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Teach Yourself Graphic Design: A Self-Study Course Outline

Read Time: 19 min
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Read Time: 19 min

Wondering how to learn graphic design on your own? Fortunately, it isn't required to go to design school in order to be a graphic designer. A good foundation in graphic design history, theory, and practical application will help you hit the ground running. There are plenty of graphic design tutorials and resources you can check out, and we've put together a graphic design course outline for you here.

If you would like to learn and study graphic design from the ground up, then this article lists some great resources that will get you started. Also, even if you do go to design school, at least three-fifths of your education will be through self-directed study anyway. 

how to learn graphic design on your ownhow to learn graphic design on your ownhow to learn graphic design on your own
Discover how to learn graphic design on your own in this guide! (Image source)

If you want to teach yourself graphic design, you'll also need a professional source of digital creative assets. And Envato Elements is the best option you'll find out there. This no-tie, subscription-based marketplace offers you unlimited downloads of over 10 million digital creative assets for a flat monthly fee. That's right! Download as many graphics, premium fonts, graphic templates, add-ons, and more! It really is an unbeatable option when you're learning graphic design for beginners!

1. Understand the Principles of Graphic Design

First things first in this graphic design course outline: the principles of graphic design. There are a few graphic design principles that will affect every project you create. Understanding these principles  and learning to apply them will form the foundation of your graphic design education.

Let's take a look at the basic areas and terms you should study to get a solid footing in graphic design. Here's a great video from the Envato Tuts+ YouTube channel to begin with:

Shape, Spacing, and Rhythm

I remember first learning these basic design principles, and they seemed so foreign at first. It took me quite some time to get comfortable with these techniques. In school, we did a beginner project that consisted of drawing triangles, just to communicate emotion through placement, shape, and spacing alone. Below are some good resources on these principles:

Color, Texture, and Imagery

It's important to understand the basics of color theory and get a feel for how to work with colors. Color can make areas of a design pop off the page or recede into the background. The use of texture can enhance the feel of a design.

In print design, texture can be the actual feel of paper or other materials. Imagery can also blend in with texture and is loaded with colors. Learning how to balance these is a delicate craft that will take some practice to apply well. Here are some resources on using color to study graphic design:

Working With Type

Your ability to use type is one of the things that differentiates graphic design from other visual professions. A big part of graphic design is understanding typography, developing your knowledge of typefaces and how to apply them in your design. This will be a constant study throughout your career. Here are a few great resources on graphic design principles and typography:

2. Study Graphic Design History

The Philip Meggs book is a must-have for every self-taught graphic designer. You should read it from cover to cover. Also, as you go through, you can spend time researching areas that interest you the most. Read as much as possible about graphic design history, pick at least three areas to go into detailed study, and learn as much as you can about them.

One area of interest for me is the Bauhaus, which was a graphic design and craft school founded in the early twentieth century. I find the subject captivating, probably because it combines so many of my passions: art, design, history, and education.

Learn more about graphic design history in this complete website. (Image source)Learn more about graphic design history in this complete website. (Image source)Learn more about graphic design history in this complete website. (Image source)
Learn more about graphic design history in this complete website. (Image source)

Here are some other amazing resources on graphic design history that may interest you:

3. Internalize the Graphic Design Process

Graphic designers solve visual problems. The key to teaching yourself graphic design is to understand the process of solving a visual problem. This means you'll benefit from tackling design briefs. You'll learn to apply the skills you study by solving fictitious design problems to begin with, and as you advance, you can start tackling real-world problems and working with clients.

The graphic design process involves many steps, like developing and testing ideas. (Image source)The graphic design process involves many steps, like developing and testing ideas. (Image source)The graphic design process involves many steps, like developing and testing ideas. (Image source)
The graphic design process involves many steps, like developing and testing ideas. (Image source)

Visual and Conceptual Problem Solving

Visual and conceptual problem-solving is the core of what we do as graphic designers. Clients come to us with a brief, which is a problem that needs to be solved. A new company may need to enter a specific market and come to you for a comprehensive identity solution. Or you may work at a newspaper and have to lay out a page to deadline. The problems are endless, and your job is to solve these issues.

What is a visual concept? Well, it's more than a pure visual solution. It's a unification of a graphic and an idea, which is placed in context to solve a problem. Let's look at the example of a logo. It's a visual mark, which represents the idea of a company, presented in the context of all the company's identity, marketing, and history. Let's look at some resources for developing your visual and conceptual problem solving skills for graphic designers. Keep in mind, though, that practicing your craft will help build your visual problem-solving skills.

The Design Process

Learning to research, create thumbnails, refine sketches, work up visual solutions in programs, and present to clients are just some of the basics of the design process.

Every subset of design may have a slightly different procedure, and your working methodology may vary, or a company you work for may implement things in a unique way in their production environment. Even so, the basics remain the same. Get familiar with the design process from start to finish, and work on getting faster and better at each stage of the process on each project you work on.

