How to get started in graphics design?

Discussion in 'Design and Graphics' started by whiteangel, Aug 18, 2005.

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  1. macrumors regular

    I am not sure if this is the correct place to post, but here goes...

    I have a degree in software engineering, and am now finishing up the thesis for my masters in 'Computational methods and imaging in medicine'. Basically just a course that combines computer science and medicine. My supervisor is currently trying to find funding for me to do a phd in medical imaging, but as I am writing my thesis now I find it awfully boring and not fun at all. I am totally bored of my research project as well.

    So I am back to square one about what I want to do in life. I can always be a software engineering, do a phd and try to do research in some big drug companies, or I could do something that I always am intrigued and interested in but never had a chance to learn or try, and that is graphics design!

    I love computers and technology stuff. I spend the time I should be researching my thesis scouring the net for wallpapers, and themes and everything else. I try to make my own simple wallpapers with photoshop from the simple tutorials I found on the web. But I really really really wish to be able to create my own work, and I don't know how ! I don't know how do people make those beautiful icons, those beautiful drawings that don't seem to be hand drawn. You must also know that I can't really draw ... :( I can copy .... but I can't draw my own cartoon characters.... or maybe I never sat down to do it as I always felt I should spend my time on my work....however inefficiently I do my work..

    So erm... to cut a long story short, I want to try my hand in graphics and I wish to know where to start. Hopefully I may be good enough one day to do it for a living, or I could just do it for fun and do something not so fun for money.

    How did you guys learn how to draw and make those nice wallpapers, icons and pictures? Can you please please please enlighten me, and solve this mystery of my life. I always felt that people who could do those things are from a different planet from me...... and I am not stupid I think...

    Please tell me how to get started..... please please please

    thank you very much in advance ! :D
    ( you can also suggest what I should do next in life.... go work as an IT consultant, software engineer or go into research and hopefully save lives from my research... all of which don't seem to be super fun to me just things that I can do)
  2. macrumors regular

    anyone with good books to recommend? online tutorials? short courses in the UK, manchester area?

    Thanks in advance! :)

    Really want to look into this after my thesis is handed in.
  3. macrumors G5


    OK, this is a really brutal opinion that is completely uninformed about youand your personal situation.

    If you don't have a natural aptitude for drawing, if you don't 'intuitively' know that certain arrangement of objects are more pleasing to the eye (do you spontaneously rearrange place settings at tables, furniture, pictures on walls?), if your childhood wasn't filled with a compulsive need to draw or paint or sculpt, if you have no background in art, if you have never cut a magazine apart in order to rearange the advertisements so that they 'work' better... give it up.

    Graphic design is an art form, not a technical skill. Yes, you can take a 2 year course in design, and learn the rules. But the courses cannot teach the "eye" for design. It's NOT like programming, where the logical process leads to a 'best' solution. Many of my clients are graphic designers, and teachers in design schools. They will tell me privately that 1/4 to 1/2 of their students will never have a career in design because although they passed all of the course requirements, they just don't have 'it' - the visual sensibility and creativity to make a compelling communication concept out of their imagination. Schools are cranking out 'designers' by the 1000's. Many of them will starve - because the choices are freelancing (which you don't eat until you pound the pavement and sell your services to clients) or working as a worker bee in an agency or newspaper for $12 - 16 an hour. A minority of them will be good enough to eventually make a name for themselves as a senior graphic designer.

    I know, I have had the computer skills for 17 years, I can make Photoshop sing and dance, I teach the programs, and I would never, never describe myself as a designer. I am a technician, not an artist.

    If you have the visual flair, the aptitude and a burning desire to create, if you are willing to get the education, build a portfolio of work, and promote your services to potential clients and employers relentlessly to get work, work well under high responsibility and short deadlines, with often unreasonable customers, have an ego that's big enough to know you can do it, and humble enough to accept that 80% of your best ideas are going to get rejected, can survive 18 hour days then weeks at a time with no income, then graphic design can be very rewarding.
  4. macrumors 6502

    You should check out the Arts room at Deansgate Waterstones. They have a lot of good design books. Magma on Oldham Street too. That could inspire you to create something of your own, or turn you off the idea when you see how good some of the pros really are.
    Are you sure you want to turn your back on your studies/research? Seems like maybe a year off could give you a new perspective on a valuable and respected career. And graphics/web design can be a great way of spending your spare time, instead of trying to get a start in a VERY crowded marketplace.
  5. macrumors 6502


    Graphic design as a hobby for a few years.

