This post is just a personal opinion and contains a few simple ideas I wish my students understood about education and the web.
1. College gets you credit, literally.
One of the biggest arguments I read against obtaining an education, especially in fields of web design, is that “I can learn how to do it on my own.” While it is very true that many employers will hire talented individuals that don’t have degrees, (and I don’t blame them) a college degree or certificate gives you more than just a piece of paper. Formal education gives you experience. I hear time and time again (xyz teacher is behind the times, and xyz teacher doesn’t xyz and xyz!!!) You missed my point. It’s not the teacher, nor necessarily the material presented during courses that is the benefit of education.
Interacting with students, having deadlines, following instructions, learning social skills, critical thinking, disappointment, failure, stress, success, admiration, competition, self-improvement, etc, these are the things that “tutorials” don’t and can’t teach you. You can read tutorials and follow every-body-and-their-dog on twitter or your favorite social network, but you don’t get experience from these things. The value in your tuition dollars is in the physical interaction with students and peers. That’s the bang for your buck.
The extra bonus ad-don to a college experience is the actual credit. A certificate or a degree goes along way. If there are two equally talented designers (one self taught) and the other has a college credential guess who I’m hiring? The guy with “credit”.
2. Degrees or Credentials get you interviewed/recognized, they don’t get you hired
What’s this monkey business about the importance of college you just fed me, if now you’re saying they won’t get me hired. Well… Exactly. You missed the point of point number 1, which is a horrible mistake to make. College gets you experience, valuable experience. The credit of college is the bonus add-on that gets you “interviewed”.
Back to my hiring. I’ve got 10 candidates for a hire/job on paper. 5 have degrees 5 don’t. I’ll bring in maybe 3 degree web designers, and 1 non-degree web designer. Just by the fact you have a degree, you’ve tripled your possibility of getting interviewed or getting the job. Now I’ve got 4 candidates to interview, the 3 ‘web degree’ people can’t design. The 4th self-taught guys has actual web design skills. Chances are, the guy with the ‘skills’ it getting the job. If any of the 3 degree guys has equal design skills of the self-taught guy, he’s our man.
You see, the credential separates you from the pack, giving you the opportunity. Your skill-set, talent, and ethic will get you the job, when opportunity calls.
3. You need a portfolio
If you’re going to get a job, you need to show a body of work as evidence of your skill-set. You need to have built, designed and created several websites before you’re ready for entry-level web design work. I’m not going to give a number of sites you need to have completed. That’s really up to you, but you need to be able and demonstrate work on several different websites, and of different type. 5 wordpress blogs don’t count. You need several different hand-crafted websites. A domain of your own, such as “AndrewsPortfolio.com” helps you out. If gives you ‘credit’, but this time experiential credit.
4. Dreamweaver is not a skill-set
I teach my web design students hand-written html and css. It is an indispensable valuable skill. I occasionally hear “why aren’t we learning adobe muse, or more Dreamweaver.” My friends, while I love Adobe products, they are not skill-sets. They are software. Please, please don’t write “Dreamweaver” on your resume. It means absolutely nothing. If anything, it highlights the fact that the web designer doesn’t know what skill they have, if any. List your skill-sets as: html, html5, css, xml, seo, prototyping, ux and the likes. You could list a section of software you’re “proficient in”, and that would be an appropriate place for the software you are comfortable with (flash, fireworks, photoshop, dreamweaver, excel, etc). There is a big difference between skills and software.
5. The market is saturated
One of the both wonderful and challenging aspects of being a web designer is that your competition is global. Being the international marketplace that the web is, you’re not just going up against local web designers or local talent. Web companies hire all around the world, and competition is pretty fierce. It is a daunting and yet challenging task to start out a career in web design against a well-established global workforce. There are more sites (just like this very one) on the internet with tutorials, how-to’s and an all-around plethora of information in regards to how to design and code the web. I’d almost say there are more tutorials on the internet on web design and how to code/design than any other topic. Almost all of this information is free. What I’m getting at, is that the barrier to entry to become a web designer is very low. The information is out there, and anyone with an internet connection has access to it.
In a saturated market, you have to stand out. You have to love web design, and constantly refine your skill-set to the ever evolving technology and software. Stay ahead of the game, study and follow iconic designers. Design, design, design.
6. Doing > Reading or Listening
I’m a big fan of tutorial sites. I’ve written several of my own. I love watching what other people create and learning their tricks of the trade. I’m amazed at the talent of so many. However, all the reading in the world won’t benefit you much, if you don’t actually DO. A fellow colleague of mine (who is an animator and artist, specializing in cartooning) often gets asked by his students how he is so good at drawing. He smiles, and plops down a large jar full of tiny widdled down pencils with nothing but the eraser and an inch of pencil left. Every pencil that he’s sharpened to the point where he can no longer hold it, he tosses in the jar. There are hundreds of pencils there. There are thousands of hours represented in that jar.
I face similar frustrations from students who come into my class expecting that in a few short weeks they will know how to build websites, sell products galore, etc. It is often a eye-opening experience when after 16 weeks, they realize they barely have the skills to piece together a simple static website. One class barely introduces you to the world of web design, let alone an entire degree. You have to build sites, by hand, lots-of-them. That is how you’ll get better, it’s how you’ll distinguish yourself from the pack.
