To become a graphic designer, you need to build marketable skills that employers and clients value, including strong drawing skills, mastery of design software, and a comprehensive understanding of design principles and concepts. You need to know how to execute projects from beginning to end, including generating ideas, creating detailed designs, tracking projects through the delivery and installation of assets, and more.

The best way to become a graphic designer – whether on your own or in pursuit of a degree – is to build a strong foundation of essential skills, learn through practice and experimentation, and create a large body of your own creative work. To help you get started, we’ve created a step-by-step guide that explores two different paths: 1) earning a degree in graphic design, or 2) learning graphic design online.

Option #1

Earn a Degree in Graphic Design

We’ve all heard the stories about people like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg who dropped out of college and went on to create companies that changed the world we live in. These stories reinforce the idea that a college education isn’t necessary – all you really need is natural talent, a strong portfolio, and a lot of hard work… right? Wrong.

While it’s true that not every job in the design industry requires a graphic design degree, it is also true that some skills are very hard to learn on your own. Earning a graphic design degree can help you develop skills, techniques, and knowledge of best practices that go far beyond what you can learn by reading blog posts and watching tutorials online. Attending college also helps you build a network of industry connections that can help you find your first job and advance your career.

Option #2

Learn Graphic Design Online

In many fields within art and design, employers and clients place more emphasis on your portfolio than they do on where you went to school. As a result, the option of skipping college altogether and learning graphic design online is becoming more popular every day. What’s more, there are free resources online for learning just about anything, including how to become a graphic designer. Most online courses offer great value for the money, allowing you to study at your own pace and at a fraction of the cost you’d pay for traditional college courses.

Step One

1. Start with the Fundamentals

If you want to become a graphic designer on your own, you should start with the fundamentals:

Basic Drawing

Before you start experimenting with various types of media or try mastering digital tools and Photoshop, you need the basic ability to illustrate your ideas on paper. Some people have a natural talent for drawing, while others struggle to produce even the simplest line drawings. Either way, if you want to design things like websites and logos, it’s important for you to know how to draw. 

Many graphic designers begin every project with a series of “thumbnails” (small sketches that illustrate basic layouts and concepts) before turning their top selections into “roughs” (detailed layouts that illustrate the concept). They show these rough sketches to other professionals at their firm, including art directors, creative directors, and account managers, and to clients. To express your ideas concisely, you need basic drawing abilities and practiced clarity in your sketching that allows you to express your point of view.

Graphic Design Theory

Graphic design is not simply slapping a fun font and a few images into a design. Instead, good design and strong layouts can be approached in a scientific manner. You must put a lot of effort into determining the correct imagery, layout, spacing, visual structure, and appropriate typography, to create an appealing design.

Graphic designers must consider the white space around the design elements in the layout – clients don’t like paying for empty space! – or how headers and subheads can be a consistent size while fitting the space on the page. Designers must know how color and imagery impact individuals and how to manipulate them effectively to direct users (and buyers) where you want them to look.

User Experience

User experience (UX) is an integral part of graphic design. UX has evolved from user-centered design, an approach to developing websites and applications based on the needs of the people who use them. User experience designers must understand what motivates people and how they behave online.

Understanding the basics of UX is important for designers because it emphasizes a human-centered approach to the design process, which is especially relevant for graphic designers who work with websites and other digital platforms. A website, for example, must be designed in a way that visitors can navigate it easily. If user experience (UX) isn’t considered, visitors may become frustrated and quickly leave when they are unable to find the content they want.

Web Design Best Practices

Users spend only a few seconds to determine if your digital ad or website holds their interest or meets their needs before deciding to explore further — or bounce. Understanding best practices for content, structure, layout and visual aids helps increase engagement time, click-through rates, and visitor retention. You also need to know how to ensure quick page loading times, optimize designs for mobile, and the responsive elements that personalize all aspects of the UX.

