“Design education with a few exceptions is inherently broken”. Mike Monteiro makes a reference to this in his book Ruined by Design. His argument is that designers that chose a different path than formal education took a scenic route, as he calls it. This scenic route usually exposes designers to different skills and analytical thinking but also makes them curious and open to picking up even more skills. In a way, design education moulds a definition of what a designer should be, and if you spent years in that mould, it becomes hard to break out of it.
So, with so many options of taking a self-taught path: can you launch a design career without any formal education? And how?
Here’s a list of steps that worked for me. Even if you received formal education, these steps will still push your career forward and help you shake off any pre-conditions of the designer’s role.
1. Acquire taste
To the non-trained eye, many will argue that design is subjective, and instinctively it is, but becoming a great designer means that you are capable of separating the “pink looks great” from the “pink is traditionally used for this particular product and audience and we should use it to not alienate our audience”.
Spend time on Pinterest or Dribbble and start collecting images that catch your attention. Follow trending work and analyse why an artwork works better than another.
Read the details of a case study. This is where the knowledge is. This is important because you get an understanding of the thought process and the decision making that went into the project. It gives meaning and objectivity to the work.
2. Learn about everything
There are brilliant books out there and I’ve made a list of my favourite ones. But do not limit yourself to just books. Read articles, blogs, reports, watch documentaries and anything you come across. The more you learn, the better equipped you are to make decisions on various subjects. Keep in mind that you will be working with clients from different industries, backgrounds and markets. Broadening your knowledge spectrum will prepare you for different scenarios. It also doesn’t hurt to keep notes of what you learn.
3. Watch tutorials
Even if you’re not looking for anything specific, do not scroll past tutorials or how-tos. There’s always a new trick, shortcut, or skill to pick up. These can be full length step-by-step tutorials or short reels on Instagram, it doesn’t matter. Remember to save them for later, they might come in handy for your next project.
4. Become part of a community
You don’t need to be the kind of person who jumps off their feet at the sound of a meet up or networking event. Although workshops, talks, exhibitions and similar events all contribute to meeting the right people, you can take this task online.
Communities come in different shapes and sizes and if you’d rather not attend in-person events, there are plenty of options out there. I’m in a few Facebook groups myself. I suggest joining at least one group which is dedicated to your region or locality, in case you need contacts for a reliable printer for a last minute job, for example. Reddit is also home to communities like this one where you can ask your design-related questions to more than 2.4 million users.
5. Copy work
The urge that drives us to become designers usually comes from seeing someone else’s work. We see something, we like it, and then wonder “what if I did that myself?” So it’s only natural that you will try to replicate that work. At times, even with your own personal twist.
When you’re starting out this exercise helps you get comfortable and acquire the necessary skills since the outcome is already in front of you. If you intend to share the work, make sure that you credit the original designer and explain what the intent of this exercise was.
6. Take on work from friends or a non-profit
One common way of building a portfolio is to take fictitious work for existing brands and redesign a visual identity that’s been bothering you, for example. Although this might get you a lot of attention, it is not representative of how a project really works from since you won’t have access to the client.
Instead, work for a friend who’s maybe starting a business or find a non-profit you care about. This allows you to have access to the client and you can ask the right questions. Learning how to build a client relationship is also important.
However, before you start a project, find a mentor or a peer from your community who can give you guidance throughout the project to make sure that you are learning as you go and implement those lessons.
As tempting as it may be, avoid taking part in contests or competitions. There isn’t much good that can come out of this, and any experience or exposure that these contests promise can be easily acquired through other means.
7. Share your work
Sharing our work in public means that we have to be ready for critique or negative feedback and that normally holds us back from doing so. Sharing our work in public is not only needed to build creative confidence but also to network, build relationships and find new clients. If your work is not public, then you aren’t either.
8. Take courses
It’s now easier than ever (and possibly more affordable too) to take a course. There are hundreds of courses available with some more specialised than others. Taking courses are a great way to acquire specialised skills such as using type for branding, for example.
Platforms like Domestika and Skillshare are possibly the most favourite with designers with some of them also giving you the option to interact with your course mates. Don’t be afraid to step outside of your specialised area either, if you’re still eyeing that puppet making course, just go for it. There’s always something new to learn from any skill. Have fun with it.
9. Find a mentor
People are willing to help. You just need to start by asking them. This is easier than you may think. In most cases, when people are asked directly, they do offer help, especially if they can relate to your story. A mentor can help you make better decisions and avoid mistakes they made earlier in their career, giving you a more efficient career path. The maxim *ask and you shall receive* may as well be a strategy for your career and not just for starting out.
10. Never stop learning
Finishing a course doesn’t make you a designer. Just like every other industry, but especially design, it is continuously evolving. Consumer behaviours change, trends shift, technology gets updated and this has an impact on how visual communication is presented. So keep learning new techniques, pick up new new design software, follow trends, keep an open mind and absorb everything around you.
Becoming a designer also means that you will need to learn software but I believe this should be secondary. The tools don’t define you and learning the software is an ongoing process. Tools and applications change from time to time, and you will need to pick new ones. My preferred way of learning software is to pick up a project and start using it, then look for help online once stuck. This way, you will be actively learning about the tools that are more applicable for you.
These steps will help you get confident in your work, acquire skills and possibly build a portfolio. Your next step is to get a job as a designer or launch your freelance career if that’s what you want.
Some might still feel insecure of applying for a design job without any certification to show, but if you have a strong portfolio and are able to articulate your thought process, this is enough to convince most employers. The goal is to keep working until your work and thought process is convincing enough without the need of an official certificate to say that you’re a designer.