How to be a Graphic Designer – Honest Advice for Beginners

Image with illustrations and the title: How to be a Graphic Designer - Honest advice for beginners
Written by: Jo Petzer
Category: Design Tips
The purpose or this article is to put to bed some confusing concepts about what graphic design actually is so that you can work out if that’s really what you want to be doing, or if you should pursue a different avenue that would be better suited to your constitution.

Introduction

If you need to read this then you’re probably not 100% sure exactly what graphic design is, if you’re ‘designing’ correctly, or if graphic design is even the right path for you. This is all good because the only way you learn is by questioning everything.

Firstly, there is no right or wrong way to design. Every experienced designer develops their own process that works for them and the clients they want to attract.

The purpose of this article is to put to bed some confusing concepts about what graphic design actually is so that you can work out if that’s really what you want to be doing, or if you should pursue a different avenue that would be better suited to your constitution.

Warning: if this is the first time you’re reading my work, note that you’ll probably find it snarky, abrasive, judgmental and sometimes hilarious. It’s all neurologically strategic, to help you remember what you’re reading. If you don’t want to be part of this manipulation process then click away – before it’s too late.

No? Alrighty, let’s get on with it then!

 

What the heck?

I’m a member of a lot of Canva Facebook groups. I mean a LOT. You’re probably wondering why, though, if I’m an experienced designer. What do I need to be fiddling with Canva for? I don’t belong to those groups to learn more about design. I joined to them for 2 reasons: (1) to help me understand the problems that new graphic designers are having so that I can help them, and (2) to help educate new designers on what design actually is and how to overcome those problems. And there are many, many problems.

I have a special pet peeve, though. Let me digress and tell you about it. The peeve is when group members just throw up a random ‘design’ into the group asking for feedback (maybe this is even you – haha!). They supply absolutely no information about the design. Then hundreds of (mostly) non-designers offer their uninformed feedback on how beautiful the design is and ask where the tutorial is so they can learn how to do the same thing; or they offer their unhelpful and often contradictory advice on how the ’design’ can be ‘improved’. And I’m talking about people who are trying to earn an income from graphic design, not hobbyists.

As a long-term professional designer, this drives me nuts because it’s impossible to give valuable, or even slightly useful feedback on a design without knowing what the heck it’s for, who the audience is, or what function it is serving. All of this uninformed feedback only serves to confuse the poor ‘designer’ even more. It’s like going to a doctor and expecting to be healed but you refuse to say what your symptoms are or to go for any tests.

 

Are you actually serious about design?

Since the onset of the pandemic, ‘graphic designers’ have become a dime-a-dozen and every second person with a phone, tablet or laptop has suddenly become a ‘designer’ overnight. This is fine and dandy, and I have no problem with it but, come on, there is some skill and process involved if you’re seriously about doing it properly and wanting to actually earn a living from it. Following the advice of other beginner ‘designers’ or social group members who have no experience in the field is only going to slow down your progress in developing your own skills.

So, if you’re serious about design and making a career out of it, then please stop designing just for the sake of it and to show off the latest trend you’ve learned in Canva. That does not constitute design. If you’re just a hobbyist and ‘designing’ for your own entertainment, then – as you were. You can ignore this entire article. But, if you really want to take your design skills to the next level, keep reading.

 

Do you even know what graphic design is?

If you’re sharing your random designs in Canva groups or on social media with no fixed goal or purpose in mind and calling it ‘graphic design’, then you don’t know what graphic design is.

Essentially, Graphic design is functional and needs to serve a purpose. Without knowing the purpose of every design you create, the function it needs to perform, who the target audience is and what action they need to take, proper criticism of your work is neither possible, nor advisable. Whoever is advising you with limited information on your design is just sharing their subjective opinion on your work. It’s also highly likely that they’re not even your target audience so even more unqualified to give you feedback.

If you are not sharing the information about the design along with any designs you’re tossing into Canva Facebook groups, then you are NEVER going to get the feedback you need in order to improve your skills.

 

Are you an artist or a designer?

If the above feels offensive then you may be an artist, not a designer. Hahaha! Sorry. Not sorry.

As much as you could easily be both, you do need to know the difference so that you can make sure you’re producing the best goods for each of those fields.

