Take a minute to visualize the world’s most recognizable brands. If you thought of Nike, you probably imagined a black swoosh, or an outline of Michael Jordan dunking a basketball. If you thought of Apple, you likely visualized a grey apple with a bite taken out of the side. And if Amazon came to mind, an orange and black emblem with a smiling arrow probably popped into your head. 

But graphic design doesn’t just apply to logo creation. The world is becoming an increasingly visual place. Instagram has quickly become one of the largest social media networks in the world. Video games are exploding in popularity. And brands are turning to graphic design in order to better connect with their target audiences. In short, graphic design shapes our experiences in many different ways, and designers are at the forefront.

As graphic design continues to grow more and more essential to business success and brand identity, it should come as no surprise that the popularity of graphic design is expected to rise. Brands have less time than ever to connect with prospective customers: A recent study concluded that the average attention span has fallen to just eight seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000. Competitive brands need visual content that’s eye-catching and engaging—and that’s where graphic design comes in.

From Maja Faber’s Skillshare class, “Create a Repeat Pattern With Adobe Illustrator on the iPad”
From Maja Faber’s Skillshare class, “Create a Repeat Pattern With Adobe Illustrator on the iPad”

Learning Graphic Design

Becoming a professional designer takes practice, but there are a variety of different projects and activities you can tackle to improve your skills in the process. For example, a class on botanical drawing can make you a better freehand designer. A class on calligraphy could help you with typeography and font design. And trying out comic book art could change your perspective on character design and mascots. Graphic design often requires a broad set of technical skills, and practicing techniques that are out of your comfort zone can be a fun way to prepare yourself. Here are some great places to begin. 

  • Take a Graphic Design Course: If you’re trying your hand at graphic design for the first time, there’s no better place to start than online graphic design courses. Learning the basics will help you tackle design projects on a variety of different platforms, and as you pursue more specific avenues in graphic design, you can look for classes that are more tailored to your interests. Some graphic design classes will teach you how to design games, while others might focus on logo design tips, or crafting book covers. Whatever the subject, investing your time and effort into design courses will help you grow as a graphic designer over time.
  • Seek Out Freelance Work: Freelance design work enables many up-and-coming graphic designers to build their portfolio and client base, even if they aren’t devoted to graphic design full time. Upwork and Fiverr are just a few platforms that connect graphic designers (and other professionals) to businesses in need of their services. Working with clients as a freelancer can be a productive way to build your portfolio, practice your craft, and earn money, all at the same time.
  • Build an Online Portfolio: Maintaining a portfolio on websites like Dribbble and Behance can be incredibly helpful in attracting new clients. Each platform serves as a visual search engine for those in need of graphic design inspiration. They also allow graphic designers to showcase their best creations and solicit feedback from other designers.”Keep in mind that your portfolio is constantly evolving and changing as your skills improve,” says graphic designer Derrick Mitchell in his class, Building Out Your Design Portfolio. “As you’re able to create newer and better work, filter out the old stuff that’s not as appealing anymore or that might not relate to the work you’re trying to attract.”
  • Create a Website: Graphic designers can also benefit from producing a strong personal website. While it may be necessary to take a web design course to learn the ropes, it can pay off when you have an easy-to-find portfolio and can attract new business. This class from illustrator Mimi Chao is a wonderful how-to guide for building a portfolio website—with no coding required. On your site, try to use a combination of clean and attention-grabbing design, and be sure to include a resume and examples of your work.
  • Design a T-shirt: Designing t-shirts is another way for aspiring graphic designers to gain exposure, improve their craft, and earn new business. To get started, try taking a course that focuses on creating compelling t-shirt graphics—designer Christopher Delorenzo’s Hey, Cool Shirt is a good start. T-shirt design courses guide you through the entire design lifecycle, from researching brand goals to packaging your work to be properly printed.
  • Research Other Graphic Designers: Look through the works of notable designers to pinpoint what about the design you find interesting. Then, try recreating the designs using your own language and style to shape the outcome. Start with the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Collection: This digitized collection features works by world-renowned designers from a wide variety of eras and design movements. In scrolling through the collections online—and later doing your best to create an interpretive design inspired by them—you can educate yourself about famous visual movements while also practicing fundamental graphic design skills.

Remember, graphic design is about telling unique stories—ones that will inevitably end up shaping the world around us. By practicing various design projects, be they through online graphic design courses or freelance projects that test your skills, you can create work that shapes your perspective and changes the environment around you for the better.

Get Started with the Basics

Learn the fundamentals of good design with Dangerdom Studios’s Dominic Flask in his Skillshare Original.

