Table of Contents
You can become great designer without going to design school. In this two-part series of articles I will share with you eight simple steps or tips that will help you build your design career. The truth is that it will not be easy and you may not like. You will need strong determination, commitment and solid work ethic. There will be moments when you will want to give up. Don’t, just keep going. Remember that you can become great designer without going to design school. Let’s begin.
The rest of tips are in part 2.
Is design school necessary?
Before we dive into individual tips, we should discuss whether design school is necessary prerequisite for career in design. The immediate answer that comes to my mind is that it depends. There are many pieces of the puzzle that has to fall into the right place. Design as discipline is very complex. Sure, you can narrow it by specifying what kind of design field do you want to pursue. However, there will still be a lot of knowledge you will have to acquire.
This is one of the reasons why design school is often better choice. Design school will provide you with clear and tested curriculum that will help you learn everything you need in manageable speed. Another benefit of design school is that you will be in regular contact with real designers and other people with a lot of experience in the field. Mentors can help you accelerate your learning curve. You may argue that direct access to mentors is not necessary. There is abundance of books on this topic that can supplement mentors.
Why books are not bulletproof solution
Books are definitely great material you can learn from. If you choose the right books, you can learn from the greatest designers in the history. What’s more, these people don’t even have to be alive. You can learn from design titans such as Saul Bass, Massimo Vignelli, Kenichiro Ashida, Zaha Hadid, Charles and Ray Eames, Paul Rand, Richard Buckminster Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright and others. Unfortunately, there is one downside to this approach. Books will not provide you with feedback.
If you decide to rely purely on books, you will have to find some other way to get feedback on your work. You need to constantly monitor your progress if you want to improve your design skills. This is why mentors in design school are so useful. They will tell you what are your weaknesses and where you should do some additional practice. Mentors can also help you find the right way to fix these weaknesses. When you rely on books, you have to experiment with different approaches and methods. Some of them may not work as you need or at all. You will have to find the right ones.
The importance of connecting theory with practice
The last reason why design school may be better choice is that it connects theory with practice. When you learn something new, you will also get an opportunity to test your knowledge in practice. You will work on real-life examples. Through the time on design school, you will have a chance to get your hands on a large number of different projects. This will give you the advantage of having real experience from multiple areas and disciplines of design. By the way, if you will not want to participate in this practice, you will be forced to it.
Isn’t creativity and determination enough?
Okay, but what if you are really creative and determined? Can you supplement design school with these two traits? Let me divide this into two questions and answer both of them individually. First, creativity alone is not enough. Creativity will not get you closer to goal. You still have to learn the basics of design. It doesn’t matter how unique concepts you can create. This is only one part of designer’s job. The second one is to present these concepts in the most professional way possible. This second part will be even more important if you want to pursue a serious career in design.
This is where design school will help you. You will learn the basics of design and how to work with different tools. You will also learn about different paths so you can make progress in the specific discipline you want to focus on. Second, determination is relative. We all can be determined to some degree. The question is … How determined you are? Can you focus on one subject for a couple of months? Will you push yourself to do whatever it takes even when you don’t “feel” like it? Take a look at these six traits and test yourself. See if you have what it takes.
Here’s to the determined ones
Let’s say that you your determination and also work ethic is strong enough. Then, I would suggest that you skip design school and learn everything on your own. I have to admit that I’m biased here. I dropped out of two colleges and temporarily even from high school. Also, I never studied design in design school. I learned everything from books, magazines, online articles, online courses, experimentation and a lot of practice. It took a lot of time and perseverance and I’m still learning. However, I think that this less conventional approach is faster and better than the traditional.
It is, therefore, no surprise that I will encourage determined people with good work ethic to try the same thing. Personally, I don’t see too much value in spending years at school if you can get the same amount of experience, or more, from the real life. Design school has its benefits and can definitely help you in many areas. Still, as a teacher, I will always prefer life. You can “practice” pitching your presentations to clients at school as you want. However, when you meet your first real client, it will be something completely different. There is no way how you can simulate that.
No.1: Prepare well-rounded curriculum to learn the basics
The first step for creating your own design school is creating well-rounded design curriculum. I heard from couple designers and design bloggers interesting thing. If you want to become designer, you should learn how to draw first. This advice or is not inherently bad. It just approaches this topic from wrong angle. What do I mean? Knowing how to draw is not a crucial skill for every design discipline. Sure, there are disciplines where drawing is important part of the process. However, you still can start building design career without the necessity of being Picasso.
