Q & A: A Career in Web Design

Listen carefully everybody...

Recently, Smashing Magazine published an article titled, Group Interview: Expert Advice For Students and Young Web Developers. Various well-known web designers, including Chris Spooner, Chris Coyier, and Brian Hoff, shared some of their insights about what aspiring web designers can do to prepare for a successful career in web design.

Since starting this site, web design has rapidly grown as one of my biggest passions. It is one of those feelings you get when you pick up a book for the first time, and can’t seem to put back down. So when the Smashing Magazine article was published, I knew right away that I should seriously begin contemplating the possibility of following a career in design

So, what did I do next? I contacted several of my favorite web designers with questions concerning their professions and was able to get a response from four awesome dudes:

Jad Limcaco

Jad is a freelance website and graphic designer from Long Beach, California. As the owner of one of the fastest growing web design blog Design Informer, he writes comprehensive tutorials and guides that help you stay up-to-date on everything related to design. Completely self-taught, he makes many college-educated designers look awfully clumsy. If you follow him on Twitter, some of his designing skills may eventually rub off on you.

What do you like most/least about your job?

Well, as a full-time web designer and also a freelance designer and blogger, I love my job. What I like about it is I get to do what I love. I have a passion for design and I’m very fortunate that I get to do it every single day.

Worst thing… Hmm, I would have to say managing my time and dealing with all the administrative work. It’s not so bad if you just work for a company, but if you freelance and run a blog, then it definitely is time consuming, and you have to be very organized.

What educational background is necessary for this job?

Really, I didn’t even go to school for this. I started messing around with Photoshop and web design in high school and I really started to get serious with it about 4 years ago, reading everything and anything I could find about it. I’ve spent many sleepless nights designing and learning HTML/CSS. Although a formal education isn’t necessary, it’s definitely a plus.

I would suggest learning the design basics. Too many people who claim to be designers don’t even know these things. I’m talking about things like typography, grids, etc. Also, to be a web designer, a solid knowledge of HTML/CSS, and some knowledge of jQuery/Javascript would be ideal.

Sometimes, all you need is an opportunity. For months, I looked for a job and couldn’t find one in the field, so I freelanced. I did that for a year and had a tremendous time learning, working with clients and I had many ups and downs. Through that, I was able to build a portfolio, and then get a job.

What is a typical day like for you?

Well, I wake up, go to work from 9-6, then go home, exercise, then back on the computer for freelance work and blog work. That’s pretty much my normal weekday.

What are important skills needed for this job?

Well, I’ve already mentioned them, but design fundamentals, along with a great knowledge of Photoshop, and coding skills. (HTML/CSS/jQuery/Javascript.)

If you could do one thing over, what would it be and why?

I’ve actually been asked this a lot. I would have to say that I would have definitely started sooner. I think I delayed it too much and waited too long to get into it. My advice: jump in!

Jacob Gube

Jacob Gube is a web developer/designer and is the owner of the popular site Six Revisions, which launched in February 2008. On his site, he shares many useful tutorials and resources for the design community. One of my favorite articles on his site is titled Common Misconceptions about Web Designers. You can find him also on Twitter and contact him via email at his site’s contact page.

What do you like most/least about your job?

The best is being able to create something that many people will use. They can be the neighbor next door or a person up in the mountains, thousands of miles away, and they could be using the product that you’ve created. The worst part about the job is that it’s misunderstood a lot of times (though not so much anymore, and not if you explain your job role). The reason this is so stems from the field being relatively new. When I first started, people would come up to me to fix the printer, or troubleshoot a Microsoft Excel issue. Purely out of circumstance, I knew how to do those things, but it didn’t mean that it was part of my job as a web developer. So the best thing you can do in this situation is to explain to the person what it is that you do–the more people you educate about the profession, the better off we’ll be.

What educational background is necessary for this job?

Right now, many of the top web designers and web developers are self-taught (at least the ones that I look up to). That’s because the field is relatively new, so higher-level education is still a bit behind. Though if your college offers web development majors, you’re lucky–I hear in the UK they’re beginning to offer some truly amazing courses. If I was an employer hiring for a web development job, I’d pick an Informatics major over a Computer Science major if my only deciding factor was their college education. The best I’ve seen locally is an Informatics degree, which is closest to web development. Computer Science is an option if you want to be a programmer, but those courses don’t teach you how to make websites and web apps, they teach you how to make software. If I was an employer hiring for a web development job, I’d pick an Informatics major over a Computer Science major if my only deciding factor was their college education.

