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Getting Started in Web Design

A web designer needs a keen eye for aesthetics, an understanding of creative techniques, and concise design skills, along with a strong a foundation in the most recent technology of the web. The best web designers know that good web design is nearly unperceivable and feels intuitive to the user. A designer’s job is to make websites and mobile applications appealing to the target audience and a pleasure to use. Knowing this, it makes sense for beginners to focus on the fundamentals, including basic drawing, web design theory, and industry-accepted best practices.

Basic Drawing

Though drawing is not critical for most of the web designer’s job, there is an element of illustration that is needed to express your ideas to clients and peers. Most graphic designers and web designers need to be capable of drawing graphs and grids to help clarify their layout plans. A designer should have a basic concept of drawing shapes, shading sections, roughing out menus, incorporating basic logos and more in their initial design process.

Web Design Theory

Most websites are not merely pages connected together with content thrown onto them. Good websites follow a strict theory of design, appeal, navigational rules and coding. Those that are going to perform at a top level are going to be specifically designed for a certain target audience and increase actions established as goals for the company. Web designers have to understand the ever-changing demands of technology and platforms that constantly affect the user experience.

Many clients want a lot of elements to “pop” on their page, not understanding that design has to be effortless in appearance and cohesive. A basic understanding of the principles of good design is the foundation for creating beautiful websites. You must learn to adjust adjacent colors to add contrast, create depth with texture, incorporate movement, and use repeating shapes, patterns, and borders to unify your design. Fonts have to be easy to read on a computer or a device, while keeping with the feel of the brand. Important elements have to grab attention without disrupting the design.

Layout and Structuring

Building a website takes a good understanding of structure. Websites shouldn’t be basic stagnant pages filled with content that stand for years, but an ever-changing part of a company’s virtual presence. As the company changes, the webpage will need to reflect that. From ecommerce security to the shifting requirements of search engine optimization, web designers have to understand what makes a page appealing to users from start to finish. Websites need to be secure from hackers, while open to helping search engine bots understand what their value is so they improve rankings. Pages need to connect in a way that moves a visitor through their buyer’s journey in an effective way. Websites need to have the right number of outgoing links, inbound links and buttons without directing users down a rabbit trail. And, after all of that, each page also has to have a structure that makes navigation intuitive for the user and branded for the client.

User Experience

A good user experience design will make visitors stay on your site. A bad one will make them go to someone else’s. An understanding of UX design principles will make your site behave in a way that users want and expect. Designers have to make sure pages load quickly and are responsive towards different devices and computer screen sizes. Users should be required to jump through as few hoops as possible, so designers should understand how to create intelligent forms that don’t ask for information they already have stored and how to create streamlined checkout processes. And, when users are looking for a specific location, product or bit of information on the site, finding things should be nearly second nature because of the design.

Website Design Best Practices

Websites have to be structured in a way that makes them friendly for users as well as search engine bots. As target users look for specific answers to their questions, your website needs to have the right pages to rank high in the search results for relevant keywords and queries. Best practices will tell you that you have to worry about producing quality content on the subject as well as including alt tags on photos and carefully crafted subheads to help increase your rankings with search engines. Understanding the current best practices of web design will help you know what your visitors and other platform algorithms are going to expect.

Metrics and Analysis

Finally, you have to be able to critique your own work as a web designer and improve with every effort. Your clients should be able to see unquestionable ROI (return on investment) when you create their websites. By learning how to utilize key metrics and measure your results, you can help build a case for whether or not specific areas of your website strategy were successful. These metrics will then help you built a pitch to improve their results by continuing some approaches while changing others.

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Master Web Design Software

In every industry, becoming fluent with the key tools is the difference between success and failure. You cannot enter the web design world without knowing the basic programs that are going to impact your career. You should become very familiar with the capabilities and shortcuts available on each program. A great web designer will be fast and effective, using these key programs as if they were simply second nature.

Adobe Photoshop

The best program for editing specific images is Adobe Photoshop. While you may not be doing a lot of stylistic photo editing for clients, you should understand the basics. More importantly, a web designer should know how to properly resize and compress images to be suitable for web viewing. Professionals should know how to crop an image to properly fit within specific spaces in the design. You might even need to change file formats to better suit your needs. Photoshop is going to offer control over raster based images (or images with pixels, like photographs). It will allow you to include slices and add hotspots for your website.

