Design career without going to design school.


Eric Nord, mad social scientist

Like Karen, I also started my design career without going to design school. Karen’s excellent answer covers 90% of the important stuff. But I have a few additional comments.

Talent. Regardless of whether you go to school, being a good designer takes a bit of talent. That doesn’t mean someone with modest talents can’t work hard and make a living as a designer. But one’s ability to thrive at it and constantly elevate and progress… is at least partly a function of talent. This isn’t just advice for the design field… it’s advice for any competitive field, but especially for “creative” fields.

Competition. Each year, thousands of designers enter the field. But job growth does not match this increase. Not even close. The same is true for all arts and entertainment. There is definitely job growth in the design field, but this growth centers around specific areas (primarily interaction design). Most aspiring designers simply won’t fit into the mold of what employers are looking for. But, more importantly, most designers simply cannot sell their work because no one wants to buy it.

Getting Paid. Design competitions and pro bono work can be beneficial, but only if it is either a) just like paid work, or b) it will lead to getting paid work. Being a designer involves a lot of entrepreneurial skill. There are endless types of design out there, but only a few of them pay well on a consistent basis. Again, this is where knowing your talents will pay off. It is critical to line up your talents with what people are willing to pay for.

Clients. If you don’t understand your clients (or employers), and if you don’t have a good relationship with your clients, you will find design work to be endlessly frustrating. Design work is almost always collaborative. This is something even great designers struggle with. “People Skills” loom large in design work. This is another misconception people have about design work. A lot of people see design work as a way to escape people work. Yes, it is true that the bulk of design work is done “alone”, but the success of most design work is a function of what takes place during collaboration with clients and collaborators. Remember, you don’t get paid until they agree to pay you.

Specialization. To know what you’re good at means knowing your strengths and talents. The easiest example is illustration. If you’re 30 years old and you never doodled as a kid (or adult)… character illustration is probably not your path. On the other hand, if you have a big OCD room filled with shrines to your favorite interests, your organizational mind could be a good fit for publishing design. If you are a scrapbooker, Photoshop or InDesign could be a natural fit. The point here is simple: focus on what you’re good at (or what is a natural fit) and branch out from there. If you’re self-educating to save money and time, focus on things you’re good at. There will be plenty of time to learn how to draw Bugs Bunny.

Taste. I think this was a good point that Karen brought up, but the Ira Glass quote only applies to those who have the requisite talent. It is possible to have great taste in design, yet STILL not have the other requisite talents to be a good designer. To be a good designer, you have to be “a maker”, as my friend Gilbert calls it. You need a natural inclination toward creating stuff, not just observing and analyzing. Yes, observation and analysis are essential to design. But at a certain point, most designers internalize all that, and the balance between input and output shifts heavily into output. As a designer, you will be paid based on your output, not on your taste.

Pace and Iteration. The final stage of the design evolution for most designers is to be able to work quickly (or at least efficiently). This means not just working fast in a literal sense, but also being able to quickly evolve a project in its conceptual development. This is something one should practice from the very beginning. Don’t let anything become “precious”. Fight the precious!

Self-Promotion. Take Karen as an example. I’m sure she is helping all you aspiring designers out of the goodness of her heart. But, more practically speaking, her writing is helping to assert her brand (and her product) into the world. Answering your own questions on Quora can be a good self-promotion strategy (if you have answers as good as Karen’s). As a designer, you will need to promote yourself. You need to know what people want to see… and you need to cater to it.

If you undertake Karen’s multi-year self-education program, you will have a good chance at getting some work. But to thrive in the design field, one needs to be able to step up their game in a specific area in which they have some talent. One of the reasons why there is always a demand for good designers, is that the design field is full mediocre designers. People hire bad designers all the time because they can’t distinguish between a good designer and a bad designer (many designers themselves can’t tell the difference!). Most professional designers are not great designers. As an aspiring designer, you can choose to see this as a good thing or a bad thing. On the good side, it means marginally talented designers can eke out a living. But, on the bad side, it also shows how difficult it is to become a great designer.

How do you get a job as a designer without going to design school?


