The Blank Slate: How Did You Learn Design?

The Blank Slate: How Did You Learn Design?

I graduated from the Art Institute back in 2000, and set out into the world to become a Graphic Designer. But what I found was that no employer cared where I went to school or what degree I held. They were only interested in my design experience and what my portfolio contained. Since I had no real world experience, my portfolio contained very little professional examples of my work, only personal or student projects.In fact, in the 10+ years of my professional career, no one has asked about where I went to school or my degree. I have even come to believe that more of my design education has come from professional experience and working with other designer versus classroom experience. That’s not to say that the Art Institute is not doing a good job, it’s a wonderful school and a great place to start your journey as a designer. But I’m curious to know…

How Did You Learn Design?

Did you go to school? Are you self-taught through online tutorials and research? What do you feel is best for new designers starting out in this day and age of information being readily available at our fingertips? Go to school, become an intern, follow other designers, or learn from online tutorials and articles? There is a multitude of options available… What worked best for you?


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Nathan Brown

Nathan Brown is a graphic designer who loves working with various media. He combines traditional art styles with a little experimentation and digital flare. Nathan's works have contained everything from ink and paint to leaves and a box of dirt. Everything is fare game when it comes to his approach to art. Nathan lives in Austin, Texas where he has been working as a designer for 10 years.


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  1. Let me first say that I have always wanted to be a Graphic Designer or some sort of artist, professionally. I went to AIU (Atlanta) and dropped out after 3 semesters. I had already had a toddler, i was getting married and had #2 on the way! To say the least, I was not very focused on my education as I probably should have been. Anyway, my husband and I decided it was best if I quit my job in office administration and became a stay-at-home-mom. So, with all this ‘free-time’, I decided to finally pursue my passion – Design. I purchased Adobe Design Premium and just started playing about, creating mock logos and such. I built a little portfolio that i constantly shared with my Facebook friends. Then, a friend of a friend contact me about and internship with her small design firm. I, ofcourse, jumped at the opportunity. She taught me how to build websites, among other things and showed me that was where the real money was. I now make a good living with my newly established company, CrossGraphix! I love what I do and look forward to learning even more in the future!!!

    • That’s awesome Dominique! I love how you found a way to design even though you were focused on so many other things.

  2. I couldn’t afford tuition to an art college so I went to a public university and enrolled in the design program there. Unfortunately, they only accept 20 students max into the program a year and I wasn’t one of the lucky ones.

    After getting my reject email, I immediately started searching on Yahoo jobs, craigslist, and anywhere else offering design internships. I figured if the school wasn’t going to teach me, I’ll teach myself. A friend of mine told me via facebook his boss was looking for a design intern and so I got all my best student work together and went to the interview. I’ve been working there for more than a year now…with pay! :)

    I also participated in some design competitions as a means to promote myself and get some new works for my portfolio as a student. I actually still do that sometimes if the contest is really interesting somehow.

    • @Loc, I never thought about submitting my work to a contest. Has it really helped to promote your self? Do you win anything?

      Btw, my aunt went to the prestigious, Tyler School of Art & Design, but has been making her living as a Buyer for the past 25 years. That just goes to show you that ‘the school’ isn’t what its all about and maybe we didn’t miss out on that much after all…

      • Hi Dominique! It has actually. I participated in an iPod skin contest hosted by and WordPress awhile back and won. My design is now in their catalogue and I get royalty for every design sold.

        Later, a company in the UK called Diabloskinz contacted me after seeing that design and asked me to make more skin designs for them. I also get royalties for those. Since i only give out the production rights and still own the rights to my design, it’s a pretty good deal I thought. Plus, people are in the UK are walking around with my design! I find that kinda awesome.

  3. In 2005, I wanted to start a fan site for Alexz Johnson. So I used a site like and it looked very plain. I met someone on livejournal who was interested in designing the site for me, for free. It was a project for school I guess. I agreed. I liked what she did and wanted to better. I make everything a competition.. Which I think is a key facet in being a better designer.

    I was 12 or 13 at the time and downloaded the trial of Photoshop and was on my way. My first designs were mainly blends and what not, they definitely surpassed hers. She was enrolled at an art college in SF, and I was a little kid. I started getting into it and then my trial expired, but around the same time, I got a new laptop with Corel attached. So I used that for sometime. I used it to design the launch of my first real website, well fansite, but it was hosted on a server and I had FTP access! is the site.

    I started doing orders for fellow fan sites and 4 years later, I’m trying to launch a professional design career. I enrolled in a web design class this year, but haven’t learned anything. I feel I’m actually teaching my teacher half the time..

    But I’ve done stuff aside from fan sites, I’ve been working with music blogs and creating a brand for their sites, I’ve worked with a musician to create her website.. But I’ve done most of this from self learning. More recently I’ve been open to tutorials, and that’s why I love WeGraphics.