    Stick with your education. Finish it. It may feel like drudgery now, but you've jumped through a lot of hoops so far. Why not finish what you started. Especially before jumping down a completely different — some would say opposing — career path.

    That said, graphic design doesn't have to be completely out for you. Once you're pulling in income with your new degree, or in your spare time before then, invest in several industry-standard design programs. Start with Illustrator and Photoshop and master them. Them move on to InDesign or Quark Xpress if you're more interested in print work, HTML, Javascript, CSS and Flash if Web design's your thing. Buy Lightwave if you're feeling brave.

    Get the basic concepts from the software manuals — not some book you get from Book-A-Million. Read the entire manual (or online help files), cover to cover. Make it your bathroom reading. Even if you don't have the skills to pull a technique off, know that it is possible.

    In the meantime, start experimenting. Create things. Rip off other people's ideas. (R&D in design stands for "Rip-off and Duplicate".) Shamelessly copy. Then start putting different ideas together into your own "thing." After you've been doing this in a vacuum for a while, start posting you best work to established *fill-in-name-of-program-here* forums asking for honest feedback. You will get brutal responses. Make corrections as requested, based on the best suggestions. Don't get mad at their response, just keep posting updates.

    After a year or so (if you've not been turned off by 100,000 critics), you'll realize that you have the beginnings of a style and a small bag of tricks that you can pull off consistently.

    Now it's time to start mining the Web for tutorials and bookstores for tips and tricks books. Before, these things were useless to you because you didn't know the programs and didn't know what you would do with them had you known them in the first place. Now, they can help you save time or tighten you individual style.

    I'm not too fond of formal graphic design schools for a non-designer. As posted above, you can learn the "rules," but that doesn't guarantee that you'll actually be able to design once you get out. That's because, while you shouldn't break the rules, they seldom apply. I know that sounds contradictory, but any designer knows exactly what I mean. The trick of good design is knowing when to enforce the rules, when to let them slide, and, most importantly, when to spank them with impunity.

    The best way to learn this is through interaction with other designers and by listening carefully to ordinary people's reaction to you work.

    Remember, graphic design is not about art. It's about communication. No matter how artfully done an artist's work is, it's not good graphic communication unless the intended audience "gets" it quickly and completely.

    For me, as a newspaper designer (thankfully getting well over $16 per hour), that means I do almost zero avant-guard design. My audience wouldn't understand. But for a designer that does, say, rock posters, out-there design is a matter of course.

    So, that's the final component to being a graphic designer. Communication. Once you have your own style, skills to pull that style off, and a feeling of the rules to guide you, you reach the watershed of graphic design. Does it work? Unfortunately, you're not going to get to the place where you (or you critics) can make that determination for at least a couple of years — and that's if your diligent in your efforts.

    So, don't quit your day job. You're almost there, at least in context with the total scope of your life. If graphic design is really your thing, it will be there for you when you're ready. And, really, it's quite rewarding, at least for me.

    But if it turns out not to be your thing, wouldn't it suck to have lost the momentum you've already gathered on your current path?

    Hope this helps. s.n.goat

    EDIT: On second thought, I thought I'd point out that graphic design is a discipline every bit as complex as your current one. If I posted asking how I, as a graphic journalist, could pick up some tips and tricks on Web sites or in a few seminars that would allow me to write cool programs like Photoshop and do back ends for Web sites, what would you tell me? Then I added that I couldn't write a good geometric proof, but I could follow the logic when it was presented to me.

    Most likely that there is a lot more to application design that I was aware of.

    It sounds like you're looking at some photoshop work and saying to yourself, "I could do that. And possibly get paid. @%$&, that sounds so much easier than what I'm doing right now. I should try that."
  6. macrumors G3

    Sorry but I'm going to have to totally disagree with you there. Design is very much a technical skill.
  7. Moderator emeritus


    The 'art' side also needs the technical skill, discipline and training to create something, otherwise you don't know how to get from idea to final product.

    Much like if I picked up a violin and tried knocking out Shostakovich's Violin Concerto in A minor.
  8. macrumors 6502


    I agree. My analogy is with language.

    Grammar = Basic rules of design
    Vocabulary = Skill
    Style = Art
    Story craft = Fine art

    You have to know grammar and vocabulary to even think about being a good communicator. But you won't be very effective unless you develop your own style and learn how to craft your words into interesting, captivating thoughts.
  9. macrumors 6502

    My suggestion is similar to that of the NinjaGoat.

