Help me become self-educated in graphic design--or am I too old?
August 28, 2011 6:46 PM   Subscribe

Help me become self-educated in graphic design--or am I too old?

Back in the mid 90's I worked at a newspaper and quickly went from being a typist to doing layout (remember Quark?) to designing ads. After leaving the newspaper I continued to design business cards, brochures, catalogs, postcards, and occasional websites for people. I'm pretty good at learning software so I've taught myself Dreamweaver, some HTML, some CSS, and Photoshop techniques when I need them. I never received any formal training but I always pick up materials I like as inspiration, do my own reading, check blogs and otherwise try to keep myself up to date. When I had kids, I kept a few clients and have been doing small jobs, but too small to really call this a living. Now the kids are in school and I need to get out there on the job market. Doing layout and design is the only skill I really have, but at this point I've been away from full-time employment and feel like I need to get myself up-to-speed. I also feel like a fake because I never went to art school and never had any formal training. I've read that the portfolio is what gets you the job, but at this point, I'm not feeling particularly proud of my work which is not particularly cutting edge or innovative. I am also still working in Quark as a freelancer (hides head) because I'm so fast in it and only have to produce PDFs for printers. I can get around in InDesign but I need to practice more.

I am currently taking night classes at the local college to both learn new skills and build my portfolio but I want to get out there and work as fast as possible. I really want to be the best designer I can be so in addition to school, I want to study on my own. A few questions:
* Am I too late? I'm 43 and have an idea that graphic design is a young person's field. By the time I get up to speed, will anyone hire a 40 something year old designer?
* Would it be valuable to get a certificate in graphic design from a good program? (this also brings up the age question again... I would have to do it a few classes at a time)
* Can you suggest good books to read on the topics of typography, color, design, design problem solving, grids...what else should I know?
* Any blogs I should be reading? Videos I should be watching?
* Are there any jobs that would hire me now? I am proficient in Photoshop and okay in InDesign. Are there still production artist jobs? Will people hire someone who's experienced, but largely self-taught?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 104 users marked this as a favorite
Never too old!

Read books. Get a few good ones and just keep reading. It's amazing how much graphic design you can pick up by just ... reading. (There is perhaps no other way, really. Except for doing it.) Have a look at Edward Tufte's books, and How to Wrap Five More Eggs. These have some very fundamental messages in them.

This is great too.
posted by krilli at 7:25 PM on August 28, 2011

I run a company that absolutely crucially needs great graphic design. I'm not sure our designer has an education. The results are absolutely and totally the only thing that matters in graphic design. At least in my part of the world.
posted by krilli at 7:27 PM on August 28, 2011

Of all the things you mentioned, I think the priorities should be 1) Learn InDesign like the back of your hand, and 2) Build a portfolio you are proud of.

For both, it doesn't really matter whether you do it by taking classes or reading books and blogs or just playing around on your own and inventing projects for yourself - I have a fine art degree but am basically self-taught when it comes to graphic design, and I've never felt like that hurts me. People who might hire you for freelance work won't ask where you trained; they will be more interested in what you can do, ie your portfolio. If you want to work in a firm, they will likely want you to have a few years of experience and a portfolio that reflects that, so it sounds like you might need a few good freelance jobs as a kickstart.

Some blogs:
- Design Observer - smart, thoughtful, practicing professionals writing about design.
- Brand New - case studies of logo work with good discussion of what works and what doesn't.
- For Print Only pretty things as inspiration.
- Smashing Magazine - good resource to keep up with web design stuff.
- Typedia and Fonts In Use - lots of good typography inspiration.

There are lots more, those are just the ones I read often that I can think of off the top of my head. Edward Tufte is awesome too.
posted by ella wren at 7:33 PM on August 28, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'm 40. I have been a freelance web designer for 15 years. I have no - zero, zilch, nada - formal training. My business partner is uh 55 or something. She was a highly trained vet when she left her practice and became a web designer and developer at 42 after the birth of her son made delivering calves at 3 am unsustainable. She is also self-trained and is a shit-hot programmer. Our work wins awards. We are not, like, awesome but we deliver good websites for reasonable fees and can choose who we want to work with. We are very lucky.

No client has ever asked me about my qualifications. (Although early childhood education is very useful in project management, let me tell you.) It really and truly is all about the portfolio and just as much, about the network. We work, constantly, and it all comes from referrals and I guess blogging and maybe Twitter? I do a fair amount of public speaking so that may help. (I don't know; the phone rings, so I answer it.)

Each of us independently worries we'll become obsolete but so far that hasn't happened. I think you should worry less about pieces of paper and more about building some confidence in what you can offer.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:51 PM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think the priorities should be 1) Learn InDesign like the back of your hand, and 2) Build a portfolio you are proud of.

