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Graphic Design Fundamentals: Getting Started

Lesson 4 of 18

The Designer's Toolkit


Graphic Design Fundamentals: Getting Started

Lesson 4 of 18

The Designer's Toolkit


Lesson Info

The Designer's Toolkit

So we're gonna look a little bit at basically what it is that designers work with in order to do the things they do. How do you do? And it's really about making stuff and so, this is the stuff that designers make. And the first thing is form and image. That is, to represent ideas with some kind of visual sign that tells us things because of the way it looks, how it's shaped, what its parts are. And there are a lot of possibilities for that. The possibilities, of course, are unlimited. And they begin with things as simple as, sort of, pure geometric graphical shapes that designers can use to create movement and spaces. And then there are kinda pictorial elements which can be very, very reductive. That's is, illustrative in nature, sort of iconified. Taken down to absolute bare minimum for bold graphic impact. But then, of course, there's photography. Photography is very popular. And it's got kind of, you know, sort of the go-to for a lot of designers. It's quick, it's clear, it's clean,...

it's very understandable and there's a lot of stuff you can do with it. You don't have to use a photo as it comes into the camera just as it is. You can tweak it. You can change its color, you can change its tonality, you can put it in shapes. you can silhouette or chop out parts, you can collage with photography and work with it in a very, very painterly way, in an illustrative way. So there a lot of different kinds of option available. Of course, there's illustration. And there's many media under the sun as there are people. From drawing and etching, painting, collage, colored pencil, print making and, of course, digital drawing and montage as well. Patterns and textures, whether they're photographic or handmade. Whether they are representational or pictorial in nature. That is, you can tell where the pattern came from. Or they're completely abstract patterns, create surface activity. And you know, we can sort of divide form into kind of two basic categories. That is, form is either geometric. It's made up of sort of fundamental form language elements like dots, lines, planes, trapezoids, polyhedra, semicircles, triangles, interacting. And then on the flip side is organic form. Form that seems, because of its irregularity, its spontaneity, its softness, to come from nature. It refers to natural experience. You'll notice that these are also completely abstract or non-pictorial images. And they could in fact, be representational simply because you're not looking at an image of something that you can literally see in the physical world around you, doesn't mean that an image isn't communicating. And sometimes an abstract or non-pictorial image can pack in so much more information because it's not limited by what is actually there. That can be very, very powerful for communicating. You can mix images, of course, and manipulate them. And you always have to be, sort of, conscious of what's going on in the person's head and this is another kind of an area of using images that's very important. It's not just what you're showing. It's not just the medium you're using to show that thing, but also how you're showing it. What are you combining those image elements with? What happens to their meaning? How do people understand them when their form deviates from what they expect to see? So when you see this alarm clock not as a pure kind of representational, naturalistic photographic image but as this kind of sort of hyper-saturated color repetition, you get the sense that this is not just any clock, this is an alarm clock and it is ringing. You can hear this. So the meaning of this neutral object has changed. It's become a specific kind of that thing, not just any one of that thing. And, of course, our brains will put together narratives, will make up meaning based on stuff that we see especially if the image elements are photographic because we appreciate or we almost assume that any image that has been taken by a camera, that is photographic, is actually somehow real. And so working with photographic elements together in a way which is unexpected, which is surreal, gives you a lot of power as a designer. It allows you to kind of draw the audience in and sort of almost fool them into believing that what they're looking at is actually true already because it's made up of photography and then you slip the messaging underneath. Once you've to them, you've got them. Design is a lot like dark magic, use wisely. And so when we talk about narrative or meaning, the first thing we can look at is, you know, juxtaposition. It's that any image changes it's meaning entirely when it confronts another image. And so we can look at these different bits, these different combinations and sort of project some ideas on to them. So here, of course, we have a baby as our sort of base, our control, the placebo. And so here we have the baby, infant, juxtaposed with an image of a kitten. So, what we might read into here is a very, very, sort of closely related or almost literal kind of narrative. The gap in sort of idea or understanding or meaning between these two images is quite small. They are both infants. They are both innocent. They are both pre-developed. They have not evolved. They're both cute. They're both soft. As soon as the image changes to something where the connection is not as intuitively expected, the narrative gap widens and in there you have leeway for metaphor or symbolism. The questions the viewer has to ask become a lot more complicated. Who is this woman relative to this infant? Is it mother? Is it sister? Is it cousin? Is it the same infant all grown up? And then last, when that, when the juxtaposition is really unexpected, when there doesn't seem to be, at first glance, a, kind of, a really understandable connection between the two images. That is, is that their individual subject matters are so far removed from each other. It's in those cases where the narrative becomes infinitely more complex. And this is sort of where you wanna be as a designer not so much down here. This is almost so easy to understand that your audience is likely to say, Oh, okay, got it, blah and then move on and then you've lost them. But it's where you give them a little question where you like, just come a little bit and I'll... And then they're trapped and they've got to figure it out. Because humans are curious creatures and they wanna know stuff so they're gonna ask. So here when we have the stack of bills, the benjamins next to our friend the baby all kinds of interesting possibilities open up. Children are expensive to raise. Maternal care is expensive. Education is costly. Or babies cost a lot on the black market. Could be any one of those things. And when we start to ask these questions and we start to see images in sequence we start to move down this kind of road of understanding. And as juxtaposition follows juxtaposition the narrative changes, it grows, it evolves and we start to move faster towards what we want. At the end is some kind of conclusion, a summary that bares out our expectation. And when the designer takes the audience to that place, it's like a punch to the gut that the audience doesn't realize has happened. But you can twist the narrative any way you want. So on the top we're starting with the same house image and it's interesting to note the kinds of assumptions that I know that you're already making. Because, not only do we ask questions but we come to visual information with our own baggage. We project meaning onto those things. And so, designers are really kind of tweaking or playing with their audience's psychology and you'll probably have assumed that after looking at this house and seeing this couple that this couple is looking at this house. That they are going to buy it, they're gonna rent it, they're having a life together. You don't actually know that these two people are a romantic couple but you might have assumed that. They could be anybody. They could be brother and sister. They could be friends. They could be co-workers. But because of the coloration in the photo, because of their gesture, how they're relating to each other, we make that assumption and that's born out by the following image. Even though this image is in black and white and you don't see those people you have assumed that this is the married couple but there's nothing empirically available to prove that. It's just lied to you in a good way. And then of course we follow up with the kind of the result of that intermingling which is the production of our baby from the previous slide. Here you can see how easy it is to warp that narrative in another direction. That is the same house and followed by the image of the storm clouds and we assume that this house is in that environment and there's an impending ecological disaster. You see then people running. We don't know if they're running because they're playing. Maybe it's this couple. They're going on a date. They're going on a picnic. But they seem to be running. There's a slight blur and the way that they're cropped causes them to kind of slide almost precipitously out of the frame. So there is this kind of implied danger, some anxiety that's being transmitted. And then the final image we see a house that's completely dilapidated and I know that you have, as well as you all out there, have most likely inferred, assumed, that this house was destroyed by this storm and it's this people's house. If you look at this house you'll that this house is of wood construction. This house is of stone. This house doesn't have to be empirically the same house in order for you to believe, to kind of suspend your disbelief that this narrative actually becomes true at the end in this way.

