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So You Want to be a Web Designer?

We are often asked for advice by people interested in taking up web design as a career. Whether you intend to be self–employed or to work for an agency, most of the same principles apply.

Make Sure You Know What You are Doing

This may sound obvious, but it really does help if you have the appropriate skills.

There are plenty of people who have managed to cobble together a website using some cheap build–your–own–website software package, and who think it’ll be an easy way to make a living. After all, there can be good money in creating websites, and pretty much every business needs one. But you won’t get a job with an agency or make it as a self–employed web designer if all you can do is click buttons on a piece of software. It is essential to learn how to code by hand.

A website is a combination of code and graphic design. Unless you plan to specialise as either a coder or a graphic designer, you will need to learn both sets of skills.

Coding Techniques

Make sure that you learn the latest coding techniques. HTML and especially CSS are constantly changing, and most of what you will find in a five–year–old library book will be out of date. Take the example of layout tables: no competent web designer has used layout tables since about 2005, but you can still find books that recommend using them. Customers won’t be able to tell that you’ve sold them a badly–coded website, but potential employers will. Once you have acquired the right skills, keep them up to date.

It is a good idea always to validate your HTML code. Browsers are very forgiving of coding mistakes, search engines much less so. If you want a website to be fully explored and indexed by Google or Yahoo, make sure that the code is valid. Running a page through the HTML validator is also an easy way of identifying simple typing errors.

Graphic Design

While there is generally a range of right ways and wrong ways of coding a website, graphic design is largely a matter of personal taste.

Look around, experiment, and find a style that you are happy with, one that suits your intended market. Try to acquire more than one style: a website for a crusty old business will generally not require the same layout and colour scheme as a website for a trendy nightclub.

Other Web Design Skills

You will probably also want to learn at least the basic principles of website accessibility and search engine optimisation. A knowledge of JavaScript and scripting languages such as PHP, while not essential, may come in handy. It is a good idea to become familiar with at least one content management system and one e–commerce system.

Essential Web Design Software

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need a top–of–the–range computer and lots of expensive software to create a website. These are the essentials:

  • A text editor, for writing HTML and CSS code. Every operating system comes with one: Notepad for Windows, TextEdit for Mac, Gedit for Linux.
  • A raster graphics program for basic image manipulation. If you can afford Photoshop, that’s fine, but Gimp is perfectly good enough.
  • A vector graphics program, for creating swirly lines and other fancy effects. Try Inkscape.
  • An FTP program, for uploading files to web servers. There are plenty of good free ones: Filezilla is reliable, as is Fire FTP, which is available as an add–on for Firefox.
  • The web developer toolbar, an add–on for Firefox and Chrome, allows you to validate your code and quickly inspect the underlying elements of any web page.

Assemble a Good Portfolio

If you intend to market yourself either to an employer or directly to customers, you must be able to show them that you know what you are doing. Without a good website portfolio, you will get nowhere. Employers will not consider you, and customers won’t trust you.

So get out there and create a few websites! Ask your friends and family, or approach local businesses, and offer them a free website.

It’s important that your portfolio should include only work that you are proud of, that you think will impress your audience. Quality is much more effective than quantity. Do not include everything you have ever done. Amateurish early attempts are good for practice, but bad for publicity. If you are aiming at a particular market, make sure that you have examples of that type of website in your portfolio.

Further Information

We also have advice for those who want to be self–employed web designers.

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