If that title tripped you up, my apologies.
Let me explain.
I have a background in science and engineering. That’s what I went to school for, and what I do at my day job.
But over the years, I have also done other things to pay my rent and bills. Especially when I was still in college, I would freelance as a web and graphic designer. I was your typical broke college student, so, I learned to be creative early on.
Over the years I have taught myself many things. Some out of necessity (a client would ask for a thing, and I, having needed the money, would just go and teach myself the requested skill), and some out of pure curiosity.
When you start going down the rabbit hole that is the creative lifestyle, there really is no end to it.
It can be a wonderful thing. But it is also an extremely frustrating thing.
But the truth is that I have no innate talent for skills that you cannot quantify on a binary scale.
As an engineer, I know if something works or not by looking at the data.
But there’s no telling whether a magazine layout design works or not. One person will pat you on the back and tell you what an awesome job you’ve done. While another will shred you to pieces with their criticism. They’ll make you wish you could crawl underground, never to be seen by another pair of human eyes.
However, if I may say so myself, I have come a long way from being that insecure little girl. To start off, I’m neither little nor a girl at this point in life. And I have managed to drive away my insecurities as well. That pesky impostor syndrome does bare its fangs periodically, but for the most part, I have trained myself to keep it at bay, at least enough to be able to do what I need to do.
But it did take some work (the insecurity bit; as for the little and the girl bits, well, nature took care of that.)
Jokes aside, I wanted to share my journey with you, with tips along the way, going from downright sucking to being a decent web and graphic designer.
How to Teach Yourself to be a Designer When You’re Not One
How does one learn creativity?
You may go for an MFA program, but that doesn’t guarantee that you’ll become a successful writer, yes? Similarly, just because you’re now a master of, say, Adobe Illustrator, it doesn’t mean you have what it takes to design a new logo for Chanel.
I mean, look at some of the greatest designs out there. Some of them are pretty winded, but a lot of them are super simple. Take the logos for companies like Google, or Facebook, or Donna Karen New York, or TopShop. They look so simple, don’t they? You could look at them and think, hey, I could’ve done that!
But no one did those other than the designers who did… and that’s what creativity is.
It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it has to be right. The right design for the right people. And honestly, I don’t know how one knows that unless you have talent.
Or so I thought.
And well, to some degree it is true. But it isn’t the whole truth.
Allow me to elaborate.
When I say “How to be a designer, When You’re Not a Designer”, I mean it! You’re not a designer born with talent. Yes, I do believe some people are born with certain constitutions, but you ain’t it. (And this I’m assuming because that’s who this article is for. If you’re a bonafide designer with creativity oozing from your entire being, you’re reading the wrong article!) So, if you’re not one with innate talent, it may be difficult for you to be really good at a certain creative endeavor. And that’s OK. Not everyone has to be world-class. Sometimes, being “good enough” is good enough.
For example, I do not possess an innate talent. But there was a time when I made full-time income as a freelance web designer and developer. I wasn’t otherworldly. The sites I designed would never win an award. But they were good enough! They were good enough that people wanted to hire me to build their sites for them. They were good enough that I was able to make a living off of it.
I remember way back when I got a gig for designing a 20-page booklet for a pair of artists who were organizing an art-walk in the city. I made a whopping $1,000 out of this gig. It paid for rent and food that month.
And back then I wasn’t half as skilled as I am today.
But you know what? I was good enough!
So, without innate talent, you may not have what it takes to be great. But almost everyone has what it takes to be just “good enough”. Good enough to make a living from it, or at least make some side-income for the rainy days.
As long as you put in the work.
Now, if I were to sum it up, I’d say it takes two things to be a good-enough designer: observation skill, and practice.
And a few other things… but mainly those two.
Allow me to break it down further. If you’ve been dreaming of being a designer who can make money off of creating beautiful things, rest assured, it is possible even if you’re neither a natural-born talent nor one with formal education in the subject matter.
Don’t Be Afraid to Go Down the Rabbit Hole (to learn What It Is You Want to Do)
Creativity requires diving down the rabbit hole. People like to talk about passion and love and whatnot. But tell me, has anyone ever found their passion or their love without a leap of faith?
Creativity requires a leap of faith. You may not end up where you thought you would, but you’ll go somewhere! And that’s the most important bit. Allow yourself to get lost, get frustrated, get lost again, and see what you find at the end of the road.
For me, I realized I had no patience for drawing. Before taking a leap of faith, I fantasized about creating custom logos and illustrations. But after trying it out, I realized it wasn’t just the lack of talent (like I said, even if you do not have the talent, you can do the work to be “good enough”), but when it came down to it, I simply didn’t enjoy doing it. And it took a dive down that rabbit hole to figure that out.
But I also found that I could teach myself how to design websites and layouts for magazines/printables. I was also decent when it came to creating social media graphics. AND, I enjoyed the process.
