Graphic design 101 for health sciences
June 6, 2016 8:14 PM   Subscribe

I am just about to start my masters degree in public health, and I'm trying to develop a few extra skills for my postgraduate career. I want to learn some basic graphic design principles, primarily when it's relevant to creating posters, power-point presentations, and making information generally beautiful.

At this stage I know how to use MS Office, and that's about it. I don't know how to use photoshop or illustrator, and I have no idea about even basic graphic design principles. I can get hold of adobe software via my university, but at this stage I'd be pretty clueless about how to use any of it.

I've googled graphic design 101 and photoshop 101 etc, and done a bit of digging, but frankly there is so much information out there I kind of want some curated recommendations.

So what I'm after is:
Particularly good introductory books on graphic design principles or adobe products
Particularly good websites and online courses on the same
Happy to have a look at any self-paced/self-taught courses

All should be at a novice level, and heads up I'm not in the USA so any American-centric recommendations like take community college courses are not going to be helpful.

Not keen to take formal instruction at the moment, solely because my academic dance card is currently full, but would be amenable to it in the future.

Right now I can tell when I'm looking at a poster or a ppt slide that it's hiddy, but couldn't always tell you why. Looking to be able to develop at least that sort of minimal understanding of design principles. Also can't draw for shite if that's helpful.
posted by supercrayon to Education (16 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Edward Tufte wrote several books about how to convey information, graphically. Less about graphic design than about how to display information; I find his discussions about how to clearly get information across to be very good. If you are in the sciences this might be useful for you.
posted by BillMcMurdo at 8:26 PM on June 6, 2016 [6 favorites]

It's sort of a two part thing: how to recognize good design and then how to make the tools make it look good.

I really like Butterick's practical typography for understanding how letters and words and sentences and paragraphs fit together. It's worth thinking how much of your presentation stuff will be web presentation because the tools are (arguably) simpler. A classic simple design book is Don't Make Me Think which is a web design book but it's more about usability. Less important for print but very good for anything digital. My mom is a huge advocate of for Adobe tutorials but I don't know what their outside-US limitations might be. Might be worth seeing if your public library has access to tutorials about .. basically anything.

And part of the trick is templates. Springing for good blog templates or slideware templates can be part of the battle. If you're a professional something-not-a-designer some of this is just being able to find good functional templates that you can use to do some of this stuff. I use HTML5up for a lot of my web work and it keeps me from having to make a zillion design decisions
posted by jessamyn at 8:41 PM on June 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

A must-have for basic graphic design is the Non-Designer's Design Book by Robin Williams. It will teach you the four main principles of graphic design and show you how to apply them to before and after designs so you can see how to do it yourself. You can use these principles to make something look designed in any software from ppt to adobe.

For learning software,
posted by nanook at 8:41 PM on June 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

Don't forget to copy. Learn by copying. If you see a style of graph, chart or infographic that appeals to you, try to recreate it with whatever software you're using. Even failing to perfectly copy something will reveal something to you. If it looks gross with different colors, maybe it was the color scheme that really made it work for you. Maybe it looks clunky because you used the same line thicknesses throughout, but the original had a variety of weights. Maybe you've matched all the elements perfectly, but bunched them too close together, without enough white space around. Copy stuff you like, and discover how it follows the rules and principles set out in the books mentioned above. This will fine tune your ability to pinpoint why something looks hideous.
posted by Kabanos at 9:02 PM on June 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

You want The Non Designer's Design Book.

It's a very thorough and introductory, easy-to-follow design guide. It teaches you to recognize and create the basic principles that make design pleasing to the eye.

I personally taught myself Photoshop/design programs through Googling specific problems I was encountering or watching people who do good work. Videos are better for me. There's tons of 101 type things out there. Just start digging in then looking at the recommended videos that are similar.
posted by Crystalinne at 9:22 PM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Before & After magazine.
posted by circular at 9:34 PM on June 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

"A must-have for basic graphic design is the Non-Designer's Design Book by Robin Williams"
Absolutely! I am also a fan of Before & After Magazine and Get your basic skills in Photoshop and InDesign and then start designing. Here are some great exercises

1. Take an ugly newspaper ad that is mostly type and redesign it using Williams' book as a guide.

2. Find a poster, album, ad you like and try to recreate it.

3. Take an article from Before & After and try to do it.

4. Find an old package and try to copy it.

Illustrator can come after you get your InDesign down. While I love using and creating vector images, you can make lovely work using Photoshop and InDesign alone and Illustrator is a very different beast.

