Graphic design is everywhere you look on packaging, book covers, movie posters, websites, and more. It can be a rewarding, engaging line of work, a valuable skill for different types of jobs, or a hobby. Universities offer graphic design degrees, but many people are learning graphic design online on their own through tutorials and courses. With commitment, practice, and the right resources, it’s very possible to become very good at graphic design and go on to have a successful career. How long does it take to learn graphic design this way?
When you’re starting with the fundamentals, learning graphic design can take a few months. As you dig deeper into design software and specializations, it can take weeks or months depending on what you’re focusing on. Gaining more advanced graphic design skills in areas like coding and UI/UX typically takes less than a year, though it depends on what resources you’re using.
What is graphic design?
Graphic design is the use of visuals (images, texts, patterns, etc) for communication. It’s a wide field encompassing areas like web design, publication (books, magazines), and marketing and advertising. It includes arranging and creating fonts, illustrating food packaging, working on book layouts, and designing eye-popping websites. Graphic design is considered unique from other art in that it tends to focus on business and marketing. It’s commercial rather than personal.
Canva outlines a brief history of graphic design, which includes the lithography of the Industrial Revolution. Lithography was a method of printing that let people easily create striking ads for posters for products and events. Modern graphic design, however, is credited to the Bauhaus school in Germany. The school’s style combined minimalism, shapes, and typefaces. In the 1990s, graphic designs went digital, forever transforming the craft’s methods and reach. Photoshop launched in 1990 and remains very popular. With new tools like the ones offered by Canva and other resources, it’s easier than ever to learn graphic design.
How long it takes to get comfortable with the basics – learning the fundamentals and completing a few projects
Even if you have a specific area of graphic design you want to pursue, you’ll need to spend a few months learning the basics. It’s possible to teach yourself with a few tools, but there are also boot camps that provide a more intensive, comprehensive education. You get a taste of what a 4-year degree program would offer, but in much less time for much less cost. The American Graphics Institute offers an in-person and online 100-hour boot camp. If you take it full-time, you can complete the camp in 4 weeks. For those with busier schedules, a flexible part-time option with at least two days per month is available. On Coursera, CalArts also offers a 15-hour Fundamentals of Graphic Design as part of their graphic design specialization.
As a beginner, you’ll want to do more than just take a course or complete a boot camp. You’ll want to practice what you’ve learned and experiment with typography, patterns, and other design principles. These early projects may not end up in your portfolio, but they’ll teach you valuable lessons.
How long it takes to reach an intermediate graphic design level – getting more comfortable with software and specializations
Because graphic design resources (like templates) are so accessible these days, it’s fairly easy to master basic graphic design skills. To reach a more intermediate level, however, you’ll be working more extensively with software applications like Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, and more. Hackographic says Photoshop can take 2-3 months to master. According to AAlofts Design, mastering Illustrator can take 6-7 months with regular practice. The site also gives a timeline for Adobe’s publication application InDesign, saying it can take 2+ years to get confident with the program’s ins and outs.
At an intermediate level, you’ll also spend more time on specializations. As an example, many graphic designers are well-versed in typography, which focuses on text layout, size, color, composition, and more. A course in typography (like this free one available from freeCodeCamp) may only take a few hours. At this point, the key is to practice as much as you can, build a portfolio, and keep educating yourself on trends and tools.
How long it takes to develop advanced graphic design skills – coding and UI/UX design
Want to build even more challenging skills and expand your design horizon? UI (user interface) designers work on machine and software interfaces like those found on phone apps. They think about color, imagery, typography, and more. You can learn things like design research, design development, and branding in around 10 weeks. UX (user experience) design is about the “feel” of a product and how customers interact with it. UX boot camps can last 2-10 months, though they’re often expensive. You can teach yourself, but expect it to take 1-2 years.
Why learn graphic design?
Graphic design is an interesting, fulfilling career many people are interested in pursuing. Why? Here are three main reasons:
#1. It’s become easier to learn graphic design online
Just type “graphic design online” into your browser and you’ll find seemingly countless resources on every aspect of graphic design. That includes intensive boot camps, courses, articles, videos, and much more. Best of all, you can gain a lot of skills before you need to spend money. Before the internet, you probably would have needed to get a degree in graphic design, but now, it’s very possible to master many skills almost completely on your own schedule and for free.
#2. Many graphic designers get to work from home
Most graphic designers only need a computer, tablet, and/or laptop to get their work done, so many of them can work anywhere they want to. This makes graphic design a dream job for many people, especially as remote work becomes more popular and employees start hunting for jobs that let them stay out of an office. If you’re currently in a career where remote work is hard to come by and you’re a creative person, a switch to graphic design might be worth considering.
#3. Graphic design is a creative job that pays a decent salary
There’s a stereotype about artistic jobs paying really poorly, but graphic designers can make a fine living. According to Glassdoor, graphic designers in the United States make an average of $50,121/year. The total pay goes up to $90,706. You can also supplement your income by selling Photoshop presets, website templates, fonts, tattoo designs, and more. Keep in mind that freelance graphic design, like all freelance work, can be financially unpredictable and stressful.
What skills do graphic designers need?
Graphic design involves a lot of skills, but here are three of the most important:
Skill #1: Storytelling
Graphic designers aren’t just creating something pretty to look at; they’re telling a story. This is important to remember because brands are all about communicating and drawing in an audience. There needs to be some kind of narrative or emotional hook. The best graphic designers know how to create visual stories.
Skill #2: Problem-solving
In many ways, graphic design is like a puzzle. You have a bunch of tools, images, and text at your disposal and you need to put them together in an exciting, attractive way. There’s a lot of trial-and-error, shifting things around, and trying weird things. You may make things worse before you make them better. Graphic designers with excellent problem-solving skills will enjoy this process.
Skill #3: Abstract thinking
More often than not, graphic designers start a project from scratch. They may have some keywords and themes to jump off from, but most of the work comes from their own imagination. The ability to picture a design before it’s created requires a lot of abstract thinking. Graphics designers also have to create designs that represent non-physical concepts, i.e. a company wants a logo that represents “perseverance.”
What tools do graphic designers need?
Graphic designers need access to a variety of tools, but here are three of the most essential:
Tool #1: A good notebook
Graphic designers should always carry a notebook (and writing utensil) with them in case inspiration strikes. The real world is full of interesting fonts, shapes, patterns, and more. Many people use a tablet most of the time, but a regular old notebook never loses battery and if you lose or damage it, you’re not losing something expensive.
Tool #2: Design applications
The Adobe Creative Cloud, which includes Photoshop and Illustrator, is still one of the go-to’s for designers, but other options may work better depending on your projects. Sketch is popular for iOS and web design, Affinity Designer is used for vector graphics, and Procreate is great for painting. There’s a variety of subscription, one-time payment, and free applications out there, so you have options depending on your budget.
Tool #3: A great portfolio
We can’t understate the importance of a great graphic design portfolio. Your portfolio is what gets you work; it’s your resume. Because it’s also a piece of art, it’s trickier than a traditional portfolio. You want to design it for the types of jobs you want, update it as you complete projects, and observe trends that make your portfolio stand out.
How to learn graphic design online
Learning graphic design isn’t too different from learning any new skill: start with the basics, build on your skills, and branch into more specialized, challenging areas. Because there are so many resources online for learning graphic design, time management and prioritization matters. You should make a plan for your learning goals, pick what you should focus on first, and figure out how much practice time you can dedicate each week. You may find that boot camps are the best way to learn quickly or you may want to take a more relaxed approach. The nice thing about learning graphic design online is its flexibility. You can learn from just about anywhere, focus on what you’re interested in, and start creating right away.