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Becoming a Professional Web Designer – Building Career from Scratch

Becoming a Professional Web Designer - Building Career from Scratch

Have you ever thought about becoming a professional web designer? Imagine you could design and develop irresistible websites and get paid for it. Imagine that international companies would be your clients. Imagine thousands or millions of people would be using websites you designed and built. In this article, you will learn how and when to get started in web design. You will also learn about the skills you will need as well as four myths surrounding web design.

From hobby to profession

When you start to think about working as a web designer for money, you should also start seeing yourself as a professional. Being a professional web designer, or professional in general, I independent on employment relationship. When you start to offer your web design skills for reward, your can be either professional or amateur. Your success in long-term, development as a web designer and path to mastery will not depend on your age or knowledge. It will on your professionalism and the way you do the work.

It is, therefore, more than appropriate to create a solid foundation for your career as a professional web designer. Let’s make something clear right here. There is a high number of people who once tried to become a professional web designer. All of these people gave up after certain time. Why? You know, there is no money to make in web design. Also, the work is scarce. And, it is too hard to learn it all. This is crap. These “reasons” are only excuses used by amateurs. What’s the reality?

Take a look at the top ten percent, or even top one percent, of web designers. What will you see? You will see people who have to reject(!) work because their calendar is booked two, three or even four months in advance. These people are working with tools whose price could cause a heart attack to some older individuals. The truth is that these people who gave up were not prepared for making the transition. They didn’t know how to take their hobby and morph it into their full-time job. They didn’t know how to become a professional web designer.

When to start with web design?

What is the best time for getting started as a professional web designer? I contacted couple web designers and ask them this question. The answer was almost always the same. The best time to start learning and working as a web designer is on high school. College or University was the second best option. There are several reasons for this conclusion. First, when you are at school, you have more time for learning about web design and business skills. Second, it is high likely that your family is taking care about most of your cost of living.

On the other hand, if you are in situation where you have to make certain amount money every month for rent, food, etc., it will be much harder for you to start. I’m talking from my own experience. I started with web design, as a hobby, when I was on high school and continued in it on College. However, I already had to take care about myself. Trust me, it is nothing I would recommend for people with weak willpower and lack of ambition.

Web design contains many land mines. Any of these land mines can quickly terminate any attempt to become a professional web designer. What are these land mines? First, anyone can create his first HTML page in one hour. Unfortunately, this is not a guarantee of quality or mastering the best practices. Second, clients don’t recognize quality on first sight. Third, clients often lack knowledge about web design. They will approve almost anything. Fourth, clients are willing to pay for low-quality websites. Beginning web designer doesn’t know how much he doesn’t know.

The result of these four land mines is that the barriers to entry in the web design industry are incredibly low. Well, there are actually no barriers. Next, let’s add to that the willingness of clients to pay for lousy outputs. The result is that there is always certain number of people using the title web designer and are charging money regardless of the quality of their work. This is a dead end. When you produce low-quality work, you will attract only cheap clients. When you work for cheap clients, you have to complete more projects to meet your needs.

Unfortunately, high quality work requires time. Therefore, if you are working your butt off on smaller gigs, you will have little to no time for this quality work. Another catch is that in order to attract better clients, you need to fill your portfolio with examples of quality work. You will never get these examples from cheap work. And, if you don’t invest your personal time, you will have nothing to show at all. This is way getting started in web design at school is much better. You have the time to learn the real web design and also create high quality output for your portfolio.

Knowledge and skills

Web design is discipline that is constantly growing and expanding. Every year, there is some new technology or area web designer has to learn about if he wants to keep up with the industry. This makes web design hard, but also challenging and interesting. Every web designer will tell you that what is really scarce in his work is boredom. In the beginning, you will spend the majority of time with graphic design, HTML, CSS and JavaScript. With time, you will find out that what’s really important for successful web design project are strategy, psychology and other soft skills.

Theory vs practice

There is a lot of knowledge you can learn from case studies and books about content strategy, user interface and user experience design. I highly recommend that everyone spend at least a little bit of his or her time studying these materials. On one hand, these materials will help you design better outputs. Still, you have to remember that these materials will never fully replace contact with client’s target audience. Case studies are also very good to create analogies you can use in your own projects. These analogies will then help you understand potential users better.

What are some resources you should take a look at? For theory and research on UX I would suggest to bookmark Nielsen-Norman blog. For web design focused on e-commerce, take a look at Econsultancy blog and Baymard Institute. Interesting websites for gaining the knowledge you need to become a professional web designer are Treehouse and Codecademy.

