What Gear Do I Need to Start: Graphic Design

Art + Architecture
by Zak Erving Jan 2, 2012
Most graphic designers I know have a love-hate affair with their job

BUT DEEP DOWN, we all know we’ve got it made: we get paid to be creative and quirky and awesome, and when we gain the trust and respect of our clients, we can work wherever we want.

It’s taken a few years to get to this point, but I’ve had a lot of fun along the way. Interested in going this route? Here are a few essentials to get you started.


First things first: you’re going to need a sketchbook and something to sketch with. Candice Rardon has already done a spectacular job demonstrating some of the most foundational tools of the trade, so I won’t delve too much deeper here. All I can say is that every digital execution starts with an analog brainstorm.

Sketching — in education and vocation — continually proves to be the most effective designer’s block remedy. On top of that, learning how to draw gives you a leg up over every other non-drawing designer out there (believe me, they’re a dime a dozen). You’ll be better respected, better compensated for your work, and you’ll have more work available to you.


Unless you’re planning on getting into the letterpress revival, you’re going to need a computer or a notebook with the appropriate hardware. I happen to be a Mac and a PC, but when it comes down to it, I’m very, very happy with my four-year-old MacBook Pro.

I sprang for the 17″ screen and another external LED monitor from Asus to give myself the maximum in pixel real estate, but one could feasibly do just fine with a 15″ display. Anything smaller than that, and it gets hard to keep the little Netflix thumbnail in the upper corner of the screen. (And Mom said I’d never get paid to watch TV…)


Because of the print services available to the designer, I’d say that more important than owning a home office printer is making and maintaining relationships with the people who actually do your printing (usually at an offset printing press, like Jano Graphics in Ventura, California).

All of your color proofing is going to end up with them, anyways, so even if you do make some fancy prints at your home office (not Kinko’s — for the love of God, not Kinko’s), they’re the ones who are going to print what your client wants.


In terms of software, Adobe is still the way to go, and it shows no sign of letting up. Print design thoroughbreds like me (who work on tactile stuff, like books, posters, and packaging) rely heavily on our digital trinity of Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign, while multi-media mutts add other programs like Flash and After Effects for web- and video-based design.

Photoshop is a pixel-based image editor, which means it’s the industry-topping go-to for photographers, digital painters, and all-around artists. Technically speaking, it can do many of the things that Illustrator and InDesign can do, but performing those specific tasks in the PS environment is like driving a tank down a garden path.
If Photoshop images can be thought of as mosaics of pixels, then Illustrator graphics are more like connect-the-dots. Illustrator specializes in vector art, allowing the artist to modify and scale line artwork without any loss of quality. Vector files are smaller and easier to manage, and are infinitely more adaptable than pixels when creating things like graphics for screen printing (for your band’s t-shirt) or CAD-based operations (blueprints, say, or CNC milling machines).

InDesign is the standard page layout program, offering the user immense flexibility in font selection and modification, placement, and page sequencing. This is where you take everything you created in Photoshop and everything made in Illustrator and mash it all together into one gorgeous document.

Working in InDesign feels kind of like playing with Lego pieces, as you can move, scale, and modify objects and frames with surprising speed. It handles importing documents and spreadsheets from other programs flawlessly, and linking boxes of text ensures that you won’t have to copy/paste individual lines of text to get everything to fit together.

Last year I threw a beast of a project at Adobe InDesign: a 412-page printed book with an animated cover! InDesign handled it like a champ.

Things to Make Your Life Easier

It’s safe to say that had I not been blessed with a Wacom Intuos tablet nearly a decade ago, I might very well have dropped the whole graphic design dream. Working tediously on a right-handed mouse (as a born ‘n’ bred southpaw) has never been easy, and it’s tremendously frustrating when it comes to digital painting.

The tablet changed all of that: I work three times as fast, and holding a pen in my left hand feels much more natural than clicking away with my right. Plus, I’ve gotten some business just by setting up shop in cafés: people ask about the tablet, and before long we’re trading business cards.


For learning these programs, Adobe has a great in-house Learning series, but is downright spectacular. One might balk at the initial monthly subscription fee, but weighed against the plethora of learning material available here, it’d be well worth your while. You’re becoming a professional, after all.

Those of you who prefer learning from books might want to look at the Classroom-in-a-Book series. I’ve used them, and many of my colleagues have, too.


Really, there’s no wrong way to go about getting inspiration. But the fact is, every designer needs inspiration, because our task isn’t a solitary one. Go to the bookstore and peruse the logo design anthologies from Logo Lounge, or read up on some of the brilliant happenings in Juxtapoz magazine.

Get yourself a Tumblr account and follow your favorite hashtags. Design blogs are out there in force—you just need to find the ones that appeal to you most.

A fair idea of what you’re worth

“Oh, you do graphic design? That’s so cool! Can you design a logo for me?” This conversation replays itself many times over with all sorts of acquaintances, and usually by the third sentence I can tell whether or not I want to work with them.

A good designer is worth his salt, but seldom do people understand that it takes time to make effective design, and any professional in any field should be making a professional wage.

You’ll need the Graphic Artists’ Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines to know what you’re worth as a designer. To a non-designer, $200 for a logo seems a reasonable price, and for designers still cutting their teeth, it very well might be worth it. But considering that good logos often take many hours of development (I’ve worked on a logo—just a logo!—for 40 hours before), getting paid that price for nearly a week of work doesn’t cut it.
One guy I knew asked me to do a complete image overhaul of his coffee shop (including signs, counter displays, newspaper ads, and more), and was shocked a week later when I handed him a quote for several thousand dollars. “Oh, um…see, this is a lot. I was, you know, just thinking I could pay you in coffee…” he trailed off, having received the pre-loaded response burning in my eyes: “Pay me in coffee? What, every day, for the rest of my life, for me and all my friends?”

Graphic design is still an evolving field — hell, I’m only 27, but I’m still older than the medium of digital painting. It’s an exciting time to be a part of its growth. But the bottom line is that learning how to be a graphic designer is like learning how to be any other kind of professional. You just don’t have to wear the leather shoes, if you don’t want to.

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