Career & Finance

How to Become a Designer Without Going to Design School


I started my own business after being tired of working for others who dictated my time, vacation, and pay. I knew I could do better, so with that conviction (and stubbornness) I set out on my own. I called design studios, agencies, and businesses, and somehow got my foot in the door. I was relentless and eventually, it paid off.

To back up, I never went to design school (I have a BFA), so I supplemented with design classes where and when I could. I learned almost everything on the job; that’s right, I am self taught! Because of this, some may feel inferior; to me, it drove me to be fearless. Foolish sometimes, too. Apparently I had something to prove! Over time I developed a distinctive style, found client niches, and now have a thriving business. I believe talent is talent, regardless of degree or lack thereof.

On a personal note: I’m an absolute proponent of going to design school if you have the ability/opportunity/funds to do so. But if you don’t, here are my tips on how to break into the design world without:


I can’t stress this enough. It is very important to sketch, write, and layout ideas on paper first. Don’t worry if they look like chicken scratch! Similar to creating a blueprint before building a house, it’s imperative to think through ideas before creating them. You’ll save yourself time (and headache!) by working through a concept before executing it.


At my first (and only) salaried job, I was a junior designer—my co-worker kept stressing “it’s all about the grid.” Of course, without going to design school I didn’t really know what that was. Tough love learning from the ground up? Absolutely. But I did learn valuable lessons that I’m happy to share:

A. It’s all about the grid.
While it may seem tedious to look at columns all day, taking the time to understand (and embrace) a grid structure will be invaluable in your career. Trust me.

For web: The Grid System
For print: Designers Insights

B. Composition + Layout 
Remember that grid? It’ll come in handy here. There are other principles of composition—single visual, golden ratio, focal point, the power of three. Play with symmetry and asymmetry, size and emphasis of your elements.

Principles of Form and Design, The New Basics, fashion magazines, design books

C. Fonts  
Get to know your fonts. And not just the freebies. Understand the difference between serif and sans serif. Play around with different weights and styles. Try your hand at hand lettering. Stay clear of Papyrus and Comic Sans! And remember, there are different fonts for web use and print use.

My Fonts and dafont 

D. Color Theory + Usage 
Study your primary and complimentary colors. Play with pairing. Learn how color evokes a mood and has cultural significance. Also, get to know and understand color systems—CMYK, RGB, PMS.

Color theory: Smashing Magazine
Color palettes: Design Seeds and Designers Guide to Color Book Series


Once you’ve grasped the basics of design, it’s time to get on the computer. Today there are many resources available to aspiring designers and professionals alike. Depending on your niche and focus (more on that later), you will likely lean towards one program over the other.

If you are interested in web design, the obvious choice is Adobe Photoshop. Mind you, it’s a beast. But harness it’s power and the digital world can be your oyster. If your interests are more social media based, you could use Photoshop Express or PicMonkey.

Skillshare, Atly,, Pugly Pixel, Creative Live and BlogShop

If your focus is branding—focus on Adobe Illustrator. Learn to create vector based artwork—if possible, get a Wacom tablet. If your focus is print—magazines, books, packaging, invitations, collateral, try Indesign and Illustrator.

First things first, I don’t code. I’ve met very few people who can code well and are great at design, or vice versa. It is helpful to understand some basic code, and definitely to know your limitations (or not) with the web, but I believe that when possible, you should collaborate with a coder. This will be an invaluable resource.

Skillshare, Lynda, Pugly Pixel and Visual QuickStart Guides


”I don’t have real world experience. Shouldn’t I just accept any work?” Yes and no. Honing in on what you’re passionate about will help you become a better designer. It is a good idea to dip your feet in as many areas of design as possible for the experience. However, when you discover the area you’re good at, focus there.

Unsure what your style is? Think about your fashion or home style, what you’re drawn to, or what you focus on in nature. Next, think about companies that embody a similar ethos and aesthetic. 


Now you’re ready to look for work—but where, and how? Rest assured, there is plenty of design work to go around despite how many designers there are (thank goodness!). If you can swing it, I highly recommend starting with an a internship or mentorship. Soak up as much experience as possible!

  • Internship or mentorship: be selective, work hard, be professional.
  • Freelance: take on clients, look on Craigslist for design jobs, Creative Hotlist, How Design job board, elance, etc
  • Creative Staffing Agencies: Aquent, Artisan Creative, The Creative Group, Creative Circle 
  • Full-time positions: design studios, ad agencies, in-house creative departments
  • Self employment: gather an individual roster of clients, freelance, and temporary jobs to build your own schedule
  • Volunteer: help friends’ businesses, volunteer for an organization you’re passionate about, create your own projects

Being a designer—especially a self-taught one—can be isolating at times. So be sure to get your work out in the world—on your blog, website, Dribbble, Twitter, Pinterest, Behance, or Facebook.

Good luck and have fun!