How to Become a Web Designer: A Comprehensive Guide
If you look for advice on how to become a web designer, you will find a lot of dated information. You may see articles telling readers to learn technologies that are no-longer industry standards in web design. For example, articles saying you need Photoshop. Some old articles talk about dead technologies like Flash.
There is also disagreement about what web design is. Some authors describe web design as a creative field that deals with visual design but for websites. Other authors describe it as a technical skill that deals with coding websites using HTML and CSS.
So, which one is it?
What is web design?
We use many different skills and disciplines to create a website. Web design encompasses the aesthetics and look-and-feel of the site as much as the functionality. If a website were a car, web design would include the chassis and interior design. Web design would also include the engine and the mechanics of the car.
Last Updated May 2021
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Web design is both a creative and technical field. It includes disciplines like user interface, or UI design, user experience, or UX design, and responsive design. Web designers can work in frontend development, back end development, and Search Engine Optimization (SEO). In larger teams, different, specialized professionals will cover these different aspects of the process. In other cases, a single web designer will cover them all. That would be someone like me.
Learning to become a web designer may seem like a daunting task, but you do not need to become proficient in each of these disciplines. It is enough to know a little bit of everything. All web designers are unique in terms of their combined skills and strength levels between these skills.
What does a web designer do?
Web designers do many different things. Most website projects are not large and complex enough to hire five different people with different specialists. That is why web designers like me exist.
Most websites fall under one of three categories:
- Web applications. These are sites like Facebook or Udemy. Building large sites like these is a complex undertaking. It is not really suitable for a single web designer. If you want to work on sites like these, you should look into a web developer’s career.
- E-commerce sites. Online shops that can be as complex as Amazon. They can also be as simple as small online stores that sell only a handful of products.
- Content-based sites. These are sites that don’t have any complex user interaction. Visitors use such sites to digest information. Most don’t contribute to its content. These are blogs like waitbutwhy.com, news sites like nytimes.com, and “storefronts” of web applications like webflow.com.
Independent web designers primarily work on simple content-based sites and e-commerce sites. If the sites are more complex, the designer would be part of a team instead. Successful web designers working on simpler projects will usually take the project from start to finish on their own. They will design, build, and launch the site. This means to learn web design, you’ll need to learn many different skills.
The first phase of building a great website is the design. The term design, in this case, has a traditional, creative meaning.
A plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other objects before one makes it.
Premium websites are like buildings. The first step is to create a design plan for the site. This is like an architectural plan of the building.
It’s a drawing of the site, not an actual, functioning website. The reason for this practice is the same as in construction. It’s easier to iterate and make changes with pencil and paper than with bricks and concrete. In the case of websites, it is easier to make changes to the design plans than to coded components. Don’t worry; this doesn’t mean you have to learn how to draw. I don’t know how to draw either.
Think of any design field, like architecture, product design, or fashion design. Just like in any other design field, web design is where functionality meets aesthetics. In the early days of the web, building a site was all about functionality. No one really cared about aesthetics. But today, aesthetics are as important as functionality.
To become a good web designer, you’ll need to learn certain creative skills.
This discipline used to focus on print design. Graphic design meant objects like posters, books, and album covers. Today, graphic design incorporates the design of digital products like websites and applications. Principles of graphic design apply to websites as much as posters and billboards. This includes topics like design theory, typography, color theory, visual hierarchy, and many more.
As a web designer, you’ll need to understand the fundamental principles of graphic design to create appealing websites.
We make websites for humans. Humans have goals, be it browsing cat memes or ordering Nike trainers. If people don’t understand how to use your website to meet their goals, then your website has failed. If users have a bad experience, it doesn’t matter if your website is a work of art.
The field of user experience is about this aspect of any product. As a web designer, you’ll need to understand the principles of user experience to create usable websites. These are websites that make it easy both for users and business owners to achieve their respective goals.
A part of your website users will be people with disabilities. For instance, about 4.5% of the population has some sort of color blindness. If your website combines colors that are hard for such people to distinguish, then you will end up with 4.5% frustrated users who won’t return to your site.
Understanding the principles of web accessibility will help you build sites that are usable by everyone. You can make sure you don’t alienate those with disabilities.
Designers don’t need to use pencil and paper anymore to create design plans and mockups. Of course, you can if you want to. But web designers can design with dedicated software.
For website design, you’ll probably want to choose one of these interface design applications:
- Figma (available on Windows, macOS, and in browser)
- Sketch (available on macOS only)
- Adobe XD (available on Windows and macOS)
One of these will be your main tools for creating designs. Sketch has been an industry standard for some time. Figma and Adobe XD are newcomers, but they have surpassed Sketch in many ways.