The question to ask is: how are you creating your work?

Are you conjuring up some sort of scene or image in your head that sounds like fun to create, or helps you to express something you’re feeling or thinking of, and then trying to produce that in Canva? If yes, then you’re an artist.

Or are you attempting to solve a problem visually? Wait. What?

If you don’t know whether this is what you’re doing, or even how to solve a problem visually then I can tell you right away that you are not a designer (well, not yet, anyway).

Just to be clear …

Art is expressing yourself, your own emotions, or thoughts visually.

Design is purely functional, problem-solving, and communicates a specific message to a specific audience to get them to take a specific action.

Art and design can meet, though …

For example, when the creator wants to express their political or humanitarian view in order to get the public to respond. But, for the most part, everyday graphic design is not art and needs to perform a specific business-related function.

Graphic design is also not illustration, though design can include illustration and being able to illustrate, though not a requirement, is a useful skill to have as a designer.

 

So now what?

My aim with this article is to help you to clarify misconceptions about what graphic design actually is and how to start doing it properly so that you can become a better designer and, hopefully, even be able to make a decent living from it by standing out in your own niche instead of being a clone of every other ‘designer’ out there.

This article is actually a guideline is to help you properly conceptualize and plan every design you create to ensure that it does what it’s supposed to be doing. It is time-consuming at first, but the more you do it, the quicker you’ll become at figuring it out and eventually you won’t need to follow this process for every design you create. I’ve been designing for 30 years and I still write notes on designs before I create them – mostly for my own reference and for when a client can’t supply the relevant information.

 

Keep it brief

One of the biggest problems I see in the design world is designers not knowing what to design. Whaaaat??? I’ve seen posts like this on social media way too often (including just this morning) …

  • “I need to design a flyer for my client. How do I do that?”, or
  • “How can I design a book cover?”, or
  • “How to create a calendar in Canva?”
  • “Why can’t I get my design to look like this example?”
  • “Where can I find a design like this?”
  • “How can I design a logo for a dentist?”

If you are ‘uninspired’ when it comes to creating a design, then you don’t understand what design is. Design doesn’t require ‘inspiration’. It helps but is not essential to being a great designer. If you have a plan for your design then you’ll never NOT know what to design. Any creativity or inspiration you have will just be bonus assets to the process. 

I mean, before you try a new recipe for your vegan best friend’s birthday celebration, you’re going to buy all the right ingredients, make sure you have all the correct utensils, pre-heat the stove, mix the dry ingredients first, then the wet, etc. You’re not going to throw the recipe away, chuck a bunch of random goods from your pantry into a bowl, mix them up and toss it into the oven. Well, hopefully, that’s not how you cook, unless you’re a trained professional chef, of course, and well-versed in culinary science.

Creating a design is exactly like trying that new recipe. You need to know who it’s for, what needs to go into it, how different ingredients will react with each other, which tools will be best, where to cook it … all the things. The term we use for a ‘design recipe’ is a design brief. And it tells us everything we need to know in order to make sure the final design doesn’t flop: that it does what it’s supposed to do and solves the problem at hand.

Before you sit down to create your next design, develop the ‘recipe’ for the design first. If you really want to be a great graphic designer, from today, for every single new design you plan on creating – even if it’s just a practice design – write a brief for it. If you don’t have a brief then invent one. A brief will give you direction and ensure that your design is achieving a specific goal.

A design brief will completely eliminate your problem of having ‘no inspiration’ because it will direct you on exactly how your design needs to look.

 

HOW TO WRITE A DESIGN BRIEF.

 

Use the following guideline to write a brief for your next design. If it feels like this is too much effort then you should reconsider your career choice. Graphic design is 80% planning and only 20% actual design work. If you just want to be playing around all day ‘being creative’ then rather pursue a career in art and sell your art online if you need to make money.

 

1. Who is the design for?

In any design, you shouldn’t be using colours, fonts or images just because you like them, or even because your client likes them. Every part of a design should be strictly created for the audience who needs to take action from it.

Before creating any design, you need to know who it is for.

Which group of people does the design need to attract and how are you going to attract them?

You need to know if the audience is mostly male or female, or gender neutral. Are they mothers, teenagers, businessmen, teachers (what type), students, doctors (what type), beauticians, coaches (which niche), mechanics? etc. There are hundreds of audience sectors.

