Checklist of Skills & Tools Every Designer Should Learn

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Diving into the pool of graphic and UI design can be stressful. Your work won’t be great to start. But you can get better faster by setting fixed goals.

Most goals have a fixed end point where you can state “I’ve done it!”. Since design is more fluid and difficult to pinpoint growth, it’ll help if you target specific skills and work on those areas persistently.

But where should you focus?

Here’s my top tips for the catch-all skills every designer should understand. Whether you create posters, books, websites or mobile apps, you’ll notice improvements in your work by practicing these different areas of study. To get started find the areas in which you feel the weakest and practice until you’ve built up confidence.

Early Stage Sketching

I can already feel some of you cringing at your preschool-level drawing abilities, but please bear with me. There’s no denying that digital design work absolutely requires a computer. But the planning stage is meant to be rapid and free-flowing.

A mouse and keyboard are more “rigid” compared to paper and a pencil. The thing that many designers fear about paper and pencil is their innate lack of control and poor motor skills. Unless you’ve been drawing since you were a kid, drawing is hard. No doubt.

sketching ui wireframe notebook

But you’d be surprised how many people join art classes in their older years and walk away with incredible skills. You don’t need a proclivity towards art to learn how to sketch. Nor do you need to master fine art skills.

The primary benefit of paper and pencil is the ability to sketch your ideas before going digital. You’re less concerned about specifics and more concerned about getting down raw ideas.

A UI wireframe can be sketched with almost no drawing ability whatsoever. And if you stick with it over time you will notice an improvement.

The primary benefit of paper and pencil is the ability to sketch your ideas before going digital.

group page wireframe ui

Drawing has fewer barriers between your brain and the final output. On a computer you need to already have keyboard and mouse skills, figure out which program to use, then learn that program and construct your idea. We’ve all used pencils since school so we’re familiar with how they work.

But some designers still vehemently reject learning to draw, and in many cases their design work still looks great. But one common denominator among designers who know both digital & analog design is that both mediums feed into each other.

So while you may not “need” to learn the basics of sketching, if you do I guarantee your work will improve dramatically.

Pixel & Vector Programs

The most popular software is Adobe’s Creative Suite with designers primarily focused on Photoshop and Illustrator. Photoshop is meant for pixel/bitmap work and Illustrator is for vector graphics. Learning both programs can give you an edge in the design market and the ability to work on various projects.

cs6 icons flat design iconset

But there is also something to be said about specialization. For example, a web designer should know how to create both vector icons and pixel graphics. Think about small pixel-based effects or tileable backgrounds like a denim pattern, stitching, checkers, and other similar textures.

If you’re just getting started then it’s a good idea to focus on one program at a time. Learn software that allows you to create whatever you’re most interested in doing. Photo editing for ads or magazines would be a Photoshop task. SVG animations for the web fall within Illustrator territory.

sketch 3 app mac osx

Also keep in mind there are other programs worth learning based on your field of study. A print designer should absolutely learn InDesign, but PS/AI also come in handy. Similarly web designers on Mac could go for Sketch instead of Adobe’s programs.

The point isn’t necessarily which software you choose, but rather that you master your intended software and gain confidence that you can build anything your clients might request.

Harmonious Typography

Type designers and calligraphers have a deep passion for text. Many designers choose to specialize in typography and make a very satiable living. But you don’t need to be an expert to still understand typefaces and typographic design.

One skill worth learning is how to blend different fonts together. This consists of finding typefaces and determining which ones look best on any given project. Each design project is meant to convey a unique message, often relying on great typography.

handdrawn sketching drawing type

Your job is to figure out which typefaces work best and how to stack them in a recognizable hierarchy.

Another part of this skillset is learning about options for customizing type. Size, kerning, and line height are all variables that play a role in how text is displayed.

cereal time text typography

Designers who really want to learn about typography may enjoy Thinking with Type. It covers typographic principles along with some ideas on grid structure and content layout.

Swatches & Color Matching

Color schemes are important whether you use Photoshop, Gimp, Illustrator, InkScape, Sketch, or whatever new program takes over the market in 2025. Color matching is rather ubiquitous because it applies to all products from logos to websites and product packages.

The ability to organize a great color scheme comes with practice. You can also build up a library of ideas by looking at other designs and even creating your own swatches. This is a great reusable strategy, but eventually you’ll want to learn how to pick colors of your own volition.

