How To Learn Graphic Design – Basics, Principles, Tips and Tools
Graphic design is a visual communication process using a balanced blend of typography (text) and imagery (photographs, illustrations, and icons) to communicate a specific message. Based on that, graphic designers employ visual-thinking strategies to solve and streamline communication problems.
The primary task of a graphic designer is to visually represent ideas in interesting, easily recognizable, readable, and legible ways. Graphic design is the art of making the invisible visible. In this tutorial, on how to learn graphic design we will explore the essential basics and principles as well as the tools that will enable you to effectively deliver your ideas.
What is Graphic Design?
“To design is to communicate clearly by whatever means you can control or master.” — Milton Glasser
Graphic designers employ a variety of tools, skills, techniques, and knowledge to solve visual problems. Building on a repertoire of artistic and technical skills a graphic designer can capture and/or keep the attention of their intended audience while celebrating a variety of mediums.
Whether in print or on the screen a great designer can communicate messages effectively and with flair. However, not all jobs require excitement and flair. Sometimes a designer creates visual communication that is subtle yet reliable.
While the list of skills and traits of graphic designers is enormous and ever-growing there are five essential skills that graphic design requires:
1. Creativity is a must. A graphic designer must be able to create unique imagery and visuals. Creativity is also a problem-solving skill and graphic design is all about solving visual and communicative problems.
2. Communicative skills are required as graphic designers must be able to negotiate and communicate with their clients and be able to communicate ideas visually and coherently.
3. Technological skills are needed to blend both artistic and IT skills to effectively produce designs in a variety of mediums.
4. Typographic skills are essential in blending typographic forms into imagery that can communicate a message. Read our beginner's tutorial on what is typography.
5. Management skills are required to budget for time and resources for a given project and to balance multiple projects and deadlines.
This list is far from exhaustive, but these factors will be emphasized throughout this tutorial. Think of them as general requirements for good graphic design and visual communication. Furthermore, these are also important topics good graphic design courses should cover.
Learn Graphic Design – Principles and Theory
Good design is a matter of discipline. It starts by looking at the problem and collecting all the available information about it. If you understand the problem, you have the solution. It’s really more about logic than imagination. — Massimo Vignelli
Design theory is born of the visual arts and architecture. While there is no unified theory of graphic design, graphic designers might find it useful to draw on the theory and principles of design as employed in other artistic disciplines that deal with visual communication.
Design theory seeks to define the purpose of a project and utilizes a set of visual principles to achieve a proposed purpose or solve a given problem. These principles can help us to understand and solve a problem.
Depending on whom you’re speaking with, there are between six and twelve principles of design. Because this is a beginner’s tutorial we will like at seven fundamental principles to get you started. Again, there isn’t a real consensus on how many principles there are but these six will be sufficient in getting you started.
Harmony is often described as an accompaniment to unity. Harmony is expressed through likeness and the repetition of certain design elements such as color and shape.
Unity describes a sort of balance between all of the components or elements of a design to provide the observer with a sense of spatial contentment. When Harmony and unity are reached we feel that everything in the design is appropriate and in its right place.
Balance is related to harmony and unity but specifically addresses a design’s visual weight. Certain elements are more eye-catching giving them a heavier visual weight where others offer a sense of lightness. The idea is to find a harmonious balance between the layout of these different weighted elements.
This is done by employing symmetrical and asymmetrical design strategies. Symmetrical elements provide equal weight on either side of an imagined center line where asymmetrical elements offer different weighted or non-centered elements.
Hierarchy refers to an overall design schema for logically organizing content. The most important elements should be seen first or be the most prominently visible.
We can think of a magazine article as being laid out with a title and subdivided with a variety of headings and subheadings. Attention might be drawn to important aspects of the article using pull quotes and font differentiation such as italics or bold.
Rhythm is often achieved through the repetition of elements and their spacing or timing (e.g. intervals). A rhythm might be regular, random, alternating flowing, or progressive.
Regular rhythms have equidistant spacing or intervals. Random rhythms don’t follow a set pattern of spacing and intervals. Alternating rhythms follow patterns that have variation between certain elements. Flowing rhythms form wave-like element structures. Progressive rhythms evolve and change through iterations of similar elements.
Contrast refers to oppositional design elements such as weights, colors, textures, and shapes. The idea is to use the differences to highlight certain elements of a design.
Variety provides the opportunity for differentiation between elements to build interest. This can be done by utilizing a variety of shapes, colors, weights, images, etc.. However, a designer needs to be careful about how much variety they employ.
They still need to achieve a sense of harmony, unity, and balance. Too much variety might confuse, but too little can result in boredom. Variety should reinforce what is being communicated and not take away from the intended message.
7. White Space
White space refers to the empty or negative space that is thought of as free from design elements. White space can create texture, help to highlight or frame certain elements, increase readability and legibility, and create the general aesthetic of a design.
Jan Tschichold reminded us that “white space is to be regarded as an active element, not a passive background.” It is certainly one of the most often overlooked design features and yet it is one of the most important.
How To Learn Graphic Design – Tools
We can read about theory all we want but if we don’t have the appropriate tools, we can’t practice graphic design. The best way to learn graphic design is through doing. Below is a list of important tools for graphic design. Whether hardware or software it is important to have a variety of tools that can help you to solve any design problem that comes your way.