7. Web design is a profession
Web design is a profession. I can’t say this enough. Because of the nature of ever increasing ease of access to material on how to become a web designer, there is a bit of a mis-conception that ‘anybody’ can be a web designer. “My brother’s nephew took a class in high-school and he knows computer stuff so he said he’d do my website”. Sound familiar? I can’t tell you how many different clients I’ve worked with that have come to companies I’ve worked for that tried the “brother’s friend’s nephew” route. Sooner or later, all individuals realize that they need a professional web designer to actually build their site.
The clients who opt to go with the cheap ‘friend’ who will do it for free, seem to always end up calling back after a month or two… Don’t sell yourself short, try to be the best professional you can. Act like a professional, and you’ll get treated like one.
8. Charge, for crying out loud
I have a personal policy, that if a friend or family member needs help on a web related goodies, I don’t charge them. Either I will tell them no, or help them for free. Usually it’s no. This is just a personal mantra, as I value the relationship much more than any job. But for crying out loud, CHARGE your clients for the work. Here is a list of just a few items you have to be doing. I could write an entire book on these few bullet points.
- You need to set up a billing and time tracking system.
- Make a specification.
- List all of the outcomes of the site, all of the ‘deliverables’.
- Get the client and yourself to sign the contract.
- Add a clause that any work, changes, or add-ons outside the scope of the project will be billed at a per hour rate
- Charge your clients per hour for that work!
- Don’t be taken advantage of. Don’t tolerate the ‘feature creep’ client.
- Remember, you’re the boss, not them.
- Deliver what they pay for, don’t sell yourself short.
A perfect example of this in my mind is hosting. I’ve recently started a small service which provides web hosting for students. It’s cheap, and of course every reader here should sign up! 🙂
Here’s my case-in-point. Hosting is a fairly competitive market, which means prices have come WAY down in the last few years. When a client comes to you and says “I want you to build my site….” be sure and find out what there hosting plans are. Often times you’ll hear this. “Oh, I’m going to host with go-daddy for .03 cents per year.” Tell them, “I’d recommend you host with us for $10/month.” When they decline, and say they’ll host themselves, say “Okay”. .zip their website, and deliver it them. They’ll call you a day or two later asking how their supposed to get their website on their host. The labyrinth mess of GoDaddy will have them calling you in no time. And here is the point. Start the clock the moment the phone rings, bill them for every second you have to help them figure out how to log in, change name servers, ftp, set up xyz etc… They’ll get a bill for $50 – $100 bucks, and will quickly realize that they should have listened to the professional the entire time.
You’re not charging them $10/month for the physical costs of running hosting. You’re charging them for knowledge. Professional Knowledge.
My first piece of advice to all of my students on the first day of Web Design is something like this. “You’ll have to decide on a website you want to build as your project for this semester. I recommend one of two things. 1) Build a site of something that you’re hard drive is full of. If your hard drive has lots of skiing pictures and videos, you’re likely into skiing. Build a site about that, as you already have plenty of content and it is something you’ll enjoy doing. 2) Build a website for somebody or something that will make you money. Find a friend or family member who needs a website, and charge them for it. Of course you’ll charge a deeply discounted rate, but you’ll me making money from taking this class!”
10. Value Critique
Here’s a very legitimate possibility: You may know more than your teacher. I often have students who have superior design talent than I. Occasionally I have students who are better programmers than I or often much more affluent with social media. One challenging and rewarding thing about being a professor is that in a single class, your students design/critical thinking/maturity/ability/talent run the entire gamut.
You may find yourself in a class where the teacher isn’t your ‘favorite’. His style doesn’t match your personality. He may be teaching antiquated software such as Macromedia Dreamweaver 8, or Microsoft FrontPage extensions, or who knows what else. Heaven forbid, Tables!? (I make my students learn tables!) Guess what, your boss’s management style isn’t going to match your personality either. When a student can get past the differences between persona, and start to focus on what they can get out of a course, something magical happens. They DO get something out of a course, usually much more than they anticipated!
Utilize the amazing resource of constructive feedback that is all around you in every class. Students. Get their feedback, listen to their critique, form user groups, partner up. Query your professor, ask hard questions. He may not know the answer all of the time (as somehow students think we’re supposed to know everything about anything..), but ask and value the feedback. Design can be objective thing. What you like, your professor may not. Whose right? The critique is right. Better designers give better and more valuable critique. Post your designs to dribbble, listen, and refine. Great web design like most any other craft is found in the attention to detail.
Bonus Point: Take a break
First, enjoy your craft. I’d say that most individuals that are in the pursuit of web related careers are doing so because they enjoy it. Keep this attitude, but understand that burnout is a very real thing. You need to NOT code and design all day. You need to diversify yourself, just as you need to diversify your design skill-set. You can’t use your favorite color scheme or layout all the time. Change things up and push the boundaries of design. Force yourself to design things you don’t like, or styles that aren’t your favorite.
You need to break up your life. Take a break from code for a day or two. Don’t get on the internet for a day or two. Pick up a musical instrument, or get in physical contact with a friend or family member. Practice an outdoor activity or sport. I think you get my drift. Get away from the web and your smart phones or Facebook from time to time. Leave the mouse and keyboard in favor of a pencil and sketch book. Build something with your hands. Re-connect with the tangible world around you.
You need to be doing these things 3 times a week minimum. Not only will these time-outs make you a better designer, they will more importantly make you a better person. They’ll make you a better employee, friend, wife/husband, father/mother, brother/sister etc. “Do it”.
Hopefully you’ve gotten a thing or two out of these points. I’ve enjoyed writing this up, and reminding myself of areas within my career and life where improvement is due. Have some other fine points? Disagree with me? I’m not afraid to differing opinions, so sound off in the comments.