Becoming a designer, developer or both

Seth Coelen
The Future of Work
Published in
5 min readJun 23, 2016


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Photo by Taylor Nicole

The hardest thing when learning something new is knowing where to start. When trying to learn a new skill the following questions will probably pop into your mind.

  • What should I learn first?
  • Who should I listen to?
  • In what order should I learn things?
  • Are the things I’m learning useful for my end goal?

Take heart; there is a way forward, and the career path in the design and development industry can be unlike any other:

  • You don’t need a degree.
  • You don’t need to go into $80,000 of debt.
  • You don’t need to give up 4 years of your life.

Anyone can learn how to be how to be a designer or developer. The difference between me and the guy off the street is that I know what questions to google and where to look for the right answer.

With the right learning path, you can gain the skills you need to land an entry-level design or development job in less than 6 months.

In my opinion, there’s a chemistry of 3 factors that need to come together in order to successfully learn something new:

  • Risk
  • Motivation
  • Craftsmanship

Opportunity knocks

When I was in college, I worked at a laundromat. One day a business man came in to drop off his clothes. He asked me about my studies, and I told him I was learning about marketing, websites, digital media, etc. At the end of the conversation, he told me that he had a horrible website. He asked me if I’d be willing to try and redo it for him.

At this point, I didn’t even know the difference between java and javascript. I didn’t even own a “design program” but when he told me that he’d pay me $1,000 I said yes without hesitation.

Then my brain goes:

“Oh, Crap.

What did I just agree to?

Why did I agree to do something I don’t know how to do?

What if I fail?

I already have a job.

I’m just trying to pass my classes.”


Unlike a project for school, this was something I had to nail by the launch date. There was no staying up the night before and turning in some half finished paper, and being happy with a 75%. If I didn’t get this right, and deliver it on time I didn’t get paid.

We met weekly to go over my progress and discussed changes. Often I had to write down his questions / requests and get back to him later with answers. I didn’t have all the answers, but at the risk of exposing myself as a fraud, I assured him I would find a solution.


About half way through this project I thought to myself, “If I could get one of these projects a month, I could quit my job at the laundromat. By the time I graduate, I’ll at least have something to show prospective employers.” Getting paid to build a skillset beats any type of retail / minimum wage / fast food job out there.

Over the coming weeks, I learned more about design, development & project management than I’d ever learn in school. I spent hours on YouTube, w3schools, css tricks, StackOverflow researching silly things like “How to center a <div>”, “how to make a dropdown menu”, etc. I found that learning what questions ask and how to google the right thing is just as important as learning the technical skills.

Throughout this project, I figured out the basics of how to manage a project and ship a website. I even got a retainer contract after the site was finished.

Don’t laugh, but here it is!


Bringing something from conception to a finished product is one of the most rewarding things a person can do. This was something I could call my own. I could talk through the process with future clients. I also learned how to do it better next time.

I was so pumped at the prospect of building a portfolio, and bringing in some extra cash that I printed off flyers with my name, number, and website and went to all the local businesses in my town trying to sell my services. I was going to local restaurants & stores trying to do websites for anything. Sure I got tons of “No thank you’s” but I also I got a few gigs, and referrals along the way.

My advice to you

Take on a project you don’t quite know how to do.
This is by far the best way to learn something because it stretches you and forces you out of your comfort zone. You don’t have to be a know it all or pretend like you’re the best, just show humble confidence that lets them know they’ll be in good hands with a person like you. Like I said before you don’t have to have all the answers, you just have to know where to find the answers.

Wrangle some opportunities.
Scour craigslist, do a free website for someone in your community, ask your crazy uncle if you can make a site for his weird club. Build your personal site. Start doing a “Daily UI” and post your work on Instagram or Dribbble. Copy someone’s work and ask them for feedback. Make stuff happen.

Do the work no one else wants to do and do it with a smile.
Talent helps, but it rarely trumps hard work. everyone wants the silver bullet piece of advice that will make the journey easy. In the end of the day, tools, strategies & education won’t save you, hard work will. Take on the projects that no one else wants to do, so in a few years, you can take on the projects that everyone else wants to do.

I’ve started a spreadsheet of some tools I use, along with learning path resources for beginners to get started in design and development. I’d like to for this to be a living document, so if you would like to add something to it, Let me know, and we’ll get it added.

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