Drawing, a sketching and web design
Web design is one of these disciplines. I highly recommend that every web designer who takes his work seriously include sketching into her design process. Sketching is wonderful way to come up with different ideas and concepts. It is also great, cheap and incredibly fast way to prototype these ideas. You don’t have to setup anything. And, if you use pencil and rubber and your cost will go even lower. Anyway, drawing skills are not necessary for web design. There are tools, like Balsamiq or FlairBuilder that will help you handle sketching until you get better at sketching.
The downside of the tools I mentioned is that they can be used for free only for limited time. After that, you will have to buy license. Fortunately, you can also create your sketches and wireframes with some open-source graphic editor such as InkScape. Still, the sooner you will learn to draw basic shapes and simple layout elements the better. You will be much more flexible. Remember, it is not about having and using “the best” tool. It is about working on your skills in a way that will allow you to work with anything.
Start with fundamentals of graphic design
Okay, let’s assume that we agreed that drawing is not so important for your curriculum. What else would you learn in design school? You would learn about the theory of graphic design. In other words, you would start with the fundamentals of design. Theory of design goes through topics such as the basics design elements, typography, color and grid systems. It also teaches you principles of graphic design and layout composition. You can learn about all these fundamental topics on the Internet. Here is one great article about graphic design basics for beginners.
You should keep in mind to test and practice everything your learn. For example, when you learn about something new about grids, test yourself. Take a look at couple of magazines and posters. Try to find what type of grid system designer used to create that layout. Was it manuscript, column, modular or hierarchical grid? How many columns was used? Or, you can really put your knowledge to the test and create your own grid system. If you fail, don’t worry. Find what didn’t work and how to fix it. Remember that every master was once a beginner.
Why learning to see is so important
The next part of your curriculum should focus on developing a good eye for design. Learning to see is, I think, one of the most important skills you can learn in design school. It is also one of the most often neglected skill. Beginner designers often do one specific mistake. They will learn the fundamentals of graphic design. Then, they will jump right into Photoshop, Sketch or other graphic editor and try to create their first designs. Please, don’t that. The probability that you will fail is very high. It may discourage you from pursuing career in design. What should you do instead?
You have to learn to see. What do I mean? You have to train your ability to distinguish between great and bad design. When you take a look at some design, you have to be able to see the fundamentals, principles and patterns used in the design. In other words, you have to understand what is it that makes that design great. Skip this and you will never be able to create great designs because you will not know how to work with the design fundamentals and principles you know.
No.2: Get familiar with the history of design
In the design school, history of design would be included in the theory of graphic design. However, I decided to discuss it separately. Otherwise, you may forget to include it in your curriculum and that would be a big mistake. Why? We discussed this in one of earlier articles, but let me say it again. Creativity is about connecting various ideas and concepts and merging them together. In other words, creativity needs sufficient amount of material as a fuel if you want it to happen. Okay, but ow is this related to history of design?
Everything has some past
Almost every design style or trend in the history was built on the previous one. There was always some predecessor. For example, skeuomorphism was predecessor for flat design. Without it, we would probably need more time to get where we are right now. Learning the history of design is, therefore, key to understanding how individual design styles evolved. What’s more, when you know history of design you can also predict what might be coming next. Or, you can at least try it.
You can focus only on learning the fundamentals of graphic design. However, you will never be able to grasp the theory as whole if you neglect the history. On the same note, you can’t understand humankind without learning about our history. When you try to neglect one, the other will suffer. Why do you think history of design is part of curriculum in design school? To discourage or punish students? No. Its purpose is to give the students complete foundation of design for their career and work. Students can then use it as a solid ground on which they can build later on.
Everything has some future
Have you ever wanted to create something groundbreaking? Imagine every design you create would be perceived as innovative and unique. How does this sound? If you are like me and thousands other designers, you are not pursuing design career just to copy work of others. In order to do so you have to know the history. Do you remember what we discussed in the lines above, about creativity and connecting the dots? And what about knowing the evolution of graphic design? In short, if you want to create new design style you need something you can build upon.
No.3: Find your role models
The third step on your way to become great designer without going to design school is finding your role models. Having role models can help you in couple ways. First, role model can help work for you as a source of motivation. You admire some designer and you look up to him and you want to get on the same level. If you are more competitive, you can think about your role model as someone you want to beat. You want to become so great that you will surpass your role model. This is how I think about my role models. I admire and respect them, but I want to surpass them.
The second way role models can help you is by showing you possible path to your dream career. Let’s assume that you chose role model who is exactly where you want to be some day. Then, you can take a look at her career path and learn from it. You can try to imitate it, but you don’t have to. If your role model graduated from design school, it doesn’t mean you have to do the same thing. Similar nonsense is wearing turtleneck just because Steve Jobs did it. Don’t try to imitate everything your role model does. Remember that he has different personality.
