A Beginner’s Guide: Stepping Into Web Design Industry

Whether you’ve studied web design or development at college and you’re now ready to start your career, or you’ve been designing web sites as a hobby for a while and you’re ready to take things to the next level, this guide is for you.

Everyone needs to start somewhere but it can seem impossible to make it as a newbie web designer when there’s so much competition from big agencies and freelancers with years more experience than you.

As with any big task, the key is breaking it down into smaller, manageable chunks. Follow the advice below and you’ll be well on your way to making it as a web designer.

Getting Started in Web Design

If you’re right at the very beginning of the planning stages and thinking that web design is a career you might like to pursue, but you don’t know where to start, there are a few different options you can take.

Studying a college degree in web design or development is certainly not always necessary – this is a career where your actual skills speak for themselves over academic qualifications. However if you’re hoping to find employment (rather than working for yourself as a freelancer), a degree can certainly give you a step up on paper at least.

If you decide to go the college route, you should definitely make sure that an internship is part of the program, as this will give you real on-the-job experience and industry connections that can’t be replicated in the classroom.

Remember it’s not necessary to study a college course in order to be accepted as an intern and this is definitely something worth pursuing on your own, particularly if you hope to work for an agency in future.

Self-study is the other option and many successful web designers have chosen this path. Teaching yourself web design will save you thousands of dollars in tuition fees and there are so many resources available these days to get you started. Check out the sites below for some amazing online courses in web design and development:

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Web Design Vs. Web Development

Before you choose a course and get started, it’s important to understand the difference between web design and web development. While they are often used interchangeably, technically web design refers only to the visual appearance of a website, whereas web development is the backend coding that makes the site actually functional.

Several years ago, web designers and web developers had very different job descriptions. The designer would usually create a visual “mockup” of the site in Photoshop or similar graphics software and the developer would write the code to turn this flat image into a working website.

These days, the roles are more overlapping and “pure” web designers who create only the visual design and have no input into the backend are much rarer. In fact it would be limiting to not learn at least the basics of web development as most employers and clients will expect that their web designer can build a site from scratch without the input of another developer.

Content management systems like WordPress have made it much easier to build a web site visually and it’s not necessary to start completely from scratch every time you build a new site any more.

However as useful as these tools are, it’s still worth educating yourself on how the backend of sites actually works. You’ll need these skills to get your sites looking exactly the way you want and make any tweaks to the final result.

As a minimum you should learn HTML and CSS. Learning some basic PHP can be very helpful, particularly if you’ll be working in CMSs like WordPress that are coded in PHP. You don’t need to become a skilled coder, but learning the basics of the language will definitely help you get by. JavaScript can also be a handy language to get to grips with.

Apart from coding skills you’ll also want to make sure you have a solid grounding in:

  • User experience (UX) design
  • Typography
  • Color theory
  • The basics of WordPress (or whatever CMS you’ll be focusing on if you’re using one to build sites)

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Creating Your Portfolio

As a web designer, the number one most important showcase for your skills is your portfolio. Whether you’re applying for a job in-house or seeking freelance clients, nobody will hire you without a good portfolio.

Your portfolio should showcase the best examples of your work and should be updated regularly.

If you’re just starting out, of course the issue is how to get a portfolio started in the first place?

The answer is that when you’re new to the world of web design and don’t have any experience, you’re probably going to have to do a few projects for free, or at least for very cheap. You can also pad out your portfolio with personal projects but it’s best to keep it mostly for client work – paid or otherwise – as this shows you can meet the needs of others, work to deadlines, and other important real-world skills.

Some examples of unpaid or low-paid work you could do to get started:

  • The site for a local charity, school, or non-profit organization
  • Sites for friends
  • You may be able to find work on some freelancing sites if you set your rates very low to make up for your lack of experience
  • Redesign an existing site
  • Contact bloggers with poorly designed sites and ask if they’d be interested in a free or cheap new design (you could even mock up a sample to send them)
  • Create a site to meet a need – for example a community site for your local area.

When it comes to creating the portfolio itself, of course it should be in the form of a website but don’t go overboard when it comes to design. It’s best to stick to a plain and simple design in order to show off your work and it’s better to put more effort into your client work than spend hours trying to perfect your website.

There are plenty of good portfolio templates and services available online, so it’s perfectly acceptable to use one of those rather than designing your own site from scratch. Some sites also act as a directory of creatives and can help clients to find your work online.

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Web Design Agency or Freelance?

When it’s time to get yourself out there into the world of work, you’ll need to decide whether you want an in-house salaried position with a design agency or to work for yourself. Many other types of businesses also hire in-house web designers where you may work alone or with an in-house design or marketing team.

Both freelancing and working for someone else have their advantages and disadvantages.

Working for a company will give you the security of a regular income, a constant stream of work to build up your portfolio, and the social aspect of working alongside others. However your potential income may be limited, you may feel creatively stifled, particularly if you’re working in a corporate setting, and there’s the whole getting up every morning and doing the commute that comes with a regular 9-5 job.

Freelancing offers freedom in terms of how much you can make, where and when you work, and the clients you take on. But the money can be sporadic, you’ll have to deal with difficult clients on your own, and working alone can be isolating.

Many web designers work for an agency for a couple of years before setting up on their own as this gives some experience on working of lots of different projects and can be a good selling point for potential clients.

Likewise, if you decide a salaried position is best for you it can also be a good idea to take on some freelance projects on the side to dip your toes in the waters of being self-employed and expand your portfolio with a wider variety of projects than may be available to you at your day job.

