Designing 101: A Quick Start Guide to Photoshop and Illustrator

Designing has a peculiar affair with engineering colleges.

Every year, the technical colleges in India belch out engineers by the million. The Indian society’s obsession with engineering, and medical sciences (with a mild tolerance towards law), coupled with an equal disregard for the arts sees a lot of 12th graders take up courses besides their first preference. Consequently, a considerable fraction of the aforementioned produce of annual engineers is hardly suited to their profession.

Like in most colleges, it is almost ritualistic in MIT. Somewhere in the middle of the second semester you decide playing with electronics, or swatting bugs in your code isn’t your cup of tea.

You start looking for alternatives, to endure your stay in MIT for 4 years. And people more often than not resort to designing as either a hobby or a profession. So after having made a trip to your friend’s room who’s known to have Photoshop or Illustrator (there’s always that one guy) at 2 AM, you have the software(s) installed on your PC.

You are all set to design a masterpiece. Instead, you stare blankly at the gray screen before you, and the array of icons all around. You have no clue how to start, let alone design.Well, you’re in luck. This guide will get you started.

But first lemme take a selfie, let’s understand one crucial thing.

Difference between Photoshop and Illustrator

There exists a fine line between Photoshop and Illustrator which rather bamboozles a beginner just as much a cucumber bamboozles a cat. Much exaggeration there, but you get the point.

Photoshop is a sea of cells (called pixels), each of which can be filled with one colour. So a black, solid circle drawn on PS will simplistically be a lot of pixels, each with the value #FFFFFF (black).

On the other hand, Illustrator’s canvas is made up of points. Shapes drawn in AI are all mathematical functions which generate it, plus its colour values. So a black circle in AI will be the function of a circle, and one copy of the value #FFFFFF.



Mostly used for: Editing images. Creating web mockups, web graphics, UI design (debatable), and light motion graphics. Mostly used for: Creating graphics. Designing logos, icons, or flat designs. Suitable for print intensive, low text projects (again, this point is debatable).
Works with regions in an image. Works with objects in a file.
Raster-based graphics. Vector based graphics.
Supports a single artboard, outside which elements aren’t workable. Supports multiple artboards, and allows working with elements outside your artboard.
Resizing elements compromises resolution. Resizing elements is easy, and maintains the resolution.

Pro-tip: Start with Photoshop. Why? It teaches you to do things the harder way out. Switching to Illustrator from Photoshop is easier than the other way round. Furthermore, it allows you to work easily with shadows, blending modes, and a lot of freedom with brushes, colours, and gradients.

If you devote around 4 hours a week to designing, your learning curve should look something like this:

Step One: Setting Up A Document

So far it might have been all Greek to you, but one can never exploit either software to its maximum unless one is well versed with the nitty-gritties. But now with the technical gibberish is (mostly) taken care of, let us get down to the brass tacks.

When dipping your toes into the unknown waters of a new software, you should be careful to not put the first foot wrong.
Let us learn to create a new document, and set up your canvas.

Photoshop: Click on File > New > Set document Width as 1000 pixels, Height as 600 pixels, and Resolution as 300 pixels/inch > Click on OK. These settings should be fine for your sandbox of a canvas. Or if you are particularly lazy, just go with the default settings. Press B to select the brush, and right click to select its hardness, and radius. You are all set.

Illustrator: File > New > Just go with the default settings > OK. Press P to select the pen tool, and start drawing.

Step Two: Getting Familiarized With The Tools

Now that the canvas is set. You have two options before you.

Option 1: Explore all by yourself, if you are brave enough. That’s how I learned and is highly advisable if you can afford the time for it. You can just open a new document, draw a solid blue box, and a red circle, and test all the tools on them. Refer to this tutorial (just a low down on all the important tools).

Option 2: Follow a web tutorial. This one is for the more clueless, meeker souls who wish to learn quickly. There are plenty of tutorials available online. Here are a few:



I strongly recommend the above two tutorial series, both by TastyTuts. The series assumes the learner has zero previous knowledge and takes it from there along a decent learning curve which gradually steepens.

For advanced tutorials, check out the following:

Recommended Tutorials

Not a lot of theory needs to accompany your tryst with Photoshop, or Illustrator. Although the art of graphic designing, per se, requires a lot of theoretical knowledge. Keeping that aside for now, it’s believed the best way to learn either software is to start designing your first piece of work.
Here are a few quick tutorials which are relatively easy (if you follow the steps), and don’t waste your time with unnecessary details.


Any expert would suggest one learns the art of designing only with the resources available in the software fresh-out-of-the-box. Being able to design a poster, or a character, or an icon on a blank canvas with no external resources speaks volumes about your credibility as a designer.

Although, as your designs get more complex, and your projects are expected in tighter deadlines, one would find it advantageous to resort to third party resources like brushes, patterns, stock images, and vectors. Here’s a list of a few good starting points to import ammo from, for your resource arsenal.

Fake it till you make it

Good artists borrow; great artists steal.

Just let no one catch you. This quote, often attributed to Oscar Wilde and Pablo Picasso, rings alarmingly true in the field of graphic design. This is not in encouragement of plagiarism, but producing designs derivative of elements featured in various designs. Inspiration, as you’d like to call it.

For the sake of a demonstration, the featured image of this article is a derivative of the following three images:

Clever, eh?

If you are looking for inspiration, go out, look around. A major advantage of living in a picturesque campus town like Manipal is that there’s a design idea in every nook and corner. Check out two of my designs, inspired by a dusky evening at Kapu Beach.

In the next part of Designing 101, we’ll talk about different graphic styles, websites to look for inspiration, and more! Stay tuned.


– Written by Agnihotra Bhattacharya, for MTTN.
Check out my Behance profile here.

Agnihotra Bhattacharya

Being eternally hungry, and with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, I took to writing as an outlet for the wide spectrum of emotions that I usually portray. Mercurial, loquacious, and always looking at the world through a broken pair of rose coloured glasses, I can never settle for anything, for too long. I am the one who wanders.

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