Your Ultimate Guide to Getting Started in Design

What Is Design?

Design refers to the planning and sometimes creation of just about anything in the physical and digital world. The built environments that surround us were all at one point designed before being constructed, the products and objects we use daily were first designed, as were the digital interfaces we regularly interact with.

Design permeates our world, and the work of designers in a wide range of specializations helps shape much of our daily lives. While there are many different kinds of designers working across a broad variety of fields, which we’ll go over in more detail later, there are core elements and principles of design that unite these very different professions under one umbrella.

Three characteristics that designers working disciplines such as fashion design, graphic design, and UI/UX design would all agree are essential are problem solving, creativity and the goal of improving something through their work.

Design Solves Problems

No matter what is being designed, a designer typically has to put themselves in the position of identifying a problem and solving it through their efforts. A fashion designer may want to create a certain mood or aesthetic through their pieces. This is the “problem”, and the solution is finding a way to evoke their message using garments. A graphic designer may be solving the problem of helping a business communicate effectively with their target demographic.

Design Uses Creativity

In order to achieve their goal or solve the problem at hand, the designer has to get creative. They use their imaginations to find the best, most effective or attractive way to accomplish the task or communicate an idea. They have to understand the materials and tools at their disposal and how to use them effectively.

Design Improves the World

Whether it’s through beautifying the physical world around us, creating useful objects that fit well into our daily lives, making navigating websites easier and more pleasant, or helping businesses communicate more effectively, the spirit of design is to improve the lives of people who interact with it.

The ways to get into the field of design are as diverse as the designers’ styles themselves. In previous years, a degree or a diploma was considered a requisite to get into the industry. These days, an impactful online portfolio website can give you a leg up in your design career and is a great way to market yourself.

This article answers questions about how to become a designer. It covers commonly asked questions about building a design portfolio to help those interested in this unique and exciting industry.

Design is a broad category filled with a wide range of interesting and in-demand disciplines. If you’re thinking about getting started in design, we’ll go over all the questions you probably have about where to begin. But first, what is design, exactly?

Let’s Take a Step back. What Is Design?

We’ve discussed the principles that underlie design broadly. Merriam-Webster defines design as “to plan and make decisions about something that is being built or created, to create the plans, drawings, etc., that shows how something will be made”.

In practice, designers often do a lot more than creating the plans for how something will be made. Depending on their field, designers also often have a hand in the actual creation or building of the things they are designing.

For example, graphic designers may spend a portion of their time coming up with strategic plans for how their designs should look and what purpose they should serve, but they also engage in the technical process of creating their designs using digital tools.

Some designers, such as industrial designers who create everyday consumer products, may not directly make all of their designs but they still need to have an understanding of the materials that are being used and the manufacturing process in order to ensure their designs can be effectively translated into real-world objects.

Still other professional designers, such as fashion designers and set designers, may have some hand in the process of creating their designs in the physical world while also directing a team of people to help them realize their vision.

The Definition of Design In Practice

In the real world, while design does involve the creation of plans for how a project will be created, the actual day-to-day work of a designer can involve much more. From executing their designs to communicating with clients to understand their requirements, marketing themselves and their businesses, and staying on top of trends and new developments in their industries, professional designers are often engaged with many different aspects of making a creative vision come to life.

What Does a Designer do?

Designers are creators. They are storytellers. Designers bring value by applying visual principles, editing, and layout techniques to meet the needs of the design. Much like an artist, the role of a designer is concerned with the visual expressions of objects and people. Unlike an artist, a graphic designer has to answer to the demands of clients, budget and time.

designer drawing on tablet

What Are The Different Types of Design?

While just about everything we interact with that isn’t part of the natural world requires some design work to go into its creation, most types of design fall under one of these main categories.

Graphic Design

Graphic designers create visual communications that serve specified functions and that are usually aimed at a specific demographic or audience. A graphic designer might create concert posters aimed at appealing to an artist’s fans, wallpaper designs for a home decor company, or design what will be printed on the packaging for a product to ensure that customers understand what the benefits of the product are.

Almost every business requires the work of graphic designers at least occasionally, and with more and more of our lives taking place online, designs that help brands stand out can be very valuable.

Fashion Design

Fashion designers conceptualize and create garments and other fashion accessories. While luxury brands may come to mind when you hear the term “fashion designer”, all garments need to be designed by someone with fashion or garment design skills.

A fashion designer creating runway pieces may be more focused on coming up with pieces that are artistic, dramatic, or highly conceptual. A fashion designer working for a brand that creates more wearable everyday clothes will have a different focus, prioritizing comfort, practicality, and durability of materials.