If you are really serious, you need to find someone who designs and who isn't afraid to deliver bad news to look at your work and coach you. I did when I was starting out and it really helped me.
posted by Foam Pants at 9:59 PM on June 6, 2016 is really good for tutorials. We used their videos all though my DTP class this semester and I would not have passed without them.
posted by Tamanna at 10:02 PM on June 6, 2016

I am just about to start my masters degree in public health...

You and others have mentioned software like Photoshop, Indesign, Illustrator etc. But realistically, how much of that software will you be able to in your field? I don't know, but it's worth considering. It would be great to know Indesign, but if it's not going to be approved for the budget and you don't have the pull to make it so, it'ls not going to do you much good.

So, as much as it pains me to say, Microsoft Publisher might wind up being your own option. But by all means try to avoid.

If you can only get one piece of software, make it Photoshop, as it'll allow you to do pretty much everything and its file format more verstile within the problem. What that means is that if you have a poster done in Photoshop, you'll probably be able to open it with earlier or later versions of the software. There's nothing like getting an illustrator or indesign file and realizing it's the absolute newest version and you have an older version, so you can't open the file. This will usually happen at the worst time. If you can, getting the monthly subscription to the Adobe suite would be great.

Also, learn about professional printing and production. You don't need to be a master at it, but it'll help if you're aware of the basics, this course looks good. Posters are expensive and easy to fuck up if you're not sure what you're doing. You don't want to sent your poster to a professional printer at the last minute for conference later today and then get back something crappy looking that you still have to pay for.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:15 PM on June 6, 2016

He has too many books under his name, and they are all over pretty much every level of graphic design. but a library card and anything written by Steven Heller might be worth your time.
posted by Chitownfats at 5:14 AM on June 7, 2016

If you get bogged down by the complexities of Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign, consider these other shortcuts:
• Online infographic makers.
• PowerPoint infographic templates.
You can search those terms online you can find free versions of both. Or paid if you want more features. But at least with both those approaches they've already made a number of design decisions for you, so it takes more effort to make ugly.( I don't have any specific sites to recommend, since I'm versed in the Adobe software, but there look to be a lot of options out there.)
posted by Kabanos at 5:29 AM on June 7, 2016

Along the same lines as Kabanos' recommendation, for specific formats like infographics and powerpoint there are many free or cheap designs around (here are a couple popular design marketplaces). You can download/purchase a few that you like, then tinker with the guts, both for editing to your taste and for learning by reverse-engineering.
posted by p3t3 at 6:13 AM on June 7, 2016

So I'm somewhat biased because I produced this course, but it's relevant so I feel OK about it.

Information Design and Data Visualization is a (free) online course that we offer at The instructor is Graham Roberts who is a senior editor at the New York Times.

Covers a lot of ground, if you just want to jump to the Graphic Design principles then jump right to Lesson 2!
posted by jeremias at 8:02 AM on June 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

I work in public health and I do communications and graphics work. Here are the top things that would make my job easier if every incoming newly-minted MPH did them:

1) Read Edward Tufte's work, particularly The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Apply the principles to the graphs and other visual items you create. (In summary, every visual element in your design should convey information. "For decoration" is not a sufficient reason to include an item in a design.)
2) Become adept in the MS Office suite of software and use good graphic practices when working in this software (for instance, using styles and references properly, using master slides, etc.)
3) Learn how to write in plain language. Write in plain language as often as you can.
4) Resist the PowerPoint default. When you put up a slide deck you can just see people's eyes glazing over. Only use slides when the situation/information demands it. Think of other formats to share information - fact sheets, postcards, booklets, etc...

The Adobe Creative Suite is great but you are unlikely to have it at work unless you are specifically working in graphic design/communications, because it is expensive. If you become the go-to person for making beautiful things in MS Word or the like, you'll be a star in your office. You've gotten a lot of good advice above regarding ways to learn graphic design principles, which will be a great guide to you.
posted by oblique red at 2:39 PM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Chiming in to recommend The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst. It's very, very readable, and should pair well with the Butterick recommended upthread. There's some weirdo stuff in it (like the page rhythm chapter), but it's a good place to start thinking about typographic rules and conventions and why they exist.
posted by lousywiththespirit at 5:51 PM on June 7, 2016

Thanks for all the advice guys I've got a really good place to start from.
posted by supercrayon at 2:51 PM on June 10, 2016

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