Professional Copywriting

Graphic designers, especially those working as solo entrepreneurs, often need strong writing skills to ensure the client’s message is clear and appealing. Since visitors often skim content to determine if they want to spend time reading it, graphic designers frequently play the role of copywriters by writing descriptions, text blocks, headers, article titles, CTAs, and even meta descriptions for brochures, point-of-sale, collateral, websites, and digital ads.

Writing should be grammatically correct, concise, and remain consistent with the voice of the brand in an effort to increase engagement and promote interest and visibility. If the company does not have a developed voice, then the graphic designer likely helps determine the voice best suited for the target audience of that brand.

Step Two

2. Master the Software

Learning the basics of graphic design is only the beginning. Graphic designers are constantly working to maintain their proficiency, update their abilities, stay up-to-date on industry developments, and utilize new tools in the creative world. To be successful, you need a high degree of skill in the industry’s standard software programs.

Knowing how to use Adobe Creative Cloud software is a bare minimum for any graphic designer, but you should also learn how to use other software programs that are specific to the industry. How well graphic designers know the software relates directly to how quickly they can produce materials and the degree of creativity available for their work.

Learn Adobe Photoshop

If you need to edit or adjust an image, Photoshop is your go-to program. Photoshop works with rasterized images that allow manipulation of individual pixels. This ability makes Photoshop suitable for photographic imagery, but not for website design, logos, fonts, or any other type of graphic design work. You can use Photoshop to swap parts of images to change out a face, for example, or to insert a background or edit flaws in a photo.

From healing brushes, lasso tools, feathering, and burning, you need to understand and be able to use the numerous editing tools that Photoshop offers to edit images at a true professional level for your client. A good designer will not rely on stock images, since they are often generic and do not promote the brand.

Learn Adobe Illustrator®

When a client needs a logo or an illustration, you will likely use Illustrator to complete the project. Illustrator works with vector graphics, which means that each line and curve is a mathematically precise point. Vector images can be scaled to any size, unlike raster images, which you can only scale up. Illustrator is a good fit for website design and for any graphic work that requires clean lines and shapes.

Illustrator has a wide range of advanced line, gradient, and coloring tools that allow the user to create complex graphics that can then be manipulated, resized, and colorized to fit any purpose. A logo created in Illustrator, for example, can be used on both a business card and a billboard without losing resolution or clarity.

Learn Adobe InDesign®

InDesign is a cross-platform desktop publishing program – meaning it can be used on Windows or Mac computers – that allows the user to plan for print output from the beginning of a project. While you can do basic page layout and design with Photoshop and Illustrator, InDesign allows for complete control over the text and graphics of a publication.

InDesign combines controls to create each page, including specifying the bleed area (the edges where color bleeds off the page), placing images, setting up columns of text, inserting special layouts such as cross-heads or callouts, and adding interactive components such as links and buttons.

Step Three

3. Choose an Area of Specialization

Graphic designers often choose between two paths: the generalist who is familiar with many different types of design work, or the specialist who focuses on one area. Many designers choose to specialize because they find that they enjoy one type of work more than another, and they want to dedicate their time to building expertise. Others choose to specialize because they find that it is more lucrative or enables them to build a better client base.

A few popular areas of specialization include:

Brand Identity and Logo Design

A brand identity is the visual representation of a business, person, organization, product, or service. Aspects of brand identity include logo design, color schemes, fonts and typefaces, and visual style such as illustration. A brand identity should be memorable and distinctive – a clear representation of what the business or person is about.

The graphic designer who specializes in brand identity design is concerned with building a consistent image from the beginning of a project to make sure that colors, fonts, and images work together as a cohesive whole.

Environmental Design

The design of the environment in which people work, shop, or visit is known collectively as environmental design. This can include retail outlets or showrooms, museums and galleries, office spaces, storefronts and entranceways (known as building signage), vehicle wraps (or vehicle livery), window displays, bus stops and benches (street furniture), restrooms including signage and fixtures; and outdoor public areas such as parks, plazas, and community halls.

