My advice to aspiring designers & developers

I get asked quite a bit for advice on getting into design/development. I recently got an email from a guy named Marcus via my Behance account. It was late night/early morning, I was in a ‘ranty’ mood, and wrote an abnormally long reply (ha). So I thought I’d spellcheck it, expand a bit, remove the swearwords (just kidding, well kinda) and share it here, in the hope that it may help others…


Hi. I am just beginning to learn the basics of HTML & CSS as I want to make a complete career change. My design skills are very bad at the moment, do you think it is possible for an artistically challenged person like myself to be able to make good designs without having a design background? Lastly could you offer any advice on how to improve, such as maybe some books or websites that inspired you in the beginning of your career. Thanks, Marcus

Hey Marcus,

Best of luck with the change in career! ☺

I think, in all honestly to be a good designer you need to have a ‘creative spark’, some degree of natural ability, and an eye for detail, good design, photography, typography etc… You can teach design software, but you can’t teach creativity — you either get ideas, innovate and create, or you don’t. Saying that, of course with enough practice in anything you will improve. But with design you need to pour yourself into it. It’s an industry where you work long hours and have to be immersed in it, be passionate and love what you do, to get anywhere, or improve. Which in itself, is a very rewarding thing about it.

The coding side of it is very different though… Of course there are naturally gifted (and brilliant) developers, but code is something anyone can learn, if you put the time in. You don’t have to design, or even appreciate design to code, but developers who are ‘creatively minded’ (or just give a s**t) will always be the best developers (in my opinion), as they care more about their craft, in that, it is a craft, it’s not just making something work, you’re building a functional product, where user experience is just as important as in the design phases that came before, or run alongside it.

But don’t be worried if you feel design isn’t your strong suit. Most good developers don’t or can’t design. A lot of (perhaps most) developers will tell you that no developer should design, or no designer code… I don’t share this view, but some people believe very strongly in that.

Career path

Besides learning to code, or design… It depends if you want to go this alone, as in freelance, or work as part of a team, in an agency or company. You can be a freelance developer, and work with agencies, or find freelance designers that need to outsource their build work… But to make freelance work you really need to be very good, experienced, and be well known, or you’ll struggle for work. Freelancers who design and build websites (well) are very rare, as in people who can take on the whole web project, from concept to the final product, and project manage it etc… too. At the top end you will make a lot of money, work on (and cherry-pick) projects you love to do, and you’ll never be out of work. But at the other end, work with small businesses and individuals (with very little to no budget), shy on paying invoices, and you will hear “this will be great for your portfolio”, or “it’s great exposure” a lot.

But if you worked at an agency, or an ‘in-house’ role at a company, you would slot into your role, whatever it is, and someone else would handle the parts you’re not so good at, or aren’t interested in.

So you can find your place, it’s just figuring out what your strengths are, what you’re happiest doing and which ‘world’ fits best for you, your skills and your lifestyle.

Teach yourself…

I design and build, but I’m primarily a designer nowadays. A few years ago I was very much 50/50 a web designer & developer, I was equally comfortable doing either. (Way) back at University I learned very quickly that I was going to learn nothing on my course, so I bought myself a book quite literally titled “HTML for dummies” (seriously), and I taught myself how to build a basic website, using just a plain text editor and a browser (i.e. not relying on any software that allows you to cut corners). And then you just take it from there… You learn on the job a lot with build work. It’s constantly evolving!

Inspiration

For websites and design, I guess just immerse yourself in inspiration sites like Behance, Awwwards, SiteInspire, Dribbble and Pinterest to keep up with what great design is ‘now’. Also, discover and follow your favourite designers/developers/creatives and learn from their work, again, Behance is good for this.

For coding, HTML Dog helped me a lot, many years ago. There are tons of useful HTML, CSS and JavaScript tutorial websites out there if you search around (e.g. CSS Tricks) that are all very useful, as and when you need them. And at any time, just ‘Google’ your problem — whatever you’re stuck on, someone else has been stuck with it before, asked for help and got an answer — websites like StackOverflow often hold the answers to most of your dev’ problems!

Experience is everything

The design industry is all about experience! College/school/university qualifications are useless and ‘can be’ taught badly, or teach bad practices (e.g. getting weeks/months to produce something you would get hours/days to produce in the real world). So my best advice is to not waste any money on education (in the design industry!), you will learn more teaching yourself. Although Uni’ is a lot of fun! ☺

Your degree is not a proxy for your ability to do any job.
The world only cares about what you can do with what you know (and it doesn’t care how you learned it).

^ Quote above by Thomas L. Friedman, from this article


Learn from others

I think gaining experience working with other designers/developers/creatives is invaluable — I’ve learned so much from a few key individuals I’ve worked with who I’d have failed at what I do (by now) without their tuition/influence, and pushing me to be better.

Catch 22

Of course, you often can’t get experience without experience… Agencies, companies and other designers/developers time is very valuable. And businesses need to trust you to give you the work, especially if it’s paid. So unless you get really good, really quick (and can prove/demonstrate that), then you tend to have to do it the hard way, in a very competitive industry.

Working for free

Most people starting out, especially graduates, work up a portfolio and gain practical experience by working for their friends, or interning at design agencies, often working for free, or for very little. But eventually you get paid, and the money can be very good!

But ‘working for free’ isn’t just for people starting out, it can help you at any point in your career… So try to balance what you’re doing to pay the bills and what ‘may’ be a big stepping stone to something greater, regardless of the money. See this article by Dann Petty titled ‘Freelancers: Work for free’.

Many (many, many) years ago I had done a few small websites for friends (mostly bands & photographers), for free. Then one day, I was working behind a bar, and a customer asked me: “You’re a designer aren’t you… Can you build me a website, I’ll give you £800?” — I couldn’t believe I could get paid to do that! Haha. I’ve since worked on projects for Nike, MTV, Red Bull, NASA etc… But we all have to start somewhere! ☺

Luck plays a big role, but you have to put yourself about to make your own luck!! Personal projects are always a winner and are a good way to build something you care about, open doors, get your name out there and you can learn a lot from them. I wrote about my own personal project, which has been the back bone of my entire career at: https://medium.com/what-i-learned-building/d875dea01f60

Go for it dude!

I believe the design industry is a very rewarding and fun industry to work in. If you get in with the right people and places, you’ll work with enthusiastic people who love what they do — colleagues and clients alike. You have to work hard, but it’s worth it. It’s a pretty long journey, but one I don’t regret taking. I get paid to do my hobby and I love what I do.

Best of luck to you! ☺

Andrew


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