Can You Learn Graphic Design Without Going To School?

Is it necessary to go to College or university to become a Graphic Designer? Does an expensive art school provide you with a better education than a regular College? Will a diploma or degree in Graphic Design make it easier to find a job? What Can I do to learn Graphic Design on my own?

Let’s find out!

Is Formal Education Necessary For A Graphic Designer?

Knowing what I know now, I would say no, you do not need to spend thousands of dollars on formal education to be able to work as a graphic designer. I say this with a few caveats however.

It takes a lot of self motivation to stay on track and teach yourself new skills. You will have to filter through a lot of nonsense in order to find quality and reliable information that is relevant to graphic design. That means you might find yourself questioning the materials you are sifting through, which in turn, may delay your end goal of becoming a graphic designer. But none of that means it isn’t possible.

Benefits Of Attending School For Your Graphic Design Education

If you are the type of person that likes guidance and enjoys learning in a group atmosphere with like-minded individuals, then perhaps school is right for you. 

Confidence

When you attend a certified educational institute, it comes with a feeling of belonging and trust. You will feel relaxed knowing that your graphic design program has met certain industry standards and is approved by a governing authority.

Guidance

Wake up, go to school, learn design, get assignments, do homework, sleep, repeat (with some snacks in between). Not having to think about curriculum takes a load off of your shoulders. As long as you show up and do the work, you are going to have your hand held as you make the journey to becoming a graphic designer.

Many Graphic Design programs are taught by experienced instructors who are currently working in the field. This means that you are getting first hand and up-to-date, tips, tricks, and knowledge from industry professionals. 

Professional Networking

I’m sure you have heard the phrase, “It’s not what you know, it’s WHO you know”. Well, one of the biggest benefits of attending school for Graphic Design, is the people you will meet. 

Not only will you have classmates and student alumni to connect with, you will be able to network with the instructors who are working in the industry. On top of that, there are events that you can attend and use to showcase your design portfolio to industry professionals. 

A foot in the door. The networking possibilities available as a student studying graphic design at a registered school have the potential to provide you with future career opportunities that may otherwise be difficult to come by.

Qualifications/Certifications

I’m talking about that expensive piece of paper with your name on it. The one that says you are capable of committing effort, time, and dedication to meet strict deadlines and solve problems.

While it may be a third party validation of sorts, your degree or diploma shows potential clients and employers that you meet a certain level of professionalism as a Graphic Designer. The fact that it comes from a reputable institution enforces it’s strength.

Benefits Of Learning Graphic Design On Your Own

Before getting into the benefits of learning graphic design on your own vs attending a professional institute, I want to make note that I would only recommend this route for extremely self-motivated individuals. If you think about it though, even when attending a school for education, a very large portion of it is actually you studying on your own. The school is just telling you where to look.

The Cost

The number one reason to consider trying to self teach graphic design instead of going to school is MONEY.

Going to school is not cheap. The cost of going to school will vary on the institution and the associated costs but generally speaking you will have to dish it out for textbooks, School supplies, transportation, Student Fees, Tuition, and room & board (if attending away from home).

While there are definitely still costs associated with learning graphic design at home, the amount is significantly reduced and you get to see where your money is being spent.

Work Schedule

This is where being self motivation comes into play. If you want to sleep in until 2:00pm and then stay up nerding out on graphic design all night, it’s your choice. As long as you are putting in the work, you can choose a schedule that fits your lifestyle.

The benefit of this is a little more freedom for other things in life. Not everyone is 18 years old, living at home with no responsibilites. Perhaps you are a middle aged mother wanting to transition to a career in graphic design so you can have a little more flexibility in your schedule. Maybe you can’t commit to the required schedule of a school program. In these cases, being able to make your own rules can be your main decision maker.

Pressure

Graphic Design takes a lot of creativity and that is something that can not be forced. Stress can be both good or bad, depending on the type of person you are, and how you handle it. While some people thrive under pressure, others break.

