How to Become a Web Designer

Web design and development can offer you the opportunity to flex your creative and problem-solving skills, in a career that's constantly evolving with new technology.
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Two web designers looking at a computer monitor.

If you’re looking for the perfect marriage of your creativity and affinity for problem-solving, a career in web design could be the answer. Knowing how to build a website on the user-facing side, as well as being familiar with how the back-end is programmed, can make you a valuable asset at a standalone marketing agency, in the development department of a large corporation or may enable you to set up your own web design firm.

What Does a Web Designer Do?

A web designer incorporates their creativity and skills in marketing, graphic design and writing, to generate content for a website. Web design can encompass the user-facing visuals of page layout and navigation, text, images and other elements, but it also can include the back-end web development component using HTML, CSS, JavaScript and other programming languages to create the website functionality and integrate communication between systems.

A web designer is also always learning how to best present the website on a variety of evolving browsers and devices, to maximize user experience (often abbreviated to UX).

Web Designer vs. Web Developer

Patricia Dian Brandenburg and the text Patricia Dian Brandenburg.

Web design can include aspects of web development. But are the jobs interchangeable? Not exactly, but they’re closely linked. It’s strongly suggested that you consider educating yourself from both angles, to optimize the quality of your work, and the ease of communicating with others involved in the process.

“You don’t have to be an exceptional web designer to do the back-end. But vice versa is important,” said Patricia Dian Brandenburg, adjunct instructor of web design and database design at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). Conversely, "If you don’t understand what a database is and how to have your website talk to it, it’s not good. You need to know a little of both to get the job done.”

A web designer with web development knowledge will not only be able to create the beautiful user-facing component of the website, they’ll also be more confident presenting their ideas to their team, because they’ll have a good idea about the feasibility of execution. 

Jon Pond and the text Jon Pond.

“You can avoid that awkward conversation with clients,” said Jon Pond, assistant director of user experience at SNHU. “If I can build what I’m showing someone in my design, there won’t be any bad surprises (at the development stage). Having that designer background esthetic and sensibility, coupled with the ability to meet the developer halfway,” helps projects run more smoothly, he said.

Exploring your career options may lead to a surprising new focus on either design or development. “Type in ‘web design’ or ‘web developer’ into job boards and see what the requirements and expectations are, and if you think you'll enjoy those day-to-day responsibilities,” said Faryal Humkar, undergrad STEM career advisor at SNHU. “I also invite students to do an internship to try out and see which (aspects of the field) you like; there are even virtual internships now.”

How Can I Learn Web Design?

There are several programs that can assist you in obtaining the various skills necessary for a web design career. You might explore a Bachelor of Science in Information Technology (IT), a Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design and Media Arts or a master's degree program in IT. All of these degrees provide web design and development experience, according to the career focus.

Faryal Humkar and the text Faryal Humkar.

It’s ideal if you can obtain real-world experience while still pursuing your degree. “You can test out (the field) and build networking via internships. It can even turn into a job,” Humkar said. Professional organizations like AIGA and networking via LinkedIn are also great ideas.

Also, keep an eye out for a mentor – it could be a professor, alumni, or classmates already in the industry. “Finding a mentor is probably one of the best ways to master your career,” Humkar said. “Someone to show you the ropes, what they did right and wrong themselves, and guide you with sound advice.”

What Skills Do You Need for Web Design?

Jenna Palermo and the text Jenna PalermoCreative and analytical thinking: “It’s good to be both left and right brain, because it informs the design decisions you’re going to make,” said Jenna Palermo, graphic design adjunct faculty at SNHU. “You need to think about the technical aspects and how that affects the look and feel of the design aspect.”

Attention to detail: There are many T's to cross and I's to dot in making a successful website and UX. You should enjoy that process. “You’ll need to be a problem-solver, who enjoys that a-ha moment,” said Jason Proske '15, adjunct instructor in SNHU's MS in IT with a concentration in Web Design program. “You have to have that interest in finding that needle in a haystack.”

