14 Essential Design Tips for Beginners: Transform Your Skills and Create Stunning Graphics
From logos, posters, magazines, product packaging, and ads, we see graphic design at work every day.
It’s an industry that’s always in demand. Why? Because brands always need designers, whether it’s to create branding assets or design an upcoming event flyer.
If it’s an industry you’re interested in, discover the tips you can use today as you start your career.
There isn’t one way to become a graphic designer, but there are some tips that can lead you in the right direction to improve your skills and set yourself up for success.
1. Learn fundamental design principles.
Graphic design is a visual communication tool that combines graphics, typography, color, and illustration to communicate a message.
And while there are endless ways to communicate a message (that’s where the creative part comes into play), there are fundamental principles that every graphic designer must follow:
These fundamental concepts ensure a design is cohesive, impactful, and clear.
In addition to these principles, other elements come into play, such as typography and color theory.
2. Enroll in a graphic design course.
Contrary to popular belief, having an eye for design isn’t an innate trait – it’s a learned skill.
Courses can teach you about the history of graphic design, the various subdivisions within the discipline, the psychology behind design principles, and the tools you’ll need.
Here are the top online resources for graphic design courses:
Then, of course, there’s always YouTube University. The best thing about this university is that it’s 100% free. Though, it‘s not guaranteed that you’ll receive the same depth in the material on YouTube, and you won’t have the support of a professor. However, it can be an excellent place to start if you’re on a budget or learning on your own time.
3. Master a design program of your choosing.
It’s hard to think of graphic design without immediately considering the tools they use.
These are all powerful software that allows you to create everything from logos and illustrations to website designs.
While they aren’t accessible to use, consider them investments in your career, as you will likely use them for every project you take on.
4. Network with fellow designers.
In addition to the knowledge you’ll gain from your courses, it’s essential to speak with designers who are currently working in the field. This will help you get a 360-view of what it’s like working as a graphic designer and what it takes to succeed in your role.
Networking across is as important as networking up. Make sure you lean on your community for support and advice as you develop your skills as a graphic designer.
5. Practice, then practice some more.
When learning anything new, practicing is key. It’s not enough to take in the knowledge — you have to use it and learn how it works in real-time. Search for graphic design exercises online to further hone in your skill.
For instance, Type Connection and KernType allow you to test your typography skills. You can also use sites like Sharpen to find design prompts to work on. They have prompts in various categories, from branding to marketing and user experience (UX).
Once you feel confident in your ability, consider taking on a design project of your own. It could be a passion project you give yourself or seek out. Getting real-world experience in what it takes to take a project from start to finish, and all of the non-design implications, are important to consider.
6. Follow design influencers and industry leaders.
There‘s much to learn from influencers or leaders in the field of graphic design. They’re highly knowledgeable in their niche and are often willing to share the secrets to their success in their content.
If you seek out their content regularly, you’ll become more familiar with the graphic design world, discover more tips from industry leaders, become comfortable with relevant terminology, and stay on top of trends.
Wondering how to engage? Turn to YouTube, X (Twitter), Instagram, and even Tiktok.
And don’t be afraid to reach out to them. You never know who might respond to your questions – and any positive connection you make will only help you move further along in your journey.
What I Recommend
- Build a X List of influential designers, so you can follow their daily insights without picking out their tweets from a sea of friends, coworkers, and news sources on your timeline.
- Have a mix of well-known designers who inspire you and those whose work you do not enjoy. That last point may seem counterintuitive, but consistently observing the work of that group can help you understand why you don’t like it, which is a crucial part of understanding design.
7. Build an inspiration catalog.
Start building a catalog of work that is successful.
That can be as simple as bookmarking images in your web browser, making a Pinterest board, or saving items to a folder on your computer.
Sifting through a catalog of inspiring work will help you to identify trends – both past and present – and can inform your style.
What I Recommend
- Get acquainted with leading designer portfolio sites like Dribbble and Behance. These platforms showcase an abundance of high-quality work from leading designers across the spectrum – everyone from web and UX designers, to graphic designers and typographers.
- Set aside time in your day to review these sites and use apps like Panda to make the collection process easier.
8. Dissect the process.
Dissect designs you admire to understand the steps and techniques involved.
One of the most pivotal moments in my design journey was when I recognized that every single illustration, infographic, and icon I had ever ogled over was the product of someone mastering how to combine shapes and lines.
Analyzing the process behind a design will allow you to understand the steps required to produce a piece of work. Depending on your current skill level, you may have a leg up in knowing which tools were used, or which aspect was created first. But if you‘re a beginner, don’t let that stop you – examining the construction of a design will let you flex your creative muscle.
