How I Taught Myself Design, and You Can Too

This week I’m going to be sharing a series of posts all about learning how to design, starting with a few words on how I taught myself design and how you can too.

Whilst I classify myself as self-taught, I did receive some design teaching while I was at school. I did GCSE Graphics from the age of 15 to 16 and I studied Art all the way up until I went to uni. This tuition definitely helped me gain confidence and develop a set of basic drawing skills. I learned the basics of colour theory and of composition, I was given a vocabulary for talking about art, and design and branding. I designed my first logo when I was at school. I did a lot, and I am so so grateful that I did.

I think having that base was personally invaluable, but also not completely indispensable – you could definitely start learning to design from scratch, it might be harder, but you could do it without a doubt.

Because I didn’t learn half of the skills I use now. I also gained a few bad habits, like being afraid of a sketch book because everything had to be gradable as I’ve discussed before.

Everything beyond those basics I had to teach myself. I taught myself how to use photoshop, using a series of ill-gotten free trials, initially in order to do embarrassing fan edits. I taught myself how to use affinity designer and a Wacom tablet too. I taught myself all of the tech stuff. I taught myself about vectors. I taught myself how to run a small business, how to be a freelancer. I taught myself how to work with a client. I taught myself how to make infographics, and card games, and book covers. I’ve taught myself so much, and so much more, and I’m so proud of those skills I’ve found and developed from feeling my way in the dark.

But how did I do it? And how can you do it?

JUST DO IT

I think this is the most important thing on the list. Just make stuff and you’ll learn. It’s that simple. I wrote a post last year all about getting started as a designer and it includes some of my top tips for what you’ll need in terms of tools, where to invest your time and money, and what to expect.

GET SOME PROJECTS

Quite a lot of the new things I’ve learned, I’ve learned because I had to. When you’re working on a project either for yourself or especially for a client you’re going to come across things you don’t know how to do, and you either have to give up or figure them out. I always choose figure them out. When I was working for the Oxford Student I produced a graduate guide. There were loads of stats and we agreed that the best way to present them was in an infographic, the only snag was I had never made an infographic before. So, I had a google and I had a try, and then another, then another until I made something I was proud of. I’ve had to improve my hand lettering for invitations and learn photo editing skills for posters. You never know how much you can learn and do until you find out you have to do it.

DEVELOP YOUR OWN TASTE

Knowing what works and what doesn’t and why is such an important skill, and it can really help your work improve because you have a sense of where you’re going. I like to pick apart posters I see on the tube and menus most frequently, but I try and have an opinion on everything I see. When I say I try and have an opinion I don’t just mean “this is good” or “this is bad” I mean “I think the colour palette on that poster is really engaging, but I would have chosen a more readable typeface because it’s hard to read when you’re moving past at speed in the underground”. So, get opinionated, and apply the same logic to your own work. What works? What doesn’t? How can you improve it? But don’t get too disheartened when it doesn’t always looks as magical as your favourite works in its first draft, you’ll get there in your own way in your own time (I’m still getting there).

READ

The first thing I do when I don’t know how to do something, like pretty much everyone else, is google it. 90% of the time there’s an article on it and while the first time is pretty slow you can normally follow the instructions and work out how to do it. For wider background reader and improving general design skills and knowledge, some of the best books I’ve read include: Thinking with Type by Ellen Lupton, Graphic Design Rules: 365 Essential Design Dos and Don’ts by Peter Dawson, How to Use Graphic Design to Sell Things, Explain Things, Make Things Look Better, Make People Laugh, Make People Cry, and (Every Once in a While) Change the World by Michael Beirut, and The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman

YOUTUBE AND SKILLSHARE

As well as reading, there’s a wealth of video tutorials on the web you can watch and follow. I’m only just starting using Skillshare but I wish I’d caught on to it sooner, there’s so much useful stuff on there. In terms of Youtube tutorials, I would highly recommend checking out Plearn, Tutvid, and Photoshop Tutorials if you’re new to photoshop – those videos have taught me so much.

GET OUT

The difference between art and design is that design has to work, it has a practical purpose. The best way to make sure your work is, well, going to work in the real world is to get out and experience it. I’m a better designer now than I was 3 years ago, in part because I just know more about people and about how life works so I can design with that knowledge in mind.

TALK TO PEOPLE

There are so many people out there designing go and say hi. I’m very fortunate to work in an environment where there are loads of people doing creative jobs around me (even if I’m not one of them) so I try and take the time to ask them about what they’re doing, how, and why, whenever I can. But even if you don’t work in a creative office, reach out on social media. There are so many nice people out there, who are willing to share their knowledge. Just make sure you’re respectful and what you’re asking isn’t something you’re too lazy to google.

