Don’t Break the Bank to Learn Design

Good news! You don’t need the $4,000 computer, $1,000 worth of software, or a $xx,xxx degree to see if design is a good professional choice for future you. To be clear, this article is not on the merits of traditional education vs. certifications vs. bootcamps vs. self-learning. That’s a hornets’ nest to poke another time.

Designers embarking on their learning journeys today are entering a field dominated by the needs of connected multi-device living, peers with eyes toward the realms of VR & AR, and a near future towards unimaginable world-shifting hardware systems all relying on each other at the software and hardware levels. The pressure to buy a machine, the software, and an education in design has never been stronger.

There Will Be a Spark

If you’re already a designer by day, do you remember when it clicked that design was going to be the thing for future you? For many people it kind of just — happens. My moment was back in the Macromedia Flash days. While on a school computer I somehow learned to find things on the internet, which led me to finding graphic designer Joen Asmussen’s website. From then on I knew I had to find more and learn how to make these things real by my own doing.

Visit and click that enter button, you know you want to.

This moment is important to any potential professional designer. The energy in this spark builds to momentum if its cultivated and the memory will carry you through the doubt and steep learning curves that will be present throughout the entirety of your professional career.

From Crayons to Driverless Electric Cars

Netflix released a great series featuring a few incredible designers titled Abstract. One of the best stories they tell is that of Ralph Gilles, currently Global President Product Design, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

You’ll see many designers vomiting words over their expensive notebooks and pens and how they are absolute necessities of their craft. Don’t let that type of attitude get the best of you.

Ralph, the head of design for multiple automotive brands, started his design journey as a kid with crayons, markers, and all the things you’d expect a kid have around the house. When has a child demanded a leather bound, gridded paper notebook with a pen that writes smoothly but not you know — smooth?

Get yo’ fancy-pants colored pencils if you must, but the cheap stuff will work just as well right now.

Having fun during these early stages of learning design is important. You’ll have plenty of time to deal with specs, measurements, budgets, deadlines, and all the other fancy words you’ll come to adore. First things on your list of must haves for learning design are some cheap crayons, maybe colored pencils if you really must feel more adult, and a lot of cheap paper. Construction paper and a pair of scissors if you really want to take it to the next level.

Design Will Never Leave You Alone

What Ralph and many other successful designers did at the beginning of their journey, knowing or unknowingly, was purposefully study the good and bad design around them.

So here is step one: When you see a design that makes you say “WOW! How did they do that?” grab your cheap tools, and get drawing. The trick is not to get stuck on the how, but focus on the why. Ask yourselfWhy did they make the design these colors?” or “Why is this so large and this other thing so small?” Your lines don’t need to be straight, your squares can be rectangle-parallelogram-slanted things, but your brain absolutely needs to be thinking, questioning, and examining the whole time.

Examples of questions to ask:

  • Why are the buttons in this design all rounded, but this one is square?
  • Why are there little knobs on the buttons on my car’s dashboard?
  • Why does this screen use a black and white design when they have so many colors to pick from?
  • Why does this pull door say push?
  • And so, so many more …

Starting this way, you’ll quickly find the work that you consider to be the best. You won’t have a clue why that work is worlds-beyond-your-capabilities awesome, you’ll just know it is and that is 100% fine. What you’re doing right now is training your brain to see great design in the wild. Don’t lock yourself into apps and websites, because there is design everywhere.

Be like Ralph and look at what makes great design in cars, and when a movie poster catches your eye consider how it did, then when a scene from that movie makes you want to bawl your eyes out examine the camera angles, the color treatment, the pacing. When great design works on you, examine it and try your best to understand why it had the effects it did.

Talk to Your Heroes

When Ralph was 14, his Aunt mailed some of his sketches to Chrysler on a chance. Soon they received a response with recommendations on schools to consider for Ralph to better prepare for a future in automotive design.

Getting perspective and even possible mentorship from people who can see your potential will be some of the most important direction you will receive in your entire career. This is where your practice of studying good design and learning to ask the right questions is going to show its importance.