Learning graphic design in school means you will have exams, projects, and deadlines. If you are the type of person that doesn’t work well under pressure, maybe you will feel more at ease being able to create your own projects and deadlines.

Keep in mind that if you plan on working as an in-house graphic designer or for an agency, you will need to be prepared to meet their requirements.

Private Art School vs Regular College For Graphic Design?

Obviously I would have to take a graphic design program at each type of educational institute in order to give you an experienced answer. Even then it wouldn’t exactly be a scientific analysis.

I attended a private art school in order to learn graphic design and I made that choice based on my previous education/grades, course availability, curriculum, location, and marketing. Shall we go into detail?

Educational Requirements

Again I can’t speak for schools everywhere, but in my neck of the woods, private art schools are in it for the money. That doesn’t mean they don’t care about your education, but it does mean that their entry requirements seem to be less strict than those of Colleges and Universities.

Graphic Design was not my first career path and back when I attending highschool, I was not your ideal student. Needless to say, my grades did not necessarily meet the standards required for most of the Colleges in my area. Despite being a mature student with a lot of life and professional experience, I would have been required to do upgrading in several subjects if I wanted to attend a college or university for graphic design.

The art schools seemed to have much lower entry requirements, but those were offset by much higher costs. More than double.

Availability/Location

Where you live and the time of the year may impact where you will choose to receive your Graphic Design education. If you live in a small town, only have one school near you, and can’t afford to (or don’t want to) travel for school, then obviously your choices are limited. Or maybe you want to start school soon and only one option has a design program coming up in the near future.

I knew where I was willing to live and learn, so when I was deciding on where to attend school, those locations played a factor.I researched the Colleges, Universities, and Art schools in the locations I was willing to live. I looked at each of their Graphic Design programs and talked to program advisors at the schools. I took all the information and used it in making a final decision.

Curriculum

Not all Graphic Design programs are created equally. If you are choosing to go to school to learn design, then you need to find the program that best meets your needs/wants.

Take a look at each design program and dig deep to understand what each semester and each class has to offer. Look at the type of job you want to do with your graphic design certification and make sure that the program you opt for will provide you with the necessary skills.

The program I chose offered a Diploma in both Graphic Design and Web Development. From my understanding at the time, these were two areas of expertise, sought after in the job market. 

Marketing

Easier said than done, try not to let marketing influence your decision making process when choosing where to learn graphic design.

One thing I noticed was the art schools were better at marketing themselves to their unknowing target audience. This is probably part and parcel to a higher marketing budget, allowed by the equally high price of tuition. Needless to say, The marketing and even the layout of the art school websites seemed more friendly and inviting than those of your average college or university.

Will A Certificate, Diploma, Or Degree Help Me Get A Job?

You don’t need a piece of paper that says you’re a graphic designer in order to work in the industry, but unfortunately it may help. This is likely going to depend on the business/company, and what they value.

Let’s look at the government for example. It doesn’t matter what area of government you are applying for, someone with formal education will be considered before someone without one. You could be an amazing graphic designer that outperforms all other applicants, but if their job description requires some sort of formal education and you don’t have it, you will not be considered (this may differ from place to place).

Now when it comes to most modern companies, education is a bonus but not a necessity. If you have a Graphic Design portfolio that can impress, that’s all you need.

Take a little time to research the company you’re applying for and check out their portfolio. If you look at their designs and you think it aligns with your skills as a graphic artist, then put together some work to prove it and fire it their way. As long as they like you as a person and think you are able to offer something they need, you’re golden.

It’s 2021, if an employer values a piece of paper more than your actual skills, then maybe thats not the right place for you.

How To Learn Graphic Design From Home?

Lucky for you, we live in a digital era where the world is at our fingertips. That means you don’t have to leave the house to learn Graphic Design. As long as you know what you are looking for, you should be able to start your graphic design career path online with a little help from Google.

