Starting in the Web Design Industry

So, you’re sitting at your desk, maybe at a dead-end job or even by the pool with laptop in hand, thinking to yourself: “You know what? I could do this! I could do web design.” The great news is, yes! You can! Whether you’re in it for a bit of extra money on the side or you’re looking to start a career in the web design industry, the great news is that you can be a web designer no matter where you live, what language you speak, or what degree you do or don’t have. The other great news about web design is that even “in this economy” (and I know, for those of us in the United States, we hear it so much,) there are always going to be people, businesses and organizations that need websites!

So now, you have an interest in the web industry and you know you want to give it a shot. So your next thought may be: “Great! Sign me up! How do I start?” Well, first let me explain some of the intricacies of the industry that you may have to choose from as well as explain a few technical terms.

Getting Started

To “get started” in this industry, it is a good idea to know exactly what you want to do as well as the technical term commonly used and associated with that position. I will explain these web industry terms in-depth so you can decide “what” you want to label yourself as, as well as know how others commonly use these terms. We as a society and culture, throughout the world, give names and titles to everything and empower them as we see fit! There is no exception to the web design industry. Some of these terms for the web industry that you may give yourself are as follows:

Web Designer: A Web Designer is, quite literally, the individual that creates the layout and look and feel of the website. The term “web designer”; however, is quite often intermingled with those that also code and develop the designed web page. In this article and in future articles; however, as well as in my own terminology, a “Web Designer” is strictly the one who designs the website.

Web Developer: A Web Developer is the one who takes the website layout and graphics from the Web Designer and codes them in their chosen program to be viewable across the world wide web. Web Developers may also create open source add-ons for other developers, or programs / web applications useable on the web through a browser. So, in short, mainly, the Web Developer is the one who handles the code.

Web Artist: Many times, it’s assumed that all Web Designers are also Web Developers. While I would never suggest someone try to design a website without knowing basic HTML at the very least, it doesn’t mean that Web Designers are also the ones that code and develop the websites for the web. For those of us that do, I hand you this term: “Web Artist”. While the term has surely been used before in a variety of ways, it is my own personal thoughts that brand this term to mean: A person that knows how to design a website, as well as create the code that makes it come alive on the web. After all, though two different worlds brought together by a singular purpose, the design and the code of a website that “makes it work” are both art and design in their own respect.

What to Expect

Most often in the web industry you’ll find web designers that also know how to code, along with web developers that also know how to design! This is not uncommon and it is actually a great strength and skill for a designer to also know the ins and outs of code, as well as a developer to know what makes a great design! It is also why the term “Web Designer” is used so interchangeably, as it’s uncommon to find One that doesn’t at least know a little about The Other. What I will say, though, is that if you plan to work for a company you may be only doing one of these things.

In a company, you may only be a “Web Designer” or “Web Developer” while, in the freelance world, you may be doing both and call yourself a “Web Artist”! Some companies, though, do hire “Web Designers” and expect them to know how to design a website layout as well as code that website together. The coding languages they may expect you to know will be varied depending upon the company. xHTML, though, should be your starting point. (Note: xHTML is the “cleaner” and “stricter” version of HTML. xHTML syntax (rules of writing the code) is close to HTML; however, not the same. xHTML is the industry standard.)

What do I need to learn to become a Web Designer?

First and foremost, to become a successful Web Designer or Web Artist, you should become familiar with the xHTML and CSS coding languages to begin with. Even if you won’t be coding websites, knowing these two things will help you:

Visualize how the Web Developer will be able to code your layout as you design it, so you don’t end up making an unconventional design. Be able to effectively communicate with other Web Designers and Developers. Know where and which parts of your layout you need to slice and export as images in order for you or the Web Developer to create the layout. The simplest site can be made using xHTML and CSS. So, before you start designing, make it a point to learn the basics of both of these coding languages. It’s important to not expect yourself to know everything about these languages when you code your first website. Don’t get upset! The more you do it and practice it, as with anything, the better you will become and the more you will be able to memorize all of the syntax.
What do I need to do to become a Web Designer?

It isn’t necessary that you acquire a degree from any school to become a web designer; however, it’s something to think about. Some companies will require that you have a degree to work for them while others may care more about your portfolio and how good it is. No matter what, your portfolio and your skill as a designer or developer may very well be the most important thing to getting a job, whether freelance or with a company, not if you have or where you’ve gotten your degree.

