I already know how to use design software but I don't know how to design.

Bottom Line:
Is there a specific sequence to follow for a proper education in the soft skills of design (theory, concepts, process, etc.)?


I'll start with a little background about me to show the motivation about the question, isn't really necessary to answer the question.

I'm 23 years old and finishing my degree on engineering informatics. When I was 14 years old, I learn HTML/CSS. I can use a lot of Adobe Suite software to make a lot of things (PS, AI, Pr, etc..). Then, as time passed by, I started learning some computer science oriented things. I can make a website really fast, etc.. But, my problem is, I'm not in some kind of "design thinking". I like design (if I weren't getting an engineering degree I probably would have gotten a design degree).

I like design a lot, and I would love to learn more of design. I would love to make "pretty things" by my own, as a designer does. But I can't study to get a design degree due to my priority list (I want to achieve other goals more in this moment of my life), but what I really want is to learn some design on my own.

Long form question

Is there some way to emulate a design degree/program with books and others static resources? In my 6 years of study I have taken everything from books. My teachers made everything faster, but I don't think that passing through a computer science degree was really necessary: books + internet + practice told me almost 95% of what I learned there.

But there is a problem, as you can see in this question: The Definitive C++ Book Guide and List. There are good books and bad books. And frankly, a lot of bad books. I didn't find a reliable list of design books. There are a lot of blogs with "list of books to learn things", but most of them are really just a list taken from somewhere else...

For example, I could read this list 10 Graphic Design Books Every Designer Should Read, but I need to go in order, starting from the basics. So for that I could take graphic design courses, like this: RISD Graphic Design (or any other program, it's just an example) and try to learn from the topics that the program shows, but it is still unclear about what I should learn because there isn't, for example, a course in "color theory". They are more like "design I", "design II", "design III". I think I'm gonna need to search for the syllabus for a particular course.

I really want to improve my design skills, but I don't want to get a degree in it. I've been an autodidact all my life (see background) and at this point, I ask:

My research

I have searched a bit about this, and here on StackExchange there are a lot of question that are close, but not getting to the heart of the issue.

What should I learn to become a web design expert? I am from engineering background [duplicate]: The answer is just a "look at those website's" (And okay, this could help a bit, but I don't think one will get to a degree level just looking on some websites, or it is?).

Tips and resources for beginning designers: 2 or 3 books to learn design, the same as above. This could help a bit, but won't get me to a degree-equivalent level (I'm looking for something more like computer science's courses which have their own book for the topic. Does something like this exist in graphic design?).

Suggestion on Introductory Books about Graphic Design: This could be the same question that I have, but the answer didn't satisfies me, I need a lot more detail (for example, more books or guides to follow).


Is Design School a Requirement for Graphic Design? does not answer this question. It's the first question to answer before getting to this one.

  • 2
    So if you're not willing to research design (through looking at websites or reading books) or get a degree, then what are you willing to do? I guess I don't understand how we could suggest a "flow" that doesn't involve doing those things. You have to learn design somehow.
    – Hanna
    Commented May 12, 2015 at 22:38
  • @Johannes : I will to research and read books, but with a flow I mean, where I should start?, color theory?, semiotic?, UI/UX?, what are the keywords for the topics on design?, I need a book for each one?... has I say on the third link. "I need a lot more", 2,3 books for learn what a degree teach you?, I think is to little.
    – lcjury
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 3:56
  • @Scoot is not a duplicated, I'm not asking if it is a requirement, I'm asking how I can achieve the level of a graphic designer withouth going to a design school.
    – lcjury
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 3:56
  • 1
    @lcjury Thanks for the question. I edited your question a bit to fix the English errors. Please feel free to edit it again if you feel I misrepresented your thoughts somewhere Commented May 14, 2015 at 20:12
  • ... and then I edited a bunch more (^‿- ) I'm not sure there's a real answer but I think it's worth a shot. Commented May 14, 2015 at 23:10

4 Answers 4


I don't agree with Bryan. I have a B. Des and in 4 years of school most of the courses weren't technical but at all.

It is hard to come up with a list, I think the best you can do is look at the syllabus of any good design school to know what to read about and in what order.

I can recommend a few subjects and an order but in the end the best way to learn is to practice and consult with a professional (I'll try to cover from vague to specific):

History of arts, History of design, Typography, Grid Systems, Colour theories, composition, typography, Design & visualisation theories (as Ryan mentioned Gestalt Theory and more) UX, Illustration techniques, Shapes and formats, Logo design, Packaging, Book editing, Binding, Web design, Design for alternative platforms (like tv apps, etc.), Visual communication, and much much more.

  • He didn't ask for a list of what to read about, he asked for an ORDERED list. I agree with your topics, but there's no specific ORDER he has to go through those in.
    – Ryan
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 16:29
  • Maybe i wasn't clear enough but that's why I recommended to look at the syllabus of a degree, to see what comes first, what after, etc.
    – Naty
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 16:58
  • So you think its important to learn these topics in a particular order?
    – Ryan
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 17:12
  • Yea, if course, as an obvious example you shouldn't start reading about web design before reading about grids, and you shouldn't start reading about grids before reading about composition...
    – Naty
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 17:19
  • Anyway, thanks @Ryan, I noticed I wasn't clear enough and I edited my answer.
    – Naty
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 17:32

It is very difficult to teach someone to be an artist. You either are or are not. You either have a flair, talent, eye, for aesthetics or you don't. What you can teach are the restrictions an artist must adhere to for specific reproduction methods. Due to this, many "design" books indeed focus on technical aspects, since that's the teachable part.