If you need a flexible working arrangement (for example if you have small children at home and want to work part time), or just can’t stand the idea of working in an office 9-5, freelancing from the get-go may be the only option for you.

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Finding Clients

After you’ve made the leap to freelancing (whether full-time or alongside your day job), it’s time to start finding some clients.

You should of course first make sure your portfolio website is set up and polished and has a clear way to contact you. It won’t happen immediately but eventually you’ll start getting queries from potential clients through your website.

There are multiple other routes you can use to find work and it’s best to try a few different ways when you’re getting started.

Once you’ve built up some experience and reputation you’ll probably find that you won’t have to work as hard to find clients because you’ll be getting repeat work from existing clients and new ones will be coming to you from word of mouth recommendations.

Use Your Existing Contacts

You’ll be surprised at how many clients fall into your lap from contacts of friends and family or people you meet. Make sure you get the word out that you’re starting up a web design business and you’re looking for new clients.

Often even the most casual acquaintance will mention your name if they meet someone who needs a website – people in general like to be helpful and word of mouth can be very powerful.

When you meet new people, make sure to tell them you’re a web designer (having some business cards to hand out helps too) and you’ll probably find the jobs start rolling in.

Freelancing Boards

There are several websites set up with the sole purpose of matching freelancers with clients and this can be a good place to get started when you’re just starting out.

The disadvantages with these kind of sites is that there’s often a lot of competition for each job and you’ll usually be competing with web designers who offer a very low rate (often because they live in a country with a low cost of living).

Once you’ve built up some feedback on these sites you can raise your rates and still get jobs, but be prepared to put some work in for low pay until you’re established.

Networking

This is very similar to asking around friends and family but you want to make sure you purposefully put yourself in situations where you can meet other professionals who may be in need of your services.

Conferences and seminars are one option – don’t just stick to web design ones where you’ll mostly meet other web designers but consider events aimed at other groups like bloggers and small business owners.

Co-working spaces are another excellent place to do some networking. These are spaces set up for freelancers and other people who don’t have their office to have a place with high speed internet and decent working desks but also to meet other people. You can meet all kinds of business owners and other freelancers that you could potentially work for or collaborate with, and this is often worth the cost of the membership fee alone.

Social Networking

Similar to networking but done online, you want to make sure you’re active in social networks like Facebook and Twitter and particularly LinkedIn.

If you post relevant content regularly, you may find people contacting you about work. You can also pitch clients directly, especially if they post something about needing a web designer.

Blogging

Not every web designer has a blog but it can be a very effective way of getting your name out there more and bringing in some new business.

You can blog about your work processes, your daily life, news and current events in the world of web design and anything that may spark the interest of a potential client.

Guest posting on other sites will expand your reach further and also help to optimize your web site for search engines. This can make your portfolio appear higher up in web searches.

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Developing Your Freelance Pricing Strategy

Pricing is always tricky for freelancers and there’s no simple guide to how much you should be charging for your services.

First you’ll need to make a decision about whether you charge per hour or per project. It can be difficult at first estimating how long a project will take you so it can be tempting to charge per hour, but most clients will want at least an estimation of the final figure.

Charging per project also gives you the potential to earn more money as you can basically boost your hourly rate by working faster and more efficiently.

If you’re pitching for work on freelance sites, you can use other freelancers’ quotes as a guide for your own. Remember it’s not always the cheapest quote that wins the job, but you should be prepared to offer competitive rates when you’re starting out.

Another way to work out your rates is to calculate everything you need for your daily living expenses and how many hours or projects you plan to do on a weekly or monthly basis. You can then work out the hourly rate you need to cover your expenses. Don’t go too low as you also need to account for non-paid time (marketing, doing accounts etc,) and the inevitable times when you won’t have any work. Once you’ve taken on some projects at your base rate, you can gradually increase it.

You also need to make sure that the scope of what your quote covers is clearly laid out. Clients who keep requesting changes will eat into your earnings (unless you’re charging hourly). If you’re working on a per project rate, it’s a good idea to set an agreement of any changes that are requested after completion. This can also be an effective way to get you ongoing work (for example you could offer up to 2 hours of work doing changes per month for a set fee).

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Staying Up to Date With Technology and Trends

Web design is a fast moving industry and it’s vital to keep up if you want to stay competitive in the marketplace. You should build some time into your working week to enhance and expand on your skills and keep up to date with current trends. This might include:

  • Taking online courses to expand your skillset
  • Reading web design blogs and online magazines
  • Following high-profile web designers and developers on social media
  • Participate in online discussions – comment on blogs and share your ideas and opinions. You’ll not only get feedback and new ideas but this also helps to get your name out there more
  • Browse design galleries to see what’s hot and get new ideas
  • Look for inspiration everywhere – not just other websites, magazines, art galleries, and interior design can give you fresh new design ideas and help you to avoid designers block
  • Attend industry networking and conference events
  • Listen to web design podcasts.

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Get Set for Success

It can all seem very overwhelming getting started, particularly if you’re brand new to web design. But you’ll be surprised at how quickly things can snowball once you’ve completed a few projects for a few different clients.

As well as taking the time to plan your break into the industry, it is also very helpful to review where you’re at regularly and make new plans and goals for the future. Don’t just stagnate and keep working for the same clients at the same rate forever – set goals and work towards them to make your business grow.

If you have any other tips or want to share your story at how you got started as a web designer, we’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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