What are the steps necessary to break into this field?

A lot of hard work. Try to get some great projects going and focus on the quality. Pretty soon, you’ll have a solid list of companies that you can show off to prospective clients.

What is a typical day like for you?

I do the creative stuff in the morning, and the administrative stuff in the afternoons.

What are important skills needed for this job?

People skills. The most valuable skill that you can have is to be able to communicate your ideas to other people–your client, your team mates, your employees.

If you could do one thing over, what would it be and why?

If I could do one thing over, I would’ve skipped learning Perl. Learning Perl, however, did introduce me to PHP, which is the language I use now. But I could’ve jumped right through Perl and directly to PHP, but at the time, it was due to a necessity; we’d taken on this LMS that was written in Perl and we were trying to hack it to our needs.

Chris Spooner

Chris Spooner is a web designer who owns two popular design blogs called Blog.SpoonGraphics and Line25. He has written numerous articles and tutorials on his sites as well as other well-known web design blogs including Smashing Magazine. One of my favorite tutorials is called How to Create an Author Section in WordPress. You can also follow Chris on Twitter.

What do like like most/least about your job?

Clients. Clients are definitely the best and worst thing about web design. On one hand they provide the work and the challenges that help you grow as a designer, but they sometimes also bring the face-palm moments all designers dread.

What educational background is necessary for this job?

No official education is necessary, but it could help get your foot in the door and learn the basics. Many designers find that self-teaching has been their best form of education, especially when you consider how fast the industry moves. Many courses are at least a year or two out of date.

What are the steps necessary to break into this field?

Create a core portfolio of work, begin networking locally and online and keep learning!

What is a typical day like for you?

I actually gave a good insight of my typical day in this post.

What important skills are needed for this job?

A passion for the industry and drive to keep learning are the most crucial in my opinion.

If you could do one thing over, what would it be and why?

I’m happy with everything so far. Any mistakes have led to an increased knowledge or a lesson learned, so I wouldn’t change anything.

Jon Phillips

Jon Phillips is a web designer who founded Spyre Studios, which is located in Montreal, Canada. His also has a popular design blog called SpyreStudios, where he shares his abundant design knowledge to aspiring designers. One of my favorite posts from his site is called 48 Excellent Examples of Blog Post Footer Designs. You can contact Jon via his contact page and follow him on Twitter.

What do you like most/least about your job?

What I like best is the creative process, coming up with ideas and concepts for a particular project, whether it be a personal one or for a client. I do enjoy writing CSS, HTML and PHP, but what I like the best is the whole creative process and designing user interfaces. As for the worst part, I guess that would be accounting. I find it’s simply a boring task and it’s time spent that I could put to better use working on designs. But that’s just me haha.

What educational background is necessary for this job?

I know many designers/developers have studied art or programming, but in my case, I am self-taught and it’s worked out great for me. Of course I spend a ton of time reading tutorials and articles about design, and from what I know, a lot of this stuff they don’t teach you in school. Many web-designer friends of mine who have studied design, art or programming are often struggling to find clients and are not aware of some of the latest techniques and trends, they don’t read blogs and online articles. They should though.

What are the necessary steps to break into this field?

I think you need to network with other designers, read blogs (also write a blog if you can/want) and get out there and find clients. There’s tons of sites like Behance, Coroflot, Carbonmade and DeviantArt via which you can showcase your work. Of course at first you may not have a lot of client work to show, but working on personal projects usually fill that void, and it will help get actual paying clients. I think that once you have a solid portfolio and online presence, it’s only a matter of branding and finding the right clients for you (of course you need to go through some bad projects and clients – it’s part of the process and you can learn a lot from those) One of the things you absolutely need to do in my opinion, is use social networks. Twitter has been great for me, and many of my best clients I’ve found through there, they sent me a message and we then exchanged emails, etc… There’s no ‘definitive guide’ to making it in the design field, what works for me may not work for you, but it’s just a matter of trial and errors I guess.

What is a typical day like?

I usually wake up pretty early, make coffee, check emails, Twitter, Facebook and other social networks. Then I check my to-do list (which I wrote down before going to bed the day before) and see if I need to make any changes on there. Then I reply to emails, messages and blog comments if needed. I’m usually done with all this around noon. Then I start working on actual projects, website designs, WordPress integration, my own projects, my blog, etc… Then I usually take a break for dinner, and work some more in the evening. At the end of the day I’ll take about half an hour to see what I’ve accomplished during the day and write my to-do list for the next day.