Be someone’s caffeine-boosted, notification powered dopamine-high with a great question.

The design industry is special because it’s built by people who are natural communicators. Extroverts, introverts, and everyone else mixed in there are all in the business of communication if they’re in any form a designer. It is a common occurrence that seasoned designers will want to help someone trying to learn their craft at any opportunity. So send a question to someone who’s work you adore. Find them on places like behance, dribbble, twitter or find an email on their company website, and send them a short message about your learning goals and a question about their work that relates to those goals.

Here’s a tip: Don’t reach for flattery. The fact you noticed something in their work and it sparked the conversation is already an extremely flattering gesture to most designers. Do be sure to thank them for their time!

Don’t worry if you haven’t pushed a pixel or have nothing you deem worthy to show these people. Design is 90% communication and 10% everything you actually see. Asking questions and listening to the advice and insights in response will fill a treasure trove of knowledge that you’ll be able to grow exponentially if you consistently connect with people.


Either digitally or with a traditional journal, keep track of what you’re learning. I recommend a combination of both these tactics. If you have a smartphone download an app such as Evernote or use your devices built-in note taking application. Throughout your day, when something catches your eye or you have a thought you’d like to remember capture it quickly with your device.

Not sure what you should be looking for? Read through this list and let your subconscious do the rest.

Next, you’ll want to capture these to a central location. There is a power in writing your thoughts and sketching your ideas with pen or pencil. Establish a time during your day where you sit down and transfer your quick notes into a written journal. Find a quiet time within your day that you can be with your thoughts and utilize it as a way to recollect your experiences and remember why they were important enough to capture.

Again you don’t need the fancy heavy-sided journals many designers flaunt. They are nice, and look great at client meetings, but when pencil hits paper there isn’t a real difference in 99% of use cases. Work with what you’ve got. If you want something that feels designery- grab something at Field Notes. If you have something like a spiral bound notebook around the house not being used- use it for this!

Note taking is an art form that is lost on most by the time high-school ends. Writing things down has been proven time and time again as a way to carve stronger memories, clarify insights, and free your mind to do deep thinking without carrying the weight of your whole day in memory. Make observations of the world around you, doodle meaningless squiggles, clip a postcard in. Your journal will be a reflection of how your mind works, so make it work for you.

Read, Watch, and Listen Differently

There are so many free or cheap resources out there for learning design that I can understand how quickly you’ll become overwhelmed with where to start. Overtime you will create an understanding of where you’d like to go in the future as a designer and you’ll have the notes, conversations, and sketches to move that decision along. Now you are ready to become a serious student of design.

Reading — Web

Start right here. Medium offers a huge array of quality information related to design. A lot of what you’ll find here is tailored to specialties within the industry, so it may be hit or miss for you. Here is a list of places to visit that will offer deep, wide wells of information related to your goals:

Smashing Magazine — Part of the old guard of digital design resources, Smashing can take you back to the pre-responsive design days to help you understand how the industry has learned, evolved, and changed over the last decade of technological advancement.

tutsplus — Another site that will bring back memories for most designers and developers currently in the trade is the tutsplus network. They do offer paid premium content, but their free content has always been a reliable source of information.

Abduzeedo — This site branches out beyond designing for the screen and offers many tutorials, articles, and collections to inspire any designer.

InvisionApp Blog — Bringing the focus back to designing for the screen, the InvisionApp team has consistently put out great content about prototyping designs and working with teams to produce quality experiences for users.

Reading — Books

The Design of Everyday Things — This is probably on the desk or at least in the building of every business that has a mind towards design. Don Norman is a household name in the world of design. If you don’t buy the book, at least look up posts, interviews, and articles by Don. This is an Amazon affiliate link.

Pretty Much Everything — Aaron Draplin and his design company are a tremendously cool story to hear. Grab this book and you’ll start to think about all the different paths your interests and hobbies can take you with the introduction of design to your life. Again, if you don’t get the book look up everything the man Aaron Draplin has done. This is an Amazon affiliate link.

