But since you don’t have professors and instructors to give you feedback, you can solicit them yourself.

There are numerous online organizations where you can upload and share screenshots of your work and get instant feedback from the group. You can go to any of these communities: HH Design, HH Illustrate, Designers Guild, and IxDA.  

Providing feedback is as invaluable as getting one; it enables you to use and exercise your abilities to observe and articulate. Don’t hesitate to share your thoughts and views with others in return, and you’ll actually gain new relationships along the way.  

  • Hit the books.

Along with using online resources, reading design books will help you establish your style and educate you on your creative process. Design schools offer classes – even full semesters – on design subjects like visual design principles. You can read books about these subjects to fill in the gaps and help you understand design jargon and topics. Here are some must-read design books you can benefit from:

Also, reading fiction throughout various genres is among the many ways you can improve your design principles and boost your imagination.

  • Stay up-to-date with the field.

As you improve your design skills, it’s also important to remain in touch with what’s going on in the design community. Checking up on design news can aid you in discovering new tools and resources to make you become a better designer. To keep yourself current on the latest design news, look for a couple of sites (usually from the niche influencers) that give you credible information about the design world.  Spend half an hour a day to catch up on what’s new and exciting in your world.

  • Attend design events in real life.

Going to various design-centric functions in real life is yet another fantastic way to broaden your network. These gatherings are also an excellent way to meet people you may collaborate with in the future. If you can’t find one near your area, why not start your own event?

Beyond participating in real-life functions, staying active on various communities online and sharing your work may also result in creative (and profitable) partnerships.

Design Tips and Tricks for Beginners


  • Keep one ear to the ground.

Find the influencers in your chosen niche. Influencers have led the way for other people to follow suit. They’re also often happy to share the “secrets” to their accomplishments. By listening to these influencers, you’ll present yourself with the workings of the design world. This exposure can help you learn new tricks and tips, become confident with design lingo, and stay current on design trends.

Use social media to connect with these influencers. Twitter is one of the best platforms to strike up a conversation with these authorities. Post relevant and mindful questions, and you’ll never know who’ll reply to your queries. Any positive link you get can only help you become better in what you do. Following influencers and getting into conversations with them will lead you to become part of a design community that will give you support as you become the kind of designer you want to be.

  • Collect inspiring designs.

This is a trick that most newbie designers overuse, and some seasoned ones undervalue. Having inspiration in whatever aspect of life is important – more so in design. When you decide to learn design on your own, you must also start to build a catalog of successful work (in whatever context ‘successful’ means to you). This can be as basic as bookmarking pictures online, setting up a Pinterest board, or storing inspiring photos in your computer folder.

Similar to following influencers, a catalog of work that inspires you helps you identify design trends as you learn to recognize patterns in the design of others. This also helps you understand your design tastes and style preferences. For example, if you find yourself regularly saving calligraphy photos, then you may want to consider exploring the subject.

Your inspiration catalog also serves as your creative board to help you in your future designs. Familiarize yourself with leading designer portfolio websites. These online resources present a great deal of outstanding work from major designers across the spectrum. In many cases, these designers offer information about their design approach, which helps as you begin your own designs.

  • Examine each step diligently.

It’s a profound moment when you’re able to fully understand that every design you’ve admired is simply the end product of another person’s skills in putting together shapes and lines. That isn’t saying that the other design elements don’t play pivotal roles, but in essence, all designs are put together using simple shapes.

Examining the process of powering up a design allows you to grasp the steps necessary to create something good. Depending on what you know right now, you could have an advantage in understanding which resources were utilized or which element was developed first.

Try not to let your level of skill hold you back, dissecting the building of a design regularly flexes your creative muscle. Your informed examinations will do a lot more to educate you than speeding up the process.

When you closely examine and study a design, you realize you know a lot more than you think you do. When you determine gaps in that understanding, you’ll know what methods or ideas you have to study to narrow the gap. You’ll also acknowledge that there are many different ways to achieve the desired result.