    It all started with me wanting to do better than someone else, and I thank this girl everyday I design. Without her, I wonder if I would have ever found something I love so much!! We still talk, and shes dropped out of design school, but is starting up a t shirt business! I could never design like her with those shirts, they’re amazing!

  4. Ziemowit


    as a person who has just began his adventure with design it is all about tutorials.
    I just have an idea in mind, and then I look for tutorials which can help me learn how to use effects I want to see in my works.
    I tried a book about Photoshop but imho it’s a waste of time.
    Time will show if tutorial based learning will be a better idea.

    much love,
    Ziemowit (Poland)

    PS Great site, great blog.

  5. I actually just wrote an blog entry about my experience tbh! I found education to be a massive waste of time, especially here in the UK with tuition fees on the rise

    here’s the linky:

  6. I’m not a designer per se, but more of an enthusiast with the opportunity to get paid and help out friends. I learned the vast majority online through tutorials as well as playing with HTML, CSS and GIMP to better familarize myself with tools and syntax.

    After a few years and the advice of numerous people, I decided to go to a trade school pushing Sys Admin degrees with web design included. It turned out it was a LOT of Windows XP troubleshooting, no other operating systems and a basic HTML class. I left school after about 9 months, not wanting to further my debt.

    Personally, I think school has it’s advantages and disadvantages. If your wealthy or you can get a full scholarship then you should go. But, in the case of most people I know, practice, tutorials and life practice is far more valuable and thousands of dollars cheaper.

  7. It’s interesting to me to hear how you guys got started in design. It sounds like in most cases a formal education was not the way to go. I’m wondering if, in this day in age, that is the decision of most starting in the design field. I can see that as being a possibility with so many learning tools like WeGraphics freely available.

  8. Adjie

    I believe what’s important is not where you learn your skills (be it in design or any other fields), but how dedicated and passionate you are in learning the skills. You could go to the best design school in the world but if it doesn’t spark the fire within you, it’s not going to do you any good.

    As for the “free” learning resources, it’s only free in a sense that you don’t have pay any tuition for them. However, you do still have to pay for the amount of time you spend to find some quality “free” learning resources, motivate yourself to keep on learning, so on and so forth.

    In short, pick whichever options that suit your needs and circumstances and keep that “fire” within you burning :)

    • I agree completely. Even though I didn’t get into the program, being exposed to creating and implement a design ultimately inspired me to keep going despite this initial obstacle. Design class also allowed me to network with other students and even the faculty who I still keep in touch with.

      Design isn’t just about art, it’s also about meeting people and see how your artwork can help them. It’s a really collaborative art-form which I really like.

      • Adjie

        Hi Loc! I really like your point on the importance of networking. I totally agree with you. Networking is another part of the equation one has to develop in order to succeed in his/her chosen career.

  9. I started when I was 14, 11 years ago. I downloaded a videogame making software named RPG maker, I was impressed at how some people created their own graphics for their games and that made me get into design for the first time. I started with titles/scenario modification, then moved on to forum signatures and some small resolution digital art, creating some abstract stuff with cool brushing I posted on a website named shiver7. I decided to make a profession out of my passion 6 years ago, and decided to move away from my parents house, to a new city, and applied for only one company, I got hired inmediatly and since then I haven’t stopped working, currently as a freelancer and focusing mainly on webdesign and branding.

  10. Hi, I’m still studying design, so this could be a junior comment. :P
    Before I studied communication arts and interactive media in Hamburg, I had two internships. One at an automotive designer and another one at an advertising agency, which I loved.
    I would do it the same way again. The people at the agency taught me lots of skills and from that moment I knew that I want to work in the advertising business.
    Now I am in my final year, finishing my double degree in creative advertising in England. For me personally it’s awesome but everybody has to decide wether to go to an university or not. It is about how much effort you put into it. How challenging you are. Tutorials are great to experience new techniques, but I think they can’t replace a tutor and a good book crit. An online tutorial does not give feedback.
    Being at a university is like making your drivers license. It is a kick off. You have to earn your stars out on the street.

  11. I did go to school for art/design and art has been in my blood since day 1, my mother even had hopes of me becoming a great artist before I was born. I can tell you from an artist who was trying to get work in galleries, that there is a view that my work has to be like coca-cola, meaning that all my work should look so similar that I can be identified by my “canned” work rather than by my talent. What I like about design is that you can be very free with what you do, the end result is whether the client likes it or not, which means that even though my work is not always selected, it does give me the freedom of creativity that I galleries are not always open to.

    Sometimes searching for clients is easier than looking for “a job” when you are new to the market. Smaller clients help build your portfolio and they don’t have to pay the high prices of ad agencies which in truth are out of reach by many smaller companies. Who knows, maybe you will really like freelancing…

    Formal education, always has its limitations, but it is the process of getting basics and layering what you learn and research to fill out the deck. There are tons of great resources online to continue your education, always work to continually educate yourself, it always pays off.

