Learning Graphic Design Online
The Coursera Graphic Design Specialization by CalArts is something I’ve actually been looking into for awhile, but I never did because I wasn’t sure what it could offer me. I’ve been a professional graphic designer for over fifteen years now, but this specialization is catered to brand new designers. Eventually, I figured it might actually be useful to take all five courses from an expert (ish) perspective and review them, beginning with the Coursera Fundamentals of Graphic Design.
Maybe if I took the entire specialization I could tell new designers if it’s a program worth investing in or not. In addition, I’ve been out of design school for a long time and I’m sure this program will probably be able to teach me something new.
FYI: I took this course in October 2020, so course assignments and lessons may change over time.
Depending on your budget and how much time you want to invest, you have some options for how you want to take this course.
Auditing: Coursera lets you audit any course for free, though that option won’t let you earn a certificate after completion of each course. You also miss out on submitting assignments for feedback and you might not be able to see all the course materials. This is still a great option if you have no budget but you still want to learn.
Enrolling: When you enroll in the Coursera Fundamentals of Graphic Design course you get access to all the course material, can get feedback on your work, and you get a certificate upon completion. This is the best option if you really want to learn graphic design. It’s $64 a month with a free 7 day trial in case you decide you hate it.
To pass and receive a certificate in this course, you need to achieve a score of at least 75% in the assignments and at least 80% in the quizzes.
Fundamentals of Graphic Design
This course is divided into 4 week terms, all concerning the fundamentals that you’ll need to know. Here’s the breakdown.
- Week 1: Fundamentals of Imagemaking (3.5 hours to complete)
- Week 2: Fundamentals of Typography (3 hours to complete)
- Week 3: Fundamentals of Shape and Color (2 hours to complete)
- Week 4: Fundamentals of Composition (3 hours to complete)
Week 1 – Imagemaking
The first week is about half reading and half video lessons, though the readings are mostly general program introductions. Following this there is a peer-graded assignment in addition to reviewing the work of others who have also completed the assignment.
Week 1 jumps right into design by talking about different imagemaking techniques and introduces the ideas of denotative images and connotative images. It goes into details about how to illustrate a specific form in a unique and simple way while still keeping the essence of the object intact. This is a key idea for designers when creating imagery, especially for things like icons and symbols where simplicity is key
The instructor then discusses various imagemaking techniques, setting up the student for their first real assignment. The main message here is that students should not be concerned with making a perfect image, but with creating as many images as they can. The more you create, the better. Your skills will not only grow, but the more you create, the more likely you will create something awesome. This concept translates well into the majority of of real world design problems.
The lesson here is about experimentation, with both digital and print medium, with any type of tools you can. This means you shouldn’t be limited to creating an image using a pencil or marker. This was actually one of the first things my design school professor discussed from day one. Make imagery using whatever you can. Paint a twig and draw with it, use a potato stamp, mix ink and a tissue and blot it on paper. Just try lots of things and see what you create.
The idea of iteration is also discussed as well. This essentially means making a lot of variations of the same thing, then tweaking each new version slightly to test your design. Basically, how designers create logo designs.
The lessons in week 1 are a direct lead up to the main assignment, which is creating ten denotative images of a common household object. The object used primarily in the lessons was an apple, so I didn’t want to use that. In design school we had a nearly identical assignment, but we only asked to make a few images in black and white. Back then, I used a pepper.
For this assignment, I thought about using a light bulb, a teapot, a lamp, an umbrella, or lipstick. I settled on the teapot because I thought playing with the shape of the teapot would be fun.
I created my imagery using an iPad and various brushes in Procreate. I would have liked to experiment more with different mediums but I only had an hour to whip these off while my toddler slept on my lap. Here are my teapots:
After I submitted my work I got to see what other people had created. Their stuff was surprisingly great and made my tiny teapots look awful by comparison. Oh well, on to the next part.https://www.coursera.org/learn/fundamentals-of-graphic-design/home/welcome
The next assignment was actually optional, but I did it anyway. The objective was to use the same household object as before and focus on the creation of connotative imagery instead. Basically, give the object some context to portray an idea or message. We needed to create three more of the same image. Here’s what I came up with. A marker drawing, an evil teapot, and a 3D render with type.
Week 2 – Typography
The typography lessons jump right in with the basics about typography with what each part of a letter is called and some general typography terminology. The lessons go into detail about every part of type, then discuss the differences between a typeface and a font. This is actually something I tried to pay more attention to because I always mix these up.
For clarification, a typeface is one style within a type family, such as Times Bold or Times Italic, but a font refers to both the typeface and the size of type. For example, 72 pt Times New Roman is a different font than 36 pt Times New Roman. This seems to contradict what else I’ve read online, so I’m still confused. The instructor does say, when in doubt, just say typeface. Anyway, let’s move on.
The lessons then discuss the categories of fonts, breaking down serif fonts into four categories: Old style, Transitional, Modern, and Egyptian; and sans-serif into three categories: Grotesque, Geometric, and Humanist. Following this, the instructor talks again about denotation and connotation, but this time in regards to type.
There’s a quiz! I debated taking the quiz first because I should be able to do that, but I figured a refresher would be good. I’m not going to tell you too much about the quiz here, but I will say if you were paying attention to the lessons, you’ll do fine.
