5 things I wish I knew before jumping into graphic design

It feels a little strange to call myself a graphic designer. I didn’t go to art school (although thinking back, I really should have), I have never worked in a professional graphic design setting (which actually sounds pretty fun to me) and talk to me in graphic speak and I’ll probably have no clue what you’re saying (it’s happened and I just pretend I understand, then quickly google the terms once I have the chance).

I’m not a professional, in the traditional sense of the word, but the super cool thing about our time is that you get to learn unconventionally and make your own way.  Since I create graphics and art work and stationery for a living, I have decided (and so has Better Homes + Gardens, apparently) to just go with the graphic designer title.

Drawing and doodling is fun, watercolors are always peace-inducing, but my real love is creating digitally on the computer. I’ve been at this for over 12 years (first with custom stationery, now with blogging + artprints + paper works) and have been thinking through what I wish I knew before starting.

I’m often asked how I got started with designing and always enjoy chatting with others who want to dabble in graphic design. For those who want to join a design firm or work in a professional setting, I’m probably not the girl to talk to. But for those who want to make their kid’s birthday invitation or turn their doodles into art work or make a new logo for a handmade business, I’m totally with you.

I call it graphic design for the everyday because there are seriously a million ways to use your design skills in your day to day life (here are 18 ways, for example).

If you are new to designing with your computer or thinking about learning, this post is for you.

So here’s my list …  5 things I wish I knew before jumping into graphic design.

5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Jumping Into Graphic Design / jones design company

1. You don’t have to be an expert

I do not want to discredit professional graphic designers at all, so let me begin by saying if you want to work in the industry and get the very best training possible, go the traditional route and become an expert.

If you aren’t looking for a career path and you just want to dabble in graphic design – like if you want to design your own wedding invitations, or you want to start a small business selling clip art, or you’re helping your sister create a logo for her new blog – don’t let your amateur status stop you.

When I started designing stationery I literally had zero experience. I just learned as I went, playing around with different techniques, figuring things out along the way and faking it the whole time. You don’t have to be an expert.

2. Start with the right program

My experience with graphic design began with Microsoft Publisher – mainly because it was what I had. When that didn’t do all I needed, I moved on to a free design program which worked okay, but became frustrating when, again, I couldn’t do all I needed (like automatically center items or undo without having to start over).

I was super intimidated by Adobe Illustrator because it seemed like something way over my head, but little by little, I figured it out and believe me, it is a million times better than any other program I’ve tried. It’s robust, that’s for sure, but you don’t have to use all the functions to enjoy the benefits it offers. Useful things like adding glyphs and spacing out letters, making clipping masks and picking colors are all simple to do with Illustrator. Start with the right program from the beginning and you’ll avoid all sorts of creative frustrations. (learn how to get Adobe Illustrator at the bottom of this post)

3. There’s no need for a fancy computer

You’ve probably heard it said that a Mac is best for creating graphics. This is true and I’m a big fan of all things Apple, but I didn’t start out with anything special. In fact, the laptop I used when I first began designing sounded like the motor was about to take off after about an hour of use and it got so hot I had to keep it off my lap while working. Definitely nothing fancy. There’s no need to go out an invest in a new computer, just make sure the one you have has enough memory to run Illustrator (find details for system requirements here).

4. And you don’t need any special gadgets either

Several years ago Ryan saw that I was loving this design stuff and he bought me a wacom tablet and pen. It was so, so sweet and a really great tool for digital creating and yet, I’ve only used it twice (#sorryhusband).

Moral of the story is: don’t go out and buy the extras until you know you need them. Most of the time I design using my wireless mouse on my main computer, occasionally with the trackpad on my laptop and when I really need details, I’ll draw on paper first and scan it in to Illustrator to turn into a vector graphic (see more of that here).

5. You will get (so much) better with time

As with most learned skills, practice makes a huge difference. As you learn new techniques and helpful short cuts you’ll get faster and more proficient and over time, you’ll really hone in on your style. It’s fun to see how your designs progress with time. You may cringe a little at your first work (I sure do!) but that’s all part of the learning curve.

BONUS: take a class

About 5 years ago, my best friend and I decided to take a beginning Adobe Illustrator class at a community college. I had been using the program for a few years – all of it self-taught with a few pointers from a designer-friend – but I knew there was so much more to learn and taking the class with KC was a great excuse for some girl time. We did learn a ton and it gave me an extra boost to my graphic design confidence. I should have taken a class (or two or three) much earlier in my career.

If you are itching to learn how to create graphics, if you are needing a refresher on Illustrator, if you and a friend just want an excuse to get together to take a class, you will love the Simplified Graphic Design courses. Registration is open for just a few more days, so come over here for all of the details and to grab your spot.


If you’d like to join both classes for a $20 savings, the class bundle is for you.


and also … you’ve got this :)

21 Responses to 5 things I wish I knew before jumping into graphic design

  1. Maureen Wildauer October 5, 2015 at 2:43 pm #

    I wrote a long comment the other day about Illustrator with the biggest part being a question purchasing a “forever” copy of Illustrator. I don’t understand if it is true that the only way to use the newer adobe products is to “rent” them monthly. Can you help me understand this issue. I only do this as a hobby and I am not sure I want to pay rent for something I only use 6 months of the year. I do own PSCS5 and LR3. I use them and love them.
    Thank you for your help.

    • emily October 5, 2015 at 5:45 pm #

      I think I sent you an email :)

      Adobe has now switched to a monthly membership model for all of their products. Yes, it was nice to own the software and just pay one time, but it was so expensive! So I like that you can now pay a small amount each month and that makes it more affordable for the masses. Also, with the membership you will always have the most updated version of the product, which is nice.

