Recently I attended a school careers fair with Engage Web at Neston High School. It was, rather surprisingly, my first time at a careers fair – and I’m including my own school days in that as well. I don’t know if careers fairs are a relatively new thing, or whether my school just didn’t have them – or, more likely, I just wasn’t interested in going to one when I was in school. The point being that, when I was a teenager, I had no idea what I wanted to do – let alone had the wherewithal to be finding out about careers and asking probing questions.
Some of the children from Neston, however, did seem to have a better grasp on what they liked doing, if not a firm plan for moving it forward. One of the questions I was asked most often was ‘how do I become a web designer?’ or, more accurately, ‘what qualifications do I need to become a web designer?’.
This left me in a difficult position. Do I talk about the different types of degree courses available and the GCSEs and A Levels that would be beneficial for someone looking at a career in web design? Do I mention the different types of colleges and universities they could attend in order to gain the relevant qualifications?
Or do I answer honestly?
Each time I wrestled with my conscience for about two seconds before answering honestly: none. You don’t need any qualifications to become a web designer. In fact, in many ways, it’s better if you don’t take any courses at all.
Of course I had to explain my answer and, with one lad, tell him not to go home and tell his parents I’d said he shouldn’t go to university. I don’t want that kind of backlash! Besides, I think university is a great idea. It teaches you about responsibility, self-motivation and allows (for males at least) them to grow up a little bit (most girls have grown up in school already). What university doesn’t do, however, is teach you to become a web designer.
The problem is that anything you learn from a practical viewpoint (software, CSS, languages, techniques) will be out of date before you even graduate. Even if the course itself is right up-to-date down to the latest technology, that means the three-year course will be teaching you practices that are three years outdated come graduation. That is IF the course is bang up-to-date, which they invariably aren’t. This doesn’t set you up for the workplace.
I knew of someone who enrolled in a web design course, admittedly some years ago, who was taught to build websites using Frames. Now, no matter what period of website design this course was created in, Frames is not something you should be using when designing websites. What he was taught was useless for the industry he had looked at going into.
So what did I advise?
Well, the best candidate I have ever interviewed for a web design job actually didn’t go to university at all. He stated in his interview with Engage Web that he looked at a third year degree show in Manchester and saw the standard of work being produced was at the same level he was at now, so thought there was no point spending three years to get into debt and not move forward with his work. Instead, he chose to learn his web design skills by (and this is the trick that many people don’t seem to grasp) designing websites.
You see, you don’t have to be paid as a web designer, you don’t have to be on a university course and you don’t have to be in employment to start building websites. You can do it yourself, on your own computer, and it needn’t cost you a penny. Whether you want to learn VB, PHP, Perl or any other language, there are countless websites containing code samples and tutorials for free. There are platforms such as WordPress, Joomla and Drupal you can download and install (either on a web server or on your local machine) and you can just experiment with them.
Anyone who applies for a web design job and has no practical experience of web design isn’t likely to get it when you can gain practical experience by just doing it. If all you’ve done in the field of web design is what your college or university course asked you to do, then you’re not really interested in web design.
And I know all this because?
I started in this industry back in 2000, when I landed my first job as a web designer with video games retailer Electronics’ Boutique. If you don’t remember them, it’s because they rebranded to GAME the same year. I had no prior employment experience as a web designer, so how did I manage to land such a high-profile job with the industry leading games retailer?
It was because of work I had done, off my own bat, just because I was interested in website design. I had designed and built several websites of my own for pleasure, and so that I could learn how to do it. One particular website caught the attention of the online marketing manager at GAME as it featured animated icons I had created myself using video capture and Macromedia Fireworks. Here are three of them…
They showed inventiveness and a desire to do something a little bit different. That is what is needed from someone looking to get into this industry and become a web designer. Just get out there and do it.
Don’t go to university… or do
I should backtrack slightly here as I’m not suggesting you leave school with no GCSEs or A Levels and don’t go to university. I did my GCSEs and I took A Levels in Art and Classical Civilisation (something which only really comes in useful in pub quizzes and when picking holes in films). I did tell the children at Neston High School that, to be a web designer, it would be helpful to be good at art and maths. I realise they’re two very different subjects, but they certainly help from a web design and web development front.