When it comes to case studies, always use your own head and dare to question these materials. Every case study will have different degree of expertise. Some case studies will go more into details while others will touch only the surface of the topic. Next, make sure to research the author of study. Not everyone who calls himself an expert is really an expert. Next, make sure the study is based on solid foundation. Also, not every study will be the right one for your project. Lastly, learn about the environment the study was conducted.

Communication skills

Every web designer must be able to see the world from the view of his client and users. In other words, he must be able to empathize with other people. As a professional web designer, you will work and communicated with various types of people every day. These people include people in your team, managers, clients, clients’ users and customers and potential customers. When you finally complete the project, you will leave a specific feeling in minds of these people. This feeling will depend on your communication skills. Client’s impression of your work and the work itself may be different. However, both are important.

Client’s impression is important because it can ensure you another work. If you want to work on more than one project with your client, be that kind of person with whom it is a pleasure to work. In other words, don’t be jerk. Next, your output must be excellent. You will never be able to make any progress with your skills if your work is worse than great. Every time you create something, it has to be better than your previous work. Creating great work is also important to keep you motivated. If your work is not improving, you will soon lose your enthusiasm.

Don’t confuse great communication skills with the “skill” to nod. In the life of every web designer, there will be moment when you will have to argue with your client. There will be moment where you will have to take the stand and tell your client that what he wants will simply not work. If your client is used to that you always agree with him, you will hit a wall. There are two ways to avoid this. The first option is to continue and agree with every nonsense your client will come up with. The downside is that you will soon hate your job.

Second option is to promise yourself that you will always be willing to disagree with your client. It doesn’t matter how hard or uncomfortable it may be, you will always politely voice your honest opinion. For some clients, this will be surprise. They will not be used to it. Don’t worry, just stick to it. By voicing your opinion, you will like your job more. You will also not have any compunction. Lastly, you will deliver better output for two reasons. First, because you will like your job. Second, you will get rid of any nonsense that may result in damaging the project and client’s business.

Project Management

As a professional web designer, your number one responsibility is to deliver results. This means that you have to be able to manage yourself and projects you are working on. Aside from mastering goal setting, every web designer has to have at least basic knowledge of project management. This is especially important for freelance web designers. Your client doesn’t care about your “effort” to create something, but whether you actually created it for agreed price and in agreed time and quality. That’s it. You can keep your excuses for your friends. Clients want results. Here are four tips you can start with.

Attitude

Are you the person with solid hard skills with whom it is a pleasure to work? Can you talk with waitress in the restaurant at noon and present results of user research to the CEO of international company couple hours later? The last piece of the successful web designer career puzzle is self-development. In certain times, your career will not be about your hard or soft skills. It will be about the fulfillment and satisfaction you will get from it and how well can you manage your ego. Attitude is probably the last and most ignored area of any career that can, paradoxically, keep you from burning out.

We are motivated by two types of factors. One are intrinsic and the other are extrinsic. Examples of extrinsic motivational factors are money, fame and power. Examples of intrinsic motivational factors are satisfaction, mastery, autonomy, purpose, improvement, etc. When you reach certain income level, you will realize that money are not why you this (it they ever was). Well, the chance that you will become billionaire web designer are somewhat low. Still, web design will allow you meet your needs and have nice vacations in exotic destinations.

The only way how you, as a professional web designer, can work and grow is on the base of intrinsic motivation. Yes, it is hard to not to make websites for money when you need to pay bills. This is why it is so important to reach such a standard that money will neither be a problem nor motivation. Extrinsic motivators can increase your productivity in the short-term. The downside is that they will decrease the quality of your work. You can either chase money or quality. If you need money or fame to motivate yourself in order to get the work done, maybe it is time to think about change.

Work with clients

Virtually no project and no web designer (at least freelancer) can survive without clients. Without clients, there is no work. Without work, there is nothing that can earn you money. Between you and every client, there is a relationship that you can purposely build, or terminate at the right time.

Your 50%

You are directly responsible for your half of the relationship with your client. Understand that you cannot change client’s half. Instead, it is crucial to make sure client’s half is clearly defined, consistent and sustainable in the long-term. Your client must be also familiar with this his half. Translated into plain English, your client has to choose one person you will be in contact with. This person will be responsible for the project and will be able to make all decisions.