My recommendation is to try Figma first. This is what I use today. I’ve been a long-time Sketch user, but at one point, I made a switch to Figma, and I haven’t looked back. I’ve written an in-depth article about the differences between Figma vs Sketch. Have a read if you’d like to know what sets them apart and which tool is right for you.
Another design tool you’ll probably need to be familiar with is Adobe Photoshop. You will not need Photoshop for design. Instead, you will use it for photo manipulation. Many websites use photos in their designs. Sometimes these photos have effects, like double-exposure. You may need to cut a photo from its background. To achieve such effects, you’ll need Photoshop. Another good alternative is Affinity Photo.
You could design website mockups inside Photoshop too. In fact, until other interface design tools appeared on the market, that’s what many designers did. Photoshop is for photos, hence the name *Photo-*shop. Tools like Figma are specifically made for website and application design. They have features that make designing easier, faster, and more efficient.
After learning how to create designs, you’ll need to learn how to turn these designs into functional sites.
Learn how to build websites
I didn’t title this “Learn to Code” for a reason. I’m a web designer, and I don’t code my websites. There are many ways you can build a website:
- You can code it from scratch.
- You can use pre-made HTML templates.
- You can use simple, user-friendly website builders like Wix and Squarespace.
- Or you can use professional-grade platforms like WordPress and Webflow. And within these platforms, you can choose to either build a custom solution or use templates.
There’s no standard path that every new web designer takes. It’s a labyrinth with many entrances and many exits. The tool that you choose has its own learning curve. Each comes with its own particular method. Each tool often has very little in common with others.
Let me shed some light and give you a breakdown of the main options.
Coding is the most powerful option, but it’s not for everyone. Coding for some people can be fun and rewarding. Others might find it uncomfortable.
I recommend seeing how coding feels. If within two weeks you don’t find some sort of enjoyment in it, move to the next option. If you are not enjoying it, the beginner’s enthusiasm won’t last. You will have trouble getting through the learning curve that coding requires. But if you do like it, then you might be onto a really good career for yourself.
If you do choose the coding path, then you’ll need to learn these three programming languages:
- HTML (Hypertext Markup Language)
- CSS (Cascading Style Sheets)
These three languages are often supplemented by libraries and frameworks. They come with prebuilt components, templates, and plugins. These pre-built components can speed up the building process and aid you with responsive design. A few popular examples of such libraries and frameworks are:
- Bootstrap (CSS framework)
- Tailwind CSS (CSS framework)
Some might argue this, but I wouldn’t recommend learning frameworks and libraries first. Start by learning the languages they go with.
2. Content Management Systems, like WordPress
A Content Management System, or CMS, is a way to build websites with tools rather than code. Drupal and Joomla are CMS platforms, but the most popular CMS is WordPress. More than 30% of all websites are WordPress sites. That makes WordPress a household name when it comes to web design. What makes WordPress so popular is its vast library of plugins. The ecosystem has more than 58,000 plugins to help you achieve nearly anything so you don’t have to code.
Note: there are WordPress.org and WordPress.com. In this post by WordPress, I always mean the open-source CMS platform from WordPress.org. WordPress.com is something a little different. It’s an unrelated, paid service but built upon the same WordPress CMS.
WordPress is a great place to start for beginner web designers. There are page-builder plugins like Elementor and Divi. These help you build sites using simple drag-and-drop builders and pre-made components. You can style the components using intuitive interfaces.
There are also thousands of free and premium WordPress themes. You can install a theme that is already made for a specific industry and start editing away the content and the styles. This way, you can skip the design and development process completely.
At the same time, WordPress is an open system that allows you to write your own code. That’s why web designers use it even when they are coding their sites from scratch.
WordPress does have its pitfalls — especially when it comes to security and stability. Some people swear by it, and some detest it. To help you with your decision, you can read my thoughts on how WordPress compares with another popular platform, Webflow.
Webflow is a web design platform that I use, and I couldn’t be happier.
Webflow is a site builder, CMS, and hosting platform all in one. WordPress on its own is just a CMS. The plugins like Divi and Elementor give it a builder functionality. And hosting is something you’d have to find and set up separately.
I love the all-in-one, complete solution of Webflow. There’s no need to deal with plugins, updates, security, and servers. Everything is in one place. This removes a lot of other headaches that you have to deal with if you code websites or use open-source platforms like WordPress. You get to focus on designing and building, leaving the rest to the Webflow team.
Webflow’s builder is quite different from other site builders. It’s a professional-grade builder. Not really an intuitive drag-n-drop builder that you get with Wix or Squarespace. Building a site in Webflow is like coding, but doing it visually.
If you decide to go with Webflow, you’ll need to invest time in learning. Although, nowhere near as much time as you’d need with coding.
