Advice #21: How Do I Get Started in Design?

I have always wanted to be a graphic designer and everyone tells me that I would be good at it but I live in a smallish town and wouldn’t know where to get started. Any advice?

If you’re passionate about design and are determined to be a graphic designer, you’ll find a way to carve out a path and to make it happen. There’s always a way to overcome the obstacles that you may have; sometimes it just takes a little bit of planning coupled with a creative strategy.

If you live in a small town, you might have to work harder to find the resources, but I can assure you that they are there if you’re willing to dig. I was once in the same position as you. I grew up in the suburbs outside of Portland and my high school was surrounded by farms and nurseries. Inside, the sixties-era library was literally frozen in time. I was lucky because we had a great art program but beyond that, in 1999 graphic design wasn’t nearly as digitized as it is today. The graphic design class (which is ironically the only art class I never took) was still using rub-on letters for layouts and little time was spent on the two Macs in the back of the classroom.

I didn’t have any mentors and the only bits of design-related knowledge I could find were hidden in dusty library books. I had to dig to find these small glimmers of design, but once I did, they inspired new visions of what was possible outside of my small town.

If you plan on attending school for design, keep your options open. Design is very subjective and the programs vary widely. It’s possible to go to school for two, four and even six years on the subject and your needs and goals will help you determine what is right for you.

After some research, I chose a two year, limited-entry program at a local community college. Though big schools are great and can offer you a totally different experience, I chose this option because it met my specific needs in a number of areas:

The expense. Community college is so much more affordable. My brother went to the premier art school in Portland and my entire two years of schooling cost less than half of one year of his.

Previous experience. I didn’t want (or need) another four year degree. I already had a degree in business and didn’t find it necessary to have two. I was determined to get the skills that I needed in the least amount of time possible and in my experience so far, most design jobs judge you on the quality of your portfolio anyway.

Scheduling. What I like about community colleges is that they’re set up for the real world. I had to work full time during my schooling and the university schedules that I looked at weren’t geared for that mentality.

Small class size. The program I attended had less than 25 students. We spent both years together and developed really strong bonds while receiving a lot of one-on-one attention that I don’t think would be as easy to gain in a larger program.

A community college turned out to be the right decision for me but your needs might warrant a different option. To find a school that is right for you, make a list of your top choices. It’s okay to dream big since this is still the research stage. Think about how much debt you’re realistically willing to incur, if you’re okay with relocation, if you’re going to need a schedule that is flexible for working and if the curriculum of the program fits your focus (print, web design, video, etc.)

Once you’ve developed a list of desirable schools, visit their websites and request program information. If it interests you, set up a meeting with an advisor or the head of the program. I strongly feel that this initial interaction will give you valuable insight if the school is right for you.

To avoid wasting time and money on a program that might not be a good fit, ask yourself some key questions. Are you being treated respectfully by the school’s staff? Are they open and willing to answer your questions? Are there examples of student work from the program that you can view? Do you feel comfortable with the time commitment that the program requires?

One fateful day in 2006, I met with the head of a design program at a well-known university and was scolded for showing up early(!) and told that many of my credits wouldn’t fully transfer, even though they were for very basic courses. It was obvious by his demeanor that he felt that he had better things to do with his time than to meet with a potential student. I left feeling that I wouldn’t be comfortable handing over a huge sum of money to spend up to four years in this guy’s presence and immediately contacted the head of the community college program that I later attended. The interaction was the exact opposite; informative, warm and encouraging. I was so impressed with the conversation that I immediately applied.

Once you’ve been accepted into a school, there are some key things that you can do to prepare yourself before the first day arrives.

Subscribe to some design blogs. Design is becoming more democratic every day thanks to blogs. Some of my personal favorites include Design Observer, the archives of Speak Up, Brand New, Swiss Miss, I Love Typography and Grain Edit.

Budget for a few key design books. The assortment of books that you choose will depend on your focus but some of the titles that I have found to be the most valuable include The Elements of Typographic Style, Helvetica: Homage to a Typeface and Graphic Idea Notebook: A Treasury of Solutions to Visual Problems. When crunch time for a school or work project hits, it’s always nice to have your own trusted little library of design books tucked away!

Subscribe to or try new tutorials. is an affordable online library of thousands of video tutorials that can assist you with keeping your skills current. I’ve subscribed in the past and have had fantastic results.

Online tutorials are a dime a dozen and it’s going to be a process of trial and error to find the really good ones. If you have the time though, it’s worth the search to pick up new skills for free.

If your dreams of school are still in the distant future, it’s never too early to get started on your career path. To learn more about design and to decide if it’s right for you, find a mentor or a club. Part of the reason it took me so long to finally go to school for design is that I didn’t have anyone to look up to or to encourage me to do so. If I’d had a mentor, I feel that I would have been on the path much earlier. If you have an art teacher, friend or maybe a contact at a local agency that can answer your questions and help you navigate the profession, it will make a world of difference. If that’s not an option, make AIGA your new best friend. It has an overwhelming amount of useful information related to design and is constantly being updated with fresh content.

With a little bit of research, a dash of talent and a lot of hard work, you’ll be well on your way to a hugely rewarding career in design.

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