    There are a lot of design snobs out there (myself included) who are going to tell you that you are not going to photoshop your way into being a good designer. That's true.

    But don't let yourself get caught up in the never-ending debate about what is design, what isn't design, art or not art, skill or talent, trade or career. It's all fruitless. If you let yourself get caught up in that you'll kill yourself.

    However, what I got out of your post is that you want to learn how to do cool stuff with graphics programs. That career path is different and known stateside as pre-press or production positions. These are the careers that most 2 year schools end up doing. On the whole Design Snobs tend to look down on these "photoshop monkeys" or "pixel pushers" because a vast majority of them can't create a solid design to save their life. However, they can (and frequently do) take a concept and make it look exactly like the designer wanted. There are tons of folks who derive their satisfaction from that aspect of the art / design / advertising field. From what I read, THAT is what seems really cool to you. And honestly, who cares if it's design?

    Good news: you can learn a lot of that from books, online tutorials and a lot of hard work and experimentation with the programs.

    Bad News: The software is cripplingly expensive.

    1. Get a job in your current field of expertise. It's got to pay more than design anyway.

    2. Download all the trial versions of software you can. Don't download them all at once because you'll never get around to playing with all of them in the same 30 days.

    3. Decide which one of those programs you really love using and helps produce the stuff you love. (Photoshop, Maya, other 3d program, video, flash, whatever)

    4. Insanity check. If after doing this for about two months you don't find yourself mentally checking out of your current job and thinking all day and night about what cool project you can work on when you get home, then you should consider ending this portion of your life. If every single day, you can't wait to go home and create something new, continue to step 5.

    5. Pick one or two of your favorite programs and purchase full versions of them.

    6. Become an absolute master of these two programs.

    7. Make sure that you FINISH projects down to every last detail. That seperates the wheat from the chaff in the design world. Details. If you're hating the details, then stop. This is not for you.

    8. Once you have built 3-4 things that you're really proud of, put up a web site and begin posting on design forums for critique. Get a box of tissue b/c this part will not be fun. Ignore the praise. Seek out the critics. Take their crits to heart and make your work better. If having people point out every flaw in your work defeats you, then stop now. This is not for you.

    9. After about a year of this, you should have a pretty good idea if you really have the passion for it or not. THEN decide if a career change is for you. It's possible to do this type of work 'on the side' and bring in extra cash etc.

    10. Expand your program base by one. Master this third program and continue. There's a lot more work out there for masters of certain programs than there is for mediocre users of all 10.
  10. macrumors regular

    Wow ! I am very very thankful for all your replies! Based on everything that I've read, I think that you guys are right, I shouldn't stop what I am doing and try to go into another field that I honestly know nothing about. I do know that it is every bit as complex as whatever I am doing.

    What my mentality on graphics is that I always thought that it was something cool to be able to do, something I envied about other people. I will take all your advice and try experimenting with either photoshop or illustrator ( I think I will go with Illustrator first as I want to draw things and make my own cutesy characters ). I seriously do not think that thinking of new ideas everyday is an easy job, in fact I think that it is much harder than coding. I do not think that I am capable of such a task as yet, but maybe just maybe a few years down the road I can have my own comic or portfolio of stuff that I like. Even if I don't make a cent out of it, even if I have to use my future hard earned money to buy the tools required for it, if I can produce things that make me happy I think it is well worth it. :p

    I was also thinking that the basic skills that I pick up from learning graphics could maybe also help with my job in future, lets say I end up having to set up a website, I could try my hand at doing the graphics for the site myself and get a great sense of satisfaction out of it if it turns out nice.

    So another question, somehow I got the idea that if I want to draw things on the computer I should use Illustrator, and if I can do that well then I can go on to photoshop to make them look nicer. Am I getting the correct gist here? As sometimes I get the impression that people draw with photoshop instead... I get very confused what this two programs do. So if I want to try drawing cute characters for my own pleasure and experimentation, then color them and make them into nice wallpapers, which program do I start off with first?

    As I am supposed to be rushing my thesis now, I can't go and check out Waterstones just yet, but rest assured that is the first thing I do the moment I hand the dreaded thesis in.

    Another question :eek: if I want to draw things, is it easier to use the circles and tools provided in the program and try to make a drawing based on circles and rectangles (something I feel is quite hard), or is it easier to draw them on paper and scan them in/trace them with a table ?