Adobe Illustrator

You will want to be able to use a program that is great with font and vector images (or line-based art that contains no pixels). If you want to use a specific font on a website, for example, you can’t simply put it in the code, since many computers may not have that same font downloaded. Instead, you need to create an image that can be placed as a graphic within the design so every user will see it the same way. You may need to adjust logo colors or create custom button graphics for your client, so knowing how to use Illustrator is very important.

Adobe Animate

Most web designers have been trained on Adobe Flash for website purposes. Adobe discontinued Flash and replaced it with a similar tool in Creative Cloud called Animate. This program allows user to turn vector images and text into animations. This is incredibly useful for increasing engagement in websites and apps.

Adobe Dreamweaver

Of course, web designers should understand how to actually write and edit code. Dreamweaver is a text editor that has tools to help you edit your code faster. Hints within the program will help you learn HTML, CSS and other languages faster. Special coloring and visual aids can help reduce errors. Live preview capabilities and inline editors help make editing efficient on the platform, while also helping you as you create responsive designs that fit your content correctly on any size screen.

Premiere Pro

Many websites are now incorporating video as part of their content. Web designers are often expected to help create video testimonials, product showcasing, tutorials, advertisements and other short clips that help the client. At least a basic grasp of video editing and manipulation will be helpful when you are including client content on the site.

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Learn the Programming Languages

It is going to be difficult to work in the web development industry without knowing any of the programming languages. You will struggle to know the possibilities when you work strictly through programs. Here are the big languages used by web developers and you may want to consider learning one or two in your own educational pursuits.

HTML/CSS

Some of the highest paid web developers are those that know HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets). These are the basic languages that will not only help you know how to code, but how to edit code. Typically, HTML establishes the structure and content of the page, while CSS is what controls the design. Even developers that use programs to help them code should understand at least the basics if they want to really get in and make edits or find errors. Many professionals do not learn these languages, but they should be central to the education of a web developer because of how fundamental they are.

JavaScript

As one of the most in-demand programming languages, it is important for designers to know JavaScript. It’s ability to work across multiple web browsers is highly important for interactive websites. This programming language can be used to create games and apps.

Flash

Flash is also an interactive language that is often used for games, apps, animations and more. Flash is not required to be a web designer, but it is another tool you may want to have up your sleeve. In some circles, Flash is considered a dead or dying language. Flash is known for crashing sometimes and taking the whole browser down with it, annoying many people. A lot of the flashing web ads are also Flash banners, which hasn’t given it a good reputation as a strong programming language.

Python

Many designers consider Python a beginner’s language. However, Google, NASA, Instagram and Pinterest all rely on this language to work their platforms. The language is capable of working with desktop as well as mobile devices.

PHP

Websites like Facebook, WordPress and others are powered by PHP. Not all web developers need to know PHP, but those that want to develop anything on WordPress or Facebook will have to know it. This is not a beginner language, so only advanced students and professionals might take an interested in learning it.

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Earn a Degree in Web Design

The best way to prove your knowledge is to earn your degree and back it with a strong portfolio. Most businesses are more likely to hire you if they feel you are up to the task – college shows you at least have the basic education to use the tools properly. On top of mastering basic tools and programming languages, college classes should give you and in-depth understanding of design theory, audience expectations and best practices as you look to enter the field. College should ensure you have a basic understanding of writing and communications skills that would allow you to work professionally the clients and fellow designer. While a lot of information can be found online, the experience of college profs, competition among peers and intense project deadlines are a large part of helping a novice become ready for the professional world.

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Create Your Own Website

Make a virtual presence for yourself as a professional. You want to show you are not only skilled, but start establishing your content and pages now. Google is more likely to rank your site as valuable and authoritative if you’ve been around for a while and updating content regularly. A professional website is a place where clients can contact you for work and firms can check out your chops before choosing to interview you for more.

Every single project you work on – even those for yourself – should be treated with equal care. You want to create stunning work that catches the eye of your potential employer. This means that you have to carefully test your own website – checking load times, looking at responsiveness, trying out personalization and testing navigation. If you are sending clients there and hoping to snag new leads, you definitely don’t want to have any flaws or problems that are sending your viewers away. Don’t even launch before you’ve thoroughly tested.

You want to feature clients or projects you’ve worked on that show a range of your capabilities. Utilize a portfolio section of your website to highlight companies, organizational or professionals that you’ve designed for. Include your very top pieces and if you don’t have many (or any), reach out. There are plenty of small organizations that could benefit greatly with some volunteer web design help. Your broad range of skills should showcase the mediums, platforms, design theory and varying client styles with examples of what you can do.

