Can I Do Graphic Design?

Graphic design is so much fun. There is so much you can do in this space, just within the context of book publishing alone. From print to digital, there’s no end to what you can create. Because it is such a vast and interesting area, a lot of people want to try it out, but they hesitate because they don’t have any formal art training. I get it—I’ve been there.

There is a lot of overlap between art and graphic design, as they require a lot of the same skills and an understanding of concepts like space, color, lighting, etc. But, while having a working knowledge of these when you start is helpful, it’s not required. These are things that you can learn and pick up as you go, and hand drawing doesn’t necessarily have to play a big role in your graphic design work.

You’d be surprised by the number of graphic designers who didn’t study art and can’t draw or paint. That’s what I find so wonderful about graphic design—how approachable it is and how it’s possible to build a vast portfolio of art using just the basics.

Let’s go back to Drawing 101. One of the very first things you learn is how to break down everything you see into shapes. From everyday objects to human anatomy, everything is composed of three basic shapes: squares, triangles, and circles.

For graphic design, that’s all you need.

There is a very common style in graphic design referred to as 2D or “flat” graphic design where very beautiful and detailed illustrations are made by placing those three shapes strategically, manipulating them, and distorting them. With just a few basic shapes, you can create anything from objects and patterns to people and landscapes.

The best part about approaching graphic design like this is that it’s very easy to get started.

The first step to creating your own graphic designs is to download a program to work in. Graphic design is all vector artwork, which is art built from “vectors,” or “images created with mathematical formulas.” Trust me, it’s a lot cooler than it sounds. Because it is digital art, you are going to need something more than pen and paper to create it. The most recommended program for this, and the industry standard, is Adobe Illustrator. This is the program we use here at Ooligan, but it’s not free and it’s not cheap. So if you’re just getting started and are looking to test the waters before you commit to some heavy-duty software, there is a free alternative called Inkscape. It offers a lot of the same features as Illustrator, and can be a great starting point for graphic design.

Next, try breaking things down into their basic shapes. Stop looking at the images you are trying to create in their full complexity and how they exist in a 3D landscape. Simplify them to those three core shapes. Look at a lightbulb, a cat, or a person and recreate them using only squares, triangles, and circles. Once you become comfortable doing that, take it a step further. Start thinking about how you can add more complexity to your designs, how you can add more detail and depth, all while still using just those three shapes. Then start exploring with other tools in Illustrator (or whatever program you are using), and see how they can take your designs to the next level.

And lastly, everyone’s favorite piece of advice: practice. The best way to get better at graphic design and to understand all its components is to practice. But make practicing fun! Make things that excite you and motivate you to create. Do you want to make a moon? A flower? R2-D2 or Pikachu? Do it! Experiment, create, and allow yourself to fail. It’s important to fail! Try to make something complicated that you’re not even sure how to approach. You’ll not only push yourself and test what you can really do, but you’ll also most likely learn at least one new technique to add to your arsenal, unlocking even more doors for you to explore design.

If this is something you are interested in trying, the best way to get experience is by doing it! And if you treat every time you open Illustrator as an opportunity to learn and grow, nothing can limit what you can create.

Help Me Design

It is amazing how design finds its way into all professions. Whether you are a graphic-design guru, a website developer, a technical writer, or any other professional who has some sort of visual element in their day-to-day (so, everyone), you are surrounded by design. So let us dive into some resources for the non-designers.

Adobe Help
Adobe can be a fickle mistress, controlling our experience through buried functions, robust shortcut keys, and a beautiful array of possibilities. It is amazing how creative a non-designer can be once given the power through Adobe Creative Cloud. But for those who aren’t willing or able to sit in on weeks of Adobe workshops, here are a few resources that may help.

  • InDesignSecrets
    InDesignSecrets is a creative network family of sites and services for InDesign users. Considered the world’s best resource for all things InDesign, InDesignSecrets has a robust network of help forums, sites, and services that help users get past the most grueling of holdups.

  • LinkedIn Learning
    LinkedIn Learning (formerly is an online learning platform that has a bounty of lessons on everything from creative practice to business practice. It is primarily for multimedia and software development, and student accounts are affordable and provide valuable resources like software tutorials, design concepts, and coding fundamentals. If you don’t believe me, read the reviews—LinkedIn Learning speaks for itself.