How Perspective and Skill Can Shape Your Designs

Learning graphic design might seem like a daunting task. After all, the best graphic designers know how to use multiple different kinds of software. They can create icons from scratch. They can make t-shirts, design their own fabrics, print posters, and many things in between.

But to be successful, it is important to find the right learning method for you. Some students prefer to learn graphic design by doing—taking a handful of core design principles, like design theory or the golden ratio in art, before applying them in a hands-on way. Other students prefer watching a series of lectures and taking detailed notes on concepts. By understanding the way you learn best, you will be better equipped to grow as a confident graphic designer.

Becoming a professional graphic designer starts with perspective. Prospective students will need to look at everyday objects with a new lens. Everything—from the packaging that cradles a new electronic device to the advertisements you see on television to the fabric design you see on clothes—is produced by a team of graphic design professionals. 

Graphic designers use specialized applications built specifically for different projects. A professional graphic designer might use Photoshop to edit and retouch vector designs, or use Illustrator to create vectorial illustrations. Graphic designers also regularly work with Sketch, to create website mockups; Axure, to build product mockups and prototypes; and InDesign, to create presentations and marketing materials.

But design isn’t just related to creating various business materials. Design thinking is a concept that can be applied to many different areas of daily life. From the layout of your office to the visitor flow on your favorite website, design thinking is always at play. Consider these other popular design categories. 

Image from Ellen Lupton’s Skillshare Original, “How Posters Work”
Image from Ellen Lupton’s Skillshare Original, “How Posters Work”

Poster Design 

How frequently have you been inspired to see a new movie as a result of an eye-catching poster? To design posters well takes skill and technical knowledge, and poster design has a long history of influencing graphic design trends. 

“Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, the poster is dead, it doesn’t exist anymore.’ If you’re saying that, then your eyes aren’t open. because posters are everywhere,” says Ellen Lupton, a museum curator and the instructor behind Skillshare Original Demystifying Graphic Design: How Posters Work. “Pay attention to how they grab us, to how they bring us into a special world—even for just a few seconds.”

Need some inspiration? Try looking at old movie and concert posters. Understanding historical design movements can help aspiring artists think of creative new approaches for their own projects.

Book Cover Design 

Book cover design is another genre that has influenced other areas of graphic design, from theories about complementary colors to even the most basic element of design. Take the well-known works of book cover designer, and the current Associate Art Director at Knopf, Chip Kidd. Kidd is credited with designing the book covers of 1Q84, The Mind’s Eye, and The Snow Was Black, among hundreds of other covers. 

“You’re creating a piece of visual material, but it’s a piece of art that’s in service to another piece of art,” says Kidd of the medium in his course Introduction to Book Cover Design: Making Stories Visual. Kidd’s work has made him an iconic name in the design world, with a TED Talk on the importance of design thinking and a National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement. But getting started with book design doesn’t take a high-profile job or even a paid assignment. “Pick a book, preferably one that you love, and look for clues about what could and should be done with the design that perhaps was overlooked before,” Kidd suggests. Then, just keep creating. “It’s very important to try and create fresh work. You are only as good as the next thing that you’re working on, and I think that’s actually a pretty healthy attitude to have.”

Learn Book Cover Design

Create your first book cover design with Chip Kidd in his class, Introduction to Book Cover Design: Making Stories Visual.

Character Design

Character design—creating a company mascot or cartoon—will require you to think about drawing people, animals, or other figures in a in order to achieve a specific result. Coke’s Santa Claus, for example, features a warm, round, and jovial figure. He is well aligned with Coke’s design language. IBM, on the other hand, features an industrial-looking bumblebee in its well-known advertising posters. The bee is in keeping with the company’s conservative and forward-thinking values. Try taking a class on character illustration and see what ideas come up for your brand or project—you might be surprised.

Icon Design

Icon design is an important aspect of graphic design that many people don’t understand well. “A good way to think about the power of visual communication is to think about the most important information that you encounter on a daily basis, and that’s health and safety information,” says Edward Boatman, co-founder of the Noun Project and the instructor of Icon Design: Creating Pictograms with Purpose. “That information is almost always communicated visually through pictogram. That’s because these little images can make a huge impact, they’re incredibly powerful.”

These simple, straightforward images might seem easy to design, but creating a meaningful icon takes skill and a discerning eye. Each individual design in a series of icons must be bold and easy to understand, and you must be able to deliver a precise template on which your client can base future designs.

Ryan Putnam’s nature self-portrait from his Skillshare Original, “Exploring Your Illustration Style”
Ryan Putnam’s nature self-portrait from his Skillshare Original, “Exploring Your Illustration Style”

Graphic designers who are serious about improving their work should consider investing their time in developing a unique design language. Doing so can help designers to create visuals and products that have a meaningful impact on an organization, or even the world. 