The greater the range of people you try to appeal to in your design, the fewer people you’ll reach. The more specific you are in appealing to your audience, the more people you’ll reach.

Read that again.

Once you know who your audience is, you can narrow it down even further. e.g. if your audience is beauticians, you need to research their niche, find out which colours, graphics, shapes, textures, words, fonts, etc. will attract them to your design. The same applies to every other possible audience niche. 

Once you know who the design is for and have built up a visual aesthetic of the assets you’re going to use in the design (ie. a moodboard), then you can start working on the actual design. This will also help you ensure the language and words you’re using in your design are right for the person you’re wanting to connect with.

If you don’t know what appeals to the audience you’re designing for, or what will get them to connect with your design, then you need to do some work. I can’t tell you in this short article exactly HOW to do that research. Visit Google and find different ways to learn about your audience. Create a questionnaire, join their social groups, follow them on social media, stalk their websites and accounts. Yes, it’s hard work but necessary if you want to do it properly.

 

2. Where will the design be displayed?

Is the design for printing? Is it for an online advert? Is it for a product-display? A supermarket shelf? A shop window? A billboard? A website banner?

Knowing this information will help you work out how much time the viewer has to look at the design which will influence the amount of content and the sort of images and fonts you use. It will also give you the dimensions and colour profiles that need to be used. And these factors greatly affect how the design will be created.

Examples:

  • A billboard design or a roadside poster gives the viewer just a few seconds to communicate a message as they are driving past, so it should be very simple with big words, communicative graphic and one clear message. It will also need to be reproduced in Process colour (CMYK), and 45dpi will suffice for print quality, using cm as a dimensional rule. The output file will need to be a PDF configured to the printer’s specifications.
  • A printed brochure allows the viewer more time to absorb the information so it can contain more detail. It will also need to be designed in Process colour, possibly with Pantone spots, the dpi will need to be 300, with mm as the dimensional rule. The output file will need to be a PDF configured to required print specs.
  • A website banner will be designed in RGB colour, at 72dpi, and at the pixel dimensions required for the template being used. You will need to know the correct size and specs for the responsive version of the banner too as this usually requires a separate design for mobile devices. The output file will need to be a JPG.

 

3. What is the function/purpose of the design?

In other words, what does the design need to do? What is it for?

Examples:

  • To tell people about an upcoming event (poster, flyer)
  • To sell or promote a specific product (advert, article, flyer, catalogue)
  • To educate the viewer on a specific topic (brochure, ebook, catalogue, textbook)
  • To create brand awareness (sign, poster, billboard, advert)
  • To serve as a functional brand asset (business card, letterhead, invoice)

Once you’ve established this, you’ll be able to start compiling the copy for your design, or reassessing any copy sent to you by your client. Never use more words than necessary to get your message across. Always use words that the audience are familiar with and that will resonate with them.

Sometimes a single, bold image and one or two words will communicate a stronger message than a string of words and a bunch of random graphics. In graphic design less is always more.

 

4. What action needs to be taken from the design?

What does the design need to get the viewer to do?

Examples:

  • Buy a specific product
  • Visit a website
  • Learn about a new brand
  • Sign up to a mailing list
  • Buy tickets for a function or event, etc.

Each design piece should only have ONE action. Don’t create designs that require people to sign up to a list AND buy a product, for example. Rather create 2 separate designs. When people have too many options, they tend to not make any choice.

Your clients are going to ‘want their money’s worth’ and are going to want you to put all the things into one design. It’s your job as an informed graphic designer to help them understand why this isn’t the way to reach their buyers affectively.

Knowing the one action that needs to be taken will help you build your content hierarchy properly and ensure that your design creates a visual journey for the viewer from where you want them to start to where you want them to finish when they navigate your design.

 

5. What journey will the design take the viewer on?

This is my favourite part in the design process. It’s where the magic happens.

Every design has a starting point and an ending point. The starting point is the thing that the viewer sees first. The ending point is what the viewer sees last. Everything in between needs to direct the viewer from the start to the end of the design in a visually interesting way.