  12. I started studying and researching by myself, but after a while I thought it could be useful going to school. Right now I’m studying design, and it’s been very helpful to me to get some basic knowledge, though I think I will still grow more, studying by myself and having job experiences.

  13. Hi!, I went to graphic design college for 5 years after dropping out of computer science, and actually I still have to present my thesis in order to get my degree. The actual reason why I haven’t is the same reason that you mention it in the article; once I leaved school I realized that in this profession actual experience is more important than scholarship, I learned a lot of theory in college but almost 0 technique (that I had to learn myself). I do think that is good to go to college, even if you drop out, at leas you know what is good for you.

  14. And you can check my work at

    Good luck people!!!

  15. And a quote of Mark Twain:

    “I have never let my scholarship interfered with my education”.

  16. I graduated from Art Institute in 2010. I found from the very beginning that while school does help one garner an attention to graphic design and maybe a better understanding of it, it doesn’t necessarily teach one graphic design. I graduated with plenty of people who “understood” graphic design but still had trouble executing it. Luckily I found out early on that if I was going to be good at it, I would have to teach myself a lot on my own time through online tutorials, videos and just out right playing around with the programs myself to come up with my own tips & tricks.

    School helped me better learn the programs to execute the graphic design. Outside work on my own time such as freelance work and real world experience is what really helped me grow. Luckily for me, I had a good amount of freelance work while in school so going out into the workforce after graduated I had not only great knowledge of the programs but also a great design sense.

    So for me, school was helpful.. I look at it as laying the foundation. And the real world work, like freelance and personal projects, are the bricks that built up a well structured sense of design and ability.

  17. I am not a graphic designer really but I consider myself within the realm somewhere. Currently I go to school at the University of Illinois for Architecture (grad program) and loving every day of it. I have to say though that the majority of what I learn and find valuable has come from my time outside of class. Whether it be the blogs, video tutorials, internships, or talking with other disciplines, I find they have more to offer than my studio projects. What they teach the architects here is useful but I have always felt what you learn in school is never enough and can never prepare you for the real world. Taking your education into your own hands and learning from everything you do is the best way to succeed.

  18. Margalus

    I’m actually studying as Web/Multimedia Designer here in Verona so i can’t tell “where is studied” since i’m not working full-time.

    I can only say i’m studying it at school and i’m trying to do my best at home learning from the web..we’ll see in the future if i’ll be a good designer or not ;)

  19. I think most occupations these days want to see more professional experience than education. I think a big problem that students are running into is that they focus on their degrees for four plus years and when they graduate in their mid-twenties they have absolutely no work experience. It’s a good idea to have a balance of education and professional experience.

  20. Attending undergraduate studies at the University of Arkansas with a great instructor made a huge positive difference for me. I then continued graduate studies at Parsons School of Design in NYC. There I expanded my technical scope and met lots of very talented people. I believe school helps to give you support with instructors that understand the field but I do think there is an overall need for improvement of these academic programs which inspired me to found New Design School. We offer a certificate program in graphic design. In the first term, students are working with clients and other emerging designers. By the time you complete the program you will have worked with several clients but under the guidance of a seasoned professional. I totally agree that there is a balance of theory and practice that is missing from today’s programs and work daily to better prepare designers for the real world. There is always room to improve.

  21. interesting post and found this on twitter but well done good read.

  22. VB

    Great post and a very good site with lots of content that seems to go a bit deeper than most other sites within the design community : )

    As self-taught and still not working full-time as a designer (daytime UX-consultant, night- and spare-time designer ; ) I find that it actually annoys me from time to time that I cannot put a design diploma on my CV. Also, where I live companies some times prefer to see resumes from someone with a diploma in the field.

    For this very reason, I’m actually considering signing up for an online training programme that could end up in a BA.hons in Graphic Design or a Diploma of Higher Education in Illustration (and graphic design). Both will take a lot of effort and money … and that’s why I hesitate. The course will put a schedule to my training efforts, but will also cost me most of the time that I have available to experiment, go through tutorials, study books that I choose myself etc … I have two small kids and cannot do without the earnings from a full-time job — hence my sparetime is quite limited.

    What I would like to ask here is if anyone has experience with doing an online Design education (the programme I’m considering is based in UK at the Interactive Design Institute)? Would you consider doing an online course? What about those who went through a “real” / physical design study – what do you think?

    Thanks in advance,

  23. I learned web design throughout eBooks and online tutorials (self-taught) and fortunately I become more skillful than most of designers who learn it throughout university/school.

  24. I went to San Jose State University for design and gained solid foundations. Since then I’ve moved into more of a UX/UI role and those skills have been picked up through online tutorials and research. I’ve recently launched for people like myself—to learn new skills in design through hands on projects.

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