4 tips for a web design career

 21 June 2011

Simon McFarlane runs a web design business, building bespoke websites for diverse clients. His career path evolved over the years, but his early track record as a technology trainer proved invaluable.

Simon taught himself many of the skills for web design.
Simon taught himself many of the skills for web design.

Working with lots of differing groups of people, Simon had time to observe how various interfaces and software were being used. This knowledge led him to develop a deep understanding of how people best use and engage with technology, which informs his work daily.

Getting into web design

Simon’s early career began in accountancy, but he dropped out of a degree programme in the subject, finding it, “too boring”.

He then went on to sample many different jobs, none of them lasting more than a year, before finally landing a position at Brighton University in the finance department. Here he developed new user-friendly websites for finance, as the University made the transition to discard its clunky, paper based traditions.

“Technology moves so fast and educational institutions generally don’t, so it was an uphill climb to keep pace with all the changes.”

Teaching yourself web design

Web design is a constantly changing field, and many differing approaches and routes are found. There is no such thing as a single course or training programme that will fulfil what is needed.

Simon found that he had to teach himself many of the skills, so all of the time he was working at the University, he absorbed any information available that would help him in his work. He constantly read lots of material about web development.

"It’s encouraging how much online collaboration is going on. With often lots of access to free content made available on the web.”

“One of the most inspirational books I came across was ‘Bullet Proof Web Design’ by Dan Cedarholme, which helped me enormously.

"Another great book is ‘Designing with Web Standards’ by Jeffrey Zeldmann. This is a big book that I found incredibly useful. It’s well illustrated and has lots of real examples: things that are well done and equally, things that are really badly done. This book really helps with understanding the history of web development, how it all works and importantly, why things are done in a certain way”.

As Simon’s knowledge grew, he crucially learned how to harness CSS, (Cascading Style Sheets). Through his skill in this area and others, soon progressed to develop web design for the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Brighton University.

With his reputation spreading, he attracted additional work outside of his full-time job, soon making the transition to go part-time and then eventually making the move to setting up his own company, Clearbytes.

Four qualities needed for a career in web design

1. A practical, pragmatic approach

A career in web design can begin from many angles, (graphic designers can often move over to designing websites) but Simon describes himself as “more of a nuts and bolts type of person, who has a ‘hands-on’ style”.

2. Problem-solving

“You definitely need analytical skills to be successful in building websites”. In Simon's own work, he thrives on challenges and producing solutions that are easy to use.

3. Networking

Simon has built up a small, trusted network of people that he works with, many of whom have complementary skills to his own. He finds that collaborative ventures are a refreshing change to a lot of time spent working alone.

“There is also a great, active online community. A good example would be a site such as Alistapart.com, where web designers are writing articles and sharing some really useful information.

"It’s encouraging how much online collaboration is going on. With often lots of access to free content made available on the web.”

4. Ability to embrace change

Keeping up-to-date with constantly evolving technology is obviously essential and something that Simon achieves through a number of means.

As well as his online resources, he subscribes to .net magazine where he finds that many of the practical, worked examples are really invaluable. His collaborative work with friends and colleagues who work in different fields is also a great source of information. However, he resists technology for technology’s sake, preferring to select specifics that he feels work for him and his clients.

Being self-employed in web design

“Working from home is a definite bonus, it’s great to be able to do this, but being able to separate home from work is also very important. Ideally an office in the garden is something I’m working towards!

“One of the downsides of having your own business can be the isolation you can feel from time to time. If you’re working from home a lot, you will undoubtedly miss the office banter, the company of others and the opportunity of bouncing creative ideas around with like-minded people.

"To aim for maintaining a balance of all these elements is the ideal”.

Getting a good result in web design

"It’s an exciting time for web design. There is a lot more around today that is good, simple, well-structured design."

Simon has now built very many web platforms, “I’ve worked on some great projects, but some are very confidential so I’m not able to let you know too much about them!

"However, one of my successful and most interesting recent projects was to design a new website for Texprint. This is a charity which promotes and supports emerging textile designers. Their old, existing site was static and not very engaging.

"Working together with the client, we achieved a clean, modern site which functions really well. Importantly, the content management systems are flexible and easy to use – a really satisfying and enjoyable project."

The future of web design

Simon feels it’s an exciting time for web design, “touch screen technology has been widely embraced.

"There is a lot more around today that is good, simple, well-structured design. Technology is becoming much more easy to use, and kids are starting to use devices intuitively at a very young age. The future is undoubtedly going to be about more mobile devices and touch screen developments, and these are going to be more and more integrated into everyday life.

"‘Off the shelf’ web building packages are now widely available, but these won’t replace what good web designers do. ‘Hand coding’ a bespoke solution is more time consuming, but ultimately this achieves a website that is unique, neater, easy to use, simple to navigate and to manage content.

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