The beauty of going with Webflow is that it takes you a few steps closer to learning how to code. Webflow ingrains HTML and CSS into the building process. You can add HTML tags and style them using CSS classes, just like you would with code. This forces you to learn the underlying physics of these two languages and how they interact with the browser to create a final look of a page.
Both Webflow and WordPress have their own pros and cons. If you’re considering between these two, then this post should help you with your decision.
4. Drag-and-drop builders
These are platforms like Wix, Squarespace, Shopify, Weebly, and many more. These platforms are for entrepreneurs. For people who want to build a personal website or a site for their business. They want to build it themselves, without a hired help of a professional web designer or an agency.
For entrepreneurs, these sorts of platforms are excellent. But your goal is to become a professional web designer who designs and builds custom websites as a service. Because of that, I wouldn’t recommend starting with this option.
There’s still definitely a market for web designers who use these platforms. If the first three options just don’t seem to work for you, then certainly try these platforms. If you do, I’d suggest starting with Editor X. It’s a more professional-grade builder created by Wix.
Create your web design portfolio
In the web design world, employers and clients do not judge candidates by their CVs and resumés. They judge candidates by their portfolios. It might feel like this is bad news for beginners like yourself, but the opposite is true. In most fields, job ads often ask for previous work experience. Getting hired requires experience, but you need the job to gain experience. So it creates the chicken and egg problem for newbies.
But in the web design field, employers concentrate on your portfolio. And portfolio work doesn’t have to be from past employment or paid work. It can be a concept, practice projects that you created based on your initiative. Yes, real, paid work will be more appreciated. But self-initiated portfolio work is just as accepted by potential employers. It’s not the case with every employer, of course. But it’s definitely not ruled out like in many other industries. This is especially true when freelancing. Freelancing is probably how most web designers work.
How do you build your portfolio?
You can even use work from the online courses that you take during your learning phase. My students successfully use their practice projects from the course towards their portfolios.
Build a portfolio site
Many designers upload their portfolio work on sites like Dribbble and Behance. That’s fine on its own and when you want to find work from those platforms. But as a web designer, you should have your own portfolio site and send your potential employers there.
Why should you own a portfolio site? I have at least three good reasons:
- It makes you look like a pro. You look like someone who is serious about their profession and looks like they want to provide a good service. Who doesn’t want to hire such a person?
- You get a chance to make a pitch to potential employers. You can not only showcase your portfolio work. You also get to tell them why they should hire you and what they’ll get when working with you.
- It just shows you. If you send a link to your Behance profile, you’re sending people to a place where they can check out profiles of other designers. That’s just bad salesmanship.
Find freelance or agency work
Now that you know how to become a web designer, let’s discuss finding web design work.
Most web designers either work for agencies or work independently as freelancers. There are pros and cons to each, of course. Some web designers work as freelancers through agencies.
Working for agencies
Agencies are places like design studios, marketing agencies, or digital agencies. They also call themselves creative labs and a dozen other names they like to use.
These companies might hire a web designer either as full-time staff or engage them as a freelancer. Many agencies have a small core staff. They then have an army of freelancers with different roles working on their client projects.
My longest work engagement was with such an agency. They’ve sent a ton of work my way. I’ve learned a good deal from them. I’d definitely recommend aiming for such agencies, be it full-time or freelancing.
Working as a freelancer for agencies has a big benefit. You get to enjoy the benefits of freelancing. These include being your own boss, flexible working hours, and working remotely. But you also get a more stable flow of work. That is more of a challenge when freelancing independently.
These agencies post jobs both on local job boards and freelancing platforms like Upwork. They also might post vacancies on their websites. And you can approach them directly. I have a freelancer friend whose primary method of finding work is cold-emailing potential employers. It works.
Upwork has been the bread and butter for me. It’s probably the largest platform. People post plenty of web design work every day. Naturally, this attracts a lot of freelancers. The competition might be a bit of a hurdle for newcomers. But there are simple ways to increase your chances of success. I cover this extensively in my course.
Every platform is different. To increase their chances, I always tell my students to create profiles on more than one platform. Regardless, once you get your first few clients, it gets a lot easier. Your profile ranking improves. Your previous clients start sending more work your way or referring you to others. Such referrals keep me busy enough that I have my Upwork profile disabled most of the time.
Freelancing platforms aren’t the only way to find freelance work. I know freelancers that have never ever looked at these platforms. Such freelancers find work through traditional means as any other business does. These include online marketing, networking, word-of-mouth, and other methods.
Careers in web design
A career in web design can be very exciting, fulfilling, and financially rewarding. I used to be a marketer. I didn’t really enjoy it. Discovering web design has transformed my life. Maybe it will be the same for you. You will never know until you try.
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