Class Description


  • Identify and apply fundamental graphic design elements
  • Add essential design skills to your toolkit
  • Approach and manage the creative process through varied projects


You don’t need to have a background in fine arts or be an Adobe InDesign whiz to create compelling designs. In this class, Timothy Samara takes you back to the fundamentals of graphic design - the same principles he has consistently returned to in his 25-year career.

Through real-world projects, you’ll learn the basics of:

  • Form and image
  • Color theory
  • Typography
  • Layout and composition

Most unique about Timothy’s class is his demonstration of how design theory manifests in actual projects; he cracks open his professional portfolio and takes you into the world of how real designers work. With an extensive career behind him, Timothy’s design services have spanned from web design to print media, to interface design, and to building brand identity. By walking through Timothy’s creative process, you not only see how design elements interact and impact an overall product, but you get a rare view of the problem-solving graphic designers do and the decisions they make. What rules exist and when are they broken? How do you juggle meticulous research vs. spontaneity?

Whether you want to design a poster, flyer, or logo - this class will give you the insights you need to design with confidence. Welcome to the art and science of graphic design.


This class is designed for beginner and intermediate graphic designers as well as more experienced designers looking for a brush-up on design principles, career-changers, marketing team members, and anyone interested in graphic design fundamentals.


Timothy Samara is a New York-based graphic designer and educator whose twenty-five career has so far focused on visual identity and branding, communication design, and typography. Since 2000, he has split his time between professional practice and academia, defining a highly respected reputation as an instructor at the School of Visual Arts, Parsons/The New School for Design, Purchase College SUNY, New York University, The University of the Arts, and Fashion Institute of Technology. Mr. Samara is a frequent university lecturer and contributor to design publications both in the U.S. and abroad. He has written eight books on design to date (all from Rockport Publishers), which have been translated into ten languages and are used by students and practitioners around the world.

Connect with Timothy online: LinkedIn


  1. Introduction to Graphic Design

    What exactly do graphic designers do? What is the overall goal of design? We see many products that designers create - from logos, to t-shirts, to newsletters and invitations - yet what do graphic artists actually do to produce these products? What design skills do they use and what factors influence their decisions? What roles do graphic designers play in business, the economy, and within communities?

  2. Graphic Design: Areas of Specialization

    With the advent of technology, not only have tools like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator transformed the graphic designer’s process of creation, but the possibilities of design have expanded into far reaching areas. Timothy gives a quick overview of areas of specialization as a graphic designer; from editorial design to wayfinding, and advertising to motion graphics and branding, learn about the possibilities the field offers.

