Throw off your dependence on parents, teachers, and school to teach you the skills you want to learn. If you love design, here are 10 ways to teach yourself graphic design while still in high school – just like I did. And you might not even need a degree afterwards.
First – Why you should listen to me
I hate starting to read a blog post just to realize that the author is an idiot, so here are a few highlights from my resume to prove that I know what I’m talking about. I am extremely blessed with the family, education as a homeschooler, and work environment I’m in, so don’t worry if you don’t have as much work experience as me yet. You can still learn to be a talented graphic designer.
- I am an 18-year-old soon-to-graduate high school senior and have done the following:
- Drawn from an early age
- Worked in software design since age 14
- Was the graphic designer for my high school FIRST robotics team the Wired Wizards for 3 years (created their logo and entire brand from our founding year in 2012 to my senior year in 2015)
- Started many side projects (such as my old Etsy shop, where I illustrated custom Moleskine notebooks)
- Started freelancing for graphic design in 2015
Now let’s get to it!
Graphic design, according to Wikipedia (which you are allowed to use in the non-school world), is defined as:
The process of visual communication, and problem-solving through the use of type, space and image.
This means you get to create lots of cool things such as logos, brochures, websites, apps, posters, business cards, and packaging. Basically any time you’re making pretty stuff in the computer for the purpose of communicating an idea or marketing a business. Related fields include film, animation, video game design, illustration, fine art, UX and UI design, and coding.
Now that you know what graphic design is (just to confirm you didn’t think it was skydiving or anything), here’s my list for 10 ways you can teach yourself graphic design. They are all free, so you have no excuse for not starting.
Drawing is the foundation of design, since when you draw you learn the basics of art and design. And even with fancy new computers and technology, most graphic designers still sketch out ideas with old fashioned paper and pencil before moving to the computer.
There is no magic style of drawing that prepares you the most for graphic design, and don’t feel like you have to produce photo realistic masterpieces. The point is to experiment and have fun. And the best thing about drawing is that you can do it anywhere, at any time, and with very cheap and easily available materials.
It can also keep you entertained while in a boring class at school (I’ve created some of my favorite artwork while doodling at school).
2. Start lots of fun projects
When you start learning graphic design, you won’t have clients. And most likely your school does not offer graphic design specific classes, so where are you going to practice? The answer is to do lots of projects for yourself – find something you’re interested in, and do it. As Seth Godin said when I interviewed him (a long story):
College is a great time to experiment, it’s a great time to start things. And, if you started a new project every three months for four years, you’ll have run forty-eight projects before you graduate from college. You will have a much better idea about what you are capable of, and you will have learned more than anyone else on campus.
He was talking about college, but this applies to high school as well. And don’t feel like this is too hard – I am a serial project starter, and it extremely fun and addicting to start projects.
Here are some examples of projects you can do to to improve your graphic design skills.
- Make up companies and design logos, brands, and products for them.
- Redesign existing logos, websites, apps, posters, books, and movie covers.
- Find clubs in your school or local nonprofits that can use graphic design and volunteer to design for them. As I mentioned earlier, much of my graphic design learning was done while designing for my high school robotics club.
- If you have any other projects like a blog, personal website, social media accounts, or even side jobs such as babysitting and lawn mowing, design logos and brands for them.
- Here’s a video with some creative ideas for fun graphic design projects.
3. Mentally criticize everything around you
As a teenager, this should be very easy for you. And to clarify, I do not mean to be critical of people around you, but of design around you.
For example, often as I go home from work, I am mentally insulting the badly designed storefront signs along the streets and redesigning them in my mind.
And when I went to the public library last week, I saw a sign for “Kid’s Music Fest” that was designed in such a bad font that the F looked like a T and read “Kid’s Music Test,” an event that not many kids would want to go to. I almost gave them my business card and volunteered to do design for them, but I’m glad I didn’t because the government probably has a zillion rules about contractors.
So – the point is to be aware of your surroundings. Notice what works and what doesn’t. Why do certain colors work together? Why are some websites are easy to use and some are an endless maze of confusing pages? And then figure out why they don’t work and how you could fix them.
4. What to do when you’re stuck in school
Even if school often seems like a waste of time, there are some classes you can take that will prepare you for a career in graphic design. And if you are homeschooled, you should also learn these skills. There are many resources online to help you learn these things even if your school doesn’t offer these specific classes.
- Art – It should be obvious to you why this class would help you grow your design skills.
- Marketing – It’s extremely important to know marketing concepts as a designer, since often your work will be creating marketing materials.
- Business – Freelance and self employed graphic designers must know how to run all aspects of their freelance business, from taxes to contracts. And even if you’re not a whiz at this type of thing, you still need to be aware of it so you can hire bookkeepers and such to help you.
- Writing – No matter what career you have, you should know how to write well. But especially in graphic design, you will often be communicating with clients via email and sometimes may even be requested to write ad and marketing copy.
- Coding – If you are considering going into any sort of web or app related design, it is important to have a theoretical knowledge of how programming works. I do not believe that every designer has to know to to code web pages in addition to designing them, but having knowledge about html and css is indispensable.