Interior Design

Interior designers create functional, aesthetically pleasing spaces for their clients. They don’t just purchase and arrange furniture and decor; instead, they evaluate the opportunities and limitations of the space they are working with and create the environment best suited to the needs of their clients.

Like all design work, interior design is about addressing the problems an interior space presents and finding a solution that improves the lives of those inhabiting the space while also achieving the aesthetic goals of the client.

Architectural Design

Architectural design is the art and science of planning structures such as homes, commercial buildings, artistic venues, or any other kind of building. This type of design is very technical and is often done with the oversight of engineers who can ensure that the structures are safe and can withstand regular use as well as intense weather conditions.

Like other kinds of design, there is also a creative component, as the architectural designer must come up with the best, most aesthetically pleasing way of meeting the goals of the project while also staying within the budget and within the bounds of any other restrictions, such as building codes.

Creative Direction

Creative directors may not have the word “designer” in their title, but their work definitely has a large design component. Creative directors are responsible for coming up with and overseeing the creative vision for a project or even a brand.

Creative directors may also work with other designers, depending on the project or task at hand. For example, the creative director for a cosmetics campaign may work with set designers and graphic designers to bring the vision to life.

Set Design

Set designers conceptualize and create sets that transport people to a different place. A set designer may work in the world of theater or film coming up with sets that help tell the story being conveyed in a play, movie, or even commercial.

Set designers can also be part of the team for photography campaigns, creating the perfect setting for an ad campaign, product photo, or any other image that requires a styled setting.

Industrial Design

Industrial designers work on products that are designed to be mass-produced. While other product designers may design products that can be handmade or made on a small scale industrial designers are more focused on designing the products that are made on a large scale and transported all over the world. For example, industrial designers are behind the designs of appliances, automobiles, and many of your favorite household items.

Furniture Design

While furniture design can be considered a subset of industrial design, some furniture designers create projects that they can also make themselves. These designers may be considered more artisanal, while those designing for large brands such as IKEA can be considered industrial furniture designers.

Jewelry Design

Jewelry designers create pieces that evoke style, luxury, beauty, or any other message that their brand aims to convey. They take into account design principles such as balance and color theory, but they also need an understanding of the materials that are used in the making of jewelry and the different manufacturing methods that can produce various effects. Jewelry design could be considered a subset of fashion design.

Packaging Design

Packaging designers come up with the best possible packaging solutions based on the requirements of the product that is being packaged. Like most design professions, this type of design requires a mix of practical and artistic thinking.

The packaging should be effective at containing and protecting the product, may need to be light and weather resistant depending on how it will be shipped, and also needs to be attractive and appealing to the target customer of the product.

Web Design

With so much of our lives taking place online, from work to shopping and entertainment, web design is more important than ever. Web designers need to create functional websites that fit the brand of their client, and they also need to take into account the fact that more web browsing is taking place on mobile devices. Websites need to look just as good and work just as well on mobile as they do on desktop.

UI/UX Design

UI/UX refers to user interface and user experience design. These designers make sure that complex digital products, such as apps, software and websites, are easy to use from the perspective of the consumer who is interacting with them for the first time.

Brand Design

Brand designers conceptualize and help to create a company’s identity, from it’s visual representation to its voice. While there may be some overlap with the tasks of graphic designers, brand designers may work on non-graphic aspects of a brand as well, such as helping to determine their key values and how these can be represented through touchpoints with the brand.

How Do You Know if a Career in Design Is Right for You?

While every person has something different to bring to the table, there are certain traits shared by those employed in the field. You may find yourself reflected in the list below, but if not, it’s important to remember that having an eye for creative expression is the only requisite.

  • You are curious and enjoy learning new things

  • You’ve been described as detail-oriented

  • You live in a world where eggplant is a vegetable and a color

  • You’ve purchased an item based solely on its packaging in your life

  • People say you have an active imagination

In addition to the following traits, an important quality that designers share is finding joy in continuous learning. Design is a career where individuals need to be in the loop about everything from cultural trends to the latest editing software, so continuous learning comes with the territory.

One of the things that distinguish a quality designer is a skillful communication. This is because clearly understanding and communicating expectations is a big factor overall in one’s success. A designer’s job includes: receiving feedback, asking clarifying questions, and providing designs based on budget, timeline, and resources available.

If you consider yourself a strong communicator, you’re already ahead. If communication is something you want to work on, there are many online courses and videos that can help you on your way to becoming an articulate communicator and active listener.

Are Designers in Demand?

Overall, the design job market is expected to grow exponentially between now and 2028.

