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Want to Teach Yourself Design? 8 Tips & Tricks for Beginners

Written By Sapphire Reels on Jun 15, 2015 11:00:00 AM


This post originally appeared on HubSpot's Marketing Blog.

When I was in high school, I was always doodling in my notebooks. Hand-drawn letters and little pictograms covered my homework, tests, and papers. I would get lost in creating new ways to write out my name or drawing cartoon representations of my friends. Teachers were constantly telling me to "knock it off" and focus on my studies.

Eventually, I did knock it off -- mostly because I realized I wasn't that good at drawing on paper. What I didn't know at the time was that paper wasn't the only way to "draw" my ideas; I could use a computer to help me bring them to life. During college, I learned that I could actually make a career out of lettering and creating graphics on a computer by becoming a graphic designer. It was too late to change my major at that point, so I set out on my journey to learn design as a true DIY'er.

At the beginning of my journey, I sought advice from graphic designer friends. They were telling me the same thing over and over: "Learn Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign;" "Read a book about basic design principles." As much as these tips helped, there were still holes in my knowledge that couldn't be filled by software lessons or books. Anyone who's tried to teach themselves creative concepts understands the pain points associated with trying to balance learning fundamentals, navigating new tools, and developing a personal style.

The following tips are pieces of advice I wish I had been given at the onset of my DIY graphic design journey. I hope they help you smooth some bumps in the road. 

8 Design Tips For Beginners

1) Keep one ear to the ground.

As marketers, we already know how much there is to learn from influencers within an industry. Influencers have paved the way for others to follow in their footsteps, and they're often willing to share the secrets to their success. By making a point to listen to these influencers, you'll expose yourself to more of the design world. This exposure will help you to pick up tips, become comfortable with industry terminology, and stay on top of current design trends

Feeling bold? Turn to Twitter to have conversations with these influencers. You never know who will respond to your questions -- and any positive connection you make can only help you. Following along and getting involved conversations will naturally lead to becoming a part of a community of designers who can support you as you continue your journey.

Try It Yourself

I recommend creating a targeted list of influential designers on Twitter so you can follow their daily insights without having to pick out their tweets from a sea of friends, coworkers, and news sources. (HubSpot users can add influencers' Twitter handles to a Twitter stream in the social monitoring tool. If you don't have HubSpot, you can create a List on by logging in to Twitter and clicking your profile picture on the upper right-hand side of your screen. Choose "Lists" from the dropdown menu, and then click "Create New List.")

I recommend adding a variety of influencers to this list: those who are well-known and revered among most designers, those that personally inspire you, and also those whose work you do not enjoy. Yes, that last point may seem counterintuitive -- and yet, seeing their work will help you understand what exactly you don't like it about their work, which is a key part of understanding design.

Where can you find designers to follow? I like the website 365 Awesome Designers, which features the work of one designer per day. As a starting point, feel free to check out the Twitter List I built for myself.

2) Collect inspirational work.

I can't stress this point enough. Once you make the decision that you'd like to be a DIY designer, you should start building a catalog of work you think is successful. This can be as simple as bookmarking images in your web browser, making a Pinterest board, or saving items to a folder on your computer. Like following influencers, a catalog of inspiring work will help you to distinguish current trends in design as you begin to recognize patterns in others' design. You can also begin to understand your own personal style preferences. If you find yourself continually saving infographics, for example, then you may want to think about learning how to create those.

Your catalog will also serve to inspire designs you create in the future. This is underscored by the idea that "all creative work builds on what came before" -- a line from Austin Kleon's TEDx talk. If you can reference items in your catalog quickly, you'll be better equipped to begin your own projects.

Try It Yourself

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. Quite often, the designers on these sites provide insight into their design process, which will be key as you look to start on your own creations.

Setting aside time in your day to do this may be hard on top of your workload. One way to naturally work it into your day that I like is to use the web application Panda, which replaces your "New Tab" in Chrome with an aggregated a stream of content from various sources, including Dribbble. Each time you open a new tab, you can discover and save something that catches your eye. Fair warning, though: An application like this might be distracting to some.

3) Dissect the process.

One of the most pivotal moments in my design journey thus far was when I recognized that every single illustration, infographic, and icon I had ever ogled over was just the product of someone mastering how to combine shapes and lines. That's not to say that other factors don't play a role (just wait until you try and learn meshes in Illustrator), but fundamentally, these designs were built up from simple shapes. Mind. Blown.

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 don't let your skill level stop you -- examining the construction of a design will let flex your creative muscle. Your educated guesses will do far more to teach you than not doing it at all. You'll likely find that:

  1. You know more than you think you do.
  2. When you identify holes in that knowledge, you'll know what techniques or concepts you need to explore to narrow the gap.
  3. There's more than one way to achieve a desired result.

Try It Yourself

A quick way to advance down the learning curve when dissecting a design is by downloading a free vector or PSD design resource and digging through the layers to see how the designer constructed the object.

Try downloading this free PSD of device icons by Dribbble user Corey Michaud and opening it up in Photoshop. It'll look like this:

diy-design-screensImage credit: Corey Michaud

In Photoshop, open the Layers Panel (which you can learn to use here) and un-collapse the "iPad" and "iPad Mini White" folders so that you can see the layers contained within them. By simply changing the visibility of the layers, you can begin to see the designer used each shape to build upon one another. In particular, notice that the "reflection" on the device's screens were made by creating a triangle on the rectangle that represents the screen, filling it with a color, and then reducing the fill in the Layers Panel.

