Advice for a Beginning Web Designer

I received a request to answer 10 questions about the web design field by a student considering a career change. This exercise is part of a school project and I was given permission to share my responses publicly on this blog. Feel free to add your own wisdom in the comments section.  This is your chance to influence a new web 3.0 designer and contribute to a better web.

1. What level of education is required to begin working in the web design field? 
(certificate, AA, Bachelor’s)

There is no required level of education to become a “web designer” if you are a freelancer. On the other hand, if you want to work for a large company, they will likely have some minimum requirements listed in the job description. In this case it is best to do your homework in advance and brush on the skills they will require, perhaps even building some prototypes to demonstrate your skill. At the end of the day, a solid portfolio with many quality testimonials will take you a long way. Begin building those right now. If you don’t have any clients, family membersor local non-profits to help, consider contributing to the open source community.

2. Are there certain courses that would be most helpful?
 (PHP, Microsoft ASP.NET, Javascript/CCS/XML/DOM)

I recommend that you take courses on Software Engineering (at least learn about version control and automation through scripting), HTML,  CSS and Javascript. You should also learn at least one scripting language; I prefer Python, but Ruby and PHP are also good choices. A database class will also be very useful, but you would likely get more value for your purposes focusing on the practical application. You should also master at least one IDE (Eclipse or Dreamweaver) or text editor (Notepad++ or TextMate) as you will spend most of your time with it. A systems administration introductory course will help you administer your web sites. For bonus points, classes in PhotoShop, Illustrator and Flash would not hurt.

3. How much does college training actually prepare you for the skills need as a web designer?

My perspective comes from my journey obtaining a BS in Computer Engineering and a MS in Electrical Engineering. I would say the thing that helped me most as a web designer was my Software Engineering and Operating System classes as a Computer Engineer. After taking these courses my confidence as a programmer was greatly increased and I felt ready to create real projects for other people. When I started my first business, it was the ability to do well in multiple classes with numerous deadlines that prepared me for dealing with real world clients. Also, as a Masters student I headed several projects and was given the responsibility to lead a team; this prepared me for the later expansion of our business when we began to hire employees and utimately receive funding.

4. What personal qualities are most important in a web designer?

I think the following attributes are important:

  • attention to detail
  • patience
  • communication skills
  • self discipline
  • project/time/task management, even if you are only just managing yourself

5. What work/volunteer experience would be advantageous in web design?

I would start with developing your own personal web page. Then, think of an idea and develop it into an actual web site. If you can’t think of an idea, borrow one from the web or a web design tutorial book. Once you gain some skill and confidence, offer your service to a non-profit that you care about. In short, build a portfolio of live working web sites that you can show off when it comes time to get a job or become a freelancer.

6. What are the duties of an entry-level web designer?

I can only speak from the stand point of a web designer who started a business. In that case, the duties are:

  • accounting
  • legal
  • management
  • customer service
  • marketing
  • sales
  • human resources
  • oh yea, there is also that thing called web design

7. Is there a kind of social life style or “culture” included within this occupation?

I spent most of my time working with a small team of web developers. Common threads between us were:

  • working remotely when possible, usually at some sort of coffee shop
  • working weird hours (generally late at night)
  • a love for computing and programming in general
  • a desire to tinker with all the latest technologies
  • too much time spent on sites like and
  • way too many energy drinks
  • always trying to configure our computers for optimal performance
  • Linux!

8. Are there job-related pressures? If so, what is the source of these pressures? 
Are they self-imposed?

Maybe it’s because of my Engineering background, but an obsession with detail and perfection is a great source of stress for me. When dealing with real clients and real deadlines, you simply don’t have the time to engage in the level of detail you would like. I find that most of those pressures are self imposed, but any time there is an unhappy customer, my stress level increases geometrically even when I know its of no fault of mine.

9. Can you describe the cycle of a typical project/assignment of a web designer?

  1. A potential client says they need a web site
  2. You conduct a needs analysis to determine the requirements
  3. From those requirements you create a spreadsheet to determine cost
  4. From that spreadsheet you build a proposal
  5. You then present the proposal to the client and close the deal
  6. If the client agrees to with the proposal, a contract is signed
  7. You then take the contract and build out a project plan based on the terms of the contract
  8. Execute in iterations, meaning that after you have developed each major component of the overall website, you will review with the client to make sure that the final product is what is expected from the client
  9. The client signs off on the project and you make the web site go live
  10. The project gets added to your portfolio
  11. At any given time you may be called on to fix some issue or perform maintenance on past client work

10. What is the most essential advice you would give to someone considering web design as a career?

Find someone who has already achieved the level of success you desire and and to be mentored. Listen, think and save yourself years of time. While you are looking, spend time at places where web designers hang out, either in person or on the web and get to know your peers.

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