A simple way to improve your learning curve when taking a design apart is to download either a free vector or PSD design source. Examine the layers to see how the designer created the design.

  • Be specific with your online searches.

As you start to create your own designs, the online world will be one of your most important resources. Similar to several self-taught professions today, a large number of a designer’s DIY curriculum evolve through video tutorials on the internet. To maximize this resource, you need to be particular with your searches to find relevant tutorials. For example, instead of typing “how to design an icon,” enter “how to design a 3D icon with vibrant composition.” The former will produce a broad search engine result while the latter will present specific, tailored sites you can explore.

Look at design terminology references to find the exact terms or phrases for the design techniques you’re learning. This technique will help you find what you need online without difficulty, not to mention aid you in becoming acquainted with the design language.

  • Recreate your favorite design.

Let’s be crystal clear here: for no reason should you infringe on someone else’s copyrighted work. If you want to have a successful career in design, don’t reproduce a designer’s work and pass it off as your own.

Having said that, training to recreate a work that inspires you helps you acquire a deeper perception of the design technique. Much like examining a design, it will help you figure out new tech skills that will prove useful when you are developing your own work.

Look for a design piece from your inspiration catalog.  Use your preferred software or program to recreate the design. It’s certainly your choice on how you decide to go about it. Just give yourself a timeframe so you can also exercise working with a time constraint.

You need to get imaginative with the approach you opt to use in recreating the design. This is an excellent left brain-right brain workout. Don’t get discouraged if you fail to replicate the design completely. Keep in mind that in this exercise, the process is more valuable than the result.

  • Play with negative space.

The correct use of negative space is typically disregarded by both newbies and advanced designers. Negative space (aka white space) is the space in a design that is not filled with any written or visual element. A design that fails to integrate enough negative space is similar to a sentence without spaces – itsnotgoingtobepretty.

Typography expert Jan Tischold highlights the value of negative space. He constantly reminds designers that white space should always be looked at as an active component of a design. The powerful use of white space is equally important as the design itself. It’s actually scientifically proven that negative space enhances legibility, understanding, and awareness. So, it’s better to play with white space early on as you learn about the basic principles of design.

Teaching yourself how to properly use negative space doesn’t happen in a snap. You need to experiment with a variety of options to determine what works best for each design. There is no hard-and-fast principle when dealing it. However, it demands practice. As you practice and learn about design as a whole, you will find those activities on composition resizing and layout tweaking can result to a familiarity with how much breathing room a design requires.

  • Mind the critiques.

On some level, everybody is nervous about getting critiqued, especially if it’s a bad one. Even the concept of it can be terrifying. It’s normal to become worried that your ideas and concepts will get shot down and you’ll have to start all over again. Learning how to accept constructive criticism is not easy, but it’s one of the important keys to becoming a better designer.

Instead of asking what’s wrong with your idea or design, ask how you can improve on it. You need to be open to the reality that not everyone will love your concept or end product. Someone will always find something bad, ugly or wrong about it. Your job – aside from embracing constructive criticism – is filtering the feedback. Give more weight to a critique from an influencer in your niche over some feedback from a random online comment.

Design criticism allows you to integrate other’s perspectives into your work and enhance your ideas. Bear in mind that you always have the choice to refuse or ignore the feedback. It’s taking the feedback into account that is what’s more important. After all, like beauty, design is subjective. Just because another person has a different viewpoint does not imply you’re wrong (or he’s wrong for that matter). The truth is, relying on your intuition is simply as necessary. Just be certain you can back it up with your design decisions.

A sensible way to get critiqued is to have a personal conversation with a professional designer. Even if you don’t personally know someone who has mad designing skills, the online world is packed with groups of designers willing to provide opinions and suggestions. If you’re still not part of any design community, now’s the perfect time to step out of your comfort zone and join a group.

  • Choose a project that ignites your passion.