Don’t Make Me Think — Another staple of the design industry. This is focused on interactive mediums and in particular the screen based industries. This book has the track record of helping hundreds of thousands designers level up their skills. This is an Amazon affiliate link.

Hooked — Most designers practicing in the digital realm are part of product teams. Understanding why your users and customers keep coming back will help you to create better experiences while helping to grow the business behind it. Psychology and why people make decisions are vastly more important than the pixels you’re pushing. This is an Amazon affiliate link.

Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days — Today’s business world moves fast. Investors want to know as soon as possible if an idea is worth dumping time and money into. The Design Sprint has come along to help make that decision. This is an Amazon affiliate link.


Sometimes reading isn’t what your eyes or brain really want to do. For more visual learning, YouTube has had something akin to a renaissance lately of designers and developers creating great content to inspire and teach others.

The Futur — Chris Do and team have been killing it with the new direction of their channel. The focus they’ll pull into the business side of design is where they really shine, but their design critiques, interviews, and case studies are full of information you’re going to watch and rewatch to soak it all in.

Will Paterson — If you’re looking to try your hand at brand design, you absolutely must see Will’s channel. Will has a great approach to teaching that clearly explains the steps he’s taking or why he’s critiquing work in a specific way. You’ll learn a lot about the language of design by watching Will’s videos, which will be very important in establishing yourself as a professional in the future.

NerdWriter — Earlier I mentioned design being 90% communication and 10% everything else. This channel breathes that perspective through its short documentary style videos on movies, current events, and an assortment of other topics that dig deep into the history, psychology, and decision motivations you may have never realized were such critical parts of some of your favorites.

99U — This channel is a collection of videos from the research arm of Behance. Skimming the titles of the videos on this channel will show the big concepts they’ll communicate, which are from some of the biggest names in the design field and the related industries around it.


Sometimes you’ll want something more on-the-go friendly or low-key down-time filling. Podcasts fit this bill perfectly. There is no visual aspect to this, which may be surprising, but the research and presentation done by many of these are awe-inspiring.

99percentinvisible — In my opinion this is the most important resource of all linked from this article. Roman Mars and team are top-dogs in the podcast arena, and after listening to one or two episodes, you’ll be hooked. The topics tend to be those that designers or other thought workers can pull new perspectives from, yet it’s produced in a perfectly entertaining manner that you’ll find yourself listening to a topic you had no interest in before Roman’s voice lures you in to binging episode after episode.

I once listened to nothing but 99pi episodes for a 16 hour road-trip, I can’t give them a stronger recommendation than that.

The Tim Ferriss Show — Tim is the master of the interview. The range of guests he’ll introduce you to is astonishing and eye-opening. Many people will tell you design is all about telling a story, which is why Tim’s podcast lands on this list. Through his interview style you’ll hear stories from his guests that will change your outlook on your struggles, inspire you to take action in areas of your life, or help a friend through struggles and accomplishments. The motivations, lessons and outcomes from this podcast are akin to how a designer should hope a user responds to their work.

Freakonomics Radio — Another piece of advice you’ll hear from many designers will come in the form of one word: Empathy. Freakonomics Radio is overflowing with empathy which you can feel growing through the runtime of each episode. The connections they’re able to make with people through interviews, research, history, and good ol’ fashioned reporting are an example for every designer in how to understand people who are nothing like you. This podcast is a masterclass in applying empathy and research.

The Big Web Show — If you’re going to build things for the web, you have to know who Jeffrey Zeldman is. This podcast has a history back to 2010 on itunes and is not only a great resource for knowing who’s-who in the web industry, but also serves as a time capsule for where the industry has been and the struggles those who came before you fought through.

Create Your Destiny

Making it this far into learning design should have painted a better picture of where you hope to grow as a professional. You should have pages of sketches, journals with notes bleeding from each page, maybe a collection of clippings from magazines, screen captures of web apps, a growing pile of bad-ass classic magazines, hours of video and podcast time chalked up.

The biggest decision many people will need to make is the school or no school one. I nor anyone else can make that decision for you, but some advice I can give is to think about your purpose. What is the connecting trend in everything you’ve learned, between the people you’ve connected with, between your late night work filled binges and the lunch time inspirations?

