Graphic Design For Dummies

Today’s prompt: Take a complicated subject you know more about than most people, and explain it to a friend who knows nothing about it at all.

So, you want to learn graphic design, eh? Why? Didn’t you read my warning about how it’s a crappy job?  You still want to do it? You are insane. Alright, here’s some advice.

Chapter 1: Design Tools

You’ve got the Creative Suite, right? Good job, because no matter what anyone tells you, the Creative Suite and Mac platform are still the standards of the industry. Why is that important, you say? If you’re going to be a graphic designer, inevitably, you are going to have to work from someone else’s cobbled together files from 2002, which I can guarantee you are made in Creative Suite, most likely on Mac. Nowadays, most printers print from PDF, so that’s not an issue anymore, but you will have to trade files at some point.

Now, I’m definitely not saying that you should run out and buy an overpriced Mac right now. In fact, don’t. Unless you are a creative professional, you probably don’t need a Mac, no matter how spiffy you think they are. However, if you are going to be a proper graphic designer, eventually you will need one. Start stealing from your kids college fund now.

Pro Tip: Do not invest thousands of dollars in crap you might not need. Download trial versions of the software, which are good for a month, and play. 

Chapter 2: Tutorials

Of course, as soon as you installed the software, you opened it up and started playing with it. Do you feel confident enough to start making your own wedding invitations or your dog’s website? No? Did you get lost in Photoshop and end up just writing your own name in different fonts, and adding drop shadows and beveled edges to everything because that’s all you managed to figure out in the three hours you spent messing around with it? Did you get confused by the fact that Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator have different keyboard commands? Do you even know what Illustrator is for? Do you have the slightest idea of what to do with it? Probably not. Sorry about that. Adobe are a bunch of bastards.

Yeah, good luck trying to learn anything in Photoshop other than maybe how to make a lolcat in less than a day. It is not intuitive. And even if you do find Photoshop to be intuitive, once you move on to InDesign or Illustrator, you will lose any confidence in that assessment.

Do not buy anything even remotely like that book. First, it’s calling you a dummy. Are you dumb? No, of course you aren’t. So, why would you buy something that says you are?

Second, if a flimsy little book says that if can teach you in a few chapters what it takes professionals years to learn, it’s lying. Would you buy something that’s called Neurosurgery for Dummies? Of course you wouldn’t, because it would be preposterous to think that you could learn all you need to know about operating on someone’s brain from a gimcrack book. Well, I hate to break it to you, but Graphic Design is the same. Graphic Designers spend years learning our trade and honing our craft.

There’s no way that a book like that can teach you anything but the barest framework of design. And if that’s all it teaches you, you don’t need that book. You can learn the same things, only better, by following the FREE tutorials that come with your software, written by the people who produce the software. There are no better experts than that. If that’s not enough, look around online for a tutorial for whatever it is that you’re trying to learn and follow the tutorial. I guarantee you’ll learn whatever you’re trying to learn better and easier that way than from a book. Not to mention that any book you’re likely to buy is already out of date.

Pro Tip: Adobe has tons of tutorials on their site for everything they make. Most software companies do. Tutorials are FREE! Free is awesome.

Chapter 3: Learn What Your Software Does Best

Here’s a Photoshop pro-tip for you: Forget the damn magic wand. Magic wands are for amateurs and fairies. If I could only give you one piece of advice, it would be learn the pen tool. If you’re going to do anything approaching real design, learn the pen tool. The pen tool is the difference between amateurs and professionals. And I don’t mean just click, click, click like you’re connecting the goddamn dots. I mean twisting and turning with it, mastering your form and creating a perfect outline of something.

Take this picture. You want the girl, but not the background. OK, pro, how would you do that?

Use the goddamn magic wand, you say? OK then. Let’s see how that works out, sissy:

Hm. That doesn’t look too great, does it? Part of her clavicle is missing, it looks like someone threw acid in her hair and some of the background is still there. In fact, it’s AWFUL, but I have seen crap in professional publications that was almost as bad as that. Alright then, shall we try the pen tool?