This times 100, and the first item times another 100.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:09 PM on August 28, 2011

I'm 41, self-taught, and was hired into my first full-time graphic design position four years ago. Previous to that I worked freelance for two years, and before that, I worked in communication and split my time 3-ways between writing/editing, media work and graphic design.

I got my job based on (in what I would guess is order of importance):
• my experience in the field (non-governmental organizations),
• my dazzling interview,
• connections in the field,
• my portfolio (which included two award-winners),
• and a design challenge/test.
They didn't care about whether I had a design certificate.

HOWEVER! I am an in-house designer in a big non-profit, not a junior designer in a design firm. I was hired by non-designers who placed a premium on my being able to speak their (non-profitty, leftist) language and fit in. They asked a couple of design-related questions--something about leading, I think, or some other typography question--but clearly didn't understand what they were asking and so couldn't evaluate my answer anyway.

A certificate may or my not be important. Some professional bodies will not let you join without a certificate (which you may or may not care about). More useful, however, are the connections you can make while in school. Reach out to other designers and possible employers at every opportunity. If there is a practicum or work-study option, go for it. Becoming comfortable with the software and the jargon of the profession will also be helpful. Perhaps most importantly, though, you will gain confidence and should also get a lot of help from instructors on building your portfolio.

You might find this useful in terms of a reading list.

I personally also enjoy Bringhurst's Elements of Typographic Style

Oh, and I've found Adobe's Classroom in a Book series useful.
posted by looli at 9:13 PM on August 28, 2011

For software, I'd say concentrate on InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop. InDesign is important, but if you're interested in logo work or things other than just page layout, you need Illustrator. If you're interested in data visualization at all, you would likely have to jump into scripting (R, Processing, Python, etc.).

Here are some books you might find useful. You sound more interested in pure graphic design, rather than web or interaction design, so I'll leave recommendations for those out. I'm not actually a real designer myself - just an ecologist who loves and dabbles in it — so I've got a thing for affordable useful books.

General design & history
Lidwell's Universal Principles of Design is a pretty great overview of design principles that extend beyond just graphic design.

Timothy Samara's Design Elements is a decent all-around reference book that covers layout, color, type, etc.

Meggs' History of Graphic Design is still probably considered the standard reference for graphic design history, but you could probably pick up a couple other books used for a lot cheaper if you're just looking for some ideas and inspiration from graphic design history.

Graphic Design Theory: Readings from the Field has some classic writings from the field; Michael Bierut's Looking Closer 3 also has a lot of classics and is longer, but I'm not a fan the book's design is obnoxious, so I'd probably recommend Graphic Design Theory.

Given the persistence influence of Swiss Graphic Design, you might pick up a book on it.

Type books
Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style is considered by many to be the bible of typography best practices. It's a beautiful book, is affordable, and has gems like this, "In a badly designed book, the letters mill and stand like starving horses in a field. In a book designed by rote, they site like stale bread and mutton on the page."

Ellen Lupton's Thinking with Type is less uptight and full of colorful examples (Bringhurst is black & white) and another good book to have.

If you like type history, Type: The Secret History of Letters, Anatomy of a Typeface, and Letters of Credit are all fun.

If you really geek out on type, Karen Cheng's Designing Type is probably the best book for learning about how to actually design typefaces.

Joseph Muller-Brockmann's Grid Systems in Graphic Design is the classic on layout/grids, and probably the best on constructing grids, but it's also really pricey.

For page layout, I find Editing by Design to be really useful. It is in black and white, and all of the graphics are hand-drawn illustrations, but I've found it much more useful for actually designing for print than other layout books full of pretty pictures.

Speaking of, you might still find Layout Workbook or Making and Breaking the Grid useful. One frustration with a lot of layout books is that they focus way too much on pretty examples of others' works, and less on underlying principles. One other note: I've found Kimberly Elam's books on Grid Systems and Typographic Systems of Design to be pretty useless.

I assume you're not looking into being a designer at a newspaper; if you are, Tim Harrower's The Newspaper Designer's Handbook is a pretty great reference.

Josef Alber's Interaction of Color is probably the classic reference on color. A more thorough, newer, and more expensive book is Understanding Color: An Introduction for Designers.

I enjoyed David Airey's Logo Design Love. He walks you through the process of how to design logos in an approachable way. He has a blog of the same name.

How to Be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul has a lot of great tips for starting out. How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer has interviews with a lot of great designers.