Sure, they don’t sound nearly as sexy as designing custom logos or illustrating web-comics, but they are enough to satiate my thirst for creating something beautiful AND make some money on the side.
We live in a flawed society where people see you trying something, and unless you make something of it, you are deemed a failure. Try to let go of that mindset. Nothing ever leads to nowhere. You almost always learn something vital when you give something a shot. At the very least, you learn if something is not meant for you. And that’s not useless. The time you spent trying to learn something isn’t useless even if in the end you decided it wasn’t worth learning.
So, if you see a rabbit hole, trust your guts, and take the leap of faith. It’s worth it.
Learn to Use the Tools of the Trade
Before developing your eye for good design, I suggest learning the tools of the trade. For example, do you want to be a web designer? Research what web designers need to design mockups. Do you want to be a graphic designer? Research that.
Often, the technical side of things tends to be more daunting for some people. I have legit spoken to people who have given up on pursuing something they thought they’d love to do or have passion for because they got scared by technology.
Now, I’m not here to tell you whether or not technology is fearsome — that’s up to you to decide — but only that having a solid grasp on the technology will make your life a whole lot easier going forward. Also, everything is learnable!
I don’t know what they teach in design schools, but I’ve found that knowing how to use the technology helps me hone my design skills better. I’m not saying one needs to be a master at certain program/software, but just good enough to try something new if need be.
For example, when I got into the art of print layout design, knowing how to use Adobe InDesign beforehand helped me a ton. If I saw something I liked, I could start up the program, and try it out right away. This was a major advantage for me when I was learning the creative and artsy side of layout design. The fact that I wasn’t handicapped by my lack of technical prowess enabled me to fully focus on the creative side of things.
Learning these tools is super easy in this day and age of various online learning platforms. For example, LinkedIn Learning (previously Lynda) pretty much has everything you want to learn for a cheap monthly subscription fee. There’s also SkillShare, Udemy, Coursera, and I bet a bunch of other platforms where you can learn a specific skill for cheap.
Not only the use of tech, but some of these platforms have courses on graphic design, or something more specific like print layout design, or logo design, etc. If you can think of it, you bet someone has already made a course out of it. But more on that in a little bit.
Before moving on to the next section, I want to share one tip for learning a new program or software. I often find it much more helpful (and easier) to learn a new program based on a project. For example, I learned Adobe InDesign specifically for designing a magazine layout. I got lucky and found a course on Lynda (now Linkedin Learning) for exactly that! The course is still available on on the platform and is called InDesign CC: Designing a Magazine Layout.
The cool part of this course is that it focuses solely on techniques one may use when designing a magazine layout. But through learning that, you also learn how to use InDesign in general.
If you’re trying to learn a complicated program like that, it is often better to do it through a specific project, in my humble opinion. Find a project you want to work on, and then learn a specific skill/program to actually finish the project from start to end. You’ll learn much faster this way, trust me!
Learning the Art of Design through Observation and Emulation
Every time I design something, I first spend hours pouring over similar things. I’m always studying what other people have already created.
I told you I do not have innate talent, right? It’s true. Because everything I design is a mashup of elements designed by other people. Combined together, they give off the feel of something unique, while in reality, they’re not!
But what gives me hope is knowing that I’m not the only one. Artists all over the world likely learn their trade the same way, innate talent or not.
For example, one of my favorite movie director, writer, and producer, Jim Jarmusch said in an interview:
Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”
So basically, to be a better designer (or any creative, really), you must be able to use your observation skills. Just like it is impossible to be a good writer without being a good reader, it is impossible to be a good designer without being able to look at a design objectively.
And to be honest, that’s the best way to learn how to design.
If you want to design beautiful social media graphics, find graphics you love. Remember the Jim Jarmusch quote I share just above? “Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul.” Do not compromise who you’re taking inspiration from. Be selective about who you let influence your design.
Here are some things you can do:
Find the designs you love and study them.
Depending on what kind of design you’re into, find work of other designers that you love, and then study them. Some places you can look at are: Creative Market, Dribbble, Behance, good old Google search, etc.
Emulate the designs you love.
One of the best exercise in learning to design is copying other designers’ work. I’m not talking about stealing here. That will come later, but initially, when you’re learning, nothing beats copying other designers’ work. Create exact copies to learn the technicalities and the process of designing and then executing a certain piece of work. Do not share it (that’s plagiarism! And a crime!) But practice copying in order to learn.
Try mixing designs.
Think of it as preparation and practice for mixing elements of designs you love and learn from other designers. Look at designs you like and then see which elements you can take away from each and mix them to create something completely new.
What I find a lot of beginner, self-taught designers do (and I’m guilty of it myself) is create things they think are popular with people.
I mean, sure, you have to make things that people want and need, otherwise, you won’t make money. But don’t let it be your only driving force. Just like I advise beginner bloggers to find topics they love AND topics that are in demand to write about, designers should do the same.