Next step is to make sure your client understands the importance of getting the materials for website’s content. These materials will be necessary even if you or your client decide to leave this work to another professional. The more complex the website is, the more materials you will need. Ignoring this will result in couple things. First, you will do the work and get paid. That’s the good news. The bad news is that your work will never be realized. The project will never be launched due to lack of materials for website’s content. So, gather these materials as soon as you can.

The last thing you should do is to set specific deadlines for you and your client for every project. When something happens and there will be delay on client’s side, you simply move the project on the end of your work queue and invoice completed work. Remember that delays on your side are not acceptable. You have to always meet the deadlines, no matter what. The biggest benefit of this approach is improvement of your cash flow. It also lowers stress and creates more relaxed work environment. However, you have to be in position where you can afford this (by being the best).

50% vs 50%

It is important to make it clear with your client that you are web designer. Meaning, he will not do your work. This also means that the dialog between you and your client has to be focused on clarifying the benefits website will bring to client’s business and, users and customers. Otherwise, any dialog and discussion loses its sense. So, when your client will tell you couple ideas for the website, take it as a feedback you can build upon. How can you reduce the amount adjustments made on the basis of client’s internal political decisions?

The best way to achieve that is by increasing the amount of personal presentations of your outputs. Also, make sure your client is present on each of them. Next, don’t try to skip user research. And lastly, insist on having only one person, responsible for the project and all decisions, you will be in contact with (your 50% part).

Ethics in web design

Ethics is subject of your own conscience. You, as a web designer, are responsible for clients you work with and projects you take. There are web designers who never work for pharmaceutical companies, political parties or companies in arms industry. I will leave it to you to decide which one of these three is more dangerous. Another example can be that if you are vegetarian or vegan, you may not want to work with slaughterhouse. Or, you may decide to not to work with clients going against your religion or philosophy.

When it comes to ethics, before you accept new project. You should check whether it’s not competition to another project in your portfolio. If it is, make sure that both clients are okay with that. This will help you avoid many uncomfortable conversations and situations. One advice I recently got is to never work with direct competitor of your current client. It can cause a lot of troubles with both of your clients. Another tips?

Decide what projects do you want to work on before you accept any. Also, without rejecting unethical “spec-work” you will never probably never get the chance to work on better projects. You will stay in the mud of web design working on project you will not even want to present on your portfolio. Next, don’t try to ignore your conscience. It may work for a while, but sooner or later, your work will get boring. You will lose your enthusiasm and passion.

Perfectionism and precision

Web is not print. Trying to reach perfection and absolute precision on all screens and in all browsers is a waste of time and slow suicide. The first thing you have to understand, as a web designer, is that there is nothing as pixel-perfect web. Browsers and operating systems are all rendering the website in their own way. What’s more, the variability of devices is growing every year, almost every month. So, trying to make the website look exactly like graphic design in PSD is, again, only waste of time.

Website is primarily about the return on investment. For many clients, it is not viable to invest in everything web design process offers. For example, small local retailer will not need polished prototype or dozens of iterations of user testing. The same thing for small businesses such as barber shops, hairdressers and so on.

I should also mention that, in many projects, you will have to deal with high pressure, tight deadlines and even tighter budget. This means that you will often have to do compromises you will not like. I experienced this on my own many times. Let me tell you that for perfectionist such as I, it was, and still is, very uncomfortable. However, the only way to become professional web designer is to get used to compromises. That being said, there is still a place for precision.

When you deliver the outputs to your client, you should have a high standard for precision and organization. For example, layers in PSDs should always be structured and organized. All elements should include all states such as active, focus, hover and visited. All templates should include precisely defined typography styles and font files. Design of the website should be always fully responsive – versions for small mobile devices, tablet, desktops and large screens.

One smart way to make this part of your web design process easier is by using checklists. Thanks to checklists, you will never forget any step. You will be also able to deliver completed project on time and in such a shape that there will be no need for any adjustments. Remember that any “post process” adjustments will have significant impact on client’s impression from your work. Your clients will measure the quality of your work not only by the quality of outputs. They will also measure it by the amount of time spent on revisions and adjustment.

Myths about web design

There are a lot of theories and assumptions about web design and many people have different perceptions. Let’s tackle four big myths about related to web design.

Web design is pure art

Web design is not an art. The goal of web design is not to express your perception of the world (your portfolio can be an exception). Website can be and should be beautiful. Web design process can also utilize various methods and principles used in art. However, this doesn’t make it art. In web design, money are on the first place. Your goal as a web designer is not to express client’s aesthetic perception, but support his business and make money. The real goal of web design is achieving the goals and reaching the metrics your client set for it.