What are important skills needed for this job?

Of course you need to be proficient with tools like Photoshop, Illustrator and Fireworks, and I believe you also should be able to write CSS and HTML markup, and if you can, some PHP and Javascript (jQuery, MooTools, etc…) but I think the most important skill is communication. It doesn’t matter if you can build a web application in 4 hours if you have no communication skills. Every client is unique and every designer/developer you work with will also be unique, so you need to be able to wear many hats and be good at communicating with people, asking questions and ‘getting things right’. Photoshop and CSS skills come second I think.

If you could do one thing over, what would it be and why?

If I could turn back time, I think I would’ve started a blog earlier. Ever since I started blogging and networking with other designers and people in the design community, so many doors have opened. I wouldn’t be where I am right now if I had not started a blog. Now I can only imagine where I would be if I had started a blog say, 5 years earlier

Conclusion:

I would like to thank Jad, Jacob, Chris, and Jon for taking the time out of their busy schedule to answer my questions about the design career. In addition, I hope that this interview shed some light into my readers who are considering pursuing a design career.

Image via Pop!Tech

Do you have any questions or comments  you would like to be heard? Then leave your questions or comments below!
  • http://40tech.com Evan @40Tech.com

    Really great post, Tony. It’s interesting to see a few different viewpoints on this.

    • http://loneplacebo.com Tony Hue

      No problem, Evan. Glad to hear that you like it.

      • Waj31721

        Hi, tony. Ia senior in high school, how is looking in to doing wed desgin and graph’s in college when i get out. What you think i sould do to inprove myself and have good chane in college?

      • Waj

        i mean i’m a senior in high school, looking to getting in to web and graph design…. sorry bad spelling…. : )

  • http://sexidesign.com Melody

    What a great read! I always like to see how a lot of designers are self taught nowadays, because I’ve seen people who go to school, but just don’t have an eye for art.. Great selection of bloggers :)
    .-= Melody´s last blog ..Understanding Color Meaning In Sexy Design =-.

    • http://loneplacebo.com Tony Hue

      Web Design is still in its early stages. Plus, with how rapid the web tends to grow, teaching yourself how to design websites is probably the best route than a college degree in design.

  • Natasha H.

    Great article! I also read the “Group Interview: Expert Advice For Students and Young Web Developers” from Smashing Magazine.

    I love to read articles like this because it gives me some insight (and often some very good advice) into web design which is what I’m currently majoring in.

    Thanks!

    • http://loneplacebo.com Tony Hue

      I’m glad to hear that you found this article useful. Thanks for stopping by.

  • zanzu7

    Great interview. Nice to know that most of great web designers are self-taught.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • http://loneplacebo.com Tony Hue

      Web Design is definitely in its early years still. Formal education is a bit lagging behind.

  • http://richworks.in Richie

    This is a wonderful group discussion about the careers of some of the best web designers.

    Most of the web designers I see on the net are self taught… Am i to understand that web design is at its nascent stage and contains areas never explored by anyone and which can never be taught in a class?

    The article was really informative and fun to read. Thanks for putting this together Tony…
    .-= Richie´s last blog ..70 most creative advertisements featuring animals =-.

  • http://yayeps.wordpress.com Yagnesh Ahir

    Hey Tony, this is really a helpful and inspiring post. I always wonder how these designers think and teach themselves, its really nice to know their perspectives and thinking. Keep up the good work!
    .-= Yagnesh Ahir´s last blog ..Beginners Guide : Create 3D Shattering effect in Photoshop CS4. =-.

  • http://www.feralbytes.com Leisha

    These guys give me so much hope. Thanks for the interviews!

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  • http://victoria-web-design.ca Paul

    Thanks for this post. I am on the early side of my freelance web design career and especially needed to hear the bit about not doing off-design work. Someone wanted me to come to their house and hook up their BluRay player. I almost did it. Thanks for the reminder to keep focussed!

    • http://loneplacebo.com Tony Hue

      It must be quite daunting at this stage of your freelancing career. I wish you much success! :)

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  • http://twitter.com/pixelnated Jeremiah

    I really enjoyed this (and follow each of them) :)

    Ryan Havoc does a great video series along these lines where he gets designers/business owners to talk about how they got their start in the industry. Highly recommended if you like this sort of thing

    http://www.havocinspired.co.uk/category/please-start-from-the-beginning/

    Cheers!
    Jeremiah
    .-= Jeremiah´s last blog ..pixelnated: 3D webdesign by @mikekus -> http://bit.ly/c0k4uz The FOWD NY slides are great http://bit.ly/aFNRBd – Loving this =-.

