The first step in design education no one will tell you about

When you’re a beginning or self-taught graphic designer, it’s only natural to do a Google search for advice. The Internet is full of tutorials that will tell you how to make a sick tattoo design, apply effects so button graphics look shiny, and lead you through the process of re-touching your glamor shots.

If you ask Google what for first steps in becoming a designer, they might take you to this list of beginner Photoshop tutorials, which does seem legit.

But those tutorials will only tell you how to master the technical elements of Photoshop. It’s kind of like being in the social media world and learning how to craft the perfect, shareable Facebook post… according to Facebook’s algorithm. Once that algorithm changes, your post will be invisible unless the qualities that make it shareable are, in a sense, timeless.

Good design is not based on knowing how to work a program like Photoshop. Although it’s important to be familiar with the the tools and master them, there’s a first step that will provide a better foundation. And it’s not very “graphic.”

Paper before screens

This is going to sound old-fashioned, cheesy and elementary, but the best first step is to pay attention to the design around you. Magazine ads, billboards, logos you see in your everyday life. How do they make you feel, and why do they make you feel that way? Is it the colors, the way the lines lead your eye to a certain point, the shapes in relation to each other? Maybe take pictures of designs that especially grab your focus.

Most likely, what you remember stands out because of one or more of the Gestalt Principles of Design. A group of German psychologists came up with these principles in the 1920s to describe their theory of how visual perception works. People respond to elements like repetition, similarity or continuing paths, which simplify and unite visual compositions. Smashing Magazine and Creative Bloq have good roundups of the principles.

Next, before you worry too much about how to reflect these principles in Photoshop or other image editing programs, take to paper. Use whatever you have and noodle around with free sketching and coloring. Try to come up with something that’s soothing or exciting to you. Work with whatever media you prefer, and don’t worry about feeling self conscious. I’m 30 and do this with pens and crayons,* so…

Here are some examples of my process, during a routine time I like to call #analogevenings.

Not only does it help me figure out what works in design, it is a great stress reliever. I do it while watching Netflix, as a respite from a day spent looking directly at computer screens (including tutorials).

Of course, this method may not work for you and that is perfectly fine, but if it does I would love to hear about it, and to have more people using the #analogevenings tag to make it a bit of a trend. Because as we all know, once there’s a hasthag for something, it’s official – #hasthagoritdidnthappen. (Kidding, mostly.)

*Also: adult coloring books are a thing now!

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