As a design studio in a highly creative town (Portland, Oregon USA), we get a lot of emails and personal correspondence from people asking what it takes to get started in the field of graphic design. Questions range from “what books should I be reading” to “what are some of the best schools for design” to “can I has job?”. Our response to these hails are generally the same so we’ve decided to create a blog post for all our future design prospects. We hope this post can offer some clarity into the road ahead, but this advice should be taken with a grain of salt as everybody’s path into design (or at least should be) varied and unique.
There aren’t any particular schools that we recommend for graphic design that don’t cost a metric-ton of money (Cal Arts). What I will say is save your money until you are absolutely sure that design is for you. If you were thinking of attending a school like the Art Institute, you should be prepared to spend a good amount of time working to put a portfolio together and working closely with your freelance competition. We know a lot of instructors at the Art Institute and have hired several designers from there, it’s not a bad place to start but it is certainly an expensive “baptismal by fire” to see if you really want to be a designer.
Our recommendation is that you should round out your education by getting a degree in applied arts and getting a few projects, in a few different mediums, under your belt. That way, you may find talents you never knew you had from welding to ceramics to video production to a thousand other disciplines that can aid your future career be it graphic design or otherwise.
As for books to read, we’d (and I’m serious about this) start with Graphic Design for Dummies which should teach you about definitions and expectations. That series is like a ‘CliffsNotes’ for any subject and provides a basic understanding of the core concepts in design. After that, we’d recommend books on art history, anatomy, drawing techniques, printing, pairing and even magazines that focus on design principals (How).
Regardless of your feelings of Mac v. PC, I’d suggest getting a decent computer (at least 4GB RAM) and start working with any design programs you can. You don’t have to be working with Adobe right out of the gate as there are many alternatives to those applications these days. If you do have access to Creative Suite, you should start to familiarize yourself with Illustrator (vector) first. Photoshop is a phenomenal program but when you start working with print ready files programs you’ll need to know how to produce files as vector art and the requirements for exporting and getting those elements properly prepared for print.
Now, here’s the most important thing of all, in order to be a great designer, you need to get out to concerts, museums, the mall, ANYWHERE there is art on display. We’re not talking exclusively about pretty pictures, but we are saying that knowing what has resonated throughout history (museums) will definitely give you a good base to work from. Seeing posters, shirts and people at events (concerts/sporting events) should give you a good idea of what graphics work in what context. Even the mall can a great place to see both good and bad POP (point of purchase) displays and to start getting ideas for what works and what doesn’t.
The first step towards becoming a designer should be the act of picking up a spiral bound sketch book so you can start drawing and taking notes on the world around you. As a designer, it’s your job to know what works visually and what doesn’t AND be able to echo that on to your client. Design is everywhere and they play an important part in driving sales and creating marketing efforts that build awareness and loyalty. There will always be a need for designers and GOOD designers, the ones that can separate the wheat from the chaff, the ones who have a working knowledge of history, are the ones who keep getting paid and picked up for gigs.