You can also begin to understand how to use Effects like drop shadows and strokes. If you're up for even more of a challenge, check out the "Thunderbolt" folder inside that Photoshop file to see how the designer paired multiple Effects to create the base of the display.

4) 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, Hmmm. 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 actively following along.

The key is to be really specific with your searches so you can find a really relevant tutorial. Searching for "how to create an icon" is going to 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.


Try It Yourself

Browse a design terminology glossary to find the specific terms for the techniques you're trying to learn. This'll help you find what you're looking for online much more easily, in addition to helping you familiarize yourself with the language. (Click here for more great Google search tips.)

5) Reproduce your favorite work.

Let me be clear: Under no circumstances should you infringe on anyone's copyrighted work. Never reproducing someone else's work and try to pass it off as your own. That being said, an exercise in recreating a design you like will help you gain a deeper understanding of design technique. As with dissecting a design, it'll help you learn new technical skills that'll come in handy when you're creating your own designs.

You'll have to get creative with the method you choose to recreate the design, so this is a great left brain/right brain design exercise. Don't get frustrated if you can't duplicate a design to a tee -- remember, the process is more important than the result.

Try It Yourself

Find a design piece you think is successful -- which should be easy if you've created an inspiration catalog! -- and use your preferred piece of software to recreate it, whether that's Photoshop or Illustrator or another software. It's really up to you on how you choose to go about actually creating it. Use specific search queries and tap into your design community relationships as resources.

6) Embrace negative space.

The proper use of negative space is often overlooked by beginner and advanced designers alike. 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.

Jan Tischold, one the most influential typographers in history, stresses this importance: “White space is to be regarded as an active element, not a passive background.” The effective use of negative space is just as crucial as the design itself. Don't believe me? It's scientifically proven that white space improves legibility and comprehension. Consider white space at every stage of your design.

Try It Yourself

Learning to effectively use white space won't happen overnight. You'll have to try out many different options to find what works for each design. First, I'd recommend reading some of the articles on this reading list, compiled by David Kadavy of Design For Hackers. Then, try and put some of these theories into action.

Remember, there's no hard-and-fast rule to using white space. It takes practice. Eventually, you'll find that exercises in resizing elements in your composition and changing the layout will lead to a natural understanding of the amount of breathing room required.

7) Don't be afraid to get feedback.

On some level, everyone is afraid of criticism. We're afraid our ideas will get shot down and we'll be sent back to square one. 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 and Saatchi at the pinnacle of their 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 make it better?’, 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?

The takeaway here is this: Design crities allow us to incorporate other's viewpoints into our work and improve upon our ideas. Remember: You always have the option to reject the feedback -- but it's considering it in the first place that's important. Design is subjective in nature, and just because someone else has a different opinion doesn't mean you're wrong. In fact, trusting your intuition is equally as important. Just make sure you have the means to back up your design decisions.

Try It Yourself

The best way to get feedback is to have a one-on-one conversation with an experienced designer. If you don't know anyone in the design world, this can be difficult. Fortunately, the internet is filled with communities of designers eager to give feedback. If you haven't already taken the initiative to become a part of a community, now's the time to step outside of your comfort zone and take action. offers an awesome feedback tool where viewers can comment directly on your design. Other great forums include The Crit Prit on Graphic Design Forums, Design Critiques on Reddit, and Estetica Design Forum.

8) Pick a passion project.

If you only listen to one piece of advice from this post, let it be this one. We all know how hard it is to work on something you don't want to. It just plain sucks. Picking a project that you aren't passionate about will likely lead frustration, as you'll likely feel reluctant to devote the time and effort necessary to complete the project. It would be remiss to ignore that fact that at some point in your career, you'll have to design something you may feel less than thrilled about. But this will likely not occur until you've learned a thing or two and have advanced your design skills. In the beginning, it's OK to focus on passion projects.

When you're taking the time to teach yourself graphic design and there's no consequence (like money lost on a wasted design class), passion is a major motivator. When you pick something you care about, you'll compel yourself to work through the frustration that comes with the sometimes tedious nature of design.

It'll also provide direction. Time and time again, the hardest part of learning design is not knowing what to design. Be decisive and choose something you can work on for a length of time.

Try It Yourself

Align your interests or current situation with your projects. If you're a blogger, try creating the header image for your next post. Offer to work on an offer with your content team. Looking for a job? Redesign your resume and try to further your personal brand by creating a logo. There are any number of ways to work design into your day, but it's up to you to pick something that matters to you. Don't design something simply because you think you should; design something because you actually want to. 

Above all, it's important just to get started. It's easy to be intimated by the sheer amount of learning associated with graphic design, but remind yourself that even the most talented designers were newbies like you at one point. 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.

Design is an iterative process, so keep reworking your ideas and projects. As you progress, you'll develop your own workflow and one day that design that took you all day will only take you an hour. Trust me, I'm living proof.

What other tips do you have for self-taught designers? Share with us in the comments below.

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Topics: Design

Sapphire Reels

Sapphire is a Northeastern University Alum and a product marketer at HubSpot. By day, she enjoys dabbling in graphic design and storytelling. By night, you can find her watching mockumentaries or being a foodie.

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