My Transition From Print to Web

In my experience, most people in the web design industry didn’t arrive there by jumping right in at the start of their professional lives. They transitioned into it from another medium such as traditional print design or even fine art. I was one of these people, and seeing as I receive a steady flow of emails from others like me asking how one makes the jump from print to web I thought it fitting to share the path that landed me here.

This is my story.

Part One: The Burnout

I graduated college with the average BFA in graphic design, and in 5 years I jumped around a lot. I worked at a small agency, on an in-house team for a University, and later as a designer and illustrator for a children's book publisher. It was at that point I started to notice something. I wasn’t learning anything new. The print world had become stagnant, and while I would surely become more proficient the longer I worked in the industry, there were no more frontiers. There was nothing left to experiment with. There were no new developments on the horizon for the field. Worse still, even if a change of scenery could have staved off the doldrums, there were no jobs open for print designers in my area.

Part Two: The Call

It was at this time that I got a random phone call from an old college classmate I hadn’t heard from in years. After the requisite catching up he explained that the agency he worked at needed a new designer and he thought of me. There was about a week of back-and-forth to setup an interview, and then, I was in the hot seat talking to the creative director. As he talked and explained what would be my responsibilities I began to realize I was interviewing for a web designer position.

My heart sank, and at the end of the meeting I came clean to him, which sounded something like this:

That all sounds great, except I have no experience in web and I wouldn’t know the first thing about designing for digital, let alone building a website.

Then came the reply I was not expecting:

Well, you wouldn’t start here for another month, so…can you learn?

Part Three: The Race

There it was. I had accepted a job 200 miles away I wasn’t qualified for. So in addition to finishing out my then current 40 hour a week gig, as well as trying to find a place to live near my soon to be new job, I was teaching myself how to build websites. I was under no illusions that I would arrive on my first day as a self taught guru ready for anything. At the very least my goal was learn enough that I wouldn’t make anyone else’s job harder for being there.

There were a few physical books I bought like CSS Mastery by Cameron Moll but for the most part I relied on articles and tutorials on the web because they were free and easily accessible. The real saving grace for anyone looking to learn this stuff is that the internet is replete with people who want nothing more that to share their knowledge, process and mistakes.

So, with a hand full of bookmarked pages and trial version of Adobe Dreamweaver I started building little mini projects. Actually, “building” would be a pretty charitable description. What I spent most of my time doing was trying to find out why a new line of code I wrote out completely broke the entire layout turning it into something that more resembled a Picasso painting. By the end of week one I had a basic understanding of which html elements did what. That was a good start, but it wasn’t until week two that I started really getting it. On the second week I bought template site off of ThemeForest. It was basically a fully skinned website with greek copy, stock imagery and a handful of optional features — all for about $45. The thinking was that I could look at the code and tinker with it. I’d explore questions like “What would happen if I did this?” or “What if I wanted to move this part over here?” While I ended up breaking the site most of the time, through trial and error I learned what not to do and why. And because of the frustration involved, those lessons stuck with me longer than any book or tutorial I read.

Part Four: Judgement Day

My first day as a web designer was awkward. I knew enough to be a contributing member of the web team, but looking back I was pretty much useless by any professional measure. But, I was learning a lot. Each day I learned a new little trick, which was largely credited to the team collectively mentoring me. After another month or two, there wasn’t much I didn’t know how to do on the front-end and I was feeling pretty good.

It was at that time that the department adopted the policy that sites would be built responsively from then on. Everyone on the team was at different places of the learning curve on the onset, but it was safe to say that as the the guy who just learned how to clear a float, I was at the bottom. At the same time, people in the department started buzzing about HTML5 and CSS3 and I remember thinking “I just learned all this stuff and now there’s all this new stuff happening!” But, I also remember thinking that this is what I asked for. New frontiers. New learning. New stuff to tinker with.

After however many years of doing interactive work, the one thing it always delivers on is change, which is the aspect I’ve come to love the most about it. So, if you’re someone looking to make this same transition, my advice would be to stop figuring out the best way to start and just start. Read. Watch. Make things. Break things. Fix things. Reproduce things. The important thing is to get your hands dirty.

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