Adobe Resources
Not every design project starts from scratch. Designers often use resources or inspiration from other creators or creative spaces. Often borrowing a simple brush stroke, font, swatch, or pattern will evolve one’s work into something unexpected. So here are a few resources you can mine.

  • A Gold Mine of Adobe Illustrator Resources
    Melissa Scroggins has done the design community a huge favor and listed over two hundred free Adobe Illustrator resources. On the blogging platform, Scroggins lists an awing amount of brushes, patterns, symbols, vectors, and swatches. This is a post worth getting lost in.

  • Font Squirrel
    Font Squirrel is a legitimately free typeface resource that has thousands of completely legal and high-quality fonts. Font Squirrel handpicks and organizes popular fonts for easy finds, but depending on the typeface, designers can go down any serif or sans-serif rabbit hole they would like.

There are thousands of resources out there, and these are only a few; but hopefully these help those who either are just getting into design or need some online inspiration. Happy designing!

Wait, There’s a Difference? Book Designers vs. Illustrators

Here at Ooligan Press, we don’t have a department dedicated just to book design, the way you might at a large publishing house. Instead, we have one design manager, and we invite all members of the press to contribute to our book covers. For instance, when we’re working on a new cover design, we invite everyone to submit designs over the course of four submission rounds, with weekly meetings for feedback from other members of the press. That means that anyone who submits a design is responsible for the following tasks: creating the imagery; choosing the font and layout for the title, subtitle, and author name; and, if their design is chosen, creating the final layout for the spine and back cover design. That’s how many book designers work, but that’s not the case for every cover or every press.

Sometimes an illustrator is brought in to create the cover art, and a designer is then responsible for combining that illustration work with the appropriate typography and text layout for the front and back cover. Okay, you’re thinking, why does it matter that we distinguish between the two?

Before I started PSU’s graduate program in book publishing, I was a graphic design major in undergrad. Actually, the degree written on my diploma was a BFA in studio arts with a concentration in graphic design. That meant that half of the classes I took—such as drawing, composition and color, printmaking, and art history—weren’t actually about graphic design. The core of those classes was about learning how to develop my artistic style to tell the viewer about myself, the artist. I then built on that knowledge by applying it to my graphic design work on posters, logos, and infographics. But I didn’t really understand back then that creating fine art was very different from the art of graphic design, which is about communicating an idea to an audience, usually in order to get them to take action. Simply put, whereas fine art (such as illustration) looks inward by asking the viewer to see the artist behind the art, graphic design looks outward by asking the viewer to see the art and go do something because of it. While these two concepts overlap in places, the purpose of each is very different.

When we think about illustration and graphic design in terms of book design, the difference between the two gets even blurrier. Cover design is inherently commercially oriented and audience driven, and that means book illustrators must keep the same considerations in mind that designers do, especially when the illustrator is also the cover designer. Some designers get defensive if others don’t like a particular artistic choice they made. For years now, I’ve often heard others defend their artwork by saying, “Well, I like it that way.” I think this gets to the core of why the distinction between illustrator and designer, between fine art and graphic design, is so important. When you’re an illustrator, you can make every edgy, interesting artistic choice you want to your heart’s content, because your purpose is to showcase your artistic style. But the minute you are part of a larger design project, such as a book cover, that creativity must be tempered by the purpose of the design; it must be tailored to the audience you want to reach. The book cover isn’t all about showcasing your artistic skill—it’s about selling the book, the story, the author.

How, then, do we balance these two roles? Below are the three pieces of advice I’d give when it comes to being both an illustrator and a graphic designer:

  1. Know what role you prefer. It’s great to be able to both create art and design art—that will make you more hireable in the long run. But know which one you are more comfortable with. Some artists have to have absolute control over the way they create art, because at the end of the day, they’re creating art for themselves first, the viewer second. That’s completely legitimate, but it usually means that working with clients is extremely difficult for them and will likely take the joy out of creating. And if you want to work in book design, you’d probably prefer being approached to create art because of your distinct artistic style, not because a client needs you to create a style for them. In contrast, if you are a designer, you should be flexible enough to take someone else’s vision and make it better through your own artistic skill, without changing the purpose or audience. Your client’s goal should also be your goal.