There are plenty of pros and cons to teaching yourself design, just as there are for so many things, which I’ll be going into in an upcoming post. Some days I wish I’d gone to design school. But if you’re willing to put the work in, you can definitely teach yourself many of the skills you need to design.

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9 Comments

  1. June 4, 2017 / 8:20 pm

    I clicked on this so fast! Lately, I’ve become more inspired tap into my creative side but I’ve been unsure where to start. It’s been a while since graphics GCSE but I’m excited to try again.

    • Natalie
      June 5, 2017 / 5:03 pm

      Woohoo! It doesn’t matter how long it’s been, if you want to do more creative work just do it – getting going is always the hardest part but it’s so worth it

  2. June 4, 2017 / 11:18 pm

    Thank you for this encouraging post. I’m a baby boomer(born the last decade of it!) I have the Adobe creative suite CS5 on my computer because my daughter and son-in-law work for Adobe (I’m grateful to them for this gift) but I have dabbled in it for the sake of looking only.

    You have inspired and “rung the bell” for me to start my pursuit of creating! I’m always jealous of the great work I see out in blog world.

    P.S. I haven’t blogged in few years. 😉

    • Natalie
      June 5, 2017 / 5:04 pm

      I’m so glad to hear that Melanie, you should definitely get creating again!

  3. Zeynab
    June 5, 2017 / 1:37 am

    I have wanted to be more creative, and been put off because of lack of confidence in my skill. This post has definitely given me the push I needed to just do it for me.

    Zeynab x
    The Beautyload

    • Natalie
      June 5, 2017 / 5:05 pm

      You should definitely just go for it! It doesn’t matter how good you are now, we all have to start somewhere and the more you do the better you’ll get

  4. June 5, 2017 / 5:31 am

    this is probably by far the most exciting post to read on your blog. not to say i don’t find the others boring but as a designer myself (a self taught one too even before i went to design school in uni), i’m always so thrilled to read design related posts like this.

    i remember teaching myself photoshop in high school because i had this hunch, this gut feeling that i belong in the design industry. as much as i love science, not acing any science subjects in high school was a pretty solid sign for me not to pursue science in the future. and then i remember how i grew up doodling and teaching myself how to draw manga even though it started horribly. but i remember taking a lot of inspirations from comics and manga and my friends who can draw manga better and i began following them. fast forward to senior high school, i discovered the website design world and i taught myself photoshop, web design and even html / css. that was when it changed and i realized that i’m more of a computer graphics digital design kind of gal and not someone who’d function in the illustration field. i discovered lots of specialized fields in the design industry when i entered university and i end up choosing to be a ux designer because it’s where i feel like i belong. i stopped forcing myself to excel in illustration because i know that isn’t my strength but i still doodle silly things from time to time yet it’s not the thing i turned into my profession. i don’t know if any of this makes sense but my point is, when it comes to wanting to be part of the design community, it’s always more than just being able to draw a human or getting the anatomies right. people always think that they can’t possibly move in this industry because they can’t draw but that’s not true at all. i’ve had classmates who can’t illustrate but they’re really good when it comes to photography. the design industry is so vast it’s like there are plenty of specialized fields to choose and focus on 🙂

    i really love this post and i agree with all the things you listed there. the first step is definitely without a doubt to have the urge to wanna be part of it.

    The difference between art and design is that design has to work, it has a practical purpose. this sentence in particular, is really really important. people think art is equivalent to design when it’s not. design is aesthetically pleasing AND functional while art is just that… it’s abstract, it’s beauty but it’s always functional and more often than not, confusing to non-artists. this is why i will never accept it when people group art and design together. imo, illustration is more of an art kind of thing while stuff like ui/ux design, publication and prints are def “graphics / digital design.”

    thanks for writing this post! really digging it 😀

    • June 5, 2017 / 5:33 am

      woops a little typo there. i meant to say “not to say i don’t find the others interesting…”

      had a major brain fart there since it’s still quite early in where i am. yikes

    • Natalie
      June 5, 2017 / 5:09 pm

      Thanks so much for sharing your story Elise! It sounds like you found exactly where you’re meant to be, which is so wonderful. You’re so right, design is so much more than just illustrating or making logos, it’s about making things that work, and hopefully make the world a little bit better. I’m just starting to dabble in UX and Service Design and it’s absolutely fascinating.

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