According to InVision’s Product Design Hiring report, 70% of people managers increased the headcount of their design team in the past year. In addition, more high-tech integrated areas of the industry are expected to grow more aggressively than others. The promising thing is, it looks like design work is part of the future across industries.

For more specific information, you can check out the Government of Canada’s Job Bank guide, which includes job projections for the industry, complete with associated wages and anticipated demand.

How Do You Become a Designer?

Like many professions nowadays, there isn’t necessarily one single way to pursue a career as a designer. You can go about it the more traditional way, by studying design, or you can learn your craft in the real world with a more DIY approach.

drawing designs

Getting Started by Studying Design

Going to an art school that offers a design program in your chosen field is a popular way to get started if you want a career as a designer but you need to build up your skills and industry knowledge first. You can either choose to pursue a complete degree, or take relevant courses to enrich your skills in specific areas or to learn how to use new design programs.

This path has the benefit of offering you a structured environment in which to become a more skilled designer. Many programs also offer some exposure and networking opportunities that can be valuable. Plus, clients or employers may feel more confident working with you early in your career if you have credentials from a well-known design program.

In a typical design program you’ll probably be challenged to work on a wide range of different projects, and you may even discover an aptitude for a type of design that you never would have tried otherwise.

However, this is certainly not the only path to a design career. For some, a degree in design may be prohibitively expensive or time consuming. You also may already be self taught in many of the skills covered in a program. Depending on the type of design you want to do and your personal situation, you may be interested in another path to a design career.

Getting Started as a Self Taught Designer

While some design jobs may require accreditation, such as those in architecture, the fact is that most design work doesn’t absolutely require a degree. Many designers are freelancers who operate their own small businesses and are hired on the basis of their portfolio and reputation, and even many designers hired by brands or agencies don’t necessarily require a degree to be hired.

The major benefits of self-directing your design study are that it can be much cheaper, and you can study at your own pace. Often, your own pace may be faster than a degree program. With so many valuable learning tools available for free online, there is no shortage of resources to help you level up your design skills and create a memorable designer portfolio.

It is worth mentioning that part of what makes someone a strong designer is being able to take critique and use it to improve their work, so one drawback of self-directing your study is that you may not have as much opportunity to get feedback from successful people in your field. You also have to be very motivated and self-disciplined, since there isn’t the usual pressure of a structured academic environment to keep you on top of your learning goals. In order to get this kind of critical feedback you may need to expand your network or seek out opportunities where you work can be critiqued so you can improve your craft.

Both of the paths above can be great ways to start your career as a designer, and the best choice for you will depend on your own personal circumstances. Regardless of which you choose, the things you’ll have to do to actually establish yourself as a professional in your chosen design field are not that different.

Establishing Your Design Career

Once you have enough design skills to start pursuing paid work, here are some of the things to make sure you’re doing regularly to grow your career.

  1. Pursuing paid work. It would be great if our dream clients just came to us, but the truth is even well-established designers still have to spend time creating pitches, reaching out to clients, and ensuring they stay top of mind for new projects. Whether you’re a new grad or you have some experience under your belt, pursuing your next design jobs will be an ongoing task. If you happen to work for a firm or agency where new business isn’t necessarily handled by designers this is less important, although you still may want to take on side projects to stay sharp.

  2. Getting your work out there. A good way to build up your reputation or potentially land new clients is to get your work published. Look for publications that showcase designers in your specific field, and submit your work. Whether it’s a school project or recent client work, getting it out to a wider audience will help your career.

  3. Find your style. As a designer, your personal style is a big part of your value proposition. Why should a client hire you rather than somebody else? If you can reliably deliver a certain look or level of quality that they’re looking for, they’ll choose you even if there is a cheaper option available. Developing your style can take time and is an ongoing process, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind when you’re starting out your career.

  4. Keep honing your skills. No matter what type of design you do, it’s a fast moving industry. Designers are always challenging themselves to come up with new and innovative solutions to their design problems, and trends are always evolving, so the work of learning shouldn’t be done just because you graduated from a program or have started to land clients. Ensure you’re staying on top of new technologies and new design trends as you grow your career.

How Do I Get Into Design?

As previously mentioned, there are both academic and self-taught paths to an exciting career in design. Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach and each has its own pros and cons, and it’s important to do your own research before making a decision.

About the Academic Path Into Design

When it comes to taking the structured path, there are many programs offered by training providers that lead to design careers. Those with more relevant experience may choose to round out the content in their online design portfolio with courses covering the latest software, while others may choose to pursue a diploma or even a degree in graphic design.

