I’m on an email list for graphic designers. “How do I become a designer” comes up again and again. And again this morning. The person who asked the question used Adobe Pagemaker a long time ago, and was familiar with the concept of “desktop publishing.” So his skills and familiarity with the industry are out-of-date. Here is the response I wrote today*:
(*Of course this may or may not be the same as the response I would give tomorrow, or 2 years ago, or 3 weeks from now. And I’ve probably said a lot of this before but then again, maybe not. Still, it’s worth reiterating. Let me know if I’m boring or if this is useful stuff in the comments below.)
There are two parts to learning graphic design: learning software and learning design.
For software: If you want to learn print design, I highly suggest learning Adobe InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, and Acrobat Pro. You can choose to buy the software outright or subscribe to Adobe’s Creative Cloud (where you download the software to your own computer but pay a monthly fee to use it). As of February, 2013, Creative Cloud costs $49.99/month if you commit to a year (and don’t qualify for a discount), and gives you access to pretty much every bit of Adobe software most designers will ever need. You can use the software as a free trial for 30 days. (You can also subscribe to just one software for a lower price, which might be good if you are just learning one software at a time and don’t need access to everything.)
There is also free or cheap software that does similar things. As a pro, I need to use Adobe CS and to stay updated to the most recent versions: I often share files with other designers and agencies and compatibility is important.
Knowing Microsoft PowerPoint, Word, and Excel can also be useful if you work with corporate clients. Personally I use Apple’s Keynote, Pages, and Numbers, but if I was creating presentations for clients to use, I’d need PowerPoint.
If you want to learn web design, concentrate on Photoshop, Fireworks for web page wire-framing and layout, and Illustrator for vector graphics. Also learn the basics of HTML and CSS and look into WordPress. (If you find out you love to code, you can get further into it later. But you can also hire someone to do the trickier coding while you do the “front end design” for web sites.)
Learning software: Unless you can take a live class (and often, even if you can), a good option is Lynda.com. For $25/month (more if you want sample files to work with), you have access to very very good video tutorials. The tutorials are split into short movies so it’s easy to find exactly what you need to learn. I highly suggest watching every video in a series if you are new to a particular software: you’ll learn a lot. (Heck, I learn a lot even on the software I’ve been using for more than ten years.)
Learning design: Start seeing design everywhere, not just looking at stuff. Examine ads or brochures or websites and put into words what the designer did and what works and what doesn’t work. Read “The Non-Designer’s Design Book” by Robin Williams. It’s short and the best reference for how to see and what to do in design.
Hardware: Buying a new computer? I’m an Apple user, as are many designers. Get an iMac if you’ll stay in one place. (I have a Mac Mini as my back up computer and it works ok in a pinch, too.) Get a MacBook Pro (at least 15 inch) if you’ll work in various places. If you get the MacBook Pro, add a mouse, maybe a separate keyboard, and definitely an external monitor for your home set up.
Business: Add another layer of learning if you plan to freelance AKA run your own business. Start with a visit to an accountant. Think about your ideal client and where you can find them (and where they will look for you). Plan to use a contract (every single time) and get a deposit to start work. Set your rates (but know you can change your rates later).
Take breaks. Meet people who do what you want to do. Most of all, have fun!
What advice would you give to someone who wants to know how to become a designer (or something else new-to-them)?