Telling Stories Through Branding

Good design tells a compelling story, and how you tell that story will vary depending on the design language you use. IBM, for example, has a well-known company logo and recognizable design. Paul Rand, the mastermind behind it, introduced the now-famous eight-bar IBM logo in the early 1970s. He was also the creator of the celebrated Eye, Bee, M poster from 1981. His work contributed to IBM’s transformation from stodgy punch-card machine company to one known for making high-quality computing equipment. Thanks in part to the way Rand produced his designs, IBM is widely known today as a highly professional and successful technology company.

Coca-Cola’s approach was different, but no less effective. The organization has a clear design language: It conveys playfulness and whimsy as opposed to conservative business efficiency. The world-famous Coca-Cola logo was designed around when the company was established in 1885. Since then, the iconic image has continuously evolved, staying true to the original design language while tweaking the details for different results. The color red was added in the late 1940s, allowing for more eye-catching signs in store windows. The white wavy line below the text, known as a Dynamic Ribbon Device, was added in 1969—and is still used today. The brand’s friendly, warm, and creative design language allows Coca-Cola to continue to be regarded as a friendly brand beloved by millions of customers.

Image from Sophia Yeshi’s Skillshare Original, “Great Graphic Design: Create Emotional, Gripping Typographic Art”
Image from Sophia Yeshi’s Skillshare Original, “Great Graphic Design: Create Emotional, Gripping Typographic Art”

For a more recent example, look at the compelling design language developed by Slack, an instant messaging platform used by businesses across the globe. While other work-oriented instant messaging platforms exist—some offered by large organizations like Facebook, Microsoft, and Atlassian—Slack remains a leader in the space thanks in part to their design language. Within the Slack platform, you’ll find emojis that playfully convey the latest information about product updates, a clear use of color that makes finding and reading messages visually pleasing, and helpful icons placed throughout the platform. The Slack interface is friendly, inviting, and intuitive. As a result, people who start using Slack on a trial basis usually like the experience enough to become long-term users.

Logo Creation for the Modern Business

Slack also has a memorable logo: The “Slack mark,” as the company calls it, is a diagonally placed, multi-colored hashtag sign. The logo is executed so well that in a few short years, the Slack mark has become synonymous with the brand; viewers know that it is associated with Slack without needing to see the company name.

Business logo design is a key skill for many professional designers. But creating a logo doesn’t just require basic graphic design skills—it also requires an understanding of how to speak to an organization’s goals and mission. The best logos can help organizations create a brand identity and brand recognition

As a symbol for one of the world’s most valuable companies, the Amazon logo is simple, but it also conveys the organization’s reason for being. The yellow arrow at the bottom of the logo is shaped like a smile, indicating that Amazon is dedicated to providing outstanding customer service. And it points from the first “A” in Amazon to the letter “Z,” indicating that the organization is committed to providing customers with a full spectrum of products—from A to Z.

FedEx is another brand with an iconic logo. When the company was founded in 1973, its original logo was “Federal Express” written on a diagonal slant. The logo was designed to evoke a sense of trustworthiness and speed. In 1994, FedEx rebranded from Federal Express to the shortened FedEx. With it, the company logo changed to the now-famous block purple and orange letters. If you look closely at the negative space between the second “E” and the “X,” you’ll notice an arrow. The arrow is intended to evoke a sense of accuracy and speed, giving FedEx customers peace of mind that parcels will get to their destinations on time.

Grid Systems vs. Circular Logo Frameworks

Logo design can be challenging, but many graphic designers enjoy creating logos for exactly that reason—it takes passion, knowledge, and dedication to the fundamentals of graphic design. To create an iconic logo, there are two schools of thought. One encourages designers to work within a grid system, which allows designers to create logos that have proportionality and that are easily modifiable. If a business owner needs a logo in a new size, it is easy to resize a logo created using the traditional grid system.

The other popular method is circular design. BMW is an example of a company that created an iconic logo using a circular logo framework. The BMW logo was created in 1917 when two German airplane manufacturers merged. One manufacturer’s logo included a black horse, and the other manufacturer’s logo included a Bavarian flag—checkered in blue and white diamonds. As a compromise, the newly formed company opted for a black ringed logo with a blue and white checkered flag in the middle. Since then, the logo has undergone few changes, but the round design has become a recognizable symbol across the globe.

