My design story + tips for learning about design on your own time | Ballast Notes

Welcome to Ballast Notes, a new venture from Anchored Creative Studio! Ballast Notes are different resources for nonprofits and small businesses looking to DIY their brand, new graphic designers looking to learn more about freelance skills, and more. To start out the Ballast Notes blog, I'll provide some insight into my design background, and some tips on how to jump start your own design career or learn new skills on your own time. 

How I became a graphic designer

To start off my very first Ballast Notes Blog entry, I want to talk a little bit about my graphic design journey. Most people I talk to who work outside of the design field assume that design is a difficult career to break into, that you need a ton of formal schooling in it, and that you need to be a fine artist to be designer - none of which are true. Graphic designers come from all sorts of background and walks of life, and my story is a testament to that. 

As you probably guessed, I didn't start off my career as a graphic designer. As a child, I wasn't particularly gifted in art or computers, and really didn't have a particular grasp on what a graphic designer even did until I was well into college. I steered more toward English and writing, and joined in the newspaper staff in high school. I loved writing articles, but ended up as the Photography Editor my senior year, editing photos in Photoshop and placing them in the newspaper pages in InDesign. I was also in AP Art History to fulfill my arts requirement (I'm being serious when I say the fine arts were not my jam), and loved learning about art theory. When I graduated and went off to college, I initially enrolled as a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in Art History student, thinking I might figure out how to work all these interests together.

As it turns out, I went to my first general BFA meeting in college and was completely intimidated. I was surrounded by incredibly gifted artists, and immediately felt like I didn't belong. Although I'd been reading about a major called "visual communication design" and wanted to learn more about it, this initial meeting completely freaked me out by the sheer number of drawing, painting, and sculpture classes every BFA student was required to take. I ended up completely changing my major to a BA in Journalism, and ended up double majoring in Political Science down the road, abandoning my idea to work the arts into my future career, thinking this would be a more practical route. 

 It me! At the Yellow Conference in August 2016, just a few months after launching Anchored Creative Studio

It me! At the Yellow Conference in August 2016, just a few months after launching Anchored Creative Studio

After graduating from college, I struggled a bit to find a path. I ended up lucking into a temporary full time position with a small nonprofit, working in marketing communications. I excelled at writing, which always came naturally to me, and loved being able to work with and help spread the stories of the small companies this nonprofit represented. I hopped around a few more full-time jobs over the next couple of years, never really finding the exact right fit. I was very good at the marketing communications jobs I was working at, but was never really in love with any of them. When I was working as a marketing manager at a school, I started tinkering more with design, making basic website banners and a brand book for teachers to use. I slowly started to realize that not only was I interested in pursuing graphic design as a possible career change, but that I wanted to move into a position where I was no longer working full-time at one company, but as a freelancer and entrepreneur. 

Over the following year, I started taking a few basic online classes as well as testing my design skills on my own time, eventually taking on a few small design projects for friends. I ended up launching Anchored Creative Studio in May 2016, as a studio to help nonprofits and small businesses define their own brand. I feel like I've been able to not only truly find a career field that I love, but has also helped me find an entrepreneurial spirit inside me that I hadn't tapped into before.

Obviously, I took a bit of a roundabout path to finding my passion. I don't regret it a bit, because it gave me a lot of perspective about what I love doing, but there are a few tips I would give anyone who is looking to make graphic design into their full or part-time career

1. Educate yourself on what exactly a graphic designer does. 

If you have a graphic designer friend, ask if you can grab coffee and learn about what they do on an average day, or ask to shadow them for a few hours. Because graphic design requires a lot of technical skills, it can sometimes be a difficult career to fully understand what's done by a designer on a day-to-day basis. The biggest misconception about graphic designers is that we are artists. Much like how a journalist is a writer that has a lot of rules to their writing, graphic designers are a certain type of artist. I didn't go to school for graphic design in college because I was too intimidated by the fine arts requirements. Although I know now that I could have succeeded at those courses with a lot of hard work, for an 18-year-old who never got higher than a B in high school art class, it was easy to be intimidated. Although you definitely need to have an artistic eye and a technical understanding of color theory, you absolutely do not have to be a great fine artist in order to be a great designer.

Since the majority of the best graphic design undergraduate degrees are BFA programs, this is a little bit of a controversial statement. And although I definitely think a college degree in design will give you a great base to becoming a designer, it's not completely necessary. My background in marketing and writing has been a great asset to me, especially as a business owner. Unless you're working at a large corporation or agency, you will likely still need to write some copy, communicate with clients, and explain your creative vision to your superiors and/or clients. In my experience, it is just as important to learn this practical skills in addition to the technical design expertise.

2. Practice. Design is a process. 

Even more important than artistic and practical skills are the technical skills that come along with graphic design. You will need to know the ins and out of the Adobe programs (Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign being the most popular and common), which you'll be using for the vast majority of all of the actual designing you will do. All of these programs are pretty intimidating when you first start using them, but don't forget that everyone had to start somewhere.

To anyone beginning their design journey, I would recommend downloading the 30-day trial of each of these at different times and simply playing around with the programs. The biggest mistake I made in the beginning of my graphic design career was assuming I'd be able to easily tackle these programs and learn everything I needed to know quickly. In reality, I'm nearly 10 years into using InDesign and still finding out new ways to use it.

All-in-all, you'll need to learn these programs in order to be a professional-level designer not only because of the file types, but because of the vast amount of customization they can achieve. I'll talk about this more in a future Ballast Notes blog, but the Adobe programs are basically a blank slate for the design you're looking to create. Because of that, there's a bigger learning curve to InDesign than Microsoft Word, for example. The the ability to customize opens up the door to create basically any sort of design that you want to, which is amazing - but intimidating, too! 

3. If you don't know how to do something, look it up and find a good tutorial.

YouTube was legitimately my biggest asset when I started my design career. Even several years into being a professional graphic designer, I still have to YouTube specific Adobe shortcuts I've never done before, or will use the Internet to brush up on a design action I haven't made in awhile. 

If you're not looking for a skill for a specific project, turn to the Internet for tutorials on new design skills that interest you. There's always more to learn, and there's great tutorials for free or inexpensive all around the web. Skillshare is one of my favorite resources, and I'll list out a few more next week.

Next week, I'll be continuing this series with a list of some of my favorite educational resources for learning the Adobe programs and other design skills on your own! Stay tuned! 

Have any questions about my design story or tips for learning on your own time? Drop your questions in the comments below. 

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