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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
How have you gotten to where you are in your career? Feel free to share your own tips in comments below.
Brooke Condolora is a graphic designer based in Arkansas, who did not marry a cousin and wears shoes more often than not.
  1. September 1, 2008

    All these points are so true. I totally agree with point #5, because that’s how I initially started. I used to work as a Web Design Volunteer for Non-Profit Organizations and then, once I had hands-on experience, I started taking up paid projects.

    I did almost everything mentioned in this post. Wonderful Article.

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  3. February 13, 2009

    Good points in this article. Also, even if you do go to school, these points still apply. Self direction, self study, pushing yourself, are necessary qualities for success in either case. There is so much to learn from books and your own experiments outside the classroom. Thx.

  4. February 13, 2009

    I had no formal Design training but did all of the above as well as imerse myself into the subject, i spent every spare moment i could scouring the web for information, inventing projects for myself and achieving them. Nowadays it is even easier, you have you tube tutorials for starters, i would have paid good money to watch over the shoulder of an experienced designer. I ate slept & dreamt design stuff and html,adobe and the now demised Macromedia where like my only friends. After 10 years of working for other people i am now freelance. I think if your going to do design for print, get some experience working in a print shop (what ever it is)just to get used to the terminology & paper stocks

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