Sure, website has utilize great visual communication, be aesthetically pleasing and use good UX patterns to help users navigate through the website. Graphic design and beautiful typography are inseparable parts of web design. However, obsessive focus on the aesthetic side of web design can destroy the project. The quality of the website should be, therefore, based on something more tangible than visual perception and subjective feelings. This is why we use various metrics and analytics tools. We want to measure the performance of the website.

This one of the differences between art and web design. Web design can be measured, evaluated and improved. You can measure whether the web induces the right emotions or not. You can measure how easy to use the website is. You can measure whether users are doing any conversion actions. This is also why web design is harder than graphic design. The efficiency of web design is easy to measure and this process can be also automated. This is not achievable in case of poster.

Web design is pure craft

Web design contains many aspects of the craft. There is no doubt about it. Every web designer has to learn to use and master various tools such as graphic software, prototyping tools and code editors. Still, craft is only part of web design. You cannot create great website without mastering the craft part. However, you should also never ignore the second, thinking, part. In a fact, excluding this thing part of web design can be even more destructive.

Remember that web design is also about psychology, sociology, anthropology, aesthetics, communication, branding, marketing and many other disciplines that can be far from any concept of craft. So, if web design is pure craft, we can also say that psychology is pure craft because without psychology and knowledge of human behavior you will never create functional website.

Web design is like print

One of the biggest mistakes of traditional graphic designers is the illusion that website is just a series of posters on the screen. The results are piles of richly decorated websites that, unfortunately, don’t bring anything to their owners. This is also why it is sometimes hard for graphic designer to make the switch to web design, and also the other way around. Another problem is that clients often demand visual direction as well as design.

This puts graphic designers are under high pressure and force them to be web designers. In order to become a really good web designer, designers have to learn about interaction design. Designers also have to switch from “poster” paradigm to “graphical user interface” paradigm. In the end, it doesn’t matter so much how attractive the website is. What’s really important is if users have good experience from their interaction with the website. This is not achievable only with graphic design.

Web design is IT

In case of IT, web design is already solved and closed chapter. People in IT perceive website as a product that has to be programmed, coded and launched. Website’s graphic design and content are responsibilities of someone else. The best way to describe this perception is by taking a look at website of some College, University or government institution. Although these websites are often full of information, people can’t find what they need. Sometimes, it is almost like trying to read Rosetta stone. IT often see the world through the lenses of source code. This makes it easy to produce available and accessible websites. In case of web design, this is not enough.

Who is web designer?

There are a lot of ways you can describe a web designer. In general, as a web designer you will do several activities. Your work can be focused on the design of the website. At this stage, I’m talking about sketches, wireframes, UX and information architecture and documentation for the project. You can also create the graphic concept of the website. Some web designers will take this further and code the concept with use of basic HTML and CSS. We can call these people coders. The smallest group of web designers will code the concept, but use HTML, CSS and JavaScript. In other words, they will take the project from sketches to fully working front-end.

From the viewpoint of difficulty, it is easier to start as a coder and work with basic HTML and CSS or as a graphic web designer. In these cases, the majority of your work will be oriented on the craft aspects of web design. When you decide to transition into front-end development, you will have to learn about programming. As UX designer, you will need to have solid knowledge about interaction design, information architecture, strategy and communication.

I also think that web designer should have at least some knowledge in SEO, copywriting, marketing, branding, psychology, gamification, business, etc. Unfortunately, this is not something you can get done in one year. You have to think about web designer as expert generalist – jack of many trades and master of some. Good web designer has to be versatile if he wants to keep up with this quickly evolving industry. In some sense, web designer is a combination of three people – interaction designer, graphic web designer and front-end developer.

Closing thoughts on getting started as web designer

You will never succeed as a web designer in vacuum. If you want to focus on the artisanal part of web design, you will need to find a place in some agency or web design studio. Otherwise, you need to have general knowledge about the whole discipline of web design. You will need to have this general knowledge even more if you decide to work as a freelance web designer. Then, you will need this knowledge to create websites that will solve problems of your clients.

Remember that if you decide focus on the craft part of web design, you will basically commit a professional suicide. By focusing only on the methods, you will be easily replaceable. The only way to avoid this trap is by understanding also the principles behind these methods. You must be deeply interested in understanding human psychology and behavior. Remember that your outputs will be used by many people every day. So, you should stay curious and continually work on your skills. Only then, you will have a chance to stay in the industry and build solid business, even brand.

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