The “I’m new to design” starter pack

Insights for anyone thinking about moving into design.

If you’re a Twitter user by any means, chances are good that you’ve seen these sorts of memes at some point:

Source: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/41/22/d7/4122d7db253090fc2e231ac96e2e24bc.jpg

As someone who has made the transition from marketing to design, I occasionally get questions from others who don’t have any background in design on how to get started. While my advice isn’t as simple as eating Lunchables or watching an episode of The Rugrats, there are many ways to get started without having to go directly to grad school or a bootcamp.

Based on my own experiences and what I know now, this is my “I’m new to design” starter pack for anyone new to the industry.


First and foremost, read.

Books and articles pertaining to design help introduce newcomers to the terminology and jargon used in the industry. It’s also nice to hear from authorities on certain design-related topics first to set expectations going forward.

Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All
For me at least, this was the book that got me in the right mindset. It’s a great book for anyone that has even an inkling of curiosity for design.

100 Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People
While this book does touch upon some of the technical aspects of design, Susan Weinschenk does a brilliant job of making everything — even brain anatomy — simple enough to understand.

Don’t Make Me Think
This is a classic book that dives even deeper into the whys and the hows of UX design.

Let’s not forget about Medium articles. The first six articles are great for beginners. The other two might be a bit more technical, but they provide information that’s good to be exposed to.

Intro to Product Design
3 ways to improve your visual design skills

The Anatomy of a Grid
Crash Course: UI Design
How to not suck at design, a 5 minute guide for the non-designer.
The fundamentals of understanding color theory

Style Guides by Pro Designers
Our Product Design Process

Once you have the foundation and basics down, it’s time to work.

While tools like Sketch, Principle, and Framer are incredibly popular, I firmly believe that knowing how to use Photoshop and Illustrator is just as important. Once you get these two Adobe tools down, you can move onto tools like Sketch and Principle.

Not sure what to create? Think of a mobile app you’d want to redesign. Maybe you want to create a cartoon version of your neighbor’s dog? The options are endless. It’s crucial to find the kind of style(s) that appeal to you, so I highly recommend browsing dribbble and Behance for inspiration. Start with observing subtle visual elements — how does that designer make her works pop? Is it the way she incorporates drop shadow in her work? Maybe her choice in fonts?

If the level of work on these sites makes you feel discouraged — don’t be. From screenshots alone, it’s difficult to estimate how much time people have put into their projects. Not to mention, when you’re just starting out, you’re most likely nowhere near the level of a lot of the designers on these sites… yet. (You can read more about UX designers’ dilemmas with dribbble here and here).

Learning such powerful tools can seem intimidating at first, but once you get the hang of it, using these tools will be a breeze. To help get you started, you’ll want to search for courses on sites such as Lynda and Skillshare. If you’re looking to do anything specific, you’ll likely find what you’re looking for on YouTube. You can never go wrong with Google either.

Make sure your tools aren’t holding you back.

From my own learning journey, I discovered that the software on my $500 PC could only take me so far. When I realized this, I traded in my computer for a new MacBook Pro, which cost me a pretty penny. This was a personal choice, but not something everyone should need to do.

Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/70rHtD11NNk

In many ways, design still has a high barrier to entry. While programs such as Sketch and Principle only run on MacOS, there are other programs that are making design more accessible to all.

Paul left a thoughtful note about Figma and how this tool works with Windows, Mac, and Linux. If you don’t want to make the investment in a pricey machine just yet, try out Figma first. Webflow is another tool that is OS agnostic. Others have commented that, if you want to use a tool like Sketch, you can run a MacOS virtual machine on Windows.

It’s good to note that once you are on a design team, you’ll need to be able to adapt to the tools that the team is using. In my particular experience, when I felt like I wasn’t learning at the rate I wanted to, for me it was my equipment that was holding me back. But again, every person is different and it’s good to find what works best for you.

Start showing your work.

This may be one of the scariest parts of starting out — making your work public. Once you’ve designed a few mobile app or website concepts, you’re ready to set up a portfolio and/or post on Behance and/or dribbble.

There are already a number of solid Medium posts on how to create your portfolio. These four are my favorites:

Let’s talk about design portfolios
The Unofficial Design Portfolio Handbook
Building your design portfolio? Here are 8 things I wish I’d known.
Building Your Design Portfolio: 10 Dos and Don’ts

You’ll also want to talk to real people for feedback. While your grandma or your dog may be easy targets, they probably won’t be able to give you the most constructive or honest feedback. Don’t be afraid of reaching out to designers that you like through Twitter and/or Medium. Make yourself vulnerable and keep an open mind. Everyone has to start somewhere, so don’t be so hard on yourself if what you’re coming up with isn’t up to your standards. You’ll get there with time, practice, and feedback.

Reaching out is also an indirect way of finding mentors. You’ll know, just from how someone provides you feedback, whether or not you gel with this person. If you admire his or her work and you get along, keep in touch.

If you’re having a tough time finding mentors this way, check out Out of Office Hours as a resource to connect with people already in the industry. There’s also The Designership, a community on Slack that brings together designers and creatives of all skill levels.

If you got it, flaunt it.

If you’re feeling more and more satisfied with what you’re producing, market yourself — regardless of whether you’re in the job market or not. As I’ve learned, the next steps in your design career are a lot about connections and, in some cases, luck and virality.

Again, it is unfortunate that there are a lot of hard-working and talented designers out there who are quiet about their accomplishments. But it’s a competitive industry, and if you know you have talent, it’s completely ok to toot your own horn. And you should. Write on Medium, post on dribbble, work the room at Meetups, share some thoughts on Commaful… do what you need to do. Rinse and repeat. Stay grounded, humble, open-minded, passionate, and hungry.

And when you get an email from a designer who’s starting out and looking to get some help… you’ll know what to do.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post! Follow me on Twitter and on Medium. And of course, feel free to reach out to me at hi@saraclayton.co.