Layout and Print Design

Layout and print design include the composition of text and images (type and artwork) on a page or screen. It involves what you might see on the front and back of a business card, as well as flyers, brochures, posters, booklets, magazines, menus, packaging designs such as product boxes, and labels for bottles and cans. The designer will have to balance artistic creativity with readability and function. For example, a flyer that is too crowded may be difficult to read, while one that is too sparse may not grab attention.

Packaging Design

A packaging designer is concerned with how a product looks when it is sitting on a store shelf. This can include the product’s shape or silhouette, its texture and color, and the label or graphics that appear on it. Packaging design includes not just the container that holds the product (such as a bottle for shampoo or a cereal box), but also any additional materials such as stickers and labels, ribbon bookmarks in books – anything that helps sell the product by communicating information about price, brand name, and logo, and special features.

User Interface Design

A user interface is a collection of controls and indicators that enable people to interact with a machine, especially computers and home appliances. These include computer desktop icons, software buttons, and windows, as well as touch screens on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.

A user interface designer will work closely with computer programmers or other technical staff to ensure that the design and the computer code work in tandem to meet user objectives (which may include gaining and maintaining attention, increasing brand awareness, increasing sales conversions).

Web and Mobile Design

A web or mobile designer creates the look and feel of websites and apps. The designer’s focus is on designing an aesthetically pleasing user interface that includes graphics, text, sound, animation – anything that a user might see on a screen when using a website or app. The designer will also focus on the way the user navigates through a site or app by determining where important elements such as navigation, logo, and search bar should appear.
Step Four

4. Build a Stand-Out Portfolio

At some point during your design career, you’ll need to show potential employers or clients examples of your work. Your portfolio is your opportunity to shine and gain an edge over other candidates by showcasing the breadth and depth of your skills, along with your aesthetic sensibilities.

In the traditional sense, a portfolio is simply a presentation folder that holds items such as samples of designs that you produced for previous clients or employers; copies of awards and design publications where your work has been featured; letters of recommendation from former collaborators; and documents showing evidence of your skills using certain design software applications.

Online Graphic Design Portfolios

More often than not, today’s graphic designers are showcasing their work via online portfolios that can be viewed by prospective employers or clients anywhere in the world. An online portfolio is a website or digital presentation that features examples of your work and links to documents or videos that highlight the projects you’ve worked on and the unique skills that you possess.

Your online portfolio needs to be professional and polished. Additionally, it’s important to make sure that you update your portfolio with current projects because design trends tend to be fleeting – what’s popular today might not be in six months or a year from now. This means that your portfolio will become dated the longer you leave it unattended.

Step Five

5. Learn Business Basics

There are entire books devoted to the topic of business basics, so it’s impossible to cover all of these subjects in a short article. However, there are some basic guidelines that you should follow if you want your business to be successful.

Your ability to make smart decisions about how your business (or you as an employee) is managed will likely determine whether you thrive or fail. It’s important that you learn how to write up a business contract, create fees for services rendered, work with clients to meet deadlines, and manage marketing efforts.


Contracts have an essential place in any designer-client relationship – they spell out what each party will deliver, when it will be delivered, and what the cost of your services are. Contracts help to protect both you and the client by explicitly establishing expectations on both sides. But more importantly, a contract helps you to avoid misunderstandings that may lead to conflict down the road.


Pricing is another area where many designers struggle – how much should I charge, and how should that rate be determined? Should I charge hourly or by the project? There are no clear-cut answers to these questions. However, the best advice we can offer is to make sure your price reflects the quality of work that you produce, and that it’s competitive with other designers in your local area.


Marketing is a topic that doesn’t get nearly enough attention. The problem with this is that many new designers think they’re marketing when really what they’re doing is sharing content or establishing a social media presence. Marketing is about building and managing relationships, so it’s something that you should be thinking about from day one of your career.

Additional Resources for Graphic Designers