The brain is wired to see certain things first. Certain colours, fonts, shapes, textures and images stand out more in the human brain than others. Your design needs to take this into account so that the eyes of your viewer will be directed to where you want them to go in order to understand what is being communicated and what action they need to take at the end of the visual journey through your design.

A design that has too many varying elements and that doesn’t lead the viewer’s eyes on a definite path through the graphic causes mental confusion and prevents the viewer from taking the required action or remembering the relevant info you want them to retain.

This is something that is really only learned with experience and a lot of observation. But if you don’t know about it then you’ll never learn it.

If you think of graphic design as a form of psychological manipulation (which it is) and learn as much as you can about how the mind works visually, then you’ll understand how to make any design work in the way it needs to.

Creating challenges and goals to help you learn

I get asked by beginner designers all the time HOW they can improve their design skills if they don’t have any client work. Or where they can find design challennges to participate in. Although there are loads of those online and in the various social design groups, how you go about improving your design skills really depends on what your goals are in being a graphic designer.

Do you just want to be another mediocre creative making a quick buck off clients who don’t know the value of great design?

Or do you want to stand out in your niche, have your own unique design style or product, create designs that actually work for your clients, and be able to charge your worth and pick and choose the projects that YOU want to work on?

To become an outstanding designer in a niche of your own, start by following some high-level graphic designers who aren’t using Canva so that you have a good idea of what the industry standard is and get more visual scope to feed your unique style. Although some of Canva’s templates are really nicely designed, they all look similar and it’s very easy to tell straight away when a design has been made in Canva. The only way for those sort of designs to be effective is to not change them much. As soon as you start moving things around in those templates, the composition of the great design is broken. But not changing their structure means that hundreds of other designers are also using the exact same template. You’re also using a design that isn’t really yours so you’re sort of lying to your clients.

Study the history of graphic design (Google is your friend) and use Pinterest for inspiration. Study the different design styles that are out there and understand them and how they work or don’t work, and the sort of audience they appeal to.

Public design ‘challenges’ are all good and well for beginners, but they are limiting and force you to think more ‘in the box’ than out of it, and to imitate rather than problem-solve and work things out for yourself. They also don’t allow you to develop your own design style because you’re too busy copying what everyone else is doing and following the latest design trends.

On top of that, fancy techniques and effects are not design if they don’t serve specific purpose so don’t waste your time with them unless they are imperative to making sure your design does what it’s supposed to do.

Instead of looking for challenges that tell you how to do a specific trending thing in design, rather select some beautiful, timeless designs and then try to replicate them in Canva for practice. This will also help you develop your eye so that you can tell the difference between bad design, okay, design and great design.

 

How to develop your own design style

I could write a whole book on this topic but not right now. In a nut shell, the best way to become a great designer is to develop your own design style. Follow designers who work in a style that you resonate with and use their work as inspiration in your own designs. Don’t just copy their work. Add your own twist to the style. The more you practice the sooner you’ll establish what your signature ‘moves’ are and be able to start incorporating them into your work.

Don’t follow trends. Instead, become a trend-setter.

Focus on one specific type of design each month. Start with something simple like the humble business card. Collect screen shots of business cards you find beautiful, sort them into style groups, and choose one to replicate from each group. You’ll find that you are more drawn to one or two. Make notes on which business card designs will appeal to which sort of audience/s and why you think so.

Then create some designs of your own in those same styles. Study business card design the whole month (or longer), until you perfect it. Make up some companies and audiences to design business cards for and create them.

Then move onto another design type, maybe flyers or posters. Start with simple designs types first, and work your way over to more complex designs like brochures, catalogues and books. Keep notes of everything you learn so you can refer back to them. Keep ALL your designs so you can see how you improve over the years.

Observe, observe, observe, and practice, practice, practice. 

The end bit

It’s totally possible to become a sought-after self-taught graphic designer (I’m proof of that) but you need to go about it in a logical, structured way – like you would learn it in a college. ALL the info you need is available online. All you need to do is make the time to find it and put in the effort.

I hope you find this helpful and wish you all the very best in your graphic design journey to the stars.

Be sure to subscribe to my mailing list for notifications when I put up a new article. You get a free thing at the same time. And follow my Insta feed for useful snippets of info. See you there!

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All content in this article is copyright to me (c) Jo Petzer 2022. Please request permission for sharing or reposting. 

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