The problem with turtleneck
It is interesting how much will sometimes people try to imitate their role models to be just like them. There are people wearing turtlenecks because they think that doing so will make them more like Steve Jobs. Some people are developing specific ways of doing things or inclinations for the same purpose. The problem with all these things is that they are mostly useless. It was not the turtleneck what made Steve Jobs successful entrepreneur and famous. It was the opposite.
The same thing applies to habit of other people you may admire such as designers, writers, inventors, entrepreneurs and so on. You read that someone is waking up at 4 am and you start doing the same thing. Or, just because someone drinks five cans of Coke a day you start doing the same thing. Again, the problem is that you are focusing on the wrong things. Just because you wake up at certain time, drink certain drinks or wear certain piece of clothes you will not get the same results other people had. There were other pieces of the puzzle that had to fall into place.
Choose your role models wisely
I think that we should always choose our role models only after detailed consideration. Why? Chances are that, when we choose a role model, we will start to imitate her. This is something we often do without knowing it. Think back to your school years. Was there someone you admired or want to be friend with? Or, did you want to become member of some student, group guild or society? Then, you probably started to imitate some students in that group and behave in a certain way. The same sociological principle applies to role models as well.
When you choose role model, you will start to perceive his behavior in different way. Let me give you one example to illustrate what I mean. When Steve Jobs was young, he was known for being a jerk. He was often acting like a bully. Many people who admired Jobs perceived this behavior as normal and acceptable. Some of these “fans” even thought that this behavior was one of the reasons behind his success. As a result, some of them started to imitate it. When you choose your role model, think twice about what trait do you want to imitate. Imitate only the good traits.
It is easier when you have a roadmap
Let’s get back to the second benefit of having a role model for a moment. This benefit was about your role model’s ability to show you the path to dream career. You can follow the career path of your role model at the entire length. However, there is also smarter approach. Instead of copying every single step, you look only for those that helped your role model the most. The thing is that not all steps are equal. Some steps were more important and had bigger impact than other steps.
This is something you have to understand because it can be a life-changer. Why? Well, let’s say that it took your role model eleven years to get where she is today. Can you imagine that you could achieve the same in less time? For example, instead of eleven years, think about completing that path in just seven years, or even less. Does it sound impossible? As I said, not all steps in the path of your role model were equal. Also, some of these steps could be even counterproductive.
Hacking and tweaking your roadmap
The idea is that if you find these “redundant” steps and skip them, you can get to the end of the same path faster. One important question that may influence “hackability” of the roadmap is if you have direct access to your role model. You can look for the redundant or less effective steps on your own. Unfortunately, this is not the most effective approach. If your role model is still alive and you can contact him, you do that. Your role model knows best what worked well for her and what was a waste of time.
Ask your model what steps would she avoid if she had to go through the same path again. And, don’t forget to ask about the steps which helped her the most. Then, you can double down on these and maybe accelerate your progress even more. If you don’t have access to your role model, or she is not alive anymore, you can try to reach people who knew her. If you can’t do even that, well, you will have to do this research on your own. Still, I believe that it is worth investing your time and effort because it can significantly accelerate your progress toward your dream career.
Closing thoughts on becoming great designer without going to design school
This is all I have for you today in this first part. I hope that these first three tips will help you make some progress in your design career without going to design school. Let’s quickly recap what we discussed today. First, design school has many benefits, but it is not necessary. With determination and solid work ethic you can learn everything you need in less time and safe your money. We also discussed that books alone are not bulletproof solution. You have to always connect theory with practice. So, don’t think you can spend all your time reading books.
Second, well-rounded curriculum has to start with the basics. When you attend design school, you will learn the fundamentals of graphic design first. Do the same thing. Next, contrary to some opinions, drawing is not a necessary skill in the beginning for web designers. You can temporarily supplement lack of drawing skills with appropriate software. However, you should fix this weakness as soon as you can. Lastly, before you jump into Photoshop, train your eyes. You must train your ability to distinguish between good and bad design. Learn to see the patterns.
Third, get familiar with the history of graphic design. Every design style in the history evolved in a certain way. If you want to truly master these styles, you have to know about their roots. You have to understand how these styles evolved. That’s why history is important part of design school curriculum. Knowing the history is also necessary if you want to develop new styles because you need some material to fuel your creativity. Fourth, find your role models. Look for people who inspire you and use it as motivation. Then, work hard to surpass them. That’s it.
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