  3. The History of Graphic Design

    History repeats itself. Learn about the evolution of graphic design and the origins of many of today’s design trends. Timothy takes you on a fascinating journey through the 36,000 year old history of graphic design, from cave paintings to the Industrial Revolution in New York, to the arts and crafts movement in England to the birth of Modernism, Bauhaus, and the development of corporate identity. How has visual language evolved from past to present?

  4. The Designer's Toolkit

    Every designer carries a basic toolkit of the fundamental graphic elements in a design - these are the elements a designer plays with and manipulates to create a final product, be it a web page or a series of comic books. Starting with form and image: how do graphic designers choose the images they use? How do geometric and organic forms influence a design? How do designers use form and image to create a narrative, or meaning?

  5. The Graphic Designer's Tools: Color

    Color is a dynamic tool. What elements of color can be adjusted, and how does this impact overall design and the effect on your audience? What relationships do colors have with each other and how do you choose a palette? What biological changes do our bodies go through when we perceive color - and how do you harness the power of color as a designer?

  6. The Graphic Designers Tools: Typography

    Sometimes overlooked, typography is essential to user experience; the right combination of factors can create a comfortable and engaging experience that piques your audience’s interest. How can you use typography to guide your audience’s attention and best communicate your message?

  7. The Graphic Designer's Tools: Layout & Space

    Graphic design is made up of different, and at times competing elements: typography and imagery. How do you merge these to create harmonious and compelling visual compositions? You will learn how to manipulate space in your design and organize elements to influence how your audience reads your message.

  8. Typical Work Processes

    You have a project - now where do you start? Creative processes differ from person to person, however the typical design process goes through the same stages: research, ideation, refinement, and execution. Timothy describes the factors to consider at each stage.

  9. Designing an Advertisment

    Witness Timothy’s graphic design skills in full force as he takes you through the journey of a project from his own professional portfolio: an advertisement for an expo. Timothy demonstrates the iterative process, from image selection to concept sketches to color manipulation, and his reasoning behind every decision along the way. He calls to attention an important factor in editorial design - on what scale and in what format will this advertisement live, and how does this affect the design?

  10. Designing a Poster

    What unique opportunities does poster design offer? How does the size of media affect a reader’s experience? Timothy walks you through his process of designing a poster for a theatrical performance and the more complex concept and image development this design work requires. We see surprises and new ideas surface through the process of refinement, as well as the value of broad research.

  11. Designing a Book Layout: Basic Concepts

    Timothy designs the layout of a book, a retrospective of an artist’s work. He raises and answers compelling questions throughout the process: How do you work with multiple stakeholders on a single project? How do you turn limitations into positive challenges? How do you problem-solve when a client is not satisfied? How does using a layout grid actually create, rather than hinder flexibility? Timothy shows you how to explore compositional ideas within the format of a book with extensive images and text.

  12. Designing a Book Layout: The Details

    Typeface, alignment, transitions, even the color of the cloth of a hardbound book: these are all factors in cover to cover book design. Timothy demonstrates the process of creating a book cover in line with his client’s artistic vision, finalizing the process, and bringing the project to execution.

  13. Designing a Website

    Web design presents a playground of opportunity: how does interactivity influence design? How do page layout, flow, and navigation affect the user experience? How does hierarchy, or the order in which the audience perceives information, translate into the interactive context? Timothy takes us through a web design project; we see his research process, concept sketching, use of grids, and problem-solving in the context of a web page.

  14. How to Design a Brand Identity: Preperation

    Graphic design at full volume is the creation of brand identity. Timothy models beginning the process of designing a brand identity for a client with the core component: the logo. What are the best research practices for logo design? How do you create a powerful logo? Does it need to communicate a message? How do you problem-solve for its applications in various forms of media?

  15. How to Design Brand Identity: Showing the Client

    Timothy shares his best tips for working with a client in logo design. How many options should you present and in what context? How do you involve your client in the problem-solving and refinement process?

  16. Building Brand Language

    Brand identity may start with a logo, but a logo is just one part of a brand - it needs to exist within a world with context. Timothy models how to flesh out the rest of a brand’s visual language, from website content to color palettes, icons, and taglines.

  17. Designing the Touchpoints

    If you want to take your client’s brand to its audience and not only increase exposure, but build and strengthen the relationship between brand and customer, you need to design brand touchpoints. Packaging, letterheads, and business cards all add to the narrative. How can you develop a simple and effective advertising system?

  18. Fundamentals are Forever

    Timothy closes where he begins - with the fundamentals. What is the mission of the designer? What can you learn from the history of the discipline? How will trusting the process of discovery push your practice to the next level?


a Creativelive Student

Wonderful class! I loved getting the info as to the creative process. Great!

sixtina maculan

Thank you for sharing your experiences in this class. It's been a pleasure to listen, learn and understand, as well as a wonderful motivation.

Øyvind Hermans

I love this class, clear and precise information with very interesting examples. I have worked as a graphic designer for 6 years but have no design eduction, so at times I feel like there is these gaps of design-knowlegde in my decisions, this was the perfect filler of these gaps.