But, learn to recognize the difference between creating something that has a need vs creating designs in a style you do not personally get behind.
Look at all the greatest designers. They’re all doing authentic work. Unique, beautiful work that screams their individuality. But they’re also in high demand. It’s because they know what people need, and then they infuse it with their own style, creating something no one else could create.
So, your goal, as you practice and learn new tricks and techniques, should be to create something that’s in demand, but also infuse it with YOU!
Learn the Basics of Design
No matter which skill it is, having a grasp of the fundamentals always grounds you. They give you a starting point. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself lost trying to come up with a design from a vacuum.
There are, of course, courses you can take. Udemy, SkillShare, Linkedin Learning are all good places to look for entry-level courses.
There are also some really good design blogs that you should follow. A few that I really like are Canva Blog, Smashing Magazine, 99Design Blog, and Creative Market Blog. You’ll find web and graphic design tips and tutorials in these blogs.
Practice. A Lot!
Practice makes perfect. Keep practicing. As I mentioned earlier, a few good exercises are to emulate designs that you admire. Copy them and try to learn as you do. Also, mix design elements from different pieces and try to combine them to create something new and unique. Finally, as you learn new things, practice, practice, and practice more until it becomes second nature.
Now, I know I’m talking about the technicalities here. But trust me, as you get better with the tech side of things, you’ll realize that your creativity will flourish as well. I don’t know the psychology or the science behind it, but that’s just how these things work.
Just be mindful while you’re practicing, and be objective. Try to understand the design psychology behind each piece, and always, always, always pay attention to user experience.
Which brings me to my next point:
Learn about User Experience
User Experience or UX is essential to good design. Study it. Some good UX blogs are Smashing Magazine, UX Collective, and A List Apart. There are more. Feel free to do a Google search for more resources.
Always Continue to learn More and Improve Your Skills
Never stop learning. If you stop, you lose! Learn new skills, learn new tech, learn new ways to do better!
Some Tips on Making Money as a Designer
As I mentioned earlier, there was a time when I made my living as a freelance web designer and developer. I’ll be honest, I didn’t make a lot. But that’s because I only did it briefly, only a couple of years or so, and I did it part-time. Being able to afford rent and bills and food money by working as a part-time freelancer was pretty good if you ask me.
This industry changes all the time, but I’ll tell you a few things that helped me, and I believe will help you too.
Create a Portfolio
You do not need real clients to make a portfolio. Create a body of work based on what you like and what kind of clients you’d like to work with. They can be personal projects. You can create a website to host your work and share information, but if that’s too much, you can always just make a Facebook page and use that to share your information.
For your work, you can make a PDF with images of your design. As for me, I created dummy websites. Not many, just a couple. And in most cases, that is enough. People do not need to see a bunch of work. A few quality works is sufficient.
Actively Search for Clients
There are plenty of ways to get clients. Some swear by cold calling or sending cold emails. I’m terrible at that. Some people use their networking abilities to get clients. I’m bad at that too.
For me, my one source of getting clients was Facebook. I joined a bunch of groups where my ideal clients hung out (women entrepreneurs). A lot of people share their needs to hire a web or graphic designer in these groups. Every day I would spend at least a couple of hours scouring through these groups, looking for work.
It’s not sexy, and I must say, I hated that part. hustling isn’t really my thing. But at the same time, I always managed to find clients. For better or worse, this was of finding clients worked for me.
Do Not Work for Free (or Cheap)
Something I realized early on was that clients or potential clients treat you that is reflective of your attitude. I tried working for free or for cheap a couple of times, and I got awful clients who treated me like shit.
But the moment I upped my price and started to act like I was hotshot, my clients also started to treat me like I was some hotshot. Mind you, it wasn’t that I had a lot of experience by then, I simply acted like I did.
Now here’s the silver lining. I acted the way I did because I knew my work was good. I knew I could deliver quality work. So, even though I was new to freelancing, I had no doubt in my mind that I would provide quality for my clients. And because of that, I was confident enough to charge higher prices for my work.
And my clients reciprocated that attitude.
In fact, when you charge less, it makes you look like an amateur. And nobody respects amateurs. So, if you want good clients who respect your time and your skills, and you, you’ve got to make sure that 1) you provide quality work 2) you charge prices that reflect your work 3) you respect your own work and time.
Now, I understand it’s hard to do when you’re just starting out. So, it’s OK to start in shakier ground. But, keep in mind that your goal is to get out of that “amateur” zone as soon as possible.
Be Professional, Even if You’re Doing This Part-Time
Remember, this may be your side hustle, but your paying clients expect you to provide quality work, on time. They expect professionalism from you. So, make sure to meet their expectation, and then some!
Well, that should give you a good head start into the world of design and creativity in general. If you have questions or comments, as always, leave them in the comments below!
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