No matter what program you are considering, make sure the learning application portion of the curriculum should be part of your assessment. This is because the projects students complete as part of their education often become the foundation of their portfolio.

Advantages of Design School:

  • Access to a broader range of learning subjects

  • Structured learning and feedback

  • Access to a network of professionals, peers, and job resources

  • Body of work that can be used as the basis for portfolio

Disadvantages of Design School:

  • Can be highly costly and time-consuming

  • Potentially prescriptive content options

  • Information provided is sometimes out of date due to a fast-moving industry

  • Accreditation can be leveraged for attracting clients

About the Self-Directed Path Into Design

Of course, the self-directed path allows flexibility in your design education. Students can set their own curriculum, but also puts the onus on you to stay on track and to ensure the range of design skills you invest in learning is comprehensive and relevant to the types of jobs you are after. If you choose the self-taught path, it’s important to seek external sources of feedback, as design critiques are an important part of the learning process.

Advantages of Self-Directed Learning Path Into Design:

  • Often less costly

  • Highly customizable

  • Completed at your own pace

  • Allows focus on specializations or niche areas of interest

Disadvantages of Self-Directed Learning Path Into Design:

  • Lack of feedback from peers and professionals

  • Accountability comes from self-discipline

  • Fewer opportunities to be challenged

  • Less line of sight on learning area gaps

No matter your design learning journey, there is a path for everyone. For example, someone that likes more structured learning may find completing a course or two, or a full-time program is the right choice for them. In addition, getting a formal accreditation can be a worthwhile investment as some design agencies source employees from trusted academic programs, and alumni are likely to rely on their community of other college graduates first when job openings pop up.

On the other hand, self-motivated individuals that thrive on a “blank sheet of paper” approach may find that the self-taught approach is more fitting.

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What Tools Do Designers Use?

Because the field of design is so broad, the exact tools used may vary from person to person, and from project to project. However, a designer is likely to use some of the following to take a project from concept to execution:

  • A lot of pen and paper

  • A drawing tablet

  • Editing software

  • File management and project management tools

  • Coding languages like HTML and CSS (used as part of web design)

As previously mentioned, design is a field that requires continuous learning, so taking on new clients is bound to require some education around industry-specific tools and visual trends. For this reason, some designers include an “onboarding fee” as part of their invoicing to cover this time investment as an overhead cost, as it can take a lot of time.

What Type of Software do Designers use?

While designers may use a variety of software based on the type of design field they’re in, the two most commonly used are Photoshop and Lightroom. While both products offer a range of editing options, Lightroom is considered to be more entry-level of the two.

Lightroom

Adobe Lightroom offers a robust set of editing functionalities with fewer plugin options than Photoshop, making it the preferred choice for those starting out in creative industries. Some of the capabilities of Lightroom include:

  • Cropping

  • White balance

  • Exposure

  • Sharpening

  • Noise reduction

  • Saturation

  • Histogram adjustments

  • Tonal curves

  • Black and white conversion

  • Gradients

  • Spot removal

As you can see, Lightroom provides a good range of features that are likely to satisfy the needs of those starting out.

Photoshop

In addition to the list above, Photoshop allows for a wide range of Apple and third-party plugins, which gives the user complete control over the final product. Of course, Photoshop’s comprehensive functionalities also mean a steep learning curve, which is why it is the #1 tool for design professionals.

If you are enrolled in an academic program, you may qualify for student discounts on these editing products as part of Adobe Creative Suite.

Do You Need a Design Portfolio to Get Hired?

An online portfolio is a staple for anyone looking to break into the design industry because it gives your potential employer a taste of your skills, relevant experience, and creative vision.

Later in your career, the types of brands and clients you include will attract more clients of the same ilk. This is why it’s useful to think of your portfolio as a living project rather than as something static that you complete once in your career.

What Should a Design Portfolio Include?

Because design is a creative field, there are a lot of creative differences as to what an online portfolio should include. The good news is that this means that there is no right or wrong way to compile your portfolio, as long as it:

  • Demonstrates range in the areas of design you want to get hired in

  • Shows depth of skills and scale of projects you’ve worked on

  • Encapsulates your creative style

If your portfolio checks off all three boxes, then you’re on the right track. In addition to these elements, you may want to consider including a peek at your creative process. This is because some employers appreciate getting a peek at your process of problem-solving and bringing the idea to life. Of course, this is more relevant to more iterative branches of design such as product and user experience (UI).

At the end of the day, you should make sure your portfolio is an accurate representation of your skills and ambitions in this creative field. Here are 20 online portfolio templates designed specifically for designers’ needs to help you get started.

So, Do You Think You’re Cut Out for a Career in Design?

