A Recipe for Learning Web Design

A Recipe for Learning Web Design

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By D. Keith Robinson

Published on March 3, 2004

Web design and its related fields are still relatively young in the grand scheme of things and are still developing. One of the questions I’m often asked is, “how can I become a Web designer?” The answer isn’t simple. There are many different paths one can take to become a professional Web designer, each as different as the individuals that make up the Web design community.

Today, many successful Web professionals are self-taught and many of these have jumped into the Web via another industry. These are also the ones who are most likely to have been at it the longest. Only recently have we seen large numbers of people come straight into Web design from formal education programs. In most cases, this formal education alone doesn’t prepare one for success.

Don’t get me wrong, formal training and education can be a great place to start. And, once coupled with other methods of learning, which are detailed below, these can really help prepare a new Web professional for success. Oftentimes the problem is that these formal training programs aren’t broad enough, or current enough, to provide students with everything they’re going to need in the real world. The Web and its related technologies change too fast to rely on formal education alone.

So where do we begin? Like with any great dish, we need to start with basic ingredients and a recipe. Later on we’ll add some secret sauce and finishing touches.

Basic Ingredients

So what does it take to become a successful Web designer? To begin with, you’ll need to want to learn, and practice lifelong learning throughout your career. Things change often and quickly; to keep up you’ll need to be committed to staying abreast of those changes and adjusting your methods and work style to them. For example, what you start out knowing could likely become obsolete shortly after you’ve mastered it. Realize this and keep yourself ready for it.

You’ll need to be adaptable and quick on your feet. The ability to improvise and problem solve is extremely important. You’ll need good communication skills and must be able to work well with others. The Web is more about people than it is about technology—regardless of what your job description says.

Recipe for Success

If you’re considering course of study in Web design, it’s important that this formalized education set you up to succeed in a real-world working environment.

You’ll want a broad program, one that focuses on the basics and soft skills more than it does on software. Be wary of a curriculum that promises only to teach you Flash and Dreamweaver. These may be important, but not as important as understanding the basics of markup and how to communicate. You can always learn the software later. I’ve looked at many courses of study and find this to be a major shortcoming.

Techniques and technologies are important, but be sure you’re learning the latest. I recently worked with a young Web designer, straight out of a highly-respected four-year program, whose HTML skills were so out-of-date they were almost useless. It could be said the blame for this should fall on the program, and there may be some validity to that, but in any learning situation the student needs to take responsibility as well.

It’s not just about doing your homework, although I’m sure that’s important. In any learning relationship students are responsible for acting on what they’ve learned. Put what you’re taught to the test, get involved and ask lots of questions. It’s very important to note that Web design is a new and ever-changing field and developments in the industry can easily overtake your curriculum. Learning Web design is much more than plowing through course work. This is where the secret sauce comes in.

Secret Sauce

Nothing can help an up-and-coming Web professional more than practice and involvement in your field. You’ll want to use the Web to keep up with all the latest happenings. Read blogs, and magazines like this one, and get involved in the community. Ask questions, comment on discussion threads and generally just dive into the medium in which you’ll be working.

You’ll find that most Web professional communities are very welcoming and friendly to those who express an interest in learning. Look for a mentor; see if you can’t connect with a few people who are in the same boat as you. You can help each other and share lessons learned, thus improving everyone’s skills and knowledge.

Build a site. As you are learning, make sure you practice what you’re taking in every day. I’d almost say it is a must to have your own site where you can experiment and hone your craft. Don’t worry about it being very good, it’ll get better as you learn more. If you can take on an internship, do it. If not, do some volunteer work or build a site for a friend or family member. These hands-on experiences are essential to your future success.

Finishing Touches

It’s very important to note that, no matter how much you know, there is always more to learn. I don’t think there is any Web professional out there that will tell you they 100% “get” the Web, regardless of how long they’ve been at it. Things change too quickly and there is just too much to learn and know.

If you take responsibility for the completeness of your education and make a commitment to life-long learning you’ll do just fine, regardless of what path you choose.

Related Topics: Web Design, Basics

D. Keith Robinson is the creative director for Seattle experience design firm Blue Flavor and writes about Web design and more at his blog Asterisk. His expertise comes from 10 years of professional Web development and design for companies like Boeing, Microsoft, and Sony.