Getting started in web design

 6 August 2012

As a graduate or school leaver, how do you get that first job in web design? David Beastall, Digital Executive for Renfrew Group International, shared his thoughts and experiences about a web career.

David Beastall is a Digital Executive for Renfrew Group International.
David Beastall is a Digital Executive for Renfrew Group International.

David Beastall is a Digital Executive for Renfrew Group International. He has previously worked with small business start-ups and SMEs on a freelance basis as well as having worked on projects for the NHS and larger organisations.

Do you enjoy solving problems through clear design, visual communication and technology? Do you want to work in an environment that requires a healthy amount of cross-discipline collaboration and a deeper understanding of human psychology and behaviour?

Then you could love working within the creative industries as a web designer.

Web design and higher education

When I finished school, I was fortunate enough to know what I wanted to do. I decided there was no way I was ever going to do A-levels, and instead started a full-time college digital multimedia course at South Nottingham College that covered amongst other things, web design.

"For every two years in another industry, at least five will have passed within the web industry."

One of the first things you may find hard to understand about higher education is that, by the time courses actually become part of their curriculum, the material is almost instantly out-of-date.

Education institutes typically don’t do a very good job of keeping up with teaching emerging skills, technologies and techniques needed and expected for a role as web designer. Although what I personally found was that other disciplines or skills would complement the areas I wanted to work in. In many ways, these helped to shape where I wanted to go.

There are a number of specialist Media Colleges that you can consider, so it’s worth looking out for these in your area. In my home city, the Nottingham Confetti Institute of Creative Technologies provides an alternative to traditional pathways.

They actively seek out industry connections and collaboration opportunities with other related organisations in the city, which can be massively beneficial when it comes to working on live or real client projects.

Keeping up with web design

The web evolves at such as a fast pace that a fair estimate would be that, for every two years in another industry, the equivalent of at least five will have passed within the web industry. This is largely down to a combination of technology, new innovations and changing behaviour patterns.

Be prepared to stay up-to-date with both fashion and style trends, as well as the immergence of new tools and technology. New technology in particular is a large driving force behind the sorts of projects you may be expected to perform.

This is often dictated by a combination of both client demand and being able to identify new market gaps that provide opportunities to sell particular products or services that meet a particular need.

Many of the best web designers are self-taught. There is a huge amount of experimenting with other people's code, producing personal projects and prototypes.

Web designers don’t just build websites

Web designers don’t just build websites anymore. We’re also expected to build for new environments and present information in entirely new contexts.

For example, did you know that social commerce means people can buy directly from a Facebook Fan Page? The large and growing adoption of smartphones and portable tablet devices mean that consumers are already starting to expect to be able to have an experience that is on par with that of a traditional desktop website.

"Many of the best web designers are self taught. There is a huge amount of experimenting with other people's code and personal projects."

As well as staying up-to-date with new technology, it helps to have an appreciation for older technologies.

You might be asking 'why?' – whilst web browsers have advanced hugely with rival browsers competing for market share, the systems used to render email remain largely in the past.

As long as software vendors continue to make their software based on these old platforms we’re largely stuck with these constraints if we want to continue to take advantage of this form of marketing.

This means that best-practice code and techniques employed in building a high-quality desktop website will not work in an email template. It will likely break your design or the intended user experience.

Browser-based software or web applications that are required to function inside the web browser will still sometimes be read by old software such as the infamous IE6 web browser (nowhere is this more true in the UK than in the NHS).

It would be lovely if they could all suddenly just upgrade to Chrome, however the expense involved in testing old software, plugging security loop-holes, training existing staff, ensuring old designs and developed software still work in a new environment would be immense.

What are the specialist roles within web design?

These titles are a rough guide for the sort of jobs you will see being advertised. There is a huge amount of a overlap – some web designers will never write a line of a code and just work from briefs, Photoshop comps and mock-ups.

  • Web Designer
  • Web Developer
  • Front end-designer (Photoshop, HTML, CSS)
  • Front end-developer (HTML, CSS, jQuery etc)
  • Back end-developer (databases, SQL, PHP/ASP)
  • User Interface/User Experience Designer (UX/UI)
  • Interaction Designer (UI, Flash)
  • Account Manager (not really a designer!)

This list is not extensive, and bear in mind new job titles are being invented all the time!

Get yourself a portfolio

So how do you get started in web design? In order for someone to hire you, they’ve got to be able to get an appreciation for your skills, abilities and experience. This is typically done through presenting a range of projects you have been responsible for through an online portfolio.

"For someone to hire you, they need an appreciation for your skills, abilities and experience."

Not every web design job requires the ability to code, however this can leave you at a disadvantage when it comes to building your own online portfolio.

