Design Fundamentals

How do you become a designer? What skills do you need and where can you learn them?

Step 1

Let’s Start With The Basics

What is design and is it art? At times, it’s tough to distinguish between the two, but there is a big difference in the approach, intent, and application between art and design.

This might sound controversial, but while graphic designers are artists, artists are not graphic designers.

They share a lot of DNA, but ultimately art is about asking questions, and design is about answering them. Design is usually client-driven. Typically, there is a brief, tight parameters, and a clear definition of what success looks like.

With research and intuition, you—the designer—will produce a solution that answers the client’s question.

Design is communication.

Graphic designers play an important role in giving form to thought. Any time you see the combination of typography, imagery, color, and texture in an ad, a poster, a flyer, a website, or on packaging, you are looking at the result of graphic design.

Design gives an idea shape through imagery and words. If a message needs to be read and understood, graphic designers help make it happen. Through careful decisions, they make sure that the words displayed are legible and create enough visual interest to stop somebody in their tracks and pay attention.

Quotation - The Futur

Good design means as little design as possible.

— Dieter Rams

So then, what makes good design? Good design is subjective and depends on what school of thought that you subscribe to.

Let’s say you have a modernist point of view. Your pillars for good design probably consist of simplicity, clarity of thought, and minimalism. Less is more.

On the other hand, if you identify as more of a maximalist, your idea of good design is multi-layered and much more abstract. There is room for more creative expression. Good design, to you, is about putting it all out there. You might even call simpler designs soulless.

Truth be told, there is no right or wrong camp to be in. You can be somewhere right in between and still follow the general consensus of what makes good design.

You could poll 100 designers and you would get 100 different answers for what makes good design.

There’s no universal standard for beauty, fairness, or even for value; the same applies to design. When you’re working with a client, your idea of what’s good can be drastically different from theirs. They’re more likely to be concerned with success metrics, asking, “does this move the needle for my business? Does it sell? Does it convert?”

We’re able to quantify and measure the impact of design like never before, which gives us one more thing to add to our credentials: accountability. Clients need to trust that we’re honest in our approach and can bring them value because when the results roll in, we’ll see whether or not our work really is successful.

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Typography is the cornerstone of graphic design.

Design is communication, and to communicate you need copy—copy is a term that comes from advertising which means text—and without type, you’re kind of at a loss for words. There is much more to typography than simply choosing a nice-looking font. You have to understand how it works, its function, and how to choose the appropriate typeface to communicate your message.

What software do graphic designers use?

The most common programs are centered around Adobe Creative Cloud: Illustrator, Photoshop, XD, and InDesign. Of course, there are alternatives to these programs that have similar functions that you can use; we’re just big fans of Adobe.

First things first, you need to be able to manipulate type. A vector-based program like Illustrator lets you move type in a way that’s non-destructive. A raster-based program like Photoshop lets you mix images and pixels together with vector to get a more rendered, photo-real look. Then, you’re probably going to need a program that allows you to lay things out and be responsive in design; something that dynamically scales from desktop, to tablet, to mobile. All these tools help you look at your design as it’s going to be seen by the end user.

Graphic design comes in many flavors.

There’s some confusion around the different types of graphic design and their applications. You’ll commonly hear people use these terms interchangeably: graphic design, UX, UI, and web design. Let’s clear all this up.

Graphic design is the largest, broadest umbrella under which different, more specialized niche applications of design exist. UX design, which stands for user experience design, studies how people behave, then tailors an experience (usually digital) around getting them what they want in the least number of steps. Typically, the by-products of UX design are sitemaps or research study data analyses. If you’ve had trouble trying to find a UX design portfolio, this might be why.

The term that’s most commonly associated with UX is UI (user interface). You’ve probably seen “I’m a UX/UI web designer” written on someone’s resume. While the two complement each other, they’re actually very different disciplines. UI is mostly concerned with the way something looks, feels, and functions. UX and UI work hand in hand to make sure the user has the best possible experience.

With the term web design, or web designer, that’s also very broad—it’s the umbrella term to describe both UX and UI. Typically when people tell you they’re a web designer, they’re more than likely a user interface designer, and they’re probably pretty light on the UX design part.

Is graphic design a viable career?

The short answer is yes. The range in which designers can get paid is actually quite varied, depending where you live and work. Let’s say you live in the US along the coast or in a big city. Between the cost of living, number of jobs, and the competition for highly skilled workers, the salary is going to be quite a bit higher than if you’re from a more rural area where the population is less dense.