Realize that the aesthetic part of design is purely subjective. It's possible to provide "tips" related to composition, perspective, lighting, line vocabulary, positioning, etc. But any such "tip" is really just opinion. So anything covering the topic of aesthetics is merely going to be that author's opinion and not cold, hard facts.

If you want to beef up your aesthetic skills you may need to forget the word "design" and focus on more art-oriented topics - lighting and shading, depth, balance, composition, color theory, foreshortening, etc. All this may seem unrelated, but it's not. Most "design" books are going to focus on how to take what you've created to reproduction. There are some which will focus on color theory, or balance, or typography - and those are valuable. But they will be far more technical than aesthetic in nature.

Where design school programs help is in the fact you are surrounded in an atmosphere of creation then restriction. I'd hazard a guess that most people who start on a design degree have some talent for art and they want to make a career out of it. So they are starting with a base of creativity and merely need to learn the restrictions required for commercializing those talents. (and I suppose in today's world, they need to learn software as well.) But I've never seen a single design course teach someone how to be an artist or how to be creative. It's just not easily taught.

Most of the "art" classes I took in college were just "practice" classes. That is the instructor would say.. draw this.. or create something using this... etc. Beyond that they provided technical knowledge, not aesthetic knowledge. Such as, color theory so you learn to choose colors correctly or balance so you learn how to correct a poor composition. Or lighting so you learn to shade objects properly. You can find "art" books that cover these things (I love Burne Hogarth books) but they aren't going to be "design" books.

Many art history courses simply study how the masters created and how they used composition, color, perspective, etc in their work. In addition, they may cover the work of famous designers - Bass, Glazer, Rand, etc. In order to show the same aspects from a "design" point of view. Being surrounded by this on a daily basis essentially ingrains some aspects and helps a designer to simply trust their instincts more.

Design school is ultimately like any physical training - you train and train and train so when it comes time to actually "do" you just react more than think about it. It is the repetitive creation of things that builds quality work. Simply creating over and over and over and over and then repeating a dozen more times will help. This is also where schools help - they force you to repeatedly create under different circumstances and help you learn to "turn it on" when needed as opposed to "when you feel like it." Which is often the difference between success and failure.

If you want to learn the intangible, aesthetic, side of design without formal training, you'll need at least a good starting point and an ability to draw or create something from scratch. From there, with books, you'll need to look more at drawing/art, art history, or even photography books that aren't related to design in order to get the perspectives related to creation rather than reproduction.

Of course, this assumes I read your question correctly. There's a lot there and I may have skimmed part of it. :)

  • 1
    I like you're approach here: Make your answer as long-winded as the question ... it's like payback (#_#) Commented May 14, 2015 at 23:12

The Graphic Design program I attended started with a solid Art History foundation. I know some might be boring but knowing how and why design has evolved will help you make aesthetic decisions and be able to explain and stand up for your work.

We also had Color Theory, we usually had had to mix our own colors from primaries and submit them as painted blocks mostly when learning about compliments, triadic other type of color combos on the wheel. We also learned how to change the tone or perception with color and the absence of color. Along with cultural significance of colors and in what applications.

Design 1 was mostly about eye hand coordination translating what you see to the canvas or paper. We would draw a lot (Thats the only way to become really good) 1 Min Sketches, 2 min sketches, quick gesture drawings, still life props everywhere. From there you could take electives, Life Drawing (nudes of course), Illustration 1, 3D Design, furniture design.... you name it.

Graphic Design I was mostly about principals of Balance, Rythm, Harmany and how to apply this. You also learn not to be sloppy. Your cutting, gluing, everything you turn in needs to look like a machine made it. This is the beginning of building your portfolio. You have projects like a Freelance designer would get and the teacher is the client.

You then start to learn design programs, you'll have a quarter on Photoshop, a quarter on Vector Drawing/Illustrator, it used to be Quark, Im sure it's InDesign now which you'll make a book an learn binding etc. Some HTML, but web, it used to be called Interactive Design, that's another major. Each project usually has a new thing to learn as a part of the execution and you explain it to the class usually. All while taking more and more Art History this includes Advertising history etc. Also any electives you have left, the electives are usually related to you major. Or you can take something like Philosophy of The Blues (it was great).

Graphic Design II,III You get into book binding, Printing techniques; More Layout Design,publication design, advertising design.

Typography I, II, III Great class, This is very important. I remember one book, The Elements of Style by Robert Binghurst.

Production I, ( I think thats what it was called), You learn printing and packaging processes, such as types of Inks to die cuts and folds, Offset/Digital

In the final year you'll be given projects that take longer but will combine various disciplines to get you and your work ready for a job interview. Each project you present as if you were presenting to a Client/Boss etc.

I Hope that helps,

Andy Stone SCAD, BFA Graphic Design


Since you are asking about an order to learn non-technical things. There is none. You might start with fundamental design principles like Gestalt Theory to see what balance, grouping, etc. are. But its not necessary. I never heard of these things until I was already designing for years.

If you know the tools, as you say you do, then designing isn't like programming. You don't have to learn color before you can learn balance, nor do you have to learn balance before you can learn color. You create. It all happens simultaneously in order to create a solution to a specific design problem or idea. You improve through iteration, repetition, critiques, and self-awareness.

But to answer your question --- you can't find a list of design topics to learn because there is no order. You must by necessity learn them all simultaneously.

  • Ryan, and what would be that list of topics that I must learn them simultaneously? Is something?
    – lcjury
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 16:49

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