  2. Know when to break the rules. The general understanding is that in fine art, you can bend the rules in favor of artistic expression as long as you know why you’re doing so. For instance, you might draw a face with giant eyes that aren’t scientifically accurate in order to draw attention to the eyes, for whatever artsy reason. That’s not always the case with design. You could make a poster with tiny text for the title and chalk it up to artistic style. For a poster in an art exhibition, sure, that might be fun because it flips a viewer’s expectations. For a poster on a bulletin board that’s meant to communicate important information, however, such artistic “style” could get in the way of the design. Remember, when you’re a designer, you’re thinking about what a particular audience needs.

  3. Know when to let go of your ego. Sometimes you pour your heart and soul into a piece of work, and the people you’re working with say, “That’s not going to work for us.” Yes, of course it hurts. But if you keep yourself in the mindset that those people just don’t understand, that they made a bad choice, that the new thing you had to make instead is leagues beneath what you originally created, you’ll never be happy as a designer, and you won’t really be able to reapproach the design with fresh eyes. Remember, graphic design is outward facing—and to be blunt, it’s not about you. In fact, I find it a bit of a relief to tell myself that. When a client rejects a design, it’s not about whether or not they like you as a person, or whether they think you’re a good designer (if they hired you, clearly you’re doing something right). So don’t take rejection personally—just think of it as a problem you haven’t quite solved yet.

Book Cover Design Tools for the Self-Published Author

Finally! After years hunched over your laptop tussling over which adjective perfectly captures your main character’s eyes and searching desperately for that perfect ending, your book is done and ready to be launched into the world. You already have the perfect title, but wait! You still need a cover. As a self-published author, it may be intimidating to start with all of the online outlets claiming they can make your book the next bestseller. After all, you’re a writer, not a designer. To help make the process a little less intimidating, here is a brief list of options that can give your book the beautiful face it deserves.
Hire A Professional Designer
As a self-published author, it may be beneficial to set aside some funds to hire a professional designer. The cover can be an excellent marketing tool and help communicate the subject, genre, and mood of the book in a single moment to the potential reader and having someone with experience in this realm may help increase sales. If funds allow, here are some options to explore:

  • Bookfly Design: For a fully personalized cover design experience, Bookfly Design will work with self-published authors one-on-one to create the design of their dreams. The small studio on the Oregon coast offers editing services as well. The intimate experience stands as the most expensive of these options with ebook design starting at $549.
  • BEAUTeBOOK: From cover to interior to website design, they will take care of all your design needs. Bestselling author Gregg Olsen took advantage of their services when designing Bitter Almonds, but the “bestseller look” may cost a pretty penny. Ebook cover design starts at $275.
  • Covertopia: If you are short on time, premade covers from Covertopia may be your best option. Choose from hundreds of genre-specific covers, and Covertopia will customize it with your title and author name. Premade covers start at $119.

Do It Yourself (for little or no cost)
Here in Portland, Oregon, we take pride in getting things done ourselves, and there are numerous online outlets that help guide you through the book design process with relative ease. For many self-published authors, making the cover is not the issue. Instead, the difficulty lies in making a cover that simultaneously captures the feel of the book and stands out among the sea of professionally and self-published books alike. If DIY is more your style, check out some of these online guides:

  • Adobe Creative Cloud: Want a professional looking cover? Invest in the applications used by professionals. InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator are excellent tools for creating both cover and interior book designs. Your subscription also includes video tutorials to help you navigate the tools and techniques available on the different applications. A single app subscription starts at $20 a month.
  • Cover Design Studio: This online resource claims anyone can make a cover on their site in under an hour. While the overall process is sure to take longer than that, this is a quick and easy option for authors short on time. Simply download a template and start customizing. Cover Design Studio offers a hundred DIY templates to choose from, starting at $19.
  • Amazon: Kindle Direct Publishing has their own cover creator, complete with a video tutorial. Simply add a personal image, choose from ten design templates, customize your font and color scheme, and submit. This tool is free when publishing through Kindle Direct.
  • CreateSpace: The entirely free cover creator from this self-publishing outlet allows you to create semi-custom designs with relative speed and ease. You can begin with a premade cover, which you can customize from color to font, and incorporate images from their free gallery.