Real-World Graphic Design Application

A business card, like a canvas, has boundaries. A book has specific dimensions and technical print limitations. These types of practical and technical limitations are an important part of practicing the craft of graphic design. Work to learn about these technologies and build up your knowledge through real projects.

You'll learn a whole lot about print by having to get a big project printed on a budget. Also, keep in mind that creative solutions are often driven within contained creative environments. Part of the fun of graphic design is solving technical problems with creative solutions.

4. Consider Advanced Study and Development

Advanced study can take many different paths for each designer. You may become interested in a related field, and then mold your graphic design education to apply to that field. However, every graphic designer will benefit from advanced study and planning.

Of course, there's no limit to the depth you can study on any subject of graphic design. Grid theory, graphic information design, and career planning are just a few areas to focus on. You could certainly go much deeper in other areas as well.

The origin of grid graphic design theory. (Josef Müller-Brockmann, Grid Systems book)The origin of grid graphic design theory. (Josef Müller-Brockmann, Grid Systems book)The origin of grid graphic design theory. (Josef Müller-Brockmann, Grid Systems book)
The origin of grid graphic design theory. (Josef Müller-Brockmann, Grid Systems book)

Grid Graphic Design Theory

Many areas of graphic design incorporate grid-based solutions. In many ways, grid systems in graphic design are about the advanced principles of spacing, flow, and rhythm, though applied to real projects, like laying out an entire book or website. Putting together any multi-page document will likely benefit from a grid as it makes the design feel cohesive. Below are some resources to get started with grid systems in graphic design:

Graphic Information Design

While many of the principles of graphic information design are similar to graphic design, it takes on a more technical and practical approach to visual problems. Rather than looking at the concept on a billboard, a graphic information designer might analyze the proper font size to use for traffic passing the billboard at 40mph so as to have maximum impact. It's a blend of scientific research and practical application to visual design. Edward Tufte has written many good books on the subject, and I recommend you read them all. They are elegantly written, the layouts of the books are beautiful, and the principles taught have strong, illustrative examples.

Planning Your Graphic Design Career Path

Spend some time getting acquainted with the landscape and plan your graphic design career path. Graphic design is a large discipline, which is directly involved in numerous occupations. Learning the potential of the field will help you decide what you want to focus on. You may be attracted to print design, advertising, interface design, or another related field.

5. Learn From Professional Graphic Designers

Aside from studying graphic designers throughout history, you'll also benefit by studying contemporary designers whom you identify with. A couple of designers I found inspirational while I was in design school were David Carson and Carlos Segura. Both of these designers utilize typography in intuitive, innovative, and illustrative fashions. They helped encourage me to get expressive with my use of type, spacing, and texture. While the approach they practice in design isn't appropriate for every project, it certainly helped develop my graphic range and ability to think illustratively through graphic design.

David Carson is one of the most recognized American graphic designers.David Carson is one of the most recognized American graphic designers.David Carson is one of the most recognized American graphic designers.
David Carson is one of the most recognized American graphic designers.

You may fall in love with some other approach to design. Also, you'll go through numerous phases, where you'll be attracted to something else in design. This is part of what's great about the field; it's so diverse. Don't be afraid to emulate designers' approaches to some projects. It's a good way to learn. Then you'll move on to something else, and it will become part of your collective design experience.

6. Develop Your Proficiency, Intuition, and Flow

Part of becoming a good graphic designer is becoming one with your tools. If you can wield a pencil and quickly sketch down conceptual solutions, then you're a more proficient designer. Of course, when working within programs, the same thing applies. That's why courses on graphic design software for beginners are key. If you're a logo designer, the better you know Illustrator, the better a designer you'll be.

That's one of the reasons why the resources you find on Envato Tuts+ and its YouTube channel are so useful! If you're interested in graphic design software for beginners, here are some free courses you cannot miss:

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    Adobe Illustrator for Beginners | FREE COURSE

    Learn how to use Adobe Illustrator for beginners in this free course. Start by mastering the Illustrator basics, and then learn to create effects, patterns, and more. 

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      InDesign for Beginners | FREE COURSE

      In this course, you'll learn everything you need to get started using Adobe InDesign.  If you’ve never opened InDesign before, or you’ve opened it and struggled, join this course and I’ll show you the easy way to make beautiful design work in Adobe InDesign. 

        Being proficient with your tools helps you to be able to enter an intuitive, flow-like state when working, but it's more than that. The better you know design, your medium, your chosen field of focus, your toolsets, and your workflow, the easier it will be to sink into that space where decisions come easily and time disappears. This flow state is a big reason why people choose any art-related field like graphic design; they enjoy being in the flow of creating and working visually.

        7. Put Together Your Graphic Design Portfolio and Blog

        Graphic design portfolio websites are a great resource. Make sure to create a portfolio and blog regularly on what you learn as you grow as a designer.

        Three things help get you hired as a graphic designer (in order of importance): your portfolio, your demonstrated experience, and your ability to communicate your knowledge of graphic design. You build all three of these over time. It's not something that happens overnight.