Updating a Logo

Readers may notice that some of the most iconic logos have actually been redesigned over time. It’s important to remember that good design may need to be updated and optimized over time. Consider Apple, a good example of how revamping a company logo can help the brand tell a new narrative. When the company was founded in 1976, Steve Jobs designed a little-known version of the Apple logo: Sir Isaac Newton sitting under an apple tree. The company’s name, Apple Computers, was wrapped around this illustration. One year later, Jobs commissioned Rob Janoff to design a new version of the Apple logo. The new version featured an apple with a bite taken out of the side, divided into a rainbow of colorful bars. The rainbow was an homage to Newton’s separation of various color spectrums—and a celebration of the Apple computer’s ability to display a full-color interface. Since the 1977 re-design, the Apple logo has been updated four more times, and today, the official Apple logo is still a minimalistic chrome variation on Jannoff’s 1977 framework.

The Apple logo points to the company’s mission, while also remaining timeless enough that it has endured through the decades with only a few variations. The best logos are ones that provide the brand with a basis for visual identity, but are also able to evolve over time.

To begin creating timeless logos, consider taking a company logo designing course, most courses will include a logo design tutorial that covers line drawing, concept art creation, design branding, and other design elements that are essential to successfully making a great logo.

Join Paula Scher, a partner at Pentagram, for her Skillshare Original, Dynamic Brand Identity: Designing Logos That Evolve.

The real key to good logo design is to keep the company’s purpose in mind. Remember that the Amazon logo, for example, includes logo elements that speak to the organization’s dedication to customer service and to providing customers with access to a wide variety of products. The FedEx logo uses an arrow to convey the company’s mission of fast and accurate delivery. The IBM logo was designed to show that the organization was traditional, yet forward thinking. Even the Coca-Cola logo was designed, and later modified, to evoke a sense of friendliness and togetherness when viewed by the organization’s target audience. That means that it is important for designers to understand the organization’s intended brand voice. So always start by determining a company’s purpose—from there, creating a meaningful logo will likely be an easier task.

A Company Driven By Design

For a textbook example of what happens when design-oriented thinking is built into the original framework of a company, look to AirBnb. Airbnb was founded by a group of designers, including now-CEO Brian Chesky, who graduated with a degree in industrial design from the Rhode Island School of Design. Chesky often says that the company is driven by design, and it’s visible every time a prospective user engages with the brand.

The Airbnb website is clean, unique, and highly usable, and the app feels well-designed, uncluttered, and on-brand. Even the AirBnb headquarters in San Francisco was carefully designed to bring employees closer to the experience the company provides for both hosts and guests—meeting rooms within Airbnb’s office are even inspired by hosts’ homes. This helps employees to put themselves in the shoes of their users when talking about the future of the company.

Airbnb’s success should inspire all aspiring designers: Design-driven thinking can positively impact a business in many different ways. From creating a compelling logo to building an on-brand office, design-driven thinking can play a powerful role in an organization’s success.

Image from Olimpia Zagnoli's Skillshare Original, "Graphic Illustration: Boldly Design with Color and Shape"
Image from Olimpia Zagnoli’s Skillshare Original, “Graphic Illustration: Boldly Design with Color and Shape”

Graphic Design Specializations

Graphic designers can choose to specialize in one aspect of design creation, for example, logo design, or diversify for experience in many different disciplines. Designers who are able to level up their skills over time will also be able to get into a creative routine. Each day can bring with it new design challenges that provide knowledgeable designers with unique stimulation. Take Hartmut Esslinger, the founder of Frog Design, as an example of this. Esslinger was a design generalist, able to design the shell of Apple computers one day, and able to advise other companies on user interface design the next. As such a knowledgeable designer, Esslinger was able to constantly ply his trade, and in so doing, he impacted the everyday lives of millions of end users. 

Explore Your Creative Expression

Graphic design can be an incredibly rewarding career—one in which you have the ability to shape the visual language of an organization. If done well, your work can live on for decades to come, perhaps becoming the iconic image revered by professionals, laypeople, and academics alike.

Design thinking provides all sorts of people with the opportunity to begin a creative pursuit, whether it be professionally, as a freelancer, or as a hobbyist. Practicing graphic design can make you a more creative person, and enable you to tackle other challenges when the need arises. But design-oriented thinking is not just about creating a t-shirt graphic, 3D design, or piece of Photoshop art—it can be applied to all sorts of problems. From planning the layout of a major company’s campus to crafting a personal art project, design-oriented thinking can have a significant and positive impact on your work and on your life.

Take the next step in becoming a more creative thinker and try your hand at a graphic design course, whether it’s a crash course for beginners or a more advanced topic to further develop your skills. Graphic design tutorials can teach you how to create a watermark, how to visualize data, or simply the principles of design. Whatever the course, the content is sure to make you a more creative and successful thinker.

So what are you waiting for? Take the plunge and get started here.

Written By

Dacey Orr Sivewright

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