Where To Begin

The first step to teaching yourself graphic design is to layout areas of study and then start finding resources on those topics. Because there are so many areas of graphic design, it might be a good idea to research different roles of a designer and decide on specific areas you would like to concentrate on. For example, if you know you want to work in publishing, then you should concentrate on learning graphic design for layout and print purposes.

If you just start scouring the web for everything graphic design, you will overwhelm yourself and get frustrated. There is just too much to know. So before you get too ahead of yourself I would suggest educating yourself on the history and theory of graphic design. After that, dive into practical applications. Just remember that even in school it takes years to learn the fundamentals of graphic design. Don’t expect to learn it overnight.

Let’s take a look at the essential areas of study, needed to provide a solid foundation in Graphic Design.

The Fundemental Principles & Elements of Graphic Design

Have a look at my article on the principles and elements of graphic design. They are the foundation for all things art, and will apply to every project that you create.

Colour Theory & Psychology

Graphic Designers use the psychology of colour in their designs to influence mood and emotion. Colour theory is the science and art behind the use of colours. It plays a vital role in the world of design and it is very important to understand, especially if you ever plan to do any sort of printing.

The internet is a good place to start, but if you want to dive really deep into it, I suggest having a look at “Interaction of Color”. It’s written by one of the masters of colour theory and there are loads of visual examples.

Typography

As a graphic Designer It’s a good idea to research the history of typography and delve into the subject. No matter which area of design you choose to specialize in, you will need to have an understanding of typography.

A great read that I discovered through one of my better design instructors is “Stop stealing sheep and find out how type works”. It’s a well laid out book full of illustrations and photographs and does a great job educating you on typography. You can’t go wrong having this one on the bookshelf.

Grid Theory

Many areas of graphic design incorporate a grid system to help layout elements on a page. It allows things to feel synced, organized, and well-balanced. Understanding the grid system will help you implement proper spacing, flow, rhythm, and alignment in your projects.

In school we were taught to understand the rules of graphic design and then you can break them as long as you are doing it with purpose. The best book for this is “Making and Breaking the Grid”.

Areas Of Focus

As mentioned earlier, it’s a good idea to have an understanding of what you would like to do as a Graphic Designer so you know where to focus your time. Note that employers will appreciate you more if you have a well-rounded skillset.

Keeping that in mind, here are a few suggestions/recommendations for areas of study:

  • Brand Identity Design
  • Print Design
  • Illustration
  • Simple Animations
  • User Interface Website Design

Knowing how to work a camera and do some video editing isn’t a bad thing either.

Graphic Design Resources

The Tools Of Graphic Design

There are inferior software options available, and if you can make it work for you that’s great, but Adobe is the industry standard for graphic design programs. If you want to do graphic design for anyone but yourself, you need to get comfortable using the Adobe software.

The main Adobe programs to concentrate on as a graphic designer are:

  • Adobe Illustrator (vector based illustration software used to create logos and graphics)
  • Adobe Photoshop (raster graphics based editor, used to manipulate images and create a variety of art)
  • Adobe InDesign (publishing software used to create layouts for posters, flyers, brochures, magazines, and books)
  • Adobe After Effects (motion graphics software for animation)
  • Adobe XD (vector based user experience software for designing websites and apps)
  • Adobe Premiere Pro (Video Editing Software)

Illustrator and Photoshop should be the first two programs you learn, followed by InDesign and then After Effects. Adobe XD is a must know if your goal is to do User Experience Design (UX) or User Interface Design (UI), although many professionals will do UI design in Photoshop. Premiere pro is more of a nice to know than a need to know. 

The downside of the Adobe software is the high price. Back in the day you could buy the program and you owned it forever. It was still extremely expensive but it was yours. They would constantly put out new versions and you had the option to pay for a current version or keep the original. Now, Adobe charges monthly or annual fees to use their programs. This is both good and bad. It sucks for the never ending costs, but at the same time you always have access to the most up-to-date software. 

Just a little further down the page, I explain how to save 60% on your Adobe Creative Cloud Subscription.