5. Become a wizard with the mouse
While you are learning the fundamentals of graphic design, you should not overlook learning to use the software that professional graphic designers use to put their ideas in a digital format. Industry standard graphic design software can be costly, but to learn, you don’t necessarily have to have to use expensive tools. But if you have access to any of these tools, definitely use them as much as possible.
- Adobe Photoshop – For raster and bitmap design, often used for print design, photo editing, bitmap, and digital painting
- Adobe Illustrator – For vector design, if you’re making a logo ideally it would be in the vector format
- Adobe InDesign – If you’re doing layouts for magazines or books
- If you do not have access to these and are not able to pay for them, you can Google search for free graphic design software. There are many free programs, such as Gimp. I have never personally used Gimp, and I’ve heard there is a steep learning curve, but it’s powerful and might be perfect for you.
Note on vector vs raster: When you’re looking for software, they will most likely either be able to do vector design or raster design. You should learn the differences, as they are fundamental concepts in graphic design. You can learn in either one first, but if you’re serious about graphic design, you will want to know both by the time you get an internship or job.
6. Share your designs with the world
There are many ways to share your designs, including blogs and social media accounts. I really enjoyed posting art on a blog while I was improving my drawing and design skills. There are many reasons to share your work, including:
- Improving your writing quality
- Inspiring you (it’s exciting to have people comment on your designs)
- Perhaps building a following
- There are many free and easy ways to do this that do not require you to know anything about web design beforehand. I would recommend researching to find which one makes the most sense for you. Don’t lock yourself into one platform, but experiment and have fun. The point is not to become famous, but to learn.
7. Become a bookworm
I love books. In fact, most of my education has been through books and self teaching. My Dad says that “Autodidact University” styled as a college logo would make a great t-shirt that people would buy. (However, I am not sure. Comment if you would like to prove or disprove his theory.)
Anyway, books are the way you can learn whatever you want. As Confucius said,
You cannot open a book without learning something.
Although many types of books can be improve you as a person, which will in turn benefit your design, you can also look for books specific to graphic design. Your local library should have a wealth of design books. I recently brought home a book about color in graphic design that was fascinating. You can find books that are about specific parts of design you would like to improve, but I would recommend also branching out and looking for books about other types of design.
You can also search online for graphic design blogs, ebooks, and newsletters. You can start by following the Hanoona Media blog! I also recently subscribed to a great newsletter that sends me a weekly email with great articles about web design.
Oh, and one more thing – turn off the tv. Easier said than done, I know, but at least consciously limit the amount of video you watch and replace that time with reading.
8. Learn from the masters
In addition to reading books written by experts, it is also crucial to get feedback and advice from breathing human beings. This is something that I have not gotten as much as I need, since I live in a small coastal town and don’t know many graphic designers. I always have asked feedback from the people around me (for example coworkers in my software design job), but since they’re not designers they don’t always know what to look for.
Here are ways you can consider finding adults to give you feedback.
- Ask your family – they might be biased, but if they’re design-oriented, they might be able to give you good feedback.
- Ask on Facebook if anyone knows a designer who would be willing to critique your work.
- Search for local Meetups or graphic design groups. Also marketing groups often have some designers.
- Ask your school’s art teachers.
9. Don’t worry about the money
I did graphic design for over 3 years before I made a cent as a freelance designer. If I had spent my younger years constantly worrying about when I would make money, I wouldn’t have enjoyed designing as much. And since I’m lazy and tend to only do things I feel like doing, I wouldn’t have spent any more time drawing and spending hours in Photoshop. Then I wouldn’t be any good at design, and today would have to do a more boring and less creative job.
If you have to make money, find another job for now. Give yourself the permission to learn graphic design without stressing out about when you’ll be good enough to sell your services. If you keep at it, the opportunity for making money will present itself when you know you’re good enough.
10. Be crazy
When you’re learning, don’t constrain yourself to just designing boring corporate logos. Or crossing every i and dotting every t in your sketches and doodling. Or, worst of all, just designing things you think adults will like. The times I’ve learned the most is when I go crazy with my designing. I’ve been known to loose myself in Photoshop for hours on end, oblivious to the time, just making crazy things and doing whatever I feel like.
Here are results from one recent Photoshop experiment with a picture I took of my younger sister.
You can learn so much if you let yourself experiment and make crazy things. And if you make terrible things, as I have many times, you don’t ever have to show them to anybody. Just keep working until you have designed something good.
PS – What about a degree?
There is a debate going on right now about whether or not you need a degree in certain fields to be a successful professional. I will not weigh in on the debate for any other field other than graphic design, and I will only tell you my personal experience.
I do not have a degree, do not plan on going to college, and am a professional graphic designer.
This is not because I couldn’t get into college – I have a 4.0 gpa and scored 2080 on the SAT. I am not going to college based on an informed decision my parents and I made. I have still had many adults who I respect suggest that I go to college, and even more I’ve had people tell me I should go into engineering (because of my experience on the robotics team). “Girls are needed in engineering!” “You would make so much money!” But I just smile and politely nod my head. I won’t change my mind.
I might not know everything there is to know about graphic design, but I love it and will never stop learning. And I hope you will learn to love it, too.