If you’re like Ralph, wanting to join an industry that has global brand reach and influence on the economies of countries, a degree in the field will most likely be necessary towards any professional growth. If your connections are into fields with a more consumer-tech oriented business model — ask them. If you’ve been on someone’s radar long enough as a self-learner with strong motivation, that may be all they need to offer you a position at their company or connect you to one they think you’ll fit well with.

The reason this decision is coming up before any mention of performing work on a computer is two fold:

  1. Universities or boot-camp style schools will offer computers and software related to your study, so you won’t need to self purchase.
  2. Your contacts at companies will tell you what they’re working with, which is what you should learn if you want a job with them.

There are ways to mitigate the damage to your wallet if you decide to follow path 2. Once you know which software your connections are working with, run off and grab a free trial. 99% of all the software out there used by professionals has either a time-based trial or a limited-feature trial. These trials should be enough for you to get into the software and understand the interface and the tools.

This approach is powerful for a big reason: design is not about the software you know or the hardware you run but the reasons you’re choosing to solve problems through thoughtful application of tried and tested techniques.

Make Your Pixels

Sketch, Photoshop, Illustrator, Gimp, Figma, Adobe XD, Zeplin, Framer.

Those are only a few of the digital design tools your bound to bump into. You don’t need to go out and purchase them all or whatever the new hotness is when you’re reading this. A mindful designer will jump into any of these tools and get the job done.

In my opinion, Adobe’s Creative Cloud offering for all their software is your best option at this point in time. For $50/month, you’ll have access to all the software Adobe makes, giving you the ability to dabble in many different areas of design and the fields related to it. You’ll have the old standards of Photoshop and Illustrator, the new kid in Adobe XD, plus anything you could play with in video, audio, photography, and even 3D. I’m also not affiliated with Adobe in any way, shape, or form in the case that sounded a little sales-pitchy.

Once you’ve landed on a tool, you’ll need to start creating. Don’t stare at a blank screen and wait for the perfect place to start. If you‘re stuck thinking of something to make, a great way to learn software is to recreate a website or an application that you use, and try to understand the production that went into it. Learning by copying the greats is a technique Dalí and many of the geniuses of our time used to hone their technical craft. There’s always tutorials, too.

Little Fish Should School Together

You’re not the only person learning these things right now. There are thousands of people all in the same pond you are, all taking their own paths towards creating a future in design. Join together with a handful of these people and work with one another, building all of your skillsets.

Use these colleagues as sound boards for critiques, challenges, people to brag to, people to compete with, people to vent to. The people you’ll learn with now may be your most valuable professional network in the future.

Something to consider is your future portfolio. Many businesses will want to see live projects for real clients if they’re to consider you for the job. With a small group of self-learners, you could build a project between all of you, or take on freelance work that would be too large for a single person to undertake at your current skill levels. Employers love self-starters.

Meetups! Go to meetups! Meetups are the heart and soul of the design and development industries. These are a dime-a-dozen today, so much so that any small to moderate sized city should have one to serve any time restraints and fit to many personality types. There are meetups at bars, at businesses, at coffee shops, in parks, in comic stores, at theme parks, on busses. If you’re not sure where to look, find a company in town and ask them for recommendations. Companies love to recruit at these types of gatherings, another bonus to getting involved with them!
Try looking on for your local meetups.

Carve Your Own Path

There are many ways to become a designer today, and many industries that need design thinking to be on the front lines of their product development. It’s a career with huge amounts of forecasted growth in both old and emerging industries. The cost of entry is up to you and you won’t need to break the bank to find the right path. If you hate the idea of drawing with crayons, good. Find the way that will make you do the deep work, the intensive work, the work that makes you wonder why you haven’t done this before and makes it all feel like play.

Ralph’s career started when his Aunt took that chance and sent her nephew’s work to his heroes. Now he’s helping to shape a world that is about to revolutionize the day to day lives of people everywhere with design at the core of the process. What a road that must have been to go down with a set of crayons.