Getting There from Nowhere
Can you become a designer with little to no formal training? Certainly, but don’t expect it to be simple. Much of your potential for success depends on how hard you try.
I didn’t get a degree in design because I initially thought I wanted to go into advertising. That idea lasted about a semester. I later decided I wanted to be a filmmaker and changed my major before realizing I had developed a love for graphic design. The broadness of my major allowed me to direct my focus in more of a design direction, but it was still difficult to fit many helpful classes into my schedule.
By my senior year, I was taking on unpaid projects wherever I could get them and had completed two summer design internships. I loved what I was doing. When I graduated, I focused more on acquiring a paying client base and began building a business.
Throughout the process I learned quite a bit. The following are my tips on how to get there from nowhere.
- Read and research. You won’t get anywhere without a working knowledge of the field, so read everything you can find on it. I read multiple design blogs like this one daily, have a subscription to HOW magazine, and pick up design-related books. If I have a question about anything, I research until I feel comfortable with the knowledge I’ve gained.
- Ask questions. During my internships, I was able to work with designers first hand. I took every opportunity to ask them about their work and learned a lot from them. Don’t be afraid to ask! Most are happy to share their knowledge with you.
- Experiment. The best way to learn (at least for me) is to try something yourself. I often download trial versions of software with which I am unfamiliar in order to learn them. I recently learned how to screen print, and I am also currently finishing my first painting. Experimenting not only teaches you new skills, it also improves your creative ability.
- Sketch. One thing that most designers seem to agree on is that sketching is very important. It helps you to organize and make tangible your ideas, develop a concept, and practice your drawing skills.
- Work for free. It is doubtful that you will find paid work with no formal training or experience. Unlike graphic design students, you probably don’t have a portfolio of school projects to show what you can do. The best way to build one is to do unpaid work. I was lucky to have artistic friends in bands and filmmaking, so I designed shirts, fliers, album art, one-sheet posters, etc. for them. Another great way is to do an internship with a design agency, or even a local magazine. If you are confident in your ability, look for a place where you can make a difference; if you are not, look for a place that can teach you.
- Do one thing best. It’s okay to have a broad range of abilities and interests. Chances are if you want to be a designer, you do. But in my experience, it isn’t a good idea to spread yourself too thinly. Know what you are best at (extra points if you enjoy it), and develop it most.
- Have a goal. Where do you want to take this design hobby of yours? Will it remain a hobby, or do you want to develop it into a business? It is important to know first where you want to go, then work toward getting there. Aimless often equals stagnant.
- Stay focused. It is easy for me to get excited about a new medium or skill and lose sight of my goal or specialty. Not long ago, I often found myself distracted by new prospects and unable to be productive. I’ve since made a schedule for myself to ensure that I focus most of my time on graphic design with some extra time for other projects.