Naturally, if you aspire to be anything with the word ‘design’ in the title, it would help if you’re good at art. Designing is creative and art helps cultivate this side of you. Just being artistic isn’t enough though, as web designers are expected to also build their own websites. To do this, they need to use CSS and databases, and this requires a more analytical mind. There are very few people who can do both of these things equally well as they use different sides of the brain, but those who can make the best web designers.
I didn’t do maths at A Level due to a particular issue I won’t go into now because I don’t want to start a rant… no, screw it, I will go into it now. It annoys me enough too much not to.
A quick rant
I missed half of my GCSE mock exams because I had to have an operation in the middle of them. Not the best timing, but the surgeon said it couldn’t wait. As a result I only completed one of the two mock maths exams, scoring 96% – yes, I even remember the score to this date.
For some reason, perhaps because I was ‘untested’ on the higher maths mock exam, I was placed in the lower maths set for the GCSE year. Naturally this meant easier questions, easier topics, easier tests and work that just wasn’t taxing. I was bored. Very, very bored.
I distinctly remember asking the teacher if I could be moved up to the higher set and he refused. Consequently, I didn’t work hard in class and, instead, played hangman at the back with my mate Andrew Williams. When it came to the GCSE exams, I could only take the exams that would award me the maximum grade of a C, even if I got 100% in both of them. I never revised. I didn’t need to. The exams were easy, I completed both of them before everyone else and sat bored for the majority of the exam – picking up my C grade.
This, of course, meant I couldn’t take maths at A Level even if I had wanted to.
Now I hand code database driven websites and write algorithms to extract data based on formulas – and I’m still bitter about that maths teacher.
I digress slightly – if I could steer this back to the careers fair for a moment. I suggested that those interested in web design consider maths and art for GCSEs and A Levels, and did suggest university courses in graphic design (as graphic design principles don’t change) but made it perfectly clear their best bet would be to just start building websites of their own. I mentioned some of the industry standard software that, if they began using now, they would be in a great position when it came to applying for universities, apprenticeships or even web design jobs.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that one lad, at only 13 years-of-age, was already using Photoshop. I told him if he continues to use that to create graphics, he’ll have a huge advantage if he ends up going to university to do any sort of design degree.
Another rant (sorry)
To swerve effortlessly back to the title of this piece, ‘How do I become a web designer?’, perhaps we should also look at how you shouldn’t become a web designer, as there are a lot of people out there who call themselves web designers when they really don’t have the first clue what they’re doing. While a web designer should be able to use something like Photoshop for design layouts (some will say Illustrator, but they’re wrong – I won’t get off track again explaining why) a web designer should also know how to code, how to write HTML by hand and how to handle CSS.
A web designer doesn’t need to know a scripting language such as PHP, as that would make them a developer, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to expand their skills and do more with their work. However, some ‘web designers’ (note the inverted commas) don’t actually know how to code HTML, and they don’t even know what CSS stands for. Instead, they practice their ‘web design’ (there they are again) on free website builder applications such as Wix or 1and1 My Website (there are many more of these things, but I’m not going to sully my eyes Googling the names right now).
There’s a place for these things; if you want a website for your business and you don’t care if it looks the same as everyone else’s, then it’s perfect for you. If you want your website to say “there’s absolutely nothing original about us and we paid nothing for our website”, then get in there and get your free website today. However, if you’re trying to sell your services as a web designer to paying customers who know no better, and you’re using one of these free website builders, then you should be shot.
You don’t know how to build a website, you don’t understand what makes a good website and you know nothing about how a website should convert. You’re taking money from people under false pretences. You’re a fraud.
I’m sorry, I’ve gone off on one again. Still, it had to be said. If you want to become a web designer then there are ways to go about it and there are ways you shouldn’t go about it. I hope I’ve made it clear which is the correct way.
As a web design agency we welcome others into the industry because the arrival of more good quality web designers raises the bar for everyone else. It shows customers what’s possible with web design, rather than giving them the same tired old templates you get from those free website builders.
Good luck, and why not share your thoughts in the comments below?