Career Advice-Web Design...

I am currently in need of a new (different) direction in my career and have decided to seriously explore the option of becoming a web designer/programmer and would like to implore any knowledgeable dopers out there to share their stories/advice.

A little background… I have been in IT for 15 years and have worked my way up from desktop support to my current position as Director of IT. I am not happy in the management arena (I don’t mind being a manager, it’s the whole politics of dealing with CEO’s CFO’s… that I abhor) and I don’t want to remain in IT for very much longer. There is just too much stress to be responsible for critical systems being up and running 24/7.

Web design has always been an interest of mine and I have made a few dollars creating simple sites for a few clients. Now that I am looking at changing careers, I am thinking web design/programming might be worth exploring a little more seriously and have a few pertinent questions that can hopefully be answered by some of the dopers on the board that have experience in this realm.

Questions such as-

Is it worth getting a degree in web design or can just taking the classes (java, flash, dhtml) get you to the same end point?

What are the best classes to take to get beyond the basics of html? I have experience with Dreamweaver, Photoshop, Illustrator, and some flash. I am also a photographer and tend to think I have a good visual eye.

Is there more of a need right now for designers or programmers or a combination of both?

How is the job market? Is there a glut of job seekers or companies that are hiring or something in between?

I don’t take changing careers lightly and like to do my homework before making any monumental changes, and so I am very appreciative to anyone who can offer any insight into this possible new career change.

PHP,, and .NET in general should be on your learning list (the various SQL’s go with, aye). Rails is getting popular, I like what little I’ve done with it.

I made a go at website design for three years. I didn’t do so great. I’m not a businessman. I’d rather have someone give me something to do, not have to dig up clients myself.

I have been in your shoes. I started my own firm a few years ago - made a million / lost a million plus. I would not do that again. Too painful.

Web design is a commodity business. People often do it for free or for next to nothing. Be sure that you really want to go down that path before you leap.

As someone who’s been doing web design for several years and never been able to get off the ground with it -

If you’re seriously interested, take all of the programming langauges you can. Learn actual HTML - dreamweaver is an alright HTML editor, but all of them (and anything produced by Microsoft is not to be trusted, as they use stuff only IE can read) add extra code that isn’t needed. Learn XML, Javascript, Java, Perl, and PHP. You never know when they’ll come in handy.

If you don’t want the degree, I suggest building up an online portfolio of your own, somewhere clients could go to see what you do as a web designer. Get a copy of Adobe Photoshop (7.1 or above) and learn how to use it well. It’s the standard of the graphics editing industry. I use it at work all the time (newspaper).

Unfortunately, though, web design is relatively easy to learn, so everyone’s learning it. Where I live there’s a huge glut in the market. I’d check around you live and see how many “Web Design” yellow page ads there are, and do a net search for “Your City+web design” to see how many people there are in the area, and what they offer.

If you want to design a portfolio of your own, on a domain of your own, I suggest Netrillium webhosting. I’ve been with them for years and they have yet to have failed me.


I went to college for journalism and a semester before I graduated I met a guy who wanted to start a Web business but needed someone who knew HTML.

So I blew off the journalism idea (I still got my BS degree anyway) and we started our company. He was a former musician turned day trader and somehow along the way managed to learn some Web programming. I knew HTML and had done the Web sites for the school newspaper and magazine.

Five years later we’re still growing. Not by leaps and bounds, but we both make decent salaries, work from home, pay taxes (oh, the taxes!) and have not gone broke. It’s just me and him and the guy who answers our phones. Oh, and we’ve never advertised and are not in the phone book.

When we first started it was me (HTML), him (scripting) and charlie (pretty designs). We got work from some people my partner knew. Charlie would do the design, Chris (my partner) would do the technical stuff, and I’d put it together with HTML.

But we weren’t really getting work for whole Web sites. Since we’re not sales people, we couldn’t go out and sell Web sites - nor did we want to. Somehow we got in with some big Dot Com media company that did tv shows, commercials and Web sites. I’ll tell you that a company that specializes in TV shows and commercials knows little about Web sites. But they sold a Web site to a large company anyway - and needed us to make it work.

So they went in and had meetings upon meetings upon meetings about design and function - Chris having told them “whatever they want, we can do.” They sent us outlines and drawings and large Photoshop files (made by their designers) and I arranged it all into a Web site and Chris made it work. We learned along the way whatever we didn’t know how to do.

We made about $50k off that first project. Mainly because the people who hired us were idiots and didn’t get a clear picture of what the client wanted so they’d have to come back and pay us to make changes.