One of the most prohibitive costs of graphic design is the cost of hardware. Finding reliable and high-performing tools can be fairly expensive; however, as a beginner, you can start with what you already have and can currently afford. Amazing design work can be done on even the most modest hardware.
Notebooks and sketchbooks are invaluable for designers to sketch out ideas and take notes for prospective designs and design solutions. Notebooks can be digital but nothing is better than a paper notebook that can be safely carried around and utilized anytime and anywhere.
Laptops are essential as they are portable and dependable. It is important to think about processing power and speed, memory (RAM), and display (type, size, color accuracy).
Desktop computers while not portable offer supreme processing power and speeds, better memory, and a variety of larger and high-quality display setups. They also offer more opportunities for connecting multiple peripherals.
Monitor calibrators ensure that your screen is displaying color accurately. You certainly don’t need one of these as a beginner, but if you’re serious about graphic design and especially design for print these are important tools.
Portable hard drives allow you to safely store your work for travel. The most reliable and best performing portable hard drives are solid-state drives (SSD) and they are the safest way to backup your design work.
Graphics tablets from screenless Wacom drawing tablets to the iPad Pro and Microsoft Surface Pro allow a graphic artist to digitally sketch, draw, or paint with ease.
DSLR Cameras allow graphic designers to capture photos and imagery that can be used and translated into their designs. Furthermore, cameras can help designers document ideas. It is also believed that building photography skills will improve graphic design skills.
The graphic design software trinity is represented by Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. Much like finding professional-level hardware, these programs are costly. In our description of each piece of software, we will highlight a free and open-source alternative perfect for beginners (and even sometimes preferable to some professionals).
Photoshop is an image and raster graphics editor used by photographers and graphic designers. Raster graphics are pixel-based images composed of dots per inch (DPI) or pixels per inch (PPI). Raster graphics don’t scale well without being distorted.
It has several image editing tools and features but has a limited number of options for text editing. The best open source and free alternative is called GIMP which offers similar tools and extensions although not quite as powerful.
Illustrator is an image and vector graphics editor. A vector image is a path-based image that is scalable. Blending drawings, shapes, color, and typography Illustrator is an essential design tool. Inkscape or Graphic are great, free and open source alternatives.
InDesign is a typesetting and desktop publishing program. It is most often used to produce print media such as posters, brochures, newspapers, and books. The best free and open-source alternative is Scribus offering similar tools and options.
Bottom line – Again, we understand that these tools can be costly. Just like any trade that requires tools we all want the best. It is better that you learn graphic design with the tools that are within your current price range and work towards collecting better tools as your skills improve. There is no shame in this.
How To Learn Graphic Design – Tips and Tricks
Graphic design is a field that encompasses several different types of skills. Different types of graphic design require different skills. Whether these skills are employed for marketing, branding, UI/UX, web design, print design, or whatever, below are five universal tips and tricks for design based on the seven principles we covered above.
While improvisation is an admirable trait the ability to improvise design comes from years of experience. As with anything, great improvisation is the result of a strong foundation. Before we can improvise, planning is the most important aspect of design work.
The planning process is different for everyone but most often starts with taking notes and making sketches. A plan doesn’t need to be concrete but it should give you a good foundation to work from.
2. Color Selection
Whether you choose a minimalist black mad white design color scheme or you want to create some pop by utilizing neon you should always be considering your color selection.
Colors can dictate mood elicit emotions. It is wise to study color theory and come to an understanding of cultural differences in response to color and the meanings embedded in and associated with different colors.
3. White Space
White space doesn’t mean the space is white. It is the unused space around your design elements. The negative space. Give your elements space to breathe and use white space to emphasize elements you want to draw attention to.
Be sure that you use consistent design features. If you’re using type be sure to use a limited number of typefaces and when you use a different typeface make sure that is complimentary or provides an interesting contrast.
The color scheme, textures, shapes, and weights of elements should be consistent to make the overall design aesthetically pleasing, coherent, legible, and readable.
We tend to overcomplicate things and especially when we are new to them. Even seasoned professionals are subject to this problem. In design, unless otherwise specified or intended, we should aim to keep things simple. Too many elements and too much variety between these elements can confuse and become unsightly.
How To Learn Graphic Design – Conclusion
The life of a designer is a life of fight. Fight against the ugliness. – Massimo Vignelli
Wrapping up our tutorial on how to learn graphic design.
Graphic Design is a broad field and yet its intentions are simple: to make visual communication interesting and beautiful. The goal of this tutorial on how to learn graphic design has been to introduce you to some of the theories and techniques of the discipline.
But more than this, it has been aimed at providing an overview to capture your attention and encourage your interest in and pursuit of graphic design. It is from this point that we encourage you to start designing.
Hone and practice your new craft and skills. We hope they bring you as much joy as your designs bring to their audience. We hope you like this tutorial on how to learn graphic design basics and principles and that it will encourage you to take the next step to become a graphic designer. Good luck designers.
Note: This is a tutorial about learning graphic design for beginners. We try to cover the most essential graphic design principles and basics, however, this guide does not aim to cover all aspects in comprehensive detail. We will add more guides covering concepts in more depth over time. We appreciate your critical feedback but also welcome ideas to further improve this article.