I recently received an email from someone who was interested in becoming a web designer. They wanted to know if they should go to school for it, or if it is possible to learn on your own. My answer, in short, was “Yes.”
I am a completely self-taught web and graphic designer, so I know that it is possible to actually succeed in freelance web design from such humble roots. However, it has been quite an uphill climb and if I had the chance to do it again I probably would have chosen to go to school for it. My guess is that I could have greatly compacted the amount of time it has taken to get educated in everything that I have learned up to this point. A formal education could have provided a solid foundation to start from.
Before I go any further, let me make one thing clear: I am not suggesting that anyone who puts their mind to it can teach themselves to become a financially successful or even a quality web designer. I believe there is still a prerequisite of design talent that one must have in order to succeed. Others may disagree, but I can’t imagine someone with zero natural artistic or design talent managing to pull off a website design that meets all modern aesthetic standards. I think that one can ingest a wealth of information, learn and apply all of the available tutorials and teachings available, and still come up short if they have never demonstrated an ounce of artistic ability before.
This post will explore some of the positives and negatives of being a self-taught web designer, as well as some of the ways you can teach yourself. Let’s take a look at what it takes and how to proceed with teaching yourself how to design and build websites.
Pros and Cons of Teaching Yourself
Of course, the top benefit of teaching yourself web design is the cost. For little more than the price of some books, you can potentially learn everything you need to know to make a living designing websites. Obviously, this is significantly less financial investment than a degree. However, the money saved will be dramatically outweighed by the time investment, and, as they say, time is money.
When I first started learning web design, the internet and the industry were young (I believe Yahoo was the only available search engine), but I still managed to find all the tutorials and walk-throughs I needed. Today there is an overabundance of design blogs, websites, open-source software and more available online and elsewhere that you can easily access with a quick visit to your search engine of choice. Still, the amount of time you will spend acquiring all of the necessary links, bookmarks, tutorials, etc. will add up very quickly, and it is a good idea to think about this when trying to decide if you would rather be investing your time or your money.
Another benefit of teaching yourself is that you can decide your pace of learning along with your focus on which skills you want to acquire. Perhaps you are interested in learning web design so you can design and maintain your own site, but not for the purpose of making a career of it. In that case, you can take a more casual approach than a formal education would allow, and move at the speed you desire. On the other hand, if you are looking to gain as much knowledge as possible in the least amount of time, you can set your course for the fast track and spend 15-hour days devouring everything you can find on the subject. Either way, you are in charge of your learning.
The downside of being your own professor in web design is that you have little or no idea what you need to learn until the need arises. After 15 years of designing websites, I still run into situations that I’ve never encountered before, at which point I continue my education yet again as I search for the solution. Personally, I actually enjoy this part of being self-taught quite a bit–most of the time–but in the early days the amount of knowledge I had acquired was dwarfed by the massive lack of expertise and experience I possessed. At that time it seemed every new element of a site design was a new course to tackle, and the going was slow, tedious, and often times frustrating. Depending on your personality, this may or may not be something you would weather well, and should be considered before undertaking the self-education.
A third benefit of teaching yourself is that you will most likely develop your own unique approach and style along the way, which could quite possibly contribute to innovation. This is not guaranteed by any stretch, but it is possible and an enticing thought when so many websites are being cranked out as though from a production line, utilizing the same tried and true elements and templates without experimentation or creativity. Perhaps your web design creations could become the new standard, and while it is obviously possible that it could spring forth from a formal education, the odds are higher that it could come from a less conventional source.
The negative side of this is that your self-taught lack of convention could be more detriment than innovation. There are certain standards that are established for web design that you could quite possibly miss out on, or you could take on someone else’s personal interpretation of those standards. For instance, I am still learning how to write code that follows widely accepted standards for cleanliness and widespread legibility. For years I created websites without ever entertaining the thought that someone else might need to edit or work with the code I’ve written. The same goes for organizing your PSD files or whatever other files you incorporate into the design. It wasn’t until I began working with others in the field that I learned the value of this, and it has changed my process dramatically from my early web design days.