That company that hired us went bankrupt, but their client hired us right back. They hired us to write an Intranet for them. Except they also hired a national contracting company to work side-by-side with us or something. The national company made a mess of it. We still work with the client. We make about $20-50k a year from them. The national company is gone.

We got another large client from someone from that bankrupt company. Forgot how that went down. But we do tons of work for them.

A lot of our work now comes from crap “Web Design” companies who go out and sell web sites that they can’t build. They come from the “$400 for 5 pages” camp that can make you an ugly, 1997 static site that you have to pay them to update. When their clients want sites that actually DO anything - from form submission to content administration to ecommerce - those crap companies call us and we put a big pricetag on it and they go out and sell it. Works out for us - we don’t have time or the skill to sell. We just do the work, and do it fast and make it better than expected.

We used to work 24 hours a day (literally) and undercharge companies just to get business. Our turnaround was as if we had a 12-person crew. Our overhead was nil since we worked at home. Clients got more than what they paid for.

Now we still have no overhead, and we still have fast turnaround. Except now I have the skills to do most of the stuff only Chris knew how to do, and Chris has skills beyond belief. Everything goes faster - so we do the same amount of work now in 8 hour days that took us 24-hour days previously. And we no longer under-charge.

Charlie’s off to greener pastures. We were just not getting design work. Web “designers” are a dime a dozen. Every kid with a graphic design degree makes web sites. A lot of them are pretty. Very few of them DO anything.

So…my long and rambling point is this: LEARN HOW TO MAKE ACTIVE CONTENT FOR WEB SITES. Learn good database structure and dynamic scripting languages (ASP, PHP, C#, JavaScript, DHTML, XML, etc) and become proficient. Use them every day. Make up your own projects with a set goal and figure out how to make the site do what you want. Don’t “learn” by using FrontPage or Dreamweaver or even the WYSIWYG tools that come with design programs. LEARN it just don’t do it.

Sell your skills to a graphic design firm or ad firm that thinks they know how to make Web sites. Or to the crappy SEO company that decided they want to sell Web sites now. Or the little local computer store who added “We Do Web Design!” to their store front.

Nobody wants more graphic designers and nobody needs someone who can only do HTML. I can make a million-“paged” Web site that’s database driven that consists of 2 actual ASP pages and a bunch of SQL. Taks me 10 minutes to do the HTML part.

Don’t waste your time on the piddly stuff and don’t try to be a salesman. Get some skills, set your rates and do the work that comes to you. Let someone else deal with the client.

If you have any questions, feel free to email me - address in profile.

I’m someone who’s been designing and maintaining static websites for years and years without going anywhere career-wise. I have only just broken through the corporate glass ceiling, and now I run and maintain active websites, as well as commission and manage people who design and make active websites - I’d like to add my wholehearted support to ZipperJJ’s advice. I agree with every single word in it.

I’ll add that it’s good to get a bit of design nouse, so you can knock something reasonably attractive together if the designer is on vacation - a lot of programmers seem to have no visual aesthetic.


I’m not a kid, nor do I have a degree in graphic design, but I was a graphic artist for about 12 years and I’ve done my share of simple static sites for both my employers and for friends (for free) and for myself. You won’t make any money with simple web design because it’s easy to do and everyone wants to give it a try (whether they are aesthetically talented or not).

Being able to do the stuff you don’t see that makes a site actually work and convenient to use will make you much more employable. Take a look at employment ads for web development in your area to see what folks want, and learn that.

I started doing freelance web development in 1996 (when the web was still in its infancy, or at least an awkward adolescent). I’ve recently left the ranks of the self-employed, but I think I can offer a few tips:

As has been mentioned, you need to learn how to do active sites. PHP, Java and .NET are the main development platforms right now, and you would do well to develop at least a passing familiarity with all three. That said, I had all the business I needed by focusing almost entirely on PHP (and accompanying open-source technologies e.g. LAMP (Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP)). Many clients couldn’t care less what platform is used so long as it works.

You absolutely need to learn the ins and outs of HTML, and I strongly recommend that you learn how to write compliant XHTML markup. You’ll also need to learn CSS (Cascading Style Sheets). A well-formed XHTML document with associated CSS will be a LOT easier to maintain and update, either by hand or with server-script.

You’ll probably want to become familiar with the “Web 2.0” techniques that are all the rage right now, which means learning JavaScript.