Learning To Design With Adobe

The Adobe programs mentioned above are massive and used by many other professionals, not just graphic designers. If you’re trying to learn graphic design at home, you’ll need a little guidance. Don;t wste your time filtering through youtube videos trying to find useful information. The best way to get started as a beginner is through Adobe certified books.

These are the same books I was given in school (albeit these are newer editions) and they are a great resource for beginners. They offer step by step lessons that help you naturally progress as you learn how to use each tool:

The Adobe Student Discount

As a starving artist graphic designer, this is a life hack that you need to take advantage of. Adobe offers a Student Discount of 60% off of its products. That is HUGE. It’s such a significant discount that if you aren’t a student, it would probably benefit you to sign up for an inexpensive program at any school, just to get the discount.

To get the discount, you either register using a recognized educational email address, or you register with your regular email and then send proof (such as a copy of your student ID). By the way, it works for teachers as well.

You don’t have to be studying  Graphic Design to get a student discount, You just have to be a student or a teacher. ~Follow the link below to get started.

Online Resources For Graphic Design

Okay, so you understand the basics of graphic design and you know which tools to use, but what do you do with them? The following resources are good to keep bookmarked as they are great references as you learn:

Educational Platforms

  • Skillshare – An online learning platform with courses in a broad range of topics. You’ll be able to find video courses/tutorials on all different areas of graphic design. It allows you to watch as many courses as you want for a set monthly fee. Use the link below for a 40% annual discount.

Graphic Design Inspiration

Before starting any new project, the first thing most designers will do is start to gather inspiration. Just know, there is a fine line between using other work as inspiration and committing copyright infringement. Be original.

Bookmark the following websites for Graphic Design Inspiration:

  • Dribbble – An online community for designers to showcase their work. It’s like Instagram but only for people with talent. You need to post a few pieces of work and wait to be invited to join the community, so it’s a little more inclusive.
  • Behance – Similar to Dribbble but anyone can join which means there is a larger array of design work to view.
  • Awwwards – The best place to find inspiration for Web Design.

Free Stock Images For Graphic Design

Don’t steal images for your designs! Using images you find on Google may result in copyright infringement. If you’re working as a graphic designer for a large company or agency, there’s a good chance you have access to paid stock photography sites. If you’re just starting out, however, it’s nice to know where you can find stock images for free. I usually bounce between the two following sites:

  • Pexels – This is my go-to site for free stock photos to use with my graphic design projects. I find the selection is better than other stock photo sites, making it my number one recommendation.
  • Unsplash – My second choice for stock imagery. I usually check this site at the same time as I check Pexels, just to compare between the two.

Other Helpful Design Resources

Here is a list of other graphic design related sites that are worth bookmarking as well:
  • Adobe Color Wheel – Great for finding colour inspiration.
  • Graphic Burger – Find free mockups to showcase your new-found Graphic Design skills.
  • Creative Market – Ready to use design products to speed up your workflow. And every Monday they have freebies.

Putting Together A Design Portfolio

So you have learned the fundamentals of Graphic Design and you have some work to showcase your experience to potential employers. It’s time to put your best pieces together and create a design portfolio.

People go about this in different ways but you should aim to have both a digital portfolio (website), as well as a printed portfolio that you can bring along with you to interviews (this is where your print design and InDesign skills will be helpful). Many people even create little packages designed to leave behind after visiting a potential employer.

Whatever you decide to do, just remember to “show your best and leave out the rest”. It’s better to have just a few quality pieces than a large amount of “meh”.

So What's The Verdict?

Hopefully, now you have some understanding of the different options that you have when it comes to learning graphic design, both with and without attending school.

No single answer is right for everyone. I’m only one person, and this is my insight. Make sure to do research and talk to industry professionals. Get opinions, make informed decisions, and do what feels right for you.

Lastly, don’t rule out the option of combining professional education with self-teaching. There are plenty of short-term, entry-level graphic design courses that may not provide you with a diploma or degree, but they will certainly aid in your journey. 

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