“I can tell good future programmers and developers,” Brandenburg said. “They’re problem solvers who think outside the box, who won’t give up… ‘I know I can make it work.’”

Multifaceted training: “Stay open to exploring web design and UX; there’s still some resistance toward it from graphic designers,” Palermo said. “Whether or not you pursue it, it makes you a stronger designer because you understand the hows and the whys. You’re dealing with a web designer with a more informed perspective.”

William Kirtley and the text 'William Kirtley'Communication skills: You’ll need to know how to communicate – with your development team and with clients inside and outside your organization. As a web designer, the more you know about programming, the better off you’ll be when communicating and working with the back-end developers. “Knowing the lingo is important,” said William Kirtley, graphic design adjunct faculty at SNHU. “A lot of what an agency does is contingent on the platforms and strategies used. Any graphic designer who will create content as well as imagery needs to know (back-end) structure and functionality, the lingo developers use, and what can and can’t be done.”

Peter Spooner and the text Peter Spooner.

Ability to take criticism: You need to be able to separate yourself from your creation, and not take edits and feedback personally. “Be able to separate yourself from your work; someone is trying to help you, to learn and grow,” said Peter Spooner, assistant vice president of web development at SNHU. “You can really accomplish more without those roadblocks of taking things personally. Welcome feedback in any career.”

“You have to take direction and critiques to grow and become a better designer,” Kirtley said. “I tell my students, do not get personally attached to your work. I’m going to change it because I can, because clients will do that to you.”

Desire for constant learning: Because every client you design for will be different, you need to enjoy the process of learning new systems and technology on the fly. “You need to be able to learn quickly on the job because each agency (and client) operates differently – naming conventions, file management systems, archiving of projects, etc.,” Kirtley said.

Staying current with developments in the industry will also be key to your ongoing value as a web designer. “Keep in touch with what’s happening in the marketplace – trends in the industry, what’s resonating with users,” Spooner said. “Adapt your style to keep it relevant (for your) personal growth.”

Technology is always changing, and designers must be willing to evolve. “It's really about being open minded. You need to be flexible, to move and adapt,” Pond said. “Be positioned for constant change – internal business changes, and external user changes. And anticipate those changes.”

Outlook for Web Design Jobs and How to Get One

As we see the world relying on the internet more than ever, it’s expected that websites will continue to be vital components to doing business. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that web developers will see a robust job market, with a growth projection of 13% from 2018 to 2028, noting that “demand will be driven by the growing popularity of mobile devices and e-commerce.” BLS reports the median annual wage for web developers was $73,760 in May 2019.

Jason Proske and the text Jason Proske

Leveraging your existing network can get you a web design job, for example, via your internships. You might also explore your company’s options if you’re already employed. “If you have the ability to talk to a manager, especially in IT, you can see if there is an internship opportunity to get your foot in the door,” Proske said, “and you can transition into that department instead of trying to find a completely new job.”

It’s never too soon to start job-seeking and building your resume. “Join a club related to your career goal; link up with classmates and alumni and get advice on job searching and skills,” Humkar said. “If you’re not in the field yet, get as much experience as you can while you’re a student before graduation. A degree plus experience in the field makes you more valuable.”

If you’re striking out on your own, or trying to build a resume early on, consider doing some gratis work. “If you haven’t done any websites, do some for free,” Proske said. Pro bono work can help you gain experience and samples to share with potential clients.

Is Web Design a Good Career?

Being part of a web design and development team can be very rewarding. “I love my job. I’ve been fortunate in my software-development career,” Spooner said. “I’ve had good relationships with UX/web designers. They provide tremendous value to the development team – having both groups looking at problem-solving, but from different points of view.”

“Web design is an amazing career,” Brandenburg said. “A graphic designer with HTML education is valuable. Databases and programming, SEO… there are lots of avenues in that field, which makes it exciting and offers you different directions to explore.”

Kathleen Palmer is an award-winning journalist and writer.

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