What Should New & Inexperienced Designers Be Learning?

Today I’m speaking to those just getting started in design. Maybe you just graduated from design school, or you’ve read through all the fundamental lessons offered here and on other design blogs, and you feel you’re ready to start taking on clients. Or maybe you have a couple of projects under your belt and you’re looking for more detailed advice as to what path you should be taking to propel your career to the next level.

Today we’re going to go over some of the most important things inexperienced designers need to master, and what I wish I had paid more attention to when I was just starting out.

Proportion and Composition

You may think you have this down, but, if you’ve been working for less than 5 years, I’m pretty sure you don’t know as much as you think you do. Read up on composition fundamentals and practice them in your spare time. Yes, that means cracking open those boring books you might have been assigned in school, or taking a trip down to the library and checking out some solid titles that will provide you with the information you need.

Proportion and Composition from the apple logo ratio

Color Theory

Same as above. Don’t just copy other people’s color schemes without understanding why and how they arrived at their color choices. Colors have a myriad of different meanings and associations attached to them, both by the designer and by the viewers. Just because you think a certain color scheme conveys ‘innovative technology’ doesn’t mean that everyone will feel that way. Your client and users might see ‘kid’s dentist’ instead – which is why it’s a good idea to do as much research and testing as you can before choosing a color scheme. A signature color palette is as good as a brand for a designer. Choose yours wisely.

Complete set of Desktop publishing graphic symbol utilities showing color theory for Inexperienced Designers
Image Source: Desktop Publishing Graphic Symbols via Shutterstock.

The Rules Of Typography

You need to have a solid understanding of type in order to succeed as a designer. This is non-negotiable. Don’t just leave typography up to professional type designers. Sometimes you will be asked to customize letterforms to suit a particular client’s brand image. If you don’t know what type weight, spacing, or kerning mean, and if you can’t tell the difference between an x-height and a counter, it’s time to learn. Luckily, there are tons of free resources online that can help you learn the basics, and the more you practice, the more adept you can become at giving clients the type treatments they need.

Rules Of Typography for Inexperienced Designers

Become a Photoshop/Illustrator Expert

I don’t mean just enough to get by or to finish the small projects you do for your clients. I mean knowing these programs (or whichever ones you use) like the back of your own hand. Even the weird, obscure stuff nobody knows about. There are plenty of books and online courses to help you gain mastery of your tools. The more intimately you know your software, the more clients will come to trust you with more complex work, and the more they will recommend you to their colleagues who are looking for high-level designers.

Asset Libraries

Design takes time – at least if you’re doing it right. You need to develop your idea, and try variations of it in order to get to just the solution that works for you and your client. But that doesn’t mean you can’t speed up some parts of the process. You can develop a backlog of fonts, vector images, and templates to make your work go by faster. This will take time as well, but the key is knowing what is worth curating and what should be discarded. For example, if your font library has thousands of typefaces in it, and none of them are organized or grouped in a helpful way, it can be more detrimental to your productivity than not having enough typefaces. (And yes, I’m speaking from experience.)

Asset Libraries for designers toolbox vector image
Image Source: Designer’s Toolbox on AIGA.

What Do You Think?

I’m always a fan of learning the fundamentals, as the more solid your foundation in design, the more easily you can adapt to whatever new trend or demand comes along. Even if you’re an experienced designer, there are always new things to learn about design. But what do you think? What else should new designers be learning? Let me know in the comments.


  • ponnuki

    Calligraphy, typing (yes typing will save you days of work), illustration, painting, photo, a tad of architecture, information theory – becoming a designer is a life long learning, better have a good foundation!

  • Tim

    New designers should be learning how to code. Both for the web and for mobile apps. You will make much more money doing that than being a designer. Trust me on that one. Do design in your spare time and have fun with it.

  • sLOVEnija

    Graphic design this day is so fuckin* hard. Really hard, you need to be creative etc… Main problem are low-priced assholes which are working for low price or for free. (no quality included of course).

    You can read millions of blogs how easy is to make money online, but believe me it’s not easy, it was easy years ago….

  • Optimus Rhyme

    Tim, with the greatest respect you don’t know what you are talking about. I shudder to think of a day that every designer in this world abandons their craft to concentrate on the ones and zeroes. That’s what developers are for.

    Once you become a ‘proper’ designer you will be paid to think not to click. An understanding of strategic creative thinking and expression is far more important than wondering why a page looks wrong on Safari x.x. Any agency worth it’s salt has developers either in house or externally that they use to worry about the technical bits.

    No real creative ever became a designer ‘for the money’.

  • mttorley

    ahem, Customer Service… and support.. …..I win too much business because other designers do not know how to take care of clients.

  • @mttorley:disqus — you’re absolutely right about that.

    The one thing I’ll throw in is learning the basics of production and properly setting up files. I’m talking about layer naming and organization, using non-destructive editing (like layer masks in PS), bleeds– that sort of thing. You never know if you’ll have to revisit that file years later, or hand it over to another designer. Everyone (yourself included) will thank you for it.

  • Mario rocchi

    It depends.
    If you focus too much on code, you will not how to design.
    They are different fields.

  • If you’re talking strictly about *technical* design fundamentals, this seems like a decent jumping off point.

    But I think what’s left out is the idea of design from a truly practical standpoint. The core of design is so much more about making something that’s useful — not about fonts, colors, and icons. Sure, those can be a means to an end, but the most crucial aspect of design is constantly giving thought to how what you’re designing will be used, and making sure that it will do that job well.

  • Not to follow the bad habits and stupid decisions (yes, sometimes influenced by clients’ demands) of other (more experienced) designers.

    They need to learn: Just because you can – even if you see someone else do it – doesn’t mean you should.

    The best current example are the pop-over / modal signup for our mailing lists BS. Gawd, who thought poking me in the eye on entry was a good idea? Really? What’s next, blinking text?

    Please Gawd make them stop.

  • Andrew

    Guys, you need to cut Tim a break, he’s totally right. Just look at Jonathan Ive — As Tim stated, “you will make much more money doing it than being a designer.” If Ive’s success has anything to say it’s clear that being a developer instead of a designer is the only way to succeed professionally. Unless of course…Ive is a designer?

  • I agree with you, and I would love for this model of a ‘proper’ designer of yours to relate to most designers out there. However it doesn’t, because it’s an old take on what a designer should be. Today designers have to wear many hats for employers to see any value in them, otherwise they won’t be able to put any food on the table.

    As long as you stay true to design overall, and don’t compromise for money you’ll go far. But if you isolate yourself to purely design, you better be damn good/lucky to get a position in an agency which can afford you. Because they’re not a dime a dozen.

  • Jonathan Lupo

    Hmmm…I agree with learning the basics of composition, color, and typography, but, today, Design = Experience, so aspiring Designers need to develop skills to allow them to quickly prototype interactive experiences. Likely, that’s how people will experience their Design and interact with Brands.

  • megahuan

    Just start to learn designing. Thanks so much for providing these helpful tips!