Welcome back to my little series about how to get started in digital scrapbooking design! If I didn’t offend you yesterday with the tough love I gave you in Part 1, then let’s move on today to cover what I consider the second most important thing about digital design: Ability!

How to Get Started in Digital Design – Part 2: Ability

Are You Born With It?

I am a self-taught graphic designer. I didn’t go to school for it. Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned the hard way. And for me, that’s been part of the magic of it all…

So, let’s talk about talent. What do you think? Is it a case of “You either have it or you don’t?” Maybe. Maybe not! I think it’s a combination of several different factors, most of which can, in fact, be learned, so take heart!

Most people have will have a least one “natural” strength. Maybe you are really great at picking color combos. Maybe you have a knack for coming up with unique elements. Maybe you are gifted at making patterned papers. Maybe you are awesome with coming up with themes that really appeal to people. Think about what you know your strengths to be and embrace them! These are probably going to be the specific things that other people will see in your designs and enjoy about your work.

And if you also know what your weaknesses are you can do something about that, too! How? Read, browse, play and practice, practice, practice!

Know your Program

It’s pretty each to search out resources to learn more about your software. The info is out there on the web and most all of it is free! You also might have a manual that came with your program. Don’t overlook that little goldmine. Go back to school by getting it off the shelf, dusting it off and reading it! Study one chapter a week to put yourself on the fast track to mastering your program.

One question that’s probably on your mind is “What exactly do I need to get started?” The straight answer: Photoshop. You could try to get by with Photoshop Elements, but that software was really created to be a step-up for people who want more power to edit their digital photos than from their software that came with their camera. You could use Paint Shop Pro, but it has it’s limitations as well.

I used to gripe about the high cost of Photoshop. I have a family and we have other needs, you know? But once I actually owned the software, I understood why it was so expensive—it is very powerful. All the math and magic that has been built into this program makes it worth every penny. If you don’t currently have Photoshop, I’d recommend that you do what you can with what you have and set aside your earnings until you have enough to purchase the program.

What about Illustrator? Well… yes. It’s the best way to create your own unique patterns, shapes and elements. But that’s also another very expensive program. You can get by editing simple vector shapes in Photoshop. I’ve been able to make my own birds, flowers and fruit shapes without Illustrator. But that’s about it. If you have great handwriting and a passion to doodle, you will find that you’re limited if you don’t have Illustrator (and a Wacom tablet). So, depending on what you like to create, you may want to also invest in buying Illustrator, too.

I’m Ready! Now What?

The best way to learn your software is to jump in there and do it! You’ll learn a lot by trial and error. Press buttons. Try new tools. Change options. See what happens! Every day you spend messing around in Photoshop, you add a new trick to your tool box.

The first big thing I learned about was that multiple layers are magic and the various blend modes are awesome! Then I learned that using a brush is very helpful for distressing. Then I learned that I didn’t have to actually delete pixels—I could use a mask to “erase.” Then I realized that I could clip one layer to another with a Clipping Mask for various subtle effects. And I learned how to use Gradient Fills in different ways in my designs. All of these things are common Photoshop tools that you can Google and find information about if you aren’t already familiar with them. So, look them up and play away! That’s how you learn and get better at all this—by doing. It’s not going to happen on it’s own. If you want to grow, you have to make time everyday to play.

Here are a few more specific concerns that are common to digital scrapbooking:

It’s Gotta be Perfect

Something that is very important in this industry is the quality of your work. It has to be flawless. And that is extremely intimidating! But, thankfully, it’s also something that is within your control.

Always remember that the reason people will be using your designs is to make scrapbook pages that they will print. They are recording their precious memories with your papers and elements, so you need to respect that and take your work seriously. Don’t rush through things, thinking to yourself, “Oh, it’s good enough. I’m done.” Be sure to take your time, do it right and make something that’s worthy of being in your customers’ books for years to come.

If you decide that you would like to photograph and scan your own real world elements, you need to make sure that your images are crisp and clear—and also fit to be used commercially! You can’t just take a picture of anything you like. You need to make sure that it’s not protected by someone else’s copyright. But that is another topic… and a big one. (Just make sure to do your homework on it!)

Not only do you need to have an item that looks awesome at a 50% zoom, it needs to hold up to inspection at 100%. If you have an image that’s good all the way to 100%, you can rest assured that it’s going to look great when printed AND stand up to being re-sized by your customers. If you start with a blurry image… well, honestly, there goes your reputation! Someone who risked their spending money on your kit this week is not likely to be tempted by your nice looking previews to do it again.

If you are extracting your own items, stray pixels are a huge concern. Stray pixels will cast a shadow of their own and so they are a big no-no! Having stray pixels in your extractions are a sign of a quick and sloppy job. They are so easy to check for, there’s no excuse for having them surround your elements! Simply add a stroke of 3 pixels to your element (I like to use the color red) and you’ll see if you have stray pixels hanging around. Delete, delete, delete!

It’s also important to learn how to properly recolor an item. I’m actually shocked when I see well known designers recolor items in a sloppy way! There are tricks to turning a piece of gray string into a pretty pale yellow string. Play around with your options. Move around the Hue, Saturation and Lightness or Brightness and Contrast sliders until things look right. You need to pay attention to the original shadows that are on your item. If you lighten them too much, there goes the realistic look of your element. For very light colors, try duplicating the layer and set it to Soft Light or Overlay mode. This is a common trick that photographers do with their snapshots, to make them look better.

To sum it all up: if you’ve made something and it’s not that great, just delete it. I’ve deleted entire kits that just weren’t working out (and it felt good once I did it, too!). Be picky. Take pride in your work! And think about your customers. If you do that, you’re on the right track!

So, you need Passion. And you need to have some Ability. What else is important to being a good digital designer? Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 3: Originality.

6 thoughts on “How to Get Started in Digital Design – Part 2

  • September 17, 2010 at 11:47 am

    Thank you for talking about programs. I am using PSE7 and trying to squeeze every penny I can out of it. I’m not really sure how to get up the money for Illustrator or a tablet or Photoshop…. I have some ideas, though!

  • September 17, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    WOOT for an awesome second installment Nicole! You present information in an honest and straight forward fashion and I’m enjoying the read immensely!

    LOL! I have to chuckle at the “It’s Gotta Be Perfect”! I use to think my eye for detail was a curse, but as a designer I have learned that it is my best friend! 😉

    Thanks for sharing more from your own experience as a designer and I’m hoping to feature your series in my Friday at the Farmer’s Market post later today! You ROCK!

    Have an AWESOME weekend!

  • September 17, 2010 at 9:31 pm

    I don’t scrapbook at all, but I randomly found your site the other day and I couldn’t stop looking at them all…they were so gorgeous. I agree with each thing you have said so far in this series and I sincerely love each one of your designs–they are filled with a classic and unique beauty. :)

    I wish you much success. :)

  • September 20, 2010 at 1:46 am

    I totally agree that items should look perfect at 100% inspection and not only at smaller previews. So often I have bought items that I thought looked fantastic based on their scaled down previews only to regret the purchases later when they did not turn up looking as nice at their actual pixels. This really made me wary of buying from the same designers later on. Of late however, I found a website where they include additional previews at 100% zoom. So maybe you might consider including that option in your previews.

  • September 23, 2010 at 7:50 am

    Really enjoying reading your series and I’m also self taught everything… I think it’s great to go to school for art and design, but if it didn’t happen, it doesn’t mean you aren’t able to go at it yourself. Thankfully there are so many resources for all of us to learn at home even!


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