Unfortunately when first getting into design there are many other topics worth learning before color. Yes color is important, but a great design should be presentable in B&W too. Because of this I have to recommend that you focus on other skills first before becoming a color master (gotta match ’em all).

But in the meantime you can’t just design without color. One option is to save work that you like and build color palettes from those examples. Another option is to use a color matching tool like Paletton.

paletton color picker swatches

This is completely free and works just as you’d expect. Input a base color and select one of the various color modes. Paletton will output a set of matching colors and other optional colors that could be used together in a theme. It’s not perfect but it’s certainly better than nothing.

If you want to learn more about color theory I’d recommend Interaction of Color by Josef Albers. It offers some great examples and does its best to explain how you should think, rather than rote memorization of color matching principles.

Compositional Arrangement

Both print and digital designers require a knowledge of composition. This subject can be tacitly absorbed by studying other great designers, but there’s also some benefit to learning about composition and how it works.

Generally every design is meant to convey a certain mood, tone, or message. The composition is what you see looking at the whole of the design. It considers everything from rhythm, balance, and noticeable relationships.

print design typography poster composition

Although this topic is broad, it’s actually comprised of various smaller design topics. For example white space can affect rhythm, balance, and relationships. Tuts+ author Rachel Shillcock wrote an introduction to composition for web design that can apply to traditional graphic design as well.

The best advice I can offer is to hold composition in the back of your mind at all times. Think about the smaller pieces but also consider how they affect the bigger picture.

Study examples from your favorite designers and keep a folder of design inspiration. Check back often and even try re-creating similar effects to see how the composition comes together at varying stages. Like most areas of design, composition isn’t learned from a textbook but rather from a library of work.

Practice Makes Permanent

I first heard this phrase while studying art and it seems applicable to all fields. Consistent practice is good, but you also want to make sure that you’re advancing instead of repeating the same techniques ad infinitum.

Design can be considered more of a trade where you learn quicker from actual projects. If you don’t have projects then make up some criteria and build your own stuff. The key is to practice skills that make you uncomfortable until you’ve built up a level of comfort. Design is not easy but with practice and familiarity it can become easier.

  • Jhon Smith

    Great ideas! Thank you

  • It’s funny how you mention these are skills and tools designers should learn. I graduated a long time ago like 20 years ago. As that is what they taught us in school. All except Adobe, cause it was in the infant stages. Do they not teach these type of classes in a design career anymore? it just makes common sense…

  • brookelaziz

    “But you’d be surprised how many housewives join art classes in their 40s/50s and walk away with incredible skills.”

    Wasn’t really necessary to make a sexist generalization like this to convey your point. The article was a good introduction to design otherwise.

    • Grief

      Please explain how that was sexist in any way at all.

    • JC

      While it is a subtle use, it is still a sexist statement making assumptions about who would be taking these classes. The fact that is isn’t glaringly obvious as to why it is sexist highlights how common and subliminal these kind of remarks are in our culture.

      Kudos to the author for making the change to a gender-neutral tone, making the statement more inclusive.

  • Nick Sharpe

    Where SEO and web design converge would be something like reducing “page weight”- a metric of Google SERP (goes to page load time). A web page, like a racing bicycle, has to be very light to load fast. That said, a good example would be once you figure out how your UI is going to look, like buttons, the above examples (Adobe) can be rendered in weight saving css (measured in bytes) instead of images (measured in kilobytes!) – for me, a lot easier than positioning sprite elements.
    When it comes to uber competitive SEO, every byte counts!

  • This article misses some really key points, which separates the designers from the decorators.

    Business

    Psychology/ User

    Having a solid grasp of business fundamentals is essential. Concepts like differentiation, defensibility of a business idea and understanding profitability are key. It helps you gather proper requirements. It helps you frame the world your designs live in.

    In the realm of psychology, having ways to understand users and their motivations within the context of the business is essential.

    Sure, you can learn the basics of “design” – i.e., visual design – and the mechanics of applying it – how to use Sketch.

    But, if you have no idea of the business context your designs live in and you have no way to understand and support the users you are designing for – how in the world can you apply the basics of visual design to these situations and establish reasons why you made the decisions you made.

  • Inspiring, to the point – overall an excellent and beneficial read. Thanks!