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Begin Your Career

A career path is the ultimate goal for any educational process. You need to keep your eye on the prize and leave your education with a degree and a hunger for your industry. You will have decisions to make along the way that will help you know which way to turn as you exit. You will want to continue to improve and make yourself and invaluable asset.

Freelance or Work for an Agency?

Before graduation, you should at least have an idea for what direction you want to head in. A large agency can offer the comfort of regular clients, regular paychecks and a supportive system. Working freelance can offer higher pay, provide you with flexible hours and allow you to work remotely. Making a decision on your direction will help you refine your own website and portfolio to appeal to the right people. Clients are going to want to see other client examples and know a bit more about the actual process of working with you. Web design firms are going to be looking at your past work in a different light and wanting to see a lot of examples of your abilities that might be needed on their own team.

Learn How to Sell Yourself: Build a Brand

If you are going the freelance route, you will want to sell yourself to clients. Find what sets you apart and capitalize on that. Maybe you are more relational, helping the client get where they need to go at a slower and more personal pace. Maybe you are more flexible – fitting your schedule to meet their posting or creation needs. Perhaps you are more agile or you work at a lower budget for quality work. Whatever the case, find a way to sell yourself as the best option.
Market Yourself

Clients aren’t going to just come pouring in. You are going to have to get the word out and then keep pulling in the business. Look for ongoing gigs where companies want you to continue to post or make edits on their site, giving you a small monthly fee to keep up with certain aspects. Push word-of-mouth and ratings on your platforms to boost interest of those connected to your customers. Target your audience with ads and then retarget those who leave without a commitment of any kind (like signing up for your newsletter). Stay in touch with an email that is centered around value your customers will want and produce blog posts, pod casts, tutorials or other content that will show you as an authority. You might want to look into additional marketing classes if you are thinking about becoming a freelancer, since so much time is spent in finding and converting leads.

Keep Learning and Constantly Evolve

Web design is a field in constant development. Web designers will be in a permanent state of evolving. Don’t ever let things start passing you by, unless you are retired and done with following the industry. Continue to critique your own approaches and educate yourself on the trends. You can join peer groups if you are freelance and feeling somewhat isolated. You can also read blog pots and other resources from authoritative sites to help you learn about how the world is changing.

Remember that your first jobs are about gaining experience and contacts. The money is important, but when you are getting started, the foundation of referrals and experiences is most important. Many professionals that are just graduating start out in a lower position or making less per hour freelance then is industry standard. Don’t feel disappointment when you don’t start right at the top; plan to move up the ladder with a great work ethic and solid understanding of your field.

Get to Know Our Experts

David Wickstead

  • Title:
    Head of Digital Media
  • Company:
    Holywell Design and Print
  • Where:
    Oxford and Reading, UK
  • Experience:
    24 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I have a B.A. in graphic design, typography, general art, and design. When I left college, I was asked to go back to teach 2 days a week at the London College of Printing. At the same time, I was also working for Electronic Arts producing 3D graphics and game development. I did this for just under a year before I was head hunted and asked to join a creative and marketing studio. Around 1994, I designed my first website, and by 2000 I was producing websites in Cyber Studio, later to become Dreamweaver and Flash. Today, I produce websites using CMS systems like Joomla and WordPress along with many other platforms.

    I love the energy when designing and developing new websites full of graphics and functionality. Making websites that not only look good but that also deliver results. What I dislike is the lack of graphic attention and care for the end user; developers and programmers who can’t see past the programming.

    Advice

    Web design is diverse

    It’s not just about programming. Make sure you study graphic design, layout proportions, and color. You don’t need to know about detailed programming, but an understanding of the basics is good. There are many layers that make up a good website. Design, layout and typography, optimization images, and meta details. Think of the end user who doesn’t know your website and how they would do. Make it easy!

    Begin practicing early

    Start with an image editor such as Photoshop and design a series of buttons and icons. Get a server (doesn’t need to be too powerful, but must run the latest PHP and handle MySQL database). Install the basic version of either Joomla or WordPress CMS systems. Don’t be afraid to make errors. You can learn from trial and error. Just make sure you backup and check every change. Keep it simple.