Probably the greatest thing you can do is practice. Practicing will also give you a way of building a portfolio while skipping formal education. If you need some project ideas, you might try Creative Workshop or The Graphic Design Exercise Book.
posted by indeterminacy at 9:39 PM on August 28, 2011 [22 favorites]

Anon, I recently got my first design job at 45 (after 20+ years of doing prepress). I did a lot of pro-bono work, then got some freelance clients, and was able to put together a portfolio and get hired. Mefi message me if you want to talk about it. Also, indeterminancy's answer above is great (I'm bookmarking it for reference, thank you indeterminancy!).
posted by TochterAusElysium at 10:35 PM on August 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

Thirding what others have said about getting the great portfolio together and learning InDesign. No one cares where you studied if you don't have either of these two things first. Then on top of the books others have mentioned, I'd look at what's winning design awards currently online - not so you can copy it, but so you can see what the trends are and what is currently considered to be cutting edge design. Analyse it, figure out what works and why.

If any of these people live in your city or you have access to top designers, show them your work and ask them to rip it to shreds, tell you how it can be improved. Try and get a mentor (they'll all be busy but you may get lucky). Be polite, be persistent, work hard, be prepared to throw out everything and start again if need be. Your age means nothing, a degree means nothing. Work on the work. Tenacity counts for more than talent in my book.
posted by Jubey at 10:39 PM on August 28, 2011

This book was highly recommended in my "design" classes- I keep meaning to get it out of the library and read it.

The Design of Everyday Things (by Donald Norman)
posted by titanium_geek at 2:28 AM on August 29, 2011

I would like to chime-in for the idea that graphic design is more than simply outward appearances.

A good designer also has a solid understanding of reproduction processes. Even in this day and age, a good deal of what a graphic designer is going to work on is going to be aimed at print reproduction. A graphic designer needs to be versed in things like...
- CMYK vs. RGB.
- Understanding how to properly prepare a file for high-resolution offset printing, including proper PDF creation.
- Understanding color management.
- Why Photoshop isn't a design tool.
- And on, and on...

This is the non-sexy, yet vital side of what a good graphic designer must know. Tossing an RGB Photoshop file full of web-resolution images at a printer and expecting a perfect tri-fold brochure back will often result in cost over-runs and bad results.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:13 AM on August 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Learning the programs is fine; I'd say that mocking up layouts and grids and pages and things – using pencil and paper – is at least as important.
posted by krilli at 8:32 AM on August 29, 2011

You mention a strong desire to learn design software, but not much desire to learn WHAT MAKES FOR GOOD DESIGN. Spend some time at the websites/books/blogs mentioned above and that will help. Keep in mind though, that this in no way replaced a 4-year degree in Visual Communication.

All that said, there are plenty of roles to be played by PRODUCTION ARTISTS.

I work for an ad agency in a mid-sized town with three Art Directors / Designers on staff. Often times, we will design the overall look of a piece, and then hand it off to a production artist to finish the layout.

As an example, we recently designed a season program for a new performing arts venue that is roughly 60 pages in length. We designed the cover and overall look for each section of the program, got client approval, and then handed the file off to a production artist to place all of the copy and images, and polish up the piece.

This person isn't expected to make too many "big picture" creative decisions. They're just expected to flow the copy properly and make sure the little things are all taken care of to make the piece look great. They're also responsible for prepping the file for the printer... Basically all the stuff that Thorzdad mentioned above.

Other times, we've employed the services of a production artist to create clipping masks in photoshop, do basic color correction to photography.

And no, we don't care about the education of our Production Artists. They just need to come with a good recommendation, and do a great job on all the work we feed them.

Hope that helps.
posted by teriyaki_tornado at 9:07 AM on August 29, 2011

Yes, there are still production artist jobs. I have one. I'm 37. I don't have a degree. I'm self-taught. Sound familiar?

All my advice is based on being a production artist and not a designer. I'm not a designer, and I work exclusively in print. The fact that this still exists makes me very happy indeed.

I left Quark and taught myself InDesign out of the Adobe Classroom In a Book book. First page to last, in order, repeating each exercise until I could do it without checking the book. My second InDesign job was teaching others to use InDesign. It can be learned, and learned quickly, especially if you're already used to the conventions in Illustrator and Photoshop.

Find a local temp agency that specializes in people like you. They probably call themselves a "creative staffing agency." Sign up with them, take their tests, take the one- and two-day jobs they offer you, which will convince them to give you longer and better assignments. The money will be fine and they honestly won't care about degrees and portfolios and the rest of it. If they need to place a production artist, all that matters is that you demonstrate you can do the work. Long-term temp jobs and permanent placements happen too.

I'm in the Washington, DC, area, and on the off chance you are too, or just to show you the kind of agency I mean, here are the ones I've worked for and been very happy with:

Go on or, or the jobs section of your closest city newspaper, and search for help-wanted ads that have the word "InDesign" in them. This narrows stuff down a lot. If you search for "Adobe" you get way too many completely unrelated jobs that have PDF applications, for instance, and words like "design," "desktop," and "production" are too vague.
posted by kostia at 5:34 PM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

« Older In the mental health 'strike zone'   |   I have it on good authority that I get to keep my... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.