    Another thing... for those with tablets as I don't have one, if you trace something, and lets say the ear of the bear is dented, can I correct it using the program easily and make it into a nice perfect curve?

    I hope that you can understand that all this is really out of interest, whether I make money out of it doesn't matter, I can always get a job in what I am doing right now and just do this in my free time. I hope one day i get good enough to set up my own site as suggested by FlamDrag.

    Ooo can't wait to finish my thesis and get started with this ! :D

    Once again, thank you all so so much for your advice. You made me realize that it is not practical to think I can go and take a course and get into graphics design. Saved me from a big career mistake!

    Oh and I never thought that it was easy to do and wanted to be paid doing it. I just thought it will be rewarding and satisfying (and fun!) than what I am most probably going to end up doing..... developing systems for clients and maintaining software... or staring at matlab looking at the grey levels of mr images of the prostate.
  11. macrumors 6502


    I'm glad that you are continuing your thesis. Sorry for the harsh tone in the edit in my previous post. In my head, it didn't sound so … mean.

    See above comment. Again, sorry :eek: . I think this sounds much more reasonable. And it sounds like you're looking at the enjoyment angle. That's good, 'cause it's fun.

    Google "raster vector art" (no quotes). This will give you a lot of your answers as to which programs do which types of art. In general, raster (photoshop) is best for continuous-tone images like photographs and paintings. Vector (illustrator) is resolution independent and more scaleable, and is better suited to crisp artwork, diagrams and logos. There are many exceptions, and the current versions of the programs blur the lines more than a little bit.

    Only rarely should you be combining circle and squares to create organic shapes. I typically draw from scratch right in the program, but you can trace over scanned images with the pen tool and make them look great. Not sure about the table thing you're talking about.

    Short answer: yes, you can do what you're asking in Photoshop and Illustrator. But I'd learn the pen tool first. It's the most important skill in graphic design.

    The prostate thing could be cool. :) Seriously though, if you got some photoshop and illustrator skills and combined them with you knowledge of programming, you could have a kick @$$ small business. Mom and pop stores eat that stuff up. If you could give them a cool site that helps them integrate their inventory, pricing, shopping and business functions, you could make a killing.
  12. macrumors 68020


    Interesting thoughtful responses...

    Good designers and illustrators have an innate talent that can't be learned, but in this age of computer design programs and clip art, there are plenty of talentless designers making a living selling their work to people and companies that have no idea what good design is. Besides, the ability to market yourself will get you much further than talent alone. It wasn't so long ago that it was programmers designing web-sites; until design friendly programs like Dreamweaver and GoLive came about.

    In the U.S., we have the misconception that good design is subjective, as in "If I like it, then it's good to me". That school of thought has given us the Pontiac Aztek, Windows of any version, and just about any mp3 player out there other than the iPod. If you've ever been to Europe or Japan, you'd note that good design can be applied to anything, not just cars, coffee makers, and the Michael Graves section at Target.

    Many people go into design because they see it as fun and easy, which it can be, but it's not always fun and easy to make a living out of it. Competition for the good paying jobs is fierce and there are plenty of talented designers who end up working in other fields. If design is your calling, you have a good eye and are willing to fight against mediocrity, then dive in full hilt and take some business classes along the way. An alternative is to finish your education and design as a hobby, building a modest portfolio from inexpensive work you've done for friends and yourself, making a little cash on the side.

    Whatever you do, good luck! - j
  13. macrumors G5


    Absolutely; design requires a high degree of technical skill.

    Good design also requires much more than merely technical skill.

    Otherwise, you end up with extremely well-technically-produced bad design. Or as others have put it, "polishing a turd"

    Edit-- OK, I see another side -- if you are working in an agency and the art director comes up with all the concepts, and lays out instructions for the production people to execute in the software, then the production person needs to be very good technically but doesn't need the conceptual imagination or the creative flair. But I wouldn't call them a graphic designer. I'd call them a technician working in the graphic field.
  14. Lau

    This sounds like a good idea to me. I have known people who start off pretty clueless, but because they have that 'spark' and do a lot of hard work in their own time, they are now some of the most talented people I know. But then there's others who work hard, but just don't have it. And there's others who are too lazy, talent or otherwise.