      If you find that you are not using the software, I believe you can cancel your membership so you are not wasting money.

  2. Rhoda October 3, 2015 at 3:15 pm #

    I always wanted to go to design school too…and I fall for the gadgets every time!! I’ve taught myself everything online through classes and tutorials here and there over the years. Practice and patience are really the best teachers :) a little persistence never hurts either!

  3. Maureen Wildauer October 1, 2015 at 5:47 pm #

    So Emily I am interested in learning how to “play around” on Illustrator. I have PsCs5.1, Lightroom 3 and an older version of Elements. I realize my versions are older. I have been busy doing other things and not playing around with these programs for a few years. I even bought a new Canon 5d MarkIII a few years ago switching all my stuff from Nikon. Then my mom got cancer and hubby lost his job and I just stopped all of it. I really desire to learn my “new” camera and then play with the Adobe stuff …..especially learning Illustrator. My big question is…..do I have to buy the Illustrator by the month? You can never just own the product? I don’t like that. As I explained I am not doing this for a job…more of a hobby. When life gets in the way I let my hobby go to back burner but then I would still be paying for the program? That seems so odd. Could you (or anyone) explain how this works? Thank you so much for sharing your time and talent. I want to take the class and I love the self paced aspect. But I need the program. Hmmmmmm…..what to do????

    • emily October 5, 2015 at 5:45 pm #

      Adobe has now switched to a monthly membership model for all of their products. Yes, it was nice to own the software and just pay one time, but it was so expensive! So I like that you can now pay a small amount each month and that makes it more affordable for the masses. Also, with the membership you will always have the most updated version of the product, which is nice.

      If you find that you are not using the software, I believe you can cancel your membership so you are not wasting money.

  4. Gray October 1, 2015 at 10:28 am #

    So you would recommend Illustrator over InDesign for a blog etc.??

  5. Joy B Rudolph October 1, 2015 at 8:52 am #

    Check your Instagram profile! It looks like you were hacked :(

  6. Charisa October 1, 2015 at 8:25 am #

    Thank you for this post! I loved your Simplified Graphic Design class – any chance you’re working on a follow-up class that’s just a bit more advanced?

  7. Vicki Elish September 30, 2015 at 8:37 pm #

    This course looks great! I have been using Adobe Elements and Photoshop for years for my photography and occasionally use it to “create.” Like you, I have tried several design programs but always felt limited. I just always felt that Illustrator would be overkill for what I wanted to do, since it was, for the most part, done on a part time basis. I now have time and inclination to do something on a full time basis and your course sounds perfect for pushing me into using Illustrator. Will sign up as soon as I get my subscription to Illustrator nailed down.

  8. Vick Elish September 30, 2015 at 6:55 pm #

    Will be joining your class! Just watched the freebie video and loved it. I have been working with Adobe Elements and Photoshop for years but shied away from Illustrator because I figured it would be too complicated for me. Like you, I have used other publishing software but was always disappointed with the limitations. I have also used Photoshop to do some things but it is a lot hard than Illustrator for graphic design work. I am ready to take the plunge!

  9. Abi September 30, 2015 at 1:41 pm #

    Your class is exactly what i need! I read your 2013 post about your magazine feature. How awesome. I was suprised they brought a stash of props tbough! LOL.

  10. Stephanie September 30, 2015 at 1:24 pm #

    I just wanted to thank you so much for all of your help with graphic design! I also started in Microsoft Publisher and then did your course and moved to Adobe Illustrator. I love it so much! I have just finished my first official design job on done wedding invitations! I had a few ‘google their terms’ moments with the printers but other than that it was a wonderful experience and I am so grateful for your course to start me of in the right direction. Thank you again!

    • emily September 30, 2015 at 2:27 pm #

      Thank you stephanie for such a great testimonial! I’m so glad you’ve been able to learn a bunch and fake your way through it :) And yay for your first official design job!!! So exciting.


  11. Abby September 30, 2015 at 12:39 pm #

    Is Adobe Illustrator and your class too advanced for a 13 year old?

    • emily September 30, 2015 at 2:27 pm #

      I don’t think so at all! My son (age 11) has watched a few of the videos to learn and he enjoys them!

    • Stephanie September 30, 2015 at 2:30 pm #

      I started the course with my sister last year age 13 and I was age 14. Emily has made it very easy to follow along and by other sister age 12 is don’t it this year. It was great and we could understand and follow along easily!

      • Stephanie September 30, 2015 at 2:32 pm #

        I’m sorry for the typo in my comment up there…. ‘My sister is doing it this year ‘ is what I meant to type….

  12. Carmen September 30, 2015 at 12:32 pm #

    Thank you for making the distinction between professional and amateur graphic design. As someone with formal training and industry experience I can tell you it’s endlessly frustrating to encounter these “graphic designer” types in professional settings. I have nothing against someone getting creative and trying things out, but it’s very discouraging to see the market saturated and cheapened by the “I’m a graphic designer because I can use paint” crowd.

    • emily September 30, 2015 at 2:28 pm #

      Yes, for sure. I very much appreciate all the talented artists out there and do not want to diminish all of the formal training, work, education, tests, projects that you work through before even making a penny. Thanks for doing what you do to make the world a prettier place!

  13. Whitney Shortt September 30, 2015 at 11:42 am #

    Love the info in this post! Are there any books you’d recommend to a total newbie on graphic design? I’m a photographer and work with photoshop, but haven’t made the plunge into AI yet.


    • emily September 30, 2015 at 2:29 pm #

      I haven’t found a book that I love – the Illustrator text books are mildly helpful, but I like to learn by watching (which is why I created the video classes). Anyone else have a book recommendation?

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