Karen X. Cheng, A designer who didn’t go to design school
I got my job as a designer without going to design school.I wanted to change careers and become a designer, but I didn’t have four years and $100k to go back to school. So I decided to teach myself. At first, I had a lot of doubts on whether someone could teach themselves well enough to get a job.
If you’re wondering the same, the answer is yes.

I hacked together my own design education in 6 months while working a full-time job. I didn’t think I was ready but started applying for jobs anyway — and got a job at a great startup, Exec.

I’ll admit, I’m nowhere near as good as many design prodigies that come out of a 4-year education at an elite school. But I’m definitely good enough to do my job well. I design a pretty wide range of things — for the website, iPhone app, emails, social media, and print.

Maybe you want to change careers and become a designer full-time.
Or you just want to learn some basics for your startup or side project.

This is a guide to teach yourself design.

Step 1. Learn to see
The biggest mistake is jumping into Photoshop too fast. Learning Photoshop does not make you a designer, just like buying paintbrushes doesn’t make you an artist. Start with the foundation.

First, learn how to draw.

  • You don’t have to sit in a room with a bunch of other artists trying to draw a naked woman.
  • You don’t even have to get that good at drawing. Just learn some basics so you can be comfortable sketching with a pen.
  • You only have to do one thing to learn how to draw: get the book You Can Draw in 30 days and practice for half an hour every day for a month. I’ve looked at a lot of drawing books and this is one of the best.

Learn graphic design theory

  • Start with the book Picture This. It’s a story book of Little Red Riding hood, but will teach you the foundations of graphic design at the same time.
  • Learn about color, typography, and designing with a grid. If you can find a local class to teach the basics of graphic design, take it.
  • Go through a few of these tutorials every day.

Learn some basics in user experience
There are a lot of books about user experience. Start with these two quick reads that will get you in the right mindset:

Learn how to write

  • Don’t fill your mockups with placeholder text like Lorem Ipsum. Your job as a designer is not just to make pretty pictures — you must be a good communicator. Think through the entire experience, choosing every word carefully. Write for humans. Don’t write in the academic tone you used to make yourself sound smart in school papers.
  • Read Made to Stick, one of my favorite books of all time. It will teach you how to suck in your readers.
  • Voice and Tone is a website full of great examples of how to talk to users.

Learn to kill your work

  • This is the hardest step in this whole guide.
  • Be prepared to kill everything you make. Be prepared to violently slaughter your precious design babies. The sooner you can embrace this, the better your work will become. When you realize your work isn’t good enough, kill it. Start again.
  • Get another pair of eyes. Ask for feedback on your work from people who care about design. Don’t know anyone? Make some designer friends — go to designermeetups and events.
  • Get the opinion of people who don’t care about design, too. Show your work to people who would be your users and ask them to try your website or app. Don’t be afraid to ask strangers — I once took advantage of a delayed flight by asking all the people in the airport terminal to try out an app I was designing. Most of them were bored and happy to help, and I got some great usability feedback.
  • Listen. Really listen. Don’t argue. If you ask someone for feedback, they’re doing you a favor by giving you their time and attention. Don’t repay the favor by arguing with them. Instead of arguing, thank them and ask questions. Decide later whether you want to incorporate their feedback.

Step 2. Learn how to use Photoshop and Illustrator
Hooray! Now you’ve got a pretty solid foundation – both visual and UX. You’re ready to learn Photoshop. Actually, I recommend starting with Illustrator first and then moving on to Photoshop after. Illustrator is what designers use to make logos and icons. InDesign is good for print design like flyers and business cards.

Learn Illustrator

  • There are a ton of books, online tutorials and in-person classes to learn Illustrator. Choose the style that works best for you. Here are the books I found especially helpful to learn the basics of Illustrator:
  • Adobe Illustrator Classroom in a Book – It’s boring, but if you get through at least half of it, you’ll know your way around Illustrator pretty well.
  • Vector Basic Training – This book teaches you how to make things in Illustrator that actually look good.
  • Now for the fun stuff! Follow these online tutorials and be impressed by what you can make. Here are two my favorites – a logo and a scenic landscape.

Learn Photoshop

Step 3. Learn some specialties
Do you want to design mobile apps? Websites? Infographics? Explore them all, and pick and choose the ones you enjoy to get better at them.