If you want to make more money you’ll have better luck getting a full time job in the bigger markets—Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, etc.

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As you start to move away from the bigger cities and markets, the markets get smaller, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A starting salary for someone who’s completed their bachelor’s degree in graphic design and is working in a smaller town can earn anywhere between $27K - $40K or higher.

As you move toward the coast, and the bigger cities, you can start to push these numbers up, starting in the high 30’s, then mid-40’s, and up to $65K. Where you work and the size of the company you work with also plays an important role in salary.

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Your path to becoming a skilled graphic designer

We’re not here to just make things look good. We are strategizers and problem solvers.

Private Art School Vs. Universities

The most traditional path towards becoming a full-time, professional graphic designer is to go to a 4-year program with a concentration in graphic design. Many colleges and universities offer this, but it’s not as in-depth as a private education would be. There are also private art schools that have very rigorous programs dedicated to graphic design.

When you’re studying at a private art school that has concentrated majors in the visual arts, especially graphic design, you get a lot of real-world experience. Classes in typography and lettering are required and taught by some leading practitioners of design who are working as professors.

In universities that offer a design program, they usually have much thinner options for you to choose from. The professors may or may not have real experience in the field, and are most likely going to be more textbook in how they teach you. They might not be pushing the concepts and design boundaries as much as a more concentrated program would.

If you’re pretty passionate and good at graphic design and go to a state college or university, you’re going to be easily head and shoulders above everybody else. There’s also the risk of having a false sense of security and confidence until you get out of school.

You’re a big fish in a small pond.

The interesting thing about concentrated design programs is they attract (in theory) people who have been thinking about design their whole lives as the only thing they want to do. Surprisingly, the competition is mostly healthy. Students try to one-up each other, but it really pushes them to create work they didn’t think they could.

The other difference between private and state education is in recruitment. Private art schools tend to have great relationships with recruiters from some of the top design and tech companies. When you’re getting ready to graduate, you can expect them on the guest list to review your work and possibly offer you a job. 

Private art programs also have great relationships in the industry. Oftentimes, they’ll have “sponsored projects” where you can work with a real client and get feedback on your work. In other cases, you can earn money for your participation in a class, or win a prize for taking part in a design challenge at school.

The professors who have students that produce consistently good work are highly likely to be recruited right out of school, opening many doors to the industry. There’s a good chance this might happen in a state university, but it’s probably less likely.

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Here’s what we recommend:

1. Start At The End

If you’ve decided that university or college just isn’t for you, there are plenty of ways you can get your foot into this industry. Start by looking at where you want to end. What company or firms do you see yourself working at? What kind of work do they produce? When you visit their website, how do they describe their work? Is that the work you want to do? 

2. Examine Case Studies

Try to find the common thread in a company's or agency’s case studies and narrow down what they really do. As you start to see a pattern, try to identify what that is, then study it. If they say they are a UX or UI design company, for example, maybe that’s the topic you want to discover a bit deeper.

Dig through YouTube and find other people doing UX and UI design. Once you find those resources, do some exercises related to that line of work. Reverse engineer. Deconstruct what makes something good and see if you can start to teach yourself

3. Read Books

If you want to get better at design, typography in particular, Eric Spiekermann’s book, Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works is a great place to start. Another book, by Rob Carter, Typography Design: Form and Communication, is an essential reading piece. It takes you through the history of typography, the function, and the naming conventions, so you’ll have a pretty decent foundation.

4. Learn On The Job

Some people don’t absorb everything from just reading and that’s okay. If you learn more by doing, then being an apprentice for a designer might be the best way for you to learn. Have a design professional take you under their wing and teach you a couple hours a day, exchanging your time for their time. 

You can also reach out to people you really admire online. Follow them on social media, send a personal message, develop a relationship with them, and from time to time, ask if you can show them your work, and if you can get feedback.

5. Join Organizations

Professional organizations like the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) in the US, or the Association of Registered Graphic Designers (RGD) in Canada are great organizations to join. By being a member, you can attend meetings like portfolio reviews and critiques and get your work reviewed on the spot. It’s also a good way to network with the more senior members in the design community. Who knows, maybe one of them will really like you and take you under their wing!

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Typography Manual

Do you want to learn as much as you can about typography? This manual can help you learn the basics of type setting and design.


Be ready for a challenge.

Learning a wide variety of skills and putting them together can seem daunting. As a designer, these are the tools that will help you solve every problem you encounter.
If you’re not sure how to pick up these skills, check out some of our courses and products below.

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