If you only get one takeaway from this post, let it be this one: feed your passion. Everyone knows how difficult it is to work on something that doesn’t interest you. It kills your drive. Working on a project you’re not passionate about will most likely trigger negative reactions, primarily frustration, as you’ll feel unwilling to commit the energy necessary to do the project.

Of course, not all people get to feed their passion with their work. It would also be remiss to overlook that fact that in the course of your career, you will undoubtedly design something you’re not enthusiastic about. However, this will not happen until you’ve mastered a few things and have acquired advanced design skills. So, while you’re just starting, concentrate on the projects that feed your passion.

When you take the time out to educate yourself about design and there’s hardly any consequence, such as lost profit, your passion is your biggest motivation. When you do something you value, you will compel yourself to deal with the problems and discouragements that come with it – some things that are a natural part of the design process. Following your passion also provides you with better direction.

Over and again, the toughest part of learning how to design is actually not knowing what to create. Be decisive and pick something you can do and finish because you’re motivated and passionate about it. Honing in on what your passion is will help you grow into a better designer. It’s a good plan to dip your feet in as many facets of design as you can to gain experience. But, when you find the areas you’re great at, concentrate on them.

Align your hobbies and interests with your project selection. For example, if you have a blog, try designing a new header image for your posts. You may also use your current situation to incorporate your passion into your work. If you’re looking for a job, you can design your resume to suit your prospects. You may even create a logo to strengthen your personal brand.

Moving Forward and Building a Career


  • Get a job.

Once you feel like you’ve got a decent grasp of the design work you wish to pursue and you’ve built your own portfolio, you can go on and look for work.  Rest assured, there’s a lot of work in the design industry to choose from. If possible, start with an internship. This is where you’ll get the feel of things, so take in as much experience as you possibly can. Apart from an internship, you can also do:

  • Mentorship – Almost similar to an internship. Pick the right mentor for the kind of design you want to explore. If you’re accepted, work extra hard and be professional.
  • Freelance work – This is where you must master both design and communication skills as you have to speak with your (potential) clients.
  • Full-time position – Look for jobs at design studies, advertising agencies, or in-house creative organizations.
  • Self-employed – Collect your own roster of clients, freelance work, and short-term work to build your own business structure.
  • Volunteer – This is when you help a business, organization, or a loved one with their design project.

    Continue your “education.”

Even if you get a job and acquire design experience, you must still continue to educate yourself. Carve some time to learn new tricks and programs to improve your craft. Attend online or IRL courses whenever possible. Do side projects. Focus on creating a variety of work you can use to enrich your portfolio.

  • Stand out from the crowd.

Do something that will separate you from the competition. Look for a niche or develop a unique idea that could make your design a hot commodity. If you manage to outshine your competition, even if there are hundreds of them all talented and skilled, your name (and work) will still be a priority for most clients.

  • Learn to write an invoice.

It’s pretty standard, but you wouldn’t believe how many creatives don’t get paid because they failed to send an invoice (or make the right one). The same way goes for composing business proposals for your design and even changing orders. Also, under no circumstances should you accept someone else’s terms without asking questions or clarifying things.

In the End…

Designing is a repetitive process, so you need to constantly rework your ideas and projects. As you go along, you’ll subconsciously develop your own workflow. When a design that usually takes you a day to finish becomes just an entire morning’s work, then you’re on the right track.

But more than anything, the most important thing is for you to just get started. It is easy to be discouraged or intimated by the massive volume of learning related to any form of design. You just have to keep in mind that even the most prolific designers were once newbies like you are right now.

The thing that makes the creative industry stand out is the differences and uniqueness of each person’s journey. This means there’s no single structure to making a DIY design curriculum. You’ll eventually find your own methods to find out what you need and want to master.

Posted by Igor Ovsyannykov

I'm a digital nomad and entrepreneur bouncing around South East Asia. When I'm not working here, I'm out taking photos for Follow me on Instagram: @igorovsyannykov

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