What I Recommend
- Download a free vector or PSD design resource, and dig through the layers to see how the designer constructed the object. You can find a number of those files here.
- Once you pick your file, open it in Photoshop, then open the Layers Panel (which you can learn to use here) and un-collapse some of the folders, so that you can see the layers contained within them.
By simply changing the visibility of the layers, you can begin to see how the designer used each shape to build upon one another. You can also begin to understand how to use Photoshop Effects, like drop shadows and strokes.
9. Get specific with your online search queries.
As you begin creating your own designs, you’ll likely hit an obstacle where you think to yourself, “Hmm, how the heck do I do that? “
Chances are, others have wondered the same thing.
Like many self-taught disciplines these days, the majority of my own technical design knowledge was gained by watching a YouTube tutorial while I actively followed along.
The key is to be really specific with your searches, so you can find a highly relevant tutorial.
Searching for something like “How to Create an Icon” might deliver really broad search results. Instead, type in exactly what you want to learn, like, “How to Create a Flat Icon with a Long Shadow.” Boom.
What I Recommend
Browse a design terminology glossary to find the specific terms for techniques you‘re trying to learn. That can help you find what you’re looking for online much more easily, in addition to helping you familiarize yourself with the language.
10. Replicate your favorite work for learning purposes.
Let me be clear: Under no circumstances should you infringe on anyone‘s copyrighted work. Never reproduce someone else’s work and try to pass it off as your own.
That said, re-creating a design you like is helpful to gain a deeper understanding of design techniques.
You‘ll have to get creative with the method you choose to recreate the design. Don’t get frustrated if you can’t duplicate a design exactly – remember, the process is more important than the result.
What I Recommend
- Find a design piece you think is successful, which should be easy if you’ve created an inspiration catalog.
- Open up your go-to design software to recreate it.
- Start dissecting the design and recreating it using your own process.
- If you get stuck, use specific search queries and lean on your design community.
11. Embrace negative space.
Beginner and advanced designers alike often overlook the proper use of negative space.
What is negative space, or white space? It‘s the space in your design that’s not occupied by any visual or written element. A design piece that doesn’t incorporate enough negative space is like a sentence with no spaces: itisdifficulttocomprehend.
What I Recommend
- Read some of the articles on this list, compiled by David Kadavy, author of Design for Hackers: Reverse Engineering Beauty. Then, try to put some of these theories into action.
Remember, there’s no hard-and-fast rule to using white space. It takes practice. Eventually, exercises in resizing elements of your composition and changing the layout will lead to a natural understanding of the amount of breathing room required.
12. Seek constructive feedback.
On some level, everyone is afraid of criticism. Learning to accept constructive criticism is no easy task, but it’s key to becoming a better designer.
Paul Arden, who was the creative force behind Saatchi & Saatchi at the pinnacle of its success, wrote this in his best-selling book, It‘s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be:
“If, instead of seeking approval, you ask, ‘What’s wrong with it? How can I improve it?’ you are more likely to get a truthful, critical answer. You may even get an improvement on your idea. And you are still in a position to reject the criticism if you think it is wrong. Can you find fault with this?”
Design critics allow us to incorporate others‘ viewpoints into our work and improve our ideas. You always have the option to reject the feedback, but considering it in the first place is what’s important.
What I Recommend
- Have a one-on-one conversation with an experienced designer. If you don’t know anyone in the design world, join an online community of designers.
- Post on Reddit’s Design Critiques.
- Publish your work on social media and ask for feedback from fellow designers.
13. Undertake a passion project.
Engage in design projects that align with your interests and passions. These projects will motivate you to push through challenges and provide direction during the early stages of your learning journey.
What I Recommend
- Align your interests or current situation with your projects. If you’re a blogger, try creating the header image for your next post. V
- Voice your willingness to work on an offer with your content team.
There are several ways to work design into your day, but it’s up to you to pick something that matters to you. And if you’re trying to market your work to the world from a personal portfolio or website, use HubSpot’s SEO Marketing Software.
Present your hard work in a format where professionals can see it clearly, and let the tool do the heavy lifting for you, generating copy and meta descriptions that target the niche your work caters to.
14. Just start.
It’s easy to be intimidated by the sheer amount of learning associated with graphic design, but remember that even the most talented designers were newbies once, too.
What makes the creative field so special is that everyone‘s journey is unique – there’s no one way to approach DIY design. You’ll find your own means to discern what you want and need to learn.
Furthermore, design is an iterative process, so keep reworking your ideas and projects.
Grow Your Career in Graphic Design
As you progress, you‘ll develop your own workflow, and one day, that design that took you all day will only take you a mere fraction of time. Trust me, I’m living proof.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in June 2017 and has since been updated for comprehensiveness.