Learn Logo Design

  • Learn how to make a logo that doesn’t suck: Logo Design Love
  • You’ll want to take it a step further than a logo though. Learn to create a consistent brand – from the website to the business cards. Check out this book,Designing Brand Identity.

Learn Mobile App Design

  • Start with this tutorial to get your feet wet on visual design for mobile apps.
  • Read this short but very comprehensive and well-thought out book on iPhone design: Tapworthy. It will teach you how to make an app that not only looks good but is easy to use.
  • Geek out on the apps on your phone. Critique them. What works and what doesn’t?

Learn Web Design

Now for the hairy question of whether you need to know HTML/CSS as a designer: It depends on the job. Knowing it will definitely give you an edge in the job market. Even if you don’t want to be a web developer, it helps to know some basics. That way you know what is possible and what isn’t.
There are so many great resources to learn HTML and CSS:

  • My favorite free one is Web Design Tuts.
  • My favorite paid one (pretty affordable at $25/month) is Treehouse. If you’re starting from the beginning and want someone to explain things clearly and comprehensively, splurge for Treehouse tutorials.

Step 4. Build your portfolio
You don’t need to go to a fancy design school to get a job as a designer. But you do need a solid portfolio.

How do you build a portfolio if you’re just starting out for the first time? The good news is you don’t need to work on real projects with real clients to build a portfolio. Make up your own side projects. Here are a few ideas:

  • Design silly ideas for t-shirts.
  • Find poorly designed websites and redesign them.
  • Got an idea for an iPhone app? Mock it up.
  • Join a team at Startup Weekend and be a designer on a weekend project.
  • Enter a 99 designs contest to practice designing to a brief.
  • Do the graphic design exercises in the Creative Workshop book.
  • Find a local nonprofit and offer to design for free.

Resist the temptation to include every single thing you’ve ever designed in your portfolio. This is a place for your strongest work only.

Steal, steal, steal at first. Don’t worry about being original – that will come later, once you are more comfortable with your craft. When you learn a musical instrument, you learn how to play other people’s songs before composing your own. Same goes for design. Steal like an artist.

Go to Dribbble for inspiration on some of the best designers. Check out pttrnsfor iOS inspiration, and siteinspire for website inspiration.

Step 5: Get a job as a designer
When I first started learning design, I went to a job search workshop for designers. I walked into a room full of designers who had much more experience than I did – 5, 10, 15 years experience. All of them were looking for jobs. That was intimidating. There I was, trying to teach myself design, knowing I was competing with these experienced designers.

And yet less than a year later, I got a design job. There was one key difference between me and many of the other designers that gave me an edge: I knew how to work with developers.

The biggest factor to boost your employability is to be able to work with developers. Learn some interaction design. Learn some basic HTML and CSS. Designers in the tech industry (interaction designers, web designers, app designers) are in extremely high demand and are paid well. That’s where the jobs are right now.

If you don’t have any experience working with developers, get some. Go to Startup Weekend, go to hackathons, or find a developer through a project collaboration site.

Make a personal website and make your portfolio the centerpiece.
Go out and make serendipity happen – tell everyone you know that you’re looking for a job as a designer. You never know who might know someone.

Research companies and agencies you might be interested in. Look on LinkedIn for 2nd and 3rd degree connections to people who work at those companies and ask for intros. The best way to get a job is through a connection. If you don’t have a connection, there’s still a lot you can do to give yourself an edge.

Once you’ve got the job, keep learning
I’ve been at Exec for a year now and have learned a ton on the job. I seek out designers who are much more talented than I am, and learn from them. I find design classes (good online ones are SkillshareGeneral AssemblyTreehouse, andTutsPlus). I work on side projects. I geek out at the design section of bookstores. There is still so much to learn and to improve on.
Keep your skills sharp, and always keep learning.

Questions? Say hi at @karenxcheng. If you decide to start learning design and want to seriously commit to practicing everyday, drop me a line at karen (at) danceinayear (dot) com. I’m running an experiment to help keep you motivated.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” ― Ira Glass

This article was originally published on Karen’s blog.