Ah, perfection! Granted, I did draw in some hair, which you won’t know how to do yet, but that’s OK. We’ll cover that once you’ve mastered the pen tool. MASTER IT. The better you are at the pen tool in Photoshop, the easier Illustrator will be when you get there and you’ll be able to make stuff like this:

This and all the drawings you see on this site were hand-drawn in Illustrator with the pen tool by moi.

Pro Tip:  I probably should have told you this before we started experimenting with the magic wand, but there are two golden rules in design: 1) Never work from the original. Save all versions; you never know when you might need them. 2) Save early, save often.

Chapter 4: Fonts

Ah, fonts. I have thousands of fonts stored on this computer. I don’t have all of them open because that would constitute computer harakiri. In other words, there’s no way I could run all of my fonts at once and do anything else. Here is an amazing little program called Font Book (this is for Mac. I’m not sure what the Windows equivalent would be, but I’m sure there is one):

With this, I can see what I have in what style. I can open all the handwritten fonts or the futuristic fonts at once and close them all. I can save fonts for each project I’m working on. For instance, it’s showing you one of my projects in which I used 14 different fonts.

Just starting on the road to graphic design, you probably only have the fonts that came on your computer. I have those, too. That’s fine. It’s a good start. Most of the time, you won’t need more than that. You probably should stick to the basic, legible fonts anyway until you know what you’re doing. Corporate, Helvetica, Ariel, Univers, Trebuchet, Verdana and Times New Roman are good fonts for most everything you’ll ever need to do.

Now, I know it’s tempting to go crazy with fonts. You’ll discover Comic Sans, Zapfino or Impact and want to use them in everything. STOP THAT. The most important part of any graphic design project is legibility. Those fonts are not legible. For example, take my Font Book up there. You see that there are 14 fonts listed? That’s too many. As it happens, that folder has multiple projects in it so it’s misleading. Most projects need three fonts and that’s including bold and italic.


“If you only use a few fonts, why do you have so many?” you may ask. That’s an excellent question, student. I have so many fonts because bad graphic designers insist on using a lot and sometimes I have to match a new project to a previous one. For example, you see that Graphic Design For Dummies book up there? I can tell you that the “Graphic Design” in the title is written in Myriad Bold Italic. Why would I know that? Because I actually changed it from Web Design to Graphic Design since there was no Graphic Design For Dummies book. You’d never have known that had I not told you. Aren’t I clever?

Besides, I don’t use a lot of store-bought fonts, because whenever possible, I like creating my own like I did in the header for this site. You won’t find either of those fonts in Font Book. But creating fonts from scratch is too advanced a lesson for you now. You need to know the pen tool first. Moving on.

Pro Tip:  System fonts come with systems for a reason: they are legible. Simple is best.

Chapter 5: Layout

I don’t care what your boss or your cousin says, you cannot shove three hundred products on the same page, not even if that page is billboard size. No one is going to look at three hundred products on the same page. Products, words, images, whatever the hell you’re putting in your design, need room to breathe. It doesn’t matter if it’s the answer to life, the universe and everything, no one is going to read what you wrote if it’s written in six point font. Space it out, give it room. Let it breathe.

No matter how cool you think it is, don’t use a complex background. In fact, if at all possible, use black text on a white background since it is the easiest to read. Unless you don’t want people to read your work, in which case, go ahead and use red grunge fonts on a black background in 6 point size.

Pro Tip: Squint at your page or stand back from it about 5-10 feet. Whatever catches your eye is going to be the first thing people notice. If that’s the fine print or the background, you may want to change your design. Simple is best.

Alright, that’s all I have patience for today. If you want to be a graphic designer, go ahead and do some tutorials for homework. And learn the goddamn pen tool.

Now, if you’ve read this and decided there’s way more involved in graphic design than you thought and you’d rather not have to bother with all of that, then by all means…


I’m going to get drunk now. Class dismissed.