        Your graphic design portfolio is your most important tool in marketing yourself as a graphic designer. It demonstrates your ability to practically apply your skills. When interviewing, it also holds some of the greatest weight in whether you get hired.

        This graphic design portfolio template fro WordPress is a fantastic option for your new website.This graphic design portfolio template fro WordPress is a fantastic option for your new website.This graphic design portfolio template fro WordPress is a fantastic option for your new website.
        This graphic design portfolio template for WordPress is a fantastic option for your new website.

        One of the greatest skills one learns in design school is how to talk and write about design. It's not just being able to create something that looks cool, but being able to critically analyze a problem, apply a proven workflow to solving it, and communicate the process. In the field, this will equate to needing to sell your solutions to clients or bosses—or, when interviewing, describing how you solved a design problem.

        Writing articles for your blog is a great place to practice discussing graphic design and how you've solved specific design problems. It also, in itself, demonstrates your knowledge in the field. Don't be afraid to add case studies to your blog, even for personal projects, as it's a great way to build this analytical skill set. Through self-study, use your blog to write articles as you learn about design. This serves as a good substitute for assignments you would receive in a design class, and it will complement the design projects you do.

        Here are some great resources if you want to make your own graphic design portfolio websites:

        8. Participate in Online and Professional Graphic Design Communities

        Becoming involved in the graphic design community and professional associations will increase your connections in the industry and your knowledge of the field. Also, attend conferences and network whenever possible.

        The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) is a great professional community to check out.The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) is a great professional community to check out.The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) is a great professional community to check out.
        The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) is a great professional community to check out.

        Join Professional Associations

        A great way to learn about the workings of the graphic design profession is to join professional organizations. They run conferences and produce articles, books, and other resources. Some of these organizations work to improve the profession as a whole through lobbying and other activities.

        Get Critical Feedback Online and Promote Your Work

        Interaction and critique are really important to your growth as a graphic designer. If you're not in design school, then you need to find other places where people will tear apart your work, and where you can develop your own critical eye. The best thing for a young designer is to have someone tell them why something they made isn't well designed, and what they might do differently. This prepares you for clients doing this (gives you a thicker skin), and it helps you improve your visual and creative problem-solving abilities.

        I don't know of the perfect place on the net to find this, but try different online communities or forums. And if you can find a mentor, even someone with just one or two more years of experience than you, who is willing to critique your work, this can be invaluable. Try some of the places mentioned below and search further.

        Aside from your main portfolio, it also helps to have satellite portfolios, which are submitted to portfolio communities, and where you can get feedback on your work. They are also great places to promote your work and gain new clients. Below are some communities to explore.

        9. Keep in Mind That Graphic Design Doesn't Exist in Isolation

        Any study of graphic design will include some connection to related disciplines. Studying art and illustration will help develop your ability to create graphics.

        Studying marketing will help you place your conceptual solutions within the context of business and consumer needs. Also, graphic design is often a part of the foundational study for related disciplines. You'll be a much stronger web designer if you have a solid graphic design education, for example.

        Explore more articles about the disciplines related to a graphic designer career here:

        10. Find Work as a Freelance Graphic Designer

        Aside from landing a job directly, freelancing is a career path available for designers. There is work out there for almost all skill levels. You'll need to work at building your portfolio, negotiating, and business skills.

        There are communities and resources online that can help you grow a graphic design freelance career, and freelancing is a great way to get a broad set of graphic design projects under your belt. You can build up your skills and learn through real projects as you study independently. Check out these resources to learn more about freelancing:

        11. Evaluate How to Study Graphic Design

        After evaluating the above steps, do some research on schools, and consider the best course of study for you. Not everyone has the financial ability or desire to go to college. Fortunately, it isn't a prerequisite to becoming a professional designer. The biggest resources in landing a job are your ability to demonstrate your skills through your portfolio and the amount of knowledge and passion you show in interviews.

        Going to design school is great, but if you're diligent, you can learn graphic design through independent study. I'm not saying you shouldn't go to college, as that decision is up to you. Also, you may be studying something else but are passionate about graphic design. Plenty of great designers started in other fields or learned on their own.

        If you do plan on going to design school, then spend some time deciding on the right school for you. Which school fits your budget, goals, and ability to attend? You may want to consider online professional programs as well. Or for the brave of heart, do it without formal schooling.

        Putting It All Together

        Good luck with learning graphic design for beginners! Now you know how to teach yourself graphic design. Keep in mind, an undergraduate course takes numerous years to complete, and some even go on to grad school, so don't set your expectations too high in the beginning, whether you attend school or go it independently. It's OK if it takes years to master graphic design. Just study, grow as a designer, don't give up, and you'll get there. Be sure to have fun along the way, or else what's the point?

        Check out our series exploring careers in design and illustration, which is a great next step after reading this introduction to studying graphic design. And be sure to stay on top of the latest design trends by reading these articles:

        Editorial Note: This post has been updated with contributions from Maria Villanueva. Maria is the Associate Editor of the Tuts+ Design channel.

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