There are some great web-based services that will help you to construct a professional looking portfolio that you can link to within all the usual places (CV, email signature, Twitter bio and LinkedIn, for example)

By far my favourite is the Behance network, which has a range of tools to support designers across multiple disciplines and industries.

How to get early experience

You need experience, so where do you look for that all-important first project?

The most obvious place to start would be any existing or relevant work you produced during your time in college or university.

These will likely not be your most commercially-aware projects. However you can use this work as an opportunity to demonstrate you’re capable of achieving the objectives of a design brief. Also that you can create designs which take into account your audience, the message you are communicating, and aesthetic considerations and originality.

I'd recommend courses that allow you to work on an industry or live brief, whilst getting the mentoring support of a lecturer. This will be your first taste of what it’s like to work with people in a commercial context. What you do for them will either help or hinder their business, and you’ll learn to experience how people behave when it’s their money being invested.

The majority of jobs being advertised for web designers require a level of commercial experience. However, you will occasionally come across positions advertised as 'junior' or 'graduate' positions. Regardless of how it is phrased, experience is dynamite. In order to get this commercial experience, consider approaching your favourite local design companies for placement opportunities.

Large web design or advertising agencies will be promoting their industry's best interests, alongside their own, if they nurture the talent and skills necessary to continue providing quality service in future years.

The reality of work experience

When approaching agencies, you are likely to have a better chance of success with the larger more respected and reputable design agencies. They will have both the resources to take on an intern and can safely absorb the costs of taking you on.

That's right: you will almost certainly cost them money just by being there. However you also the opportunity to bring value and great potential further down the line.

So firstly, be appreciative of this fact: they will spend their time building up your familiarity, giving you an induction to the company and general hand-holding.

I’ve seen plenty of young people who exude the attitude that they’re God’s gift to the design industry and that jobs only exist in order to allow them to flaunt their self-perceived creativity.

"You will almost certainly cost an agency money just by being there. Be appreciative of this fact."

The reality is that a business is only going to hire you if you’re likeable or capable of producing value.

This goes beyond simply making them money. You facilitate this by a combination of problem-solving, productivity, ideas and innovation, delivering positive results and by having an proactive and self-initiated approach to challenges.

You will need to be able to build and nurture the relationships with customers and clients. And of course, you will need a degree of individual talent for what you do.

There are a number of ways you can get the attention of a design agency. I recommend you explore the uses of LinkedIn and Twitter in order to build your list of potential contacts. You will get a more favourable response if you’re able to personalise your prospective request based on an individual’s first name, so scope out the individuals of a company and see what you can learn from their tweets.

Using Twitter for making contact can be quite effective and is considerably more relaxed and less formal than an email. An individual will send and receive dozens of emails a day, yours may simply not be that important on the grand scale of things.

Getting the most from work experience

Many places will be prepared to teach you new software and even how to write code. But they can’t teach you enthusiasm, self motivation, timekeeping or being creative. They will almost certainly already expect you to know the principles of good design.

Your design will evolve and develop over time through experience and critical review and analysis. It’s worth taking advantage of this whilst you can, don’t take it to heart and instead let it bring you strength in developing your work, abilities and maturity.

Once you’re employed you are unlikely to have these same sorts of opportunities for constructive feedback and peer review again.

Pay attention to your CV

Just because you have a website or online portfolio does not mean that it’s now acceptable to ignore your CV.

The public sector, much like educational establishments, are still incredibly slow to incorporate new thinking or innovation. So be prepared to provide a printed version of your portfolio. This might be through A4 sleeves or A3 art boards, and will help you to talk through your work when internet access or a computer are unavailable.

An organisation's hiring manager or human resource department is going to be more familiar with accepting a traditional CV and covering letter than simply being pointed towards your website. Ensure you have both printed and digital copies available depending on their preference.

3 quick tips for you CV

  1. Present yourself with a credible email address
    If you want to be taken seriously don’t use Hotmail, MSN, Yahoo, BT or Live Mail addresses. These addresses have negative connotations within the industry. Ideally you should buy your own domain name so you can brand your e-mail communications professionally. A domain costs very little and demonstrates that extra level of care and attention to detail that’s expected.
  2. Design your CV
    If you’re applying for a design position, make sure you translate your skills, knowledge, understanding and intelligence into the design, layout and typography of your CV. Demonstrate that you really know how to use what you talk about.
  3. Don’t list irrelevant part-time jobs
    Unless you’re applying for a position in the public sector, avoid listing work experience that relates to a part-time job (i.e. nobody really cares that you did bar work or worked in a supermarket). The exception is if you did something particularly interesting, then by all means include this. People hire people they’re going to enjoy working with!

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