    I say teach yourself some skills, and start designing some of your own stuff, and your commitment and progress will tell you how 'good' you are, and whether you should pursue it further. You might be amazed how much you can learn in a short while. And you're right about thinking it will be useful for web design - even if you end up hiring a logo designer for a really professional site, you'll still know whether what he or she is doing is good or not, because you understand it. If you have to work with people, it's good to know their skill. Same reason it's handy for graphic designers to know a little bit of web design, even if it's just to tell if someone's done good work for you.

    Oh, and read loads about graphics. Even if it means going to Borders or similar and treating it like a library. This is something I excel at :D

    But if you enjoy it, keep on enjoying it, whether you're any good or not. It always makes me sad when people say "I'm so unartistic, so I don't do art even though I enjoy it" or similar about music, etc, because there's nothing wrong with doing it badly! If it's a hobby, just enjoy it, you don't have to be fantastic.
  15. macrumors regular

    Thanks alot for all that valuable information. And 'table' was a spelling error I meant a tablet. If it is easier to trace with a tablet and then fill in the colours.
    Wow I definitely want to start with vector graphics I think, so I can make them big and small as I like. I also checked them up on google, so now I know what formats to save them in. I also went to check out the pen tool, I think it is hard to use it to trace ( I can see that needs alot of patience), but I can also see how I can use it to draw simple things, although my cat's head looked fat on one side and thin on the other. So just more practice should do it ! This is so fun and interesting !

    I never knew what the pen tool was, I kept thinking it as the brush tool ... couldn't understand how people drew freehand with a mouse ... now I learn something new ! :D
  16. macrumors G3

    They're called Mac Monkey's. ;) or as I call them Work Placements. hahahaha. :p
  17. macrumors regular

    Is that the guy referred to as the 'Mac guy' in the apprentice by Sir Alan Sugar?
    hehehe wonder why they call them mac guys.... I don't think that guy was using a mac though .... :confused:
  18. macrumors G3

    Yep, much easier. ;)

    The whole notion of a designer using a mouse just ain't right. :eek: :p
  19. macrumors 68020


    They still need a good sense of balance and placement if you want the piece to be "finished".

    I work in a recruitment ad agency on the creative end. The production department is where our work goes to die a slow, unnuanced death; graphics are squashed and stretched, custom kerning is lost, and the sense of a design "working" goes right out the window... It pays the bills. :rolleyes:
  20. macrumors 6502


    Glad to help. I love the pen, and it moves (relatively easily) across most graphics programs and platforms. One thing I try to remember when drawing with the pen is that the drar-bar-line-thingie that you use to draw curves with is always tangent to the curve you are creating. The further you drag this line from the center point on the line, the stronger the curve becomes. As you look at tutorials on the pen tool, keep this in mind.

    Also, try to draw shapes with as few points as possible. Using the pen tool is like an exercise in fuzzy calculus. Except more zen.

    As practice, use the brush tool to draw random curvy lines in PS. Then use the pen tool to trace them as precisely as possible and with as few points as possible.

    Also, look into the paths pallet. You can have multiple paths going at the same time.

    Once you get Illustrator, you'll have lots more options.
  21. macrumors G3

    I didn't watch it. :eek:

    Basically they're the chumps that know how the software functions and that's about it. Mac Monkeys are more of a print design phenomena, you don't really get them outside of that.

    Back in the day, they used to be known as Mac Operators, but that sounded far to fancy for doing nothing other than knowing which buttons to click. :p
  22. macrumors 68040


    Yeah I've gotta agree with most of what's been said here. I'm very much at the bottom of the graphic design heap right now, it's such a competative field and making a name for yourself is hard. I've been out of school for just over a year now and I still don't think I've got even a solid footing career wise.
    Yeah I've got a job but I also spent 5 months firing off resumes. Eventually I ended up re-locating to accept a job.
  23. macrumors regular

    So what tool in illustrator do I use to trace with the tablet? Brush tool or the pen tool?

    Also is it easier to draw straight from the tablet as opposed to using the pen tool with a mouse?

    (I like getting to use new fancy gadgets :eek: )
  24. Moderator emeritus

    I know I'm just a bear with a little brain but I just can't imagine laying out a publication in QuarkXpress with a tablet, somehow.
  25. macrumors regular

    Seems to me like the graphics industry is very tough, I guess there isn't many fields nowadays that aren't tough right ;)

    I'll just do it for fun then and hopefully be able to get to a stage where I can share my work with everyone. :D

    And for Illustrator, how much better is CS2 as compared to CS ? Is it A LOT better and will make it easier for me to learn? Or will it not matter to me at all since I won't need all the pro stuff, just simple tools to get simple things done.
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