How to get into design without a degree

A design degree can seem like the best and safest option to kickstart a career in graphic designer, providing both a foundation in skills theory and the relevant qualifications needed to get a job. But it's not the only route into the industry. In fact, many junior designer roles are hired based on portfolio and experience as much as qualifications.

Studying for a design degree isn’t without its own challenge and negative sides either – not least the fact it will take up three to four years of your life and cost quite a substantial amount of money.

So here are 10 things you can do if you find out (or decide) you're not going to be studying design at college or university, to make sure your dream still happens.

01. Take time to specialise

Logo design skill are always in demand

Graphic design is a broad industry that encompasses many specialities. While a graphic design degree may set you up with a foundation in the theory of many of these areas, if you don't go down the degree route, you can focus your attentions on a specific niche or specialty. 

Developing a deeper knowledge of a specific skillset could give you a competitive advantage when it comes to applying for jobs.

Logo design is one area that is always in high demand and suits those who enjoy the communication theory behind consumer behaviour. If your personal interests lie more in tech than pencil and paper, then mobile app and website design are two other niches where a specialisation could set you up for success. 

Attending local hackathon or startup events is a great way to get some valuable experience in this side of the industry.

02. Master the software

Photoshop skills are pretty much essential for graphic designers

Whether you enjoy it or not, you can’t fully escape technology in the professional design world – so it’s a good idea to start mastering it now. Even designers who prefer to work in traditional materials will often have to use online systems to make digital copies or work on project edits remotely.

Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator are the two obvious software choices (as well as InDesign for those who plan to work in print). A strong understanding of one or both is a real asset when a design degree is missing. 

Luckily, there are ways to self-teach or learn online when it comes to both. PSDTuts and TutsPlus offer some of the most popular in-depth tutorials, but there are many more to choose from. Take a look at our roundup of Photoshop tutorials to get started.

03. Invest in the tools

Invest in a good laptop

Your computer and its software will be two of the key components of your professional graphic design work, regardless of whether your do a degree or not. Software like Photoshop can require significant speed and space from an operating system, so it’s a good idea to invest in an up-to-date computer. 

The biggest challenge tends to be choosing between a PC or Mac. Mac is most commonly used among professionals and in design agencies, but the purchase ultimately comes down to budget and personal choice – take a look at our guide to the best laptops for graphic design to start making your choice. 

04. Learn how to write

OK, this might seem off topic, but a designer’s job is about more than looking after the pictures or making things look aesthetically good. A great designer will also have some skill with copywriting, and understands that good design is about the correlation between imagery, colours and language.

There are plenty of online blogs and traditional design books dedicated to writing for design so get to know the basics and try replacing that 'Lorem Ipsum' text in your next design drafts. Take a look at our 10 tips for starting a blog.

05. Develop your style

Style can often be the differentiating factor in becoming a successful graphic designer, whether that means securing an in-house role or building your own freelance business. Of course your own personal preference will take time to come to the fore, as you practice with different styles. 

However, when you do start to find your style groove – that area where what you’re best at meets what you prefer to work on – that’s the time to start honing it. A good way to practice your style is to take other people’s work and recreate it as your own version. Then you can move on to creating projects from scratch in your style.

06. Build an online portfolio

A great online portfolio is essential to getting your name out

While this article explains the many ways you don’t necessarily need a degree to work in graphic design, one thing there is no workaround for is the need for a design portfolio. It can feel frustrating building a portfolio from scratch, without the educational projects or work experience to fill it.

One way to show both design theory and showcase your designs at the same time is to take poorly designed logos, websites or posters, and place them beside your own, improved versions. Then you can explain the issues and why your design is more effective. Just remember to keep only your best work for the portfolio showcase, and clearly state that it's an unsolicited redesign.

As for whether your portfolio should be in paper form or online again, is a personal decision, however you would be advised to put some 'shop front' on the internet, even if it’s only a selection of your work. A huge amount of networking and inspiration in the industry comes from online sites like Dribble and Behance and a website is an easy business card to reach a marketplace of millions.

07. Get to grips with user experience

User experience in design (often referred to as UX) is the process of creating products that have been designed with both usability and user pleasure in mind. That means it incorporates elements of branding and design as much as practical usability and function.

This is an important area for designers to understand, as they will often be designing graphically alongside web designers or app builders for example, who will expect the designs to reflect important concepts like designing for screen, eliciting emotional responses and ease of use.

08. Learn the business of design

Graphic design is a creative job, but like all professions it operates within a business environment. That means there are skills you can bring to a role in the industry that lie outside the theoretical or practical teachings of a degree course. 

Skills like client negotiations, designing to briefs or writing business development proposals, as well as learning how design work is costed, how the time is tracked or the elements that go into design contracts. 

A lot of this can be learned online by reading design blogs and by keeping up to date with the latest advice for people who work creatively with clients. Take a look at our career articles

09. Don’t forget the theory

Principles like colour theory underpin great graphic design work

All of this practical experience and industry research will go a long way to helping you compete with design degree graduates. However, it would be foolish to think that not studying a degree means ignoring theory altogether. 

Understanding design principles remains important and many of them can be self-taught through reading and research. You can break the theories down into categories and start small, with colour theory for example. Or you could look to a more structured course such as the TutsPlus graphic design self-study course.

10. Get a job as a designer

In order to take your own knowledge, skills and portfolio to the next level, it will eventually become necessary for you to gain real world work experience. This may seem like a chicken and egg scenario (a job without experience, experience without a job) but there are creative ways to find these opportunities, even at the early stage of your career.

Researching companies you may be interested in working for, connecting with people through networking sites like LinkedIn, pitching for internships or mentoring, are all ways of getting noticed and gaining industry experience. But there are many more.

Similarly, there are online jobs boards where you could pitch for freelance projects, such as Fiverr or Upwork, and there is always the option to pitch a project yourself to a voluntary organisation, a friend’s business or a local shop.

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