Lily Dart, web designer
As a graphic and web designer for digital design company dxw, Lily works with clients from design brief to finished website.
I grew up in Kent, but I live in London.
What job do you do?
A front end developer deals with the tools which control the look and feel of the website. This mostly comprises languages like HTML and CSS. The 'front end' is the area of the website users are able to see.
How did you get started in design?
When I was 13, I went down with an illness called ME. For three years I was severely ill and couldn't leave the house.
I spent a lot of time on the internet in that period. I was making a lot of digital art, and I wanted a way to show it off. I began to learn how to build websites, at first as a way to have a medium to put my artwork online.
"I build things people can use, interact with, and feed back on."
At the time, I used Paintshop Pro and Photoshop – it was all a way to express myself. Over time, the sites themselves became more of an expression rather than just a way to put my artwork up.
I discovered a really interesting community of fellow female teenage web designers, who were creating awesome – often unusable, but exciting – web designs. It was a global community, and we all linked to each other's sites.
There wasn't a lot of traffic coming in from anyone outside of that ring, but it was great to have a support network, particularly of other young women.
I spent a few years experimenting and learning at home after that. I had a home tutor, did GCSE IT, and got the best grade in the year, even though I hadn't been at school much at all.
What qualifications do you have?
I didn't do Graphic Design at school. I did Art A Level – which didn't go so well, actually – but because I had a portfolio of my own work, which I'd done myself rather than at school, I managed to get onto two Graphic Design courses.
There was an optional third year, but by that point I was already freelancing and earning money, so I went straight into freelancing full time.
Freelancing worked out for me pretty quickly, because I started doing it at university. It wasn't my sole source of income there, but starting while I was still studying helped.
I made the contacts there, and then I was able to support myself when I graduated. Freelancing is all about knowing people and generating jobs for yourself.
Placements are also great ways to make contacts. You had to do at least two on my course. That said, getting a placement is hard work – you spend an awful lot of time writing to organisations and getting ignored. If you have a portfolio and keep building it up, it helps to get you noticed.
What do you do at work?
At dxw we do a lot of hands-on work, so as well as the actual designing stage, I do a lot of sitting down with clients and working out the design brief they need.
Then there's a process.
Planning the site
First, I plan out the structure of the website we're going to design.
Then I make a wireframe. This is like a blueprint, but often more interactive. For us, it can be a series of PDF documents, like sketch versions of each page of the website, with links opening up new PDFs.
The wireframe is a mockup of the structure of the site and how the user will be signposted around it as they use it.
After more site structure planning, I produce a homepage design.
There will usually be two or three versions for the client to look at. They will then choose a favourite, and I'll refine it depending on their feedback.
After that, I move on from the homepage to design sub-pages. The design for these is based on the visual rules we've already established for the homepage.
Building the website
Building the site properly can happen in a number of ways depending on what the site is for.
I will design the individual graphics and select colours and fonts. I use a combination of image software like Photoshop, and Fireworks, which can help you to create documents which are interactive and connected.
You can mock up a series of linked pages in Fireworks. Fireworks is designed to design websites, whereas Photoshop is just intended for flat images. However, Photoshop is still industry standard.
Learning to use both is useful and important, but if you can only do one, you should probably work with Photoshop.
What's the best thing about your job?
I think the best thing is that I get to problem-solve in ways which are both creative and useful.
That appeals to my practical sensibility – I've never been a floaty art student! I build things people can use, interact with, and feed back on.
And the worst thing about the job?
Sometimes people will hire you without really wanting your expertise. They have an idea in their head, but sometimes you know as a designer that what they want isn't really going to work.
"Freelancing is all about knowing people and generating jobs for yourself."
Then you have to decide – and it can be a difficult question – whether to just give them what they want, even though you know the site won't really be very accessible or work well.
Or, if they're paying you and you know it isn't working, are you morally obliged to try not to make something you know won't work or be accessible?
How do I get into design?
- Get your career on track yourself
Even now, the courses that are available to teach you web design aren't enough, because time moves forward constantly. Technology and web design are always changing and developing.
You can't wait for other people to ask you to generate work. You need to be generating your own work for your own purposes, and staying on top of your game.
- Whatever you're doing, your career has already started
Your career doesn't start when you graduate. It's happening now.
If you're still at college, or if you're on a course that requires a work placement, that's great, but don't wait for 'work experience season'. Start looking for opportunities now. Try to get at least three placements under your belt.
- Don't be intimidated by technology
There are large amounts of people in the digital industries who don't know the answers to all the questions. It's okay not to know everything about technology – few people do.
Instead, be motivated to learn, and if you don't know something, just look it up. Don't be fooled by people who seem to know everything – they won't, and they can't. There's too much going on.
- Be inspired
I keep massive folder of inspiration in my desk. It's got pictures, colours, images – anything I've seen day-to-day that I found inspiring.
I store a lot of my ideas in Evernote. Having a crib sheet of things you know and want to remember is also useful. You can then refer to it before you start a new project.
Evernote is particularly good because you can tag things – 'branding', for example. Finally, keep bookmarks of design or technology blogs that are useful.