Finally, self-education is limited by your choice of tutorials and teachers. You will most likely become a product of those you choose to learn from and will tend to utilize their strengths, weaknesses, preferences and interpretations of what comprises good web design. This can work in your favor should you happen to find the best of the best teachers, but it can also hinder your growth if you make some substandard choices. The scary part is that since you are working from a beginner’s foundation, you will not necessarily be able to identify which is which, as opposed to a formal education implying that you are learning from those who are excellent in their craft.
Ways You Can Teach Yourself
The points I’ve shared above are not exhaustive, but they are definitely some key things to consider before diving into teaching yourself. If you have made it this far and are still determined to pursue self-education, here is a list of some of the things I have used and continue to use to learn and grow as a web designer.
- Print and eBooks–Obviously, you can raid your local library or bookstore shelves and find many helpful printed resources. There are also a multitude of free and inexpensive eBooks on design and web design that you can download and go through at your own pace. Here are two lists I recently came across:
- Tutorials–I could not even begin to list the plethora of tutorials that are available online for web design, but I would suggest finding and trying out as many as you can possibly digest. Practice makes perfect, and practicing your newfound skills will save you time later when you are actually designing and building sites. From the most miniscule and mundane task to the complete mockup, I say go for it all. Find your favorite tutorial sites, ask others for recommendations and then bookmark and visit often. Make your mistakes while practicing and you’ll be grateful–and pull less hair out–later.
- Design Sites and Blogs–From Smashing Magazine to Web Designer Depot to the Envato network, and on and on, there are literally thousands of design-related websites that provide a wealth of information to assist you in your education. I personally subscribe to hundreds of RSS feeds from these sites to keep up to date with the latest trends, tutorials, discussions and more. Many of them have tutorial sections you can rummage through to find what you need, and they will connect you with some of the best in the business to learn how they are doing things.
- w3schools.com–If there is a single resource to recommend, this would be the one I would choose. Touted as the “largest web developer site on the net”, it is probably the most reputable as well. Everything you could need from tutorials to glossaries to examples to certification is available. This should be a permanent bookmark in your curriculum toolbox.
- Google–Google is your friend. Use Google to find everything you could possibly want to learn about web design. Just now I typed in “learn web design” and came up with 138 million results. Overwhelming? Absolutely, but that should give you an idea of how much information–good and bad–is available. Be sure to check resources carefully for reputation and legitimacy before committing yourself to their tutelage. You can always ask other designers about sources you find to see if they’ve ever used or heard of them.
- The Design Community–Over the past year, I have only just begun to discover the amazing global design community. While most designers will not have the time to give you step-by-step instructions, most will be happy to point you toward a solution to a problem you may be having or provide a recommended resource. Connect with as many designers as you can, especially in your particular area of interest. Social media has made these connections much more accessible and I would highly recommend using as many tools and networks as you can to find and engage with other designers. I constantly ask other web designers for recommendations of WordPress plugins or where I can find a particular icon or anything else that I may get stuck on, and they ask me as well. There are so many valuable resources within reach simply by connecting with others who are already doing what you are aspiring to do. Until recently, this was something I was missing out on, but now I can’t imagine not having those connections, support and influence as part of my daily life.
These are just some of the resources that I learned from. As you grow and develop as a web designer you’ll discover other resources that will help you as well.
Has this discussion been helpful in helping you decide if you want to start teaching yourself web design?
As one who has done and is still doing it, I hope I have either encouraged you or at least helped you realize the hard work it takes to teach yourself. Should you choose to attempt it, rest assured that the reward at the other side–whether financial or simply the accomplishment itself–can be invaluable.
If you have experienced some of these things, or maybe have some other experiences or suggestions for resources, please be sure to share them in the comments below.
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