And of course a working knowlege of Photoshop is a must, but I wouldn’t recommend focusing on the design aspect of web development. I got ALL my work from designers who subbed out the actual nuts and bolts of the site to me (they’d send a .PSD, which I would slice up and code the HTML/CSS for and then create the necessary server underpinnings).

In almost 10 years of business, I never advertised, and for the last several years I had more work than I could handle. That’s becuase I had built up a sizeable network of designers who needed a programmer. I’m sure there are other ways to get work, but by being a sub for all these designers, I rarely had to deal with the client directly, which suited me just fine.

Some people will recommend doing some freebies or cheapies when you’re getting going, and there’s some benefit to building up a portfolio of work that you can use to woo potential clients, but I never succeeded in my business until I started charging 3X what I estimated a project was worth.

For one thing, every project is going to take longer than you think it will, and you need to build this into the bid. But there’s also a psychological aspect to pricing – the words “cheap” and “inexpensive” are seen as synonymous, and the potential client will assume that they’ll get a better site by paying more. True, there are those that will always grab the lowest bid, but in my experience those clients are the hardest to deal with. They’ll throw last-minute changes on you and expect you to implement them for free, and they’ll generally gripe about everything. The ones who understand that skilled developers don’t come cheap are the better ones to work with.

Along the same lines, make sure you’ve clearly outlined in writing what is included in the bid, and what costs will be involved in anything outside the originally defined scope of the project. It’s a lot easier to charge for additions if you specified up front that you would be doing so.

Learn to project confidence even if you’re not completely confident in your skills and abilities. A client will ask for a particular feature. You’re reasonably certain that it’s possible, but you haven’t the foggiest idea of how to implement it. Your response to them is “Yeah. We can do that.” Then you go home (or to the office) and spend several hours figuring out how to do it. You never tell a client (or prospective) that you’re not sure how to do something. Of course, if you’re fairly certain it can’t be done, then you tell them (confidently) that it can’t be done (not that you can’t do it).

My personal view on “official” education is that it’s entirely unnecessary. I don’t have a college degree, and I’ve only taken one class in web development, in 1995 (when the fanciest thing you could do with a website was a pooly-tiled background). I’m entirely self-taught, some from books, but mostly from the internet. There are a multitude of resources online to tach you anything/everything you’ll need to know (from a technical standpoint) to be a successful web developer.

Of course, I realize that some people learn better in a classroom setting. If you are that type of person, then by all means take whatever classes you think you need, but I would still not worry about an official degree.

All of this has been directed at starting your own business, and in looking at the OP it appears that you may be asking more about getting a job in web development. If that’s the case, some of what I’ve said about the business side of things won’t apply, but everything about learning the languages and technologies involved still does. I suspect that there might be a larger market for .NET developers than for PHP or Java, but I could be wrong.

Oh… One more thing I’ve done that may or may not apply, depending on whether you’re looking for a job or to start a business (and depending on who your target market is). I built a server that I’ve got colocated at a local datacenter. The vast majority of my clients knew what they wanted a website to do, but had no provision for hosting the site. Since I had my own server I could tell them “I can host your site for $x/month if you need me to. My server has all the technologies and software I need to develop your site. If you’d rather find your own hosting, please make sure that it supports xxx”. I pay around $120/month for the bandwidth and rackspace, and I bring in a few hundred dollars/month in hosting fees. It’s not a viable business in its own right (and I never meant it to be) but it gives me a good place to host people and puts a few more dollars in my pocket. (I still run the server, even though I’m no longer doing freelance development.

You mention that you don’t want the stress of keeping a network up and running 24/7, so this may not be an attractive option for you, but in my experience once you’ve got the system up and running there’s very little maintenance involved (just installing security updates on a regular basis).

Hope this helps. (Only my second post, but I finally found a subject that I actually know a little bit about :slight_smile: )

There’s something here I don’t understand: you want to get out of IT, but you’re looking at another career in IT. :confused: And you’ll be going from director-level to code-monkey level: are you prepared for the drop in income?

I concur with what scottnic said too (welcome to the boards!)

Since you’re in IT, having your own server wouldn’t be too hard and it’s way worth it for the development space. You can add your own server objects, control NTFS perms (on a windows server), have your own database and so much more. We hate the responsibility of the server but it is a million times better than dealing with a 3rd party host. If you don’t want your own server, see if there’s someone you know and trust (and can contact 24 hours a day) that might run their own server and you can do sites with them.

Also, formal education…I’ve never talked to a Web developer that actually KNOWS things that has had Web development training. I too have taken the odd workshop while in college, but 99% of my skill has come from learning as I go. The Web development “community” is all about putting free scripts and examples online. Anything you can think that you want to do, you can find it on the Web. Learn how the script snippets work, manipulate them to work differently, and you’re golden.

