4 strategies for becoming a successful graphic designer…without a graphic design degree

by Iris Burstein on Dec 9, 2016

One of the great things about AppLovin is that a premium is placed on the quality of your work rather than where you went to school and what you studied. There are lots of people in the company who took unusual routes to get to where they are professionally, including me. My path to becoming a graphic designer at AppLovin included a few seemingly unrelated stops along the way — like specializing in computational biology as an undergrad and working as a programmer for two years — and no formal training in design.

An unconventional career path isn’t for everyone — some people like the structure and security of following a set path — but here are my suggestions for how to break into graphic design from another field:

Learn just what you need to get started. The number of tools and tutorials out there is overwhelming, and personally I find that if I consume a lot of information without putting it into practice, I wind up not absorbing it well. So I identified a few tools I wanted to learn and then took short, basic online courses to get a feel for what I could do with it. From there I focused on an actual project and challenged myself to figure it out as I went along. My very first experiment with this approach was with Photoshop: I did a quick Lynda.com course, and then I created a very basic animation for an app. I was still working as a programmer at the time, so it took me a few weeks, but by the end I was satisfied with what I produced and what I learned. The point is to not feel overwhelmed by what’s out there: you need to start somewhere, so choose a program that piques your interest and go from there.

Leverage your existing skillset. While my transition into graphic design was facilitated by my experience in drawing and painting (mostly portraits and animals), my technical skills as a programmer also came in handy. For example, I could communicate efficiently with developers I needed to collaborate with, tweak code myself to test designs, and use scripting in After Effects and Flash to create motion graphics that would otherwise be very tedious to create. When I didn’t know the best technique to use, I compensated with my drawing abilities and the fact that I’m naturally a patient person. So think hard about what skills you have from your baseline experience and how you can apply them to graphic design. If you have an analytical mind, you might be a natural at creating infographics, and if you’re a gamer, you might be a great fit for designing game graphics that deliver good user experience. If you think about it, whatever you already know is always relevant somehow. While it’s true that over time this initial area you focus on might become your speciality, think of this strategy as a way to get your foot in the door.

Recognize that you might have to start from the ground up. When you transition from one field to another, pay cuts can be a given — but you’ll find that if you love your new line of work, you’ll be rewarded for it quickly. So while it is the case that I initially did an internship that I was overqualified for and took a paycut, I was much more fulfilled by my work, my work was good, and I was soon making a competitive salary again. In the process, I got to work with incredibly talented people and get great feedback. And speaking of feedback, embrace it — more experienced designers will help you to understand design concepts. Every job you have, every project you do, every skill you acquire, and every person you work with will help you to advance.

Accept learning as your best skill. Once you’ve learned one tool well enough to produce good results with it, you can be confident that you can learn the next one, and the next one after that. Take advantage of every opportunity to expand your toolset and work on different types of projects. In interviews, share that you’re self-taught (many employers will respect that) and exactly what your accomplishments have been. And be sure to emphasize that quick learning is one of your skills, right along with Photoshop, Illustrator, or After Effects.

It might have taken me a bit longer to find my place in a field that I love, but I’m so glad that I took the time to teach myself an entirely new series of skills. If you’d like to become a graphic designer, I’d encourage you to start learning on your own: remember that no matter what your line of work has been thus far, you bring valuable skills to the table, start by taking some online courses and doing small projects, and embrace feedback as you go!

Iris Burstein is a graphic designer at AppLovin.