One of the best things about an industry in design is that it keeps you on your toes. If you’re a curious individual with an eye for design and a love of continuous learning, you are likely to find a career in design to be incredibly rewarding.

What Are Some Examples Of Design?

If you’re looking for ideas and inspiration for your own online design portfolio, take a look at some of these favorites across a range of design disciplines. Notice how the look and feel of each portfolio supports the designer’s brand and business goals.

Florian Matthias Egerer

Florian is an application developer, designer and product manager based in Vienna, Austria. His focus is always on creating the best user experience possible, and his experience ranged from UI and UX design to app design and even to print and corporate design. He tries to infuse the principles of meaning, simplicity, and usability in his design work

His portfolio reflects these values, making it easy for visitors to understand the kind of work they can expect from Florian.

Format theme used: Ora

Kayla of Make Art Not Friends

Kayla is a graphic designer for Levi Strauss and Co. She has worked on a wide variety of projects with well-known clients, and the design of her online portfolio puts her versatility and experience front-and-center.

Format theme used: Sharp

Rhea Jeong

Rhea Jeong is an industrial designer originally from Seoul, and now working in San Francisco. The slightly playful layout of this portfolio emphasizes the creativity of her work, and shows that you don’t have to go with a neat grid layout to showcase that you are a serious designer. Your portfolio should be uncluttered and easy to navigate, but you can definitely still let your personal style shine through.

Format theme used: Kiln

When creating your own design portfolio, keep in mind that it should be a curated selection of your best work rather than a collection of every project you’ve ever done. Like these top design portfolio examples, it should be easy to understand what kind of design you do, your style and level of expertise, and how to get in touch with you.

How Do You Price Your Design?

When coming up with your design pricing strategy, you’ll have to do a bit of research to determine what a reasonable price range for your services is. Go through this checklist of questions, and by the time you’ve applied them to all the specifics of your situation, you should have an idea of how to price your design in a way that is profitable, fair to you, and reasonable for your clients to pay.

  1. What kind of design do you do? The going rates will vary from industry to industry. For example, a UI/UX designer who also has some web design skills may be able to command a higher rate than someone who is primarily a web designer with little or no knowledge of UI and UX.

  2. What is your level of expertise? Do you have specialized skills? While the type of design you do can give some broad indication of what an acceptable price range for your services will be, your level of expertise is also very important. It can significantly impact your earning potential. In the example above, if the web designer has created many beautiful websites that the client loves, they may be able to command a higher price than the person who also has UI/UX skills but is newer and doesn’t have as much experience. If you have a specialized skill that isn’t very common, make sure you make it part of your pitch and value proposition.

  3. Where do you live? Like all professions, there is variation from one geographic location to the next. A New York graphic designer may be able to charge more than one living in Boise for similar work, just based on the cost of living in each city.

  4. Where is your client located? Your client’s location can also impact the way you price your work. With more and more of professional life taking place online, and freelance designers frequently working remotely, clients may seek out designers in lower-cost parts of the world. While you may not be able to charge quite as much as someone living and working in a more expensive city, it’s fair to adjust your prices a bit given your client’s price expectations.

  5. How big is your client? Another factor to take into account is the size and budget of your client. You may be offered a project that is really exciting for you, but from a small client who you know doesn’t have very deep pockets. As long as the price is still fair, you may take that project, even if you would normally charge more for it for a larger client. It is normal for designers to have a range and to adjust a bit depending on the resources that the client has.

  6. What is the scope of the project? Make sure you get a good sense of exactly what the client’s expectations are. What should the final delivery include, and what is the timeline? Make it clear from the beginning what your rate is for work that goes beyond the agreed upon scope. Things can often take longer than the client projects, or they may add work as a project rolls along, so make sure you price your work in a flexible way that ensures you don’t get taken advantage of.

  7. How much do you need to charge to earn a living? Based on your realistic income target for the year, and the number of design projects you can take on, figure out the minimum amount you need to make from each gig for it to be worthwhile and sustainable for your lifestyle. This can help guide your pricing strategy by helping you understand the minimum below which a job isn’t worth it.

Design is essential and all around us. It’s beneficial to all kinds of individuals and businesses, so honing in on the type of designer you want to be, creating your portfolio and finding your niche is sure to get you on the path to a design career you can be proud of.

Like with all creative professions it’s important to have a place to share your work. Your portfolio acts as your resume, or at least complements it. Make sure you’re deliberate about how you curate and share your portfolio with potential clients and employers. With Format, members have access to beautiful templates that can highlight your design work while also giving you access to powerful workflow tools to help you manage your business and client relationships.

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