5. Teaching Yourself Design
Design is one of those professions where a degree isn’t really required to find a job and even have a successful career. Some of the biggest tech companies don’t require academic qualifications if you’re really good at what you do.
Getting your degree will be a rewarding experience, nevertheless. I’m sure you’ll learn a lot and it’ll help you tremendously, because most companies may still take it into consideration when hiring even if they don’t require a degree.
However, if going to college is not an option for you, then I have some good news. You can easily teach yourself design online and start your career without even leaving your house, no matter where you live. I’m a good example of this.
I started learning both design and code when I was still in school. I used mostly online resources and some books I bought. Unfortunately, there weren’t any online courses or YouTube channels like we have now, but you could still find some good blogs and Photoshop tutorials.
That was enough to learn some basics and start working on some of my own projects. I didn’t spend years learning and then trying to find a job; instead, I was constantly doing new small projects as I was learning.
I launched my own websites and experimented on them as soon as I learned something new. It didn’t take too long before people started asking me about designing similar websites for them and that’s how it became a job.
I started making money by doing projects for clients from all over the world in my free time after school from my bedroom in a small town in Poland. That’s the magic of being a freelance web designer, and today it’s even easier and more accessible than ever.
I tried taking some college classes when I moved to Chicago, but I quickly realized it wasn’t for me and I simply couldn’t even afford it.
Design can be self-taught if you put a good learning process in place and have a solid framework to follow. With all of the information, courses, books, and tutorials floating around the internet these days, it’s not easy to focus and learn just enough of what is really needed.
After years of learning on my own, I think I can help you.
What you don’t need to learn
There are a couple of myths about designing websites that may scare you away if you’re new. So, let’s start with things that you definitely don’t need to learn if you want to become a web designer:
Art, drawing, painting.
As you learned from the previous lesson, you don’t have to be an artist to become a good designer. Also, any of your traditional drawing and painting skills don’t really matter in design. Your sketches don’t have to be beautiful, but instead should be simple enough to effectively communicate ideas. Keep in mind that design is more about science than art!
You don’t need to learn how to design illustrations, icons, banners, or any other elements for your websites. Your role as a web designer is to design user experience, interface, colors, typography, and layout. Everything else is just assets that you can get from other sources. Don’t get distracted with tutorials on how to create your own fancy icons or typefaces.
We talked more in detail about this subject in the “Should Designers Code?” lesson. You don’t need to know how to code if you want to focus on learning just design. Any hard-core backend coding can be especially difficult for beginners. If you want to focus primarily on design, don’t worry about the code for now.
All the fancy design tools.
There are a ton of different tools for designing wireframes, sitemaps, user flows, mockups, animations, prototypes, and more. We’ll talk about design tools in the next lesson, but you can do all of your web design work within a single piece of software like Adobe Photoshop or Sketch. I’ve been using Photoshop for wireframing, graphic design, and web design for years and I survived!
When you’re a beginner, it’s tempting to jump into different tools that promise to help to do your work faster and more efficiently, but you also need to learn every new tool’s interface and habits. This requires a lot of energy and effort to switch your attention between different software programs.
Have a self-learning process
One of the benefits of learning in school is that you have a clear curriculum that you can follow. All of the information is organized and you have access to teachers and other students where you can ask any questions.
This is basically what the Design Class is all about too. It’s focused on the most essential information organized in 5 simple courses: Discovery and UX, Typography, Colors, Layout, and Designing in Sketch (putting it all together and learning the design software). Plus, I’m here to personally answer your questions and give you feedback on your progress, along with hundreds of other students.
I structured the Design Class based on my own self-learning process. Learning design can be most effective if you mix all of the different activities in the right amounts. You can learn design theory for years, but it’s useless if you don’t practice it at the same time and never see how it’s used in real-life examples.
Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.”
So, here’s what you should focus on when learning design:
Learn from examples.
Observe other designs and analyze them – take notes, make sketches, and try to understand why designers made certain decisions. By doing so, you’ll learn to perceive a good design from a bad one. Browse different website projects every day and hone your ability to identify the most valuable aspects of each design.
Take notes, sketch and save your favorite examples, so you can go back to them and review when you need to.
You don’t have to spend an entire day on this exercise — just 10 to 15 minutes every day. Frequency and consistency is more important here, so you can train your brain to recognize good design solutions and patterns.
Learn design theory.
Design theory is the foundation of any well-designed website. Knowing solid theory can take away a lot of guesswork and uncertainty in your decisions. It’s also much easier to win any argument when you can support your opinion with the theory.
There are many theories on colors, layout, typography, user interface, user experience, conversion, etc. You don’t need to know or use all of them in every project, but you should know the most essential and crucial concepts.
Learn one new thing every day or so, find some real-life examples and immediately follow up by practicing it in your own work. The design theory will be much more obvious and you’ll remember it better that way.
Learn to use your design software.
Like I mentioned before, you don’t need to know a lot of tools, but you need to pick your one major design software (I’ll help you pick one in a future lesson) and learn how to use it.
One good thing is that you don’t have to master it and grasp every single feature. Instead, learn all of the shortcuts and tricks that will assist you in doing your work efficiently.
Once you’re really fast and feel comfortable using the basic features, you can explore it more and make good use of it. Sooner or later, you’ll probably change the software you’re using today, so be ready to re-learn and move on to something new when you need to.
I’ve been using Adobe Photoshop since the beginning of my career and I switched to Sketch a couple of years ago. It didn’t really affect my workflow as much as I thought it would. I spent a couple of days practicing new shortcuts and elemental features so I could pick up the speed and soon I became as proficient in using it as I was in Photoshop.
Practice, practice, practice.
Practicing what you’ve learned is surely the most important part of the entire process. Don’t wait until you know enough before you get your hands dirty. As soon as you discover something new, open up your design software and try to recreate it. Make a few quick mockups for practice, experiment, or create something on your own.
If you already have some client projects you’re working on, try to use what you learned in your everyday work. If you don’t have any projects, you can come up with some fake ones or start a side project.
Your own projects are great for building up your portfolio before you get paid projects and they give you a chance to refine your design skills. Also, make sure to challenge yourself and experiment with something new in every design.Side note: Design Community will launch along with the next Design Class course. It’ll be a place where you can meet fellow designers, ask me questions, discuss design topics, share your design work, get feedback, etc. You’ll also get access to some exclusive design resources available only to members.
Finally, don’t be afraid to share your work with the world. Dribbble.com or our future Design Class Community are great places to do this. Presenting, talking about your work, getting feedback and offering critiques are all part of a designer’s work.
Learn from your design heroes.
Research and discover design heroes that you can learn from. Follow their journey, processes, and advice. See how their design style transforms over time and which way they choose to go. Think of it as a personal shortcut to their years of experience and a chance to learn from their mistakes.
You may find yourself in a similar situation that they were in a couple of years ago and you can benefit from the decisions they made. I had a big dilemma in the beginning — I wasn’t sure if I should build my freelance business under my own name or a business name. I read some blog posts from designers I admired and it helped me to choose the right way to go.
Sometimes it’s as easy as just sending an email with your question. You would be amazed by how many great designers are available to help you and will personally answer your email. Respect their time and be concise with your question.
Having access to someone who’s in the place where you want to be in the future can really help your career.
Learning design doesn’t have to be hard and painful. You’ll always be learning, so treat it as a long-term game and don’t be afraid. Don’t wait to design something on your own until you know enough.
You may acquire sellable skills sooner than you think and the demand for designers is very high these days. You’ll learn more doing one project for a real client than in a year only studying design.