Becoming a Web Designer

Recently, someone emailed me asking for advice about how to start a career as a web designer. After taking some time to organize my thoughts on the subject, I thought I’d share them here.

What I love about the web design field is that it doesn’t require any special certifications, formal education or any other traditional qualifiers. Everyone who has ever decided to start a career as a web designer has probably taken a different path to get there. The route I followed to get where I am today is unique to my life choices and circumstances. So it would be ridiculous to say that there is a preferred path or that one way will work better than another.

The great thing about it all is this: you get to choose the path! However you get there, here are some tips that might help along the way.

Read

Read everything about design/development that you can get your hands on. This is where it starts. We are fortunate, in this profession, that there is so much information available and that there are so many generous folks out there willing to share what they know for free. Read design magazines. Read tutorials and how-tos. Read some design books. The sources are virtually unlimited — you just have to want the knowledge enough and take the time to go get it.

Listen

I think I’ve mentioned before how hearing Jeffrey Zeldman speak at Web Design World in Boston in 2002 changed my whole perspective on web design and subsequently kicked my career into gear. If you’ve never been to a design conference, do yourself a favor and sign up for one. It really can change your life. I would highly recommend one of the An Event Apart conferences.

Practice

Publilius Syrus, a 1st Century Roman author said, “Practice is the best of all instructors.” This is probably the most important part of the journey to become a successful web designer. Like any worthwhile endeavor, if you want to get better at it, you have to practice. If you want to become a web designer, then just start doing it.

I started off by looking at the code of other designers to see how they achieved certain effects. I spent a lot of time copying/pasting and deconstructing other designers’ websites. I’ve also spent countless hours pouring over my own HTML or CSS code trying to perfect just the right look. It all takes time — and lots of practice.

So that’s pretty much it. There are many ways to get there, but if you want it bad enough, then reading, listening and practicing will be your loyal companions along the way.

5 Comments

  1. Justin says:

    Great points. Another is not being afraid to take a lot of rejection. Thick skin is important. Remember, there are 1000 other web designers applying for the same job.

  2. Jef says:

    After reading my post again, I found it might sound a bit harsh, so my apologies in advance if it is – no offence intended :]

    While your points are certainly true, I feel they can somewhat be applied to about any profession out there.
    Don’t get me wrong – I’m not flaming, I agree 100% with you, but I can’t help wondering if there isn’t “something more concrete”, sort of like a “plan” if you can box it like that. While this is certainly vague (and ironic), I think that’s also the reason that the 10,000 lists of X about Y you see going around on smashingmagazine or net-tuts: It fills in the gap, the magic touch, the lack of “that’s it!” that articles such as these describe. It basically says “do this and you’ll win”, although it could perhaps be lazyness of the person himself in the sense that (s)he doesn’t have to find out the “winning recipe” anymore.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

  3. chuck says:

    @Jef – thanks for the comments. I hope my post doesn’t get lumped in with the Top 10 list fluff articles on smashing mag because that’s exactly what I was trying not to do. I didn’t want to come out and say, “This is what you need to do!” because there is no one way. I could tell you how I got there, but that probably isn’t the best way for you.

    My point was more this – whichever way you decide to go about becoming a web designer, here are three things that will help you as you go.

    While I agree that reading, listening and practicing can help you in just about any profession, I don’t think that there are many professions out there that require little else. I certainly couldn’t become a doctor if all I did was read about it, attend conferences and practice on my friends. I would need education and certification. That may be an extreme example, but there are many other examples (Real Estate Agent, Architect, Insurance Underwriter, Interior Designer, etc.) Heck, you can’t even become a [viable] project manager without some sort of certification.

    And no worries – I didn’t take your comments as harsh. Thanks for participating in the conversation. I hope I was able to make my points somewhat more clear. Take luck.

  4. Les says:

    Great point about deconstructing other’s work and about always looking to revamp your own work. I find that to often this get’s overlooked.

    I would add one point to your article and that is be flexible. Be willing to change your design perspective. Just because a design works once doesn’t mean it will work everytime. Be willing to shake things up and go out on a limb once and awhile.

    LB

  5. Matt says:

    Hey Chuck,

    After stumbling on your post I was wondering – where would a complete beginner start? Let me elaborate – I’m a (graduated) full-time web developer, as in I’m more of a programmer than a designer. Lately however, I’ve been thinking of making the switch to design. Thing is, I have had no real training or education on subjects like “design principles” or how to make things aesthetically pleasing.

    So in your opinion, where would one in such a situation start? I keep track of several blogs and forums, but its just not enough; I see this when in my designs which lacks any kind of visual structure for example.

    Thanks