Graphic design is a skill that takes sincere practice and perseverance, but with the right mindset and resources you can absolutely learn it through self-directed education.
It does require dedication, but if you are motivated you can build your design skills without formal training.
Here are some tips for thoroughly learning graphic design fundamentals and practices on your own:
Dive deep into free or low-cost online courses
Online education platforms offer extensive graphic design courses for beginners, many of which are free or inexpensive. Sites like Skillshare, Domestika, and LinkedIn Learning have a wealth of courses that provide excellent foundations in graphic design. Look for courses that cover core topics like typography, color theory, layout/composition principles, user experience design, and programs like Adobe Creative Cloud. The best courses will have high quality video lessons, assignments and tests, instructor feedback, and a community of fellow students. When selecting a course, read reviews and look for ones with high engagement and positive feedback. Set aside time each week to fully commit to completing a course rather than just dabbling. Absorb as much knowledge as possible from the instructor and apply it directly to projects for the best learning experience.
YouTube also has a massive amount of graphic design tutorials, many provided for free. Subscribe to channels that teach tools like Illustrator and Photoshop as well as concepts like designing logos, posters, book covers, etc. Follow along with the tutorials to get hands-on graphic design practice. While YouTube lacks the structure of organized courses, it makes up for that with a huge wealth of bite-sized lessons on every graphic design topic imaginable.
Don't forget to check if your local library provides free access to premium e-learning platforms. Libraries commonly offer library card holders access to platforms like Lynda.com, LinkedIn Learning, Treehouse, and others. These platforms have high quality, extensive graphic design courses. This can save you hundreds of dollars over paying for courses or subscriptions yourself.
Master the main design programs
While ideas and principles are crucial, you also need working knowledge of essential tools like Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. Learn the key functions and tools of each program through online courses. Work through practice projects in each software program to improve your skills. Technologies change but these programs have remained industry standards for decades.
When starting out, download free trials of paid programs to test them out before committing. Adobe offers full-featured 30-day trials of Creative Cloud apps so you can access Photoshop, Illustrator and more to learn them. Sites like Skillshare often provide free trials of their premium courses too. Make use of offers like student discounts or bundle deals to gain access to the main design programs at the best price. For example, a student version of Adobe Creative Cloud provides access to all the critical apps for a low monthly price.
Treat these programs like instruments - persistent daily practice over months and years is needed to truly master them. Patience and sustained effort will pay off as your skills improve.
Deeply study graphic design fundamentals
While software is essential, a foundation in graphic design principles and psychology is equally crucial. Learn established typography rules, color combinations, page layout techniques, and other fundamentals. Study the reasons behind best practices and connect theory to practical application. Examine examples from acclaimed graphic designers and analyze what makes their designs effective. Focus on principles like visual hierarchy, negative space, contrast, repetition, proximity, balance and more.
Immerse yourself in graphic design psychology and the reasons certain choices resonate with viewers. Understand how things like colors, shapes, and layouts affect emotions and influence viewers. Studying fundamentals pays dividends as it trains your eye to intuitively apply principles and take your work to the next level.
Pay close attention to designs you encounter day to day. Analyze magazine layouts, website interfaces, product packaging, etc. Determine what draws your eye, creates visual impact, communicates clearly, and resonates emotionally. Reverse engineer why certain graphics succeed and others fall flat. Continuously evaluating real world examples trains your brain to critically assess graphic design.
Recreate graphic designs you admire to practice and improve your skills. Mimic posters, advertisements, brochures, etc. Embrace projects just beyond your skill level and persevere through frustration. Recreating designs ingrains effective principles into your mind and builds creative confidence.
Start small then expand your graphic design portfolio
As your skills develop, make simple yet meaningful projects for friends and family like flyers, cards, logos and more. Offer to design for local groups and clubs you're part of. This not only builds your portfolio but surfaces new challenges to improve upon.
Experiment redesigning familiar items like reimagining the logo or menu of a favorite restaurant. Come up with a fictional rebrand for a company you like or reenvision a website's homepage. Even if conceptual, these projects let you flex your creativity.
Set creative challenges with goal time limits to push your abilities. For example, design a magazine cover in 1 hour or produce 3 logo concepts in 2 days. Constraints force you to solve problems and make decisions decisively.
As you gain experience, take on more complex and lengthy projects. Design collateral for a product launch, create a UI/UX focused website, develop a visual identity system for a brand. Pursue passion projects to enrich your portfolio. Broaden your skills across mediums and formats.
Receive critiques to improve your work
While creating projects bolsters abilities, feedback from others elevates your work even further. Share designs and get constructive critiques from experienced designers in online communities. Contribute to graphic design forums like Reddit, Dribbble, Behance, and more. Connect to pros and peers who can provide valuable perspective on improving your work.
Ask creative friends or family members to review projects and provide candid feedback. While it can be uncomfortable to share imperfect work,listen openly to critique. Refining based on outside perspective will develop your design eye.
Find a mentor like an experienced designer you know who can regularly examine your portfolio. A mentor's seasoned direction on weaknesses and blindspots will accelerate your growth. They can also provide advice on transitioning to a design career.
Stay motivated through the challenges of independent learning. Consistency and dedication lead to immense progress over time. With regular practice and application of fundamental principles, you can master graphic design even without formal education. Trust the process, believe in your potential, and commit to constant incremental improvements.