    Lysa Miller

  • Title:
    Interactive Agency
  • Company:
    Ladybugz
  • Where:
    Southborough, MA
  • Experience:
    18 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I have a degree in Public Relations from Mount Saint Vincent University in Nova Scotia, Canada. I have always loved design and writing, and when my first job asked me to be their “webmaster” I jumped at the opportunity and found my true calling there. I have worked for some great companies in web design and project management. My last full time job was with ZDNet/CNet (now part of CBS interactive) as an e-commerce project manager. When I had children I decided to freelance, which was the best decision I ever made. I always did freelance work on the side, even in college, so that was easy for me. To this day, I still have one client from the first US Web Design/Hosting Company I worked at in 1998.

    I love my clients, my specialty is helping smaller businesses grow and flourish to compete with the larger businesses, because there is room for everyone, even the small guy. I love working with small chains and decentralized businesses helping them bring it all together; using that combined presence to help them grow. There is not much I dislike! I rarely have difficult clients, but I pick and choose carefully the people I work with. I also don’t make promises I can’t keep; I always keep my word.

    I wish I had moved to San Francisco in the early days when the whole dot.com scene was happening. I think of that like music and if you’d experienced the Woodstock days. I would still love to spend time there; I love it, and being Canadian, I am frankly tired of snow! I know wherever I go, I can bring my business and my career with me, cold or warm.

    Advice

    Versatility is key

    Not everyone who is in this field is trained in art and graphics. That is why I feel many designers miss out on taking up this career. Also, marketing and writing are super important skills, because just designing a website for a company is not really enough. They want it to be a marketing vehicle.

    Have a focus

    If you like web design, you need to pick the part you like. Do you like coding or do you prefer the UI part. I think it is hard to be excellent at both, although some people are. I think it is better to specialize in one area, which would still require more than one skill, but you’d be geared in that direction; if that makes sense. However, if you are a freelancer, you have to do both until you can find someone to work with.

    Education vs. experience

    I think graphic design and some basic programming are important, but the real education comes with just doing it and looking at what the really great designers are doing. If you have a flair for design and marketing and get bored doing just one thing, web design is a great career, because you get to do a bit of it all. It’s important to do SEO, have a good visual eye, and you need to architect the site to influence the user’s behavior. To begin with, design your own website. Design websites for friends and family members to get experience. Join groups with other designers, and don’t be afraid to ask.

    Ross Barber

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    Electric Kiwi
  • Where:
    Glasgow, Scotland
  • Experience:
    3 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    My educational background is actually in music – I have a B.A. in Popular Music Performance. I always knew that I wanted to work within the music industry, but until my final year at university, I wasn’t sure in what way. When I did a Promotion & Marketing class, I was able to combine the web design skills that I already had (I had started to teach myself HTML, CSS, and some graphic design at the age of 12.) within the context of music marketing. I started doing some freelance work on the side, and after working with one of my favorite independent artists, I realized that this was definitely what I wanted to do.

    It’s funny, because in many ways there is no average workday, but at the same time there is. As I’m mostly a solopreneur, I’m wearing all the hats and taking care of all aspects of the business. My days are split between designing, invoicing, communicating with clients and potential clients via email and Skype, updating my social media profiles, and troubleshooting. So for the most part, I’ll be doing all of these tasks each day, but the order and the amount of time spent on each one varies. I love the variation and I think it really helps to keep things interesting!

    I love working with musicians and independent artists – I get so much satisfaction from helping them with their branding and their online presence. It allows me to merge two worlds that I am really passionate about, and there’s nothing that beats the feeling of genuinely enjoying what you do.

    I wish I would have known just how important relationships are. You can never underestimate how far a positive business relationship will go. I also wish I had learned that it is okay to say “no” to clients who don’t feel right or who promise you exposure rather than payment – all too often it’s not worth it.

    Advice

    Learn and enjoy

    My advice would be that you have to enjoy it. You have to be willing to put in a lot of work, and you have to be interested in learning all the time since things are always changing. The Internet is such a great resource. I’ve not personally used services like CodeAcademy, Lynda.com, or Udemy, but I often hear good things about them. I think in many ways, the best education comes from experience. It definitely doesn’t hurt to read books and learn from online tutorials or courses, but nothing beats real life experience and putting theory into practice.

    Use networks for opportunities

    My big suggestion would be to always be on the lookout for opportunities and take the ones that feel right to you. Take advantage of social media – Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn can be great places to find potential clients. Ask around; see if any local organizations or businesses need help with their websites. I’m wary of suggesting to do work for free, but in many ways it can be the best way to gain some recommendations and testimonials, which are so important.

    Web Design