    • http://loneplacebo.com Tony Hue

      Thanks for sharing, Jeremiah. I hope others will also find the videos to be of use.

  • http://a2codesigner.com Nathan Olmstead

    Great post on the life of a web designer. Another good source for web design education are some local community colleges. I recently graduated from Washtenaw Community College in Michigan and their program focuses on User Experience, Web Design, and Web Coding. A great foundation for developers new to the field.

    • http://loneplacebo.com Tony Hue

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, Nathan. At my college, the only thing resembling a web design program is either Informatics or the Extension program. I hope the knowledge you acquired there was well worth it.

  • http://www.dezinews.com lalugee

    I must say..! great post.

  • http://www.jennamolby.com Jenna Molby

    Great interviews! It’s really good to hear that education isn’t everything when it comes to web development :)

  • http://ileane.wordpress.com/ Ileane @Blogging

    Hi Tony, I thought I left a comment here before, but maybe it was in GoogleGroups. I thought this post provided great insights and inspiration for newcomers and veterans alike.
    @Ileane
    .-= Ileane @Blogging´s last blog ..Diigo Extension for Google Chrome Browser =-.

    • http://loneplacebo.com Tony Hue

      No worries! I’m glad to hear that you found this article to be informative. Thanks for stopping by!

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  • http://www.sawgrassshack.com/ Web Design Enthusiast

    amazing post, really. getting insights from so called big names in their fields. the top people in web design and web development. although they have different experiences, but lots of things they are in common.. first, all of them, when ask what degree needed, they answer not necessary, only hard work and reading lots of articles and tutorials.

    i have noticed also that making web design only doesnt make them who they are now. they are doing blogs and web development and that makes them the top of their fields. marketing their products makes them popular.

    i really love this post. hopefully more post similar to this can be posted covering another set of people who greatly achieved their potential.

  • http://www.egramin.in/blog Lotus

    I think it is the creative ideas that will propell you in your career. You need to think differently but very focused on user experience and usabilty aspects.

    • http://loneplacebo.com/about Tony Hue

      Nicely said, Mr. Lotus.

  • http://twitter.com/iprk parry

    gr8 post….really will help me to achieve wat i dream of!!.. thnks buddy

  • http://www.bml-creative.co.uk Joey

    Nice article. Wish we were given some of this kind of preparation from our University courses! We’ve also written a brief article for new designers on things to consider when applying for a job. You can view it here: design career advice hopefully it might just help someone to get moving in the right directions.

    Thanks for posting.

  • http://www.securityking.com Craig

    Thanks for the great post, very inspiring to get these insights from some of the industry’s best! Always great to get some advice to help without having to make a mistake or choice that others have already tried, Thanks!

    • http://loneplacebo.com/about Tony Hue

      Glad you found it useful, Craig!

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  • http://www.champagnesunday.com Jared

    I’ve recently begun pursuing making a living as a web designer, and more recently, begun looking at schools to help me further my thus far self-taught education. I’ve found myself staring blankly at source code that makes little sense to me; a bunch of behind-the-curtain stuff that I’m sure does something, but whose purpose isn’t immediately apparent to me. I’ve only been doing this for a little over a year, and only seriously for the past month or so. In that time, I’ve been able to learn html, css, and get a tenuous grasp of JavaScript and jQuery. Would going to online college at this point help, or would you recommend pushing through?

  • Anonymous

    There is some fantastic graphic design in these examples, however I don’t think they do a good job in drawing your eye or attention to a specific message on the page.
    They cause your eye to jot about looking for something to stand out.
    The aspire labs does a good gob as it hits me with a benefit straight away, so I can think i’ll keep reading.
    Most of the others are just examples of design without much marketing.

    However a great display of graphic design.

    web design dubai

  • Katie

    I’m in college exploring career options and web design is one field of interest for me.  This article was quite helpful, and a couple of the websites listed (Six Revisions, Smashing Magazine) have tons of useful info to help me get started experimenting with web design.  Thanks!

    • http://loneplacebo.com/ Tony Hue

      Glad to hear that you found it useful, Katie!

  • http://www.bybe.net/ Web Design Bournemouth

    Really nice article Tony, Thanks for sharing! :P

  • Mariana

    Amazing advice for someone just starting out. Thanks!