The first assignment is optional, but I did it to show you here. You’re asked to choose four adjectives that relate to your object from before (A teapot in my case) and choose a typeface for the word that acts as a descriptor. Your supposed to submit four different ones for review and here’s what I did:
After a few more lessons about experimenting with letterforms, there was another assignment. This assignment was just for practice, which meant it wasn’t reflected in your grade if you did it or not.
This assignment involved making three different Monogram variations from our initials, then creating some fake business card designs using it. This task basically involved recreating my current logo, which is something I’ve wanted to do for awhile anyway. I figured this exercise would be a good precursor to revamping my logo.
So these monograms are what I ended up creating, using the fonts Avayx, Kielo, and Playfair Display, with very minimal typeface editing. The third one is the most like my current logo, though I would still like to refine it beyond this before I switch up my logo entirely.
Here are the simple business card designs I created from these monogram logos:
Week 3 – Shape & Color
The lessons in week three explore some core design principles like shape, contrast, marks, icons, symbols, contrast, and colour. The influence of the Bauhaus is briefly discussed as well; talking about how many of our principles of design and how we understand shapes and colours originate from the Bauhaus school. The instructor then discusses the different types of visual contrast in shape, scale, space, depth, movement, colour, and line versus volume.
Then the lessons go into the differences in marks, icons, and symbols. Marks are graphic shapes; familiar or abstract shapes like a circle, square, or triangle, etc. that are devoid of meaning on their own. They are denotative forms.
Icons and symbols work differently, and are representational. Icons are pictorial representations and a symbols usually represent something more abstract like an idea or construct. The figure and ground relationship is discussed as well, in addition to colour terminology like hue, saturation, value, and the colour wheel.
The assignment for week three is optional, which means I’m gonna do it anyway so I can show you here. It involved creating a bunch of basic shapes, then combining them with other shapes, them combining them again. Then we add some colour for the shape and the background. We upload the best three and that’s it. Here are my best three. To create these, I used the default shapes in Affinity Designer.
The lessons in week lead up to a straightforward quiz. As long as you’ve been following along with the lessons about shape and colour, you’ll do fine.
The Second Assignment
There is another assignment for week three that is also optional. It involves working with rhythm and pattern, which are discussed in a few more lessons following the quiz. You’re asked to use your shapes from the previous assignment to create a full pattern that is an interpretation of a design period or culture that uses pattern. That last part would probably be better to include if we had already done the design history course, but we’re not quite there yet. I determined mine was a bit retro and a bit Halloween. Here’s what I made:
Week 4 – Fundamentals of Composition
The lessons in week four are all about composition and things like hierarchy, narrative, and the relationships between elements. Symmetry, asymmetry, the rule of thirds, and the golden ratio are discussed. These are all very important concepts for graphic designers to know.
This week also gets into some of the primary principles of design, discussing concepts of visual contrast like scale, weight, direction, space, form, and texture.
The week four assignment is to create some very simple compositional arrangements that show the different visual contrast concepts. There were a lot of constraints on this assignment so it was impossible to get really creative. Based off the peer-reviews I did, everyone seemed to come up with almost identical compositions.
After submitting this assignment, Coursera notified me that the course was complete and I got 100%, which was great, though I felt like I still had a lot more to do. It turns out this was the last graded assignment, and the rest are only optional. So that’s cool I guess, but I’m going to do the assignments anyway to show you.
Here’s what I made:
The Second Assignment
The second assignment for this week, an optional practice assignment, was almost identical to the first. This time, each composition was required to portray two or three visual contrast concepts. Here’s what I did:
The Third Assignment
There are a few more lessons following the assignments and quizzes that deal with composition, cropping, and hierarchy before an optional final project that ties the entire course together.
The final project asks you to create an 11 x 17 poster for a band’s new album using the projects you’ve created over the last four weeks. You’re meant to call the band ‘The’ + one of the adjectives from week 2 + the object you chose from week 1. Basically, I’m calling my band name ‘The Cozy Teapot.”
You’re also asked to use imagery from week 1 for the poster’s visuals, in addition to using the knowledge you’ve gained from the previous weeks regarding typography, colour and shape, and composition. Here’s what I designed using one of my teapot images, the font I chose for ‘cozy’ and the pattern I created.
Following the last assignment, there is a summary video as well as some additional resources for choosing a design school, building your portfolio, and some portfolio design tips.
Coursera Fundamentals of Graphic Design: In Summary
Overall, the Coursera Fundamentals of Graphic Design course would be great for anyone wanting to begin a career in graphic design. It provides some great fundamentals of design in a way that is easy to absorb, and entirely online. The best part is there are no dry, design theory books along with it. That being said, if you’re serious about design, you will need to read some of those dry theory books at some point.
I enjoyed this course and it was fun to go back to design school. If you plan on doing this course or any of the courses in the graphic design specialization please make sure to actually read the assignments before you do them. The assignments are all peer-graded, and I lost count of how many assignments I reviewed that completely ignored the project requirements.
Have you taken the Coursera Fundamentals of Graphic Design course or any others from the Graphic Design Specialization? If you have, tell me what you thought about the course(s) in the comments below 🙂
If you want to learn more about the fundamentals of graphic design check out Graphic Design: The New Basics by Ellen Lupton.
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