One of the great things about the web design industry is that it has a huge opportunity for a freelance market, meaning, you don’t necessarily have to work for a company to make a living doing Web Design or Development! You could very well, at the least, learn xHTML and CSS and begin practicing in designing and coding websites, and go out and network to find your own clients!

In the long run, working at various companies or networking with other web artists may very well be the best way to acquire new knowledge and strengthen your skills as a designer, as every company and the designers and developers that work for them will design and code websites in a very different manner.

A degree may or may not be important to you or your goals as a designer or developer in the future. Remember, though: even though it may not be “needed”, it is a nice thing to have in your arsenal as well as help you stand out from the other competitors. Getting a degree or education of any sort, as well, may be the best starting blocks for you to get the knowledge that you need and want while starting your journey in the web design and development industry.

With web design as a growing popularity, there are a myriad of online education degrees you can acquire in just a few months. However, if you don’t have a strong point in teaching and guiding yourself, going to a college where you have a teacher in person to help you with problems may be your best bet. Either way, it is a good idea to determine your goals, strengths and weaknesses to decide if you want or need a degree, as well as where and how to go about getting it.

What tools do I need to do Web Design?

There are an abundance of tools and programs available to you, the web designer / developer! Personally, I use Photoshop and Dreamweaver. However; there are other programs such as: Adobe Fireworks and the Microsoft Expression’s series available to you.

You will need both a WYSIWYG editor (or, you could choose to just use a program such as Notepad, though I wouldn’t recommend it as it will take much longer to code the website,) as well as a program that you design your layout in. I would suggest learning Adobe’s Photoshop, Fireworks and Dreamweaver. It may sound like a daunting task and quite the bundle of programs, but here is the reasoning for this:
Dreamweaver is, hands down, more widely used by companies and even many freelance web developers than FrontPage, Expression Web or other programs. When you first open Dreamweaver, it may seem like quite the daunting task in figuring out exactly what everything is and what it does. However; with a few classes, online tutorials and merely just poking around the program and experimenting, you will soon catch on to Dreamweaver’s menus and abilities. If you learn Dreamweaver, using any other program shouldn’t be a hard transition. However, it might be a bit more difficult of a transition to Dreamweaver if you were to learn Expression Web or FrontPage first.
For years, Photoshop was “the” program to design web page layouts in; however, that may be changing. With Adobe’s buy-out of Macromedia, they have completely re-done Fireworks. Now, Fireworks is developed with the web designer in mind. Fireworks makes it much easier to import graphics or layout contents from other Adobe programs than Photoshop and you’ll have an easier time slicing your layout and optimizing your images. I wouldn’t suggest learning Fireworks without learning Photoshop (or the other way around). Photoshop is still better for creating rasterized graphics in, while Fireworks handles vector graphics with aplomb.
Inevitably, it is up to you on which programs you use for what. Of course, while choosing what programs you are going to use, your future in the industry should be kept in mind in order to determine what might be best. For example: if you’re looking for a quick start and you don’t plan on working for any web design companies, you may choose FrontPage or Expression Web, as they are much easier to open and instantly work in than Dreamweaver. However; if you plan on working for companies, you may choose to learn Dreamweaver first, since that is what most [though not all] companies use. You could even just use Notepad (Windows) or Textedit (Mac). Using a program such as Notepad is a very good way to make yourself memorize all of the syntax in a specific coding language; however, doing this is also a daunting task.
There are various articles on the web, including articles that I have written, that outline the pros and cons of these available programs. It is up to you to do more extensive research and even to do some work in these programs, to decide which programs are best for you!

All-in-all, to decide where is the best place for you to start, an important question to ask yourself would be: “Do I want to make a career out of this or do I just want to earn some extra pocket money and make this my night job?” Being able to answer that question truthfully will allow you to muse over your future in the web industry and make more direct choices on where to start in it. If you want to make it your career, it may be more of a wise choice to get a degree in web design. If not, it won’t be as important. The same can be said for the programs you use.
The tools and degree of the web designer, developer or artist does not make how good of a web artist this person is; however, deciding on which of these things to use and where to go from here can be considered your start in pursuing your place in the web industry!