Can I Become a Graphic Designer Without a Degree?
Joey McDowell is an experienced writer and editor originally from the Dallas area. A firm believer in a well-balanced lifestyle, Joey applies this forward-thinking approach as the editor-in-chief of The Idea Trader. He travels extensively to find compelling stories and insightful individuals.
Short answer: yes. You can definitely become a graphic designer without a degree, especially since many graphic designers are hired on a freelance basis on the strength of past work.
But it takes a lot of work and a significant amount of practice to get to the point where you can seriously offer graphic design services.
By the end, you’ll have to consult many resources beyond this article, but the list below has some essential tips for how you can get started toward your professional graphic design career.
We also recommend consulting graphic design channels on YouTube, which can be an excellent way to find valuable tutorials and advice for more experienced designers.
So if you've been asking yourself, "Can I become a graphic designer without a degree?" read on.
If you don’t already have at least a small amount of design experience under your belt, it would be a good idea to first get acquainted with the design industry as a whole.
Podcasts like 99% Invisible have done an excellent job of introducing the general public to the core concepts of design, in many different forms.
But readily available info on graphic design doesn’t stop there.
You may also want to buy or rent a few books that cover the subject matter in-depth.
‘Designing Brand Identity’ has become popular with designers the world over for its intricate and compelling exploration of how to help a brand set itself apart.
‘How to Be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul,’ is another great inroad to the industry, especially given its blunt and honest examination of how difficult the profession can be.
Find Brands and Designers You Like
One artist’s particular style is actually the result of thousands of different influences that they’ve been accumulating throughout their lifetime.
That’s why you should go out of your way to look for specific designers and brands whose style and execution you admire.
Find some visual artists you admire as well, by reading articles like this one.
This can be a great source of inspiration for your own work, but it can also give you a better idea of what the current design trends are.
Learn the Software
While some high-tier designers make a point of working only with physical materials to create their work, many of us don’t have that luxury.
Being a graphic designer today means, at least in part, that you have to be a computer person.
Design software is the industry standard, there’s just no getting around it.
You may have already dipped your toes into programs like Photoshop in the past, but if you want to go pro, you’ll need to know many programs like the back of your hand.
Here are just a few programs that you should purchase immediately if you haven’t already.
The biggest and baddest program every graphic designer should know is Adobe Photoshop, but that goes without saying.
It’s a powerhouse program created by technicians who also worked special effects for the Star Wars movies.
Adobe Illustrator is a vector-based art program. It often works hand-in-hand with Photoshop and other Adobe programs.
The best part of learning the Adobe programs is that there are hundreds of tutorials online that teach you how to use each of them.
It takes more personal discipline to keep yourself on a consistent learning schedule for these complex programs.
But ultimately, the information you can learn from tutorials like these is the same information you would be learning as part of pursuing a formal graphic design degree.
You can skip the video editors if you want, but it never hurts to have those skills in your back pocket, either.
Purchase a Tablet
While smart tablets have become popular for those looking for more screen space than their smartphone, digital drawing tablets are dedicated to just one purpose.
These tablets allow you to draw directly in design programs, the same way you would draw on paper.
They can also be a helpful means of controlling your computer more conveniently than you would with a mouse.
Wacom is the leading name in digital design tablets, offering many different sizes and even a few tablets that have full screens instead of just a drawing surface.
If you’re on a budget, you might consider a Monoprice tablet as an alternative.
This brand makes affordable tablets (along with many other electronic devices), many of them priced at less than $100.
Build Your Portfolio
No matter how talented you are as a designer, it will be difficult to find work until you’ve shared your work with the world, and more specifically, with the internet.
It’s crucial today for every graphic designer to have an easily accessible online portfolio.
Some great services that make it relatively easy to design your own portfolio website are WordPress and Squarespace.
Each service offers robust design tools to make sure that your site looks as impressive as your work itself.
If you have the financial means to pay for some limited marketing, you may even want to promote your personal site on social media sites to help bring in more attention.
Talk to Other Designers
The importance of gaining perspectives other than your own just can’t be overstated. It’s a method that can be incredibly valuable in many different industries.
And if you’re trying to become an independent graphic designer in business for yourself, this step is absolutely crucial.
A good place to start is checking out some online graphic design forums based on specific topics you’re already interested in.
As we mentioned earlier, finding YouTube channels that focus on graphic design and how to get started as a freelancer are wonderful resources that come free of charge.
But we would also urge you to seek out real-life meet-ups based around design and professional networking.
Look around for a design conference set to take place close to home. You’ll enjoy meeting people who share your interests and you might even make some friends along the way.
Knowing other designers can be one of the best ways to hear about upcoming job opportunities. Designer friends can also give honest feedback on your work and offer suggestions for ways to improve.