Having done both freelance and corporate web design, and having interviewed a number of web developers, here’s some advice:

First, the advice others are giving you about learning to build real, interactive web sites is bang on. Lots of people can throw together a few pages in Frontpage or Dreamweaver or something. But when someone wants a site with a database backing it, a shopping cart front end, etc., that’s where the rubber meets the road.

Second, focus on what the customer needs, not on what you think is cool. A while back I interviewer a potential web designer. She was even a graduate of a technical school with a 2-year diploma in web design and software development. She came in with a portfolio of all these sites she had built for people. She showed one site she did in Flash. I asked her why Flash, and she said, 'It’s really cool". I asked her what the business case was for using it. She didn’t know. I asked her how the site would be maintained when she was gone (she did it on contract). She never thought about it. I asked her to describe the navigation plan for the site. She didn’t have one. After giving her all these leading questions, I asked her again what Flash brought to the table that she couldn’t do in HTML. Did it present the product better? Was it a better user experience? Her answer: “I don’t know… I just thought Flash would be cool.”

She didn’t get the job. It wasn’t about flash - you could make a case to me for a flash site. No prob. But what was illuminating was that she wasn’t thinking about solving a problem, or of what the customer needed, or anything other than what she wanted to play with. It was an unprofessional job - the kind of thing amateurs do, but a pro shouldn’t.

So… If you go in to interview for a web design position, don’t talk about the cool stuff you can build, or all the development tools you have in your bag of tricks. Talk about how you can solve the customer’s problem. Learn their business FIRST. Do some research. Study their competitor’s web sites. Do some hard thinking about what they’re looking for, what makes sense for their industry, etc. That’s how you lock up a freelance contract like this - especially if you are trying to market yourself not to design shops and software firms, but to businesses that are not necessarily technically savvy.

Next, learn about usability. Not just how to build sites, but how to build sites that people will actually use. Learn how to build logical navigation, how to be compliant with the various web guidelines and accessibility laws. Trumpet that in your portfolio, because it’s often neglected by web developers.

If you’re trying to market yourself to the general business population, offer turn-key services. Many businesses don’t have web sites simply because they are totally intimidated by the entire process, from domain registration to setting up an ISP account to deploying and maintaining their web site. Offer to do it all. Some of this (registering a domain, setting up an account at an ISP) is boilerplate, and you should have fixed rates for doing it. Don’t sell yourself short, but don’t overcharge either. When it comes to the site design itself, beware offering fixed per-page prices. That’s fine for someone who’s slapping together a page using a Frontpage template or something, but if you’re designing a real site with interactivity and server-side code, you’d better be really, really good at estimating before you offer fixed prices, and you need to learn to spec out the site in enough detail that the customer knows exactly what he’s getting. Don’t leave the requirements vague, or the customer will kill you with details he wants added or you’ll piss him off if you come hack and tell him that that’s extra.

There are a lot of people in this thread who seem to have started their own businesses. Has anyone joined a business or become an in-house web designer or developer? I’ll be graduating from my program when I’m 20 (and please, no looking down at me for taking a program, I went into it with 4 years of HTML and CSS and knowledge of Java and BASIC, I just needed help with my design skills and wanted a safety net of help when I dove into Javascript, PHP, MySQL and ActionScript), and I want to get some experience in the industry before I go out on my own totally.

Kinda. I work at a newspaper and do a lot of the web stuff. Unfortunately this company spent a huge amount of money on some program to do most of the work for us, and it’s the most inflexible piece of crap on the web.

And anyone who looks down on you for going into a program isn’t worth paying attention to - sure, I self-taught myself all of the stuff I know, but I could definitely use a refining class or two. Plus, the world we live in nowadays wants credentials, and just saying “I taught myself” isn’t enough to impress potential clients sometimes. They want a degree.

On the flash thing - I stay away from flash as often as possible if I’m doing a site for a client, for one reason only. The majority of people on the web still have dial-up, and flash is NOT FUN to load on dial-up. When broadband and DSL become the standard, and 56k goes the way of the BBS (still used, just not as much as the NEWER MORE IMPROVED version) I’ll use flash. Also, even if you have a decent computer, flash can use a lot of resources and drag your computer down.


First, thank you all for the very helpful advice. It seems most of the posters lean in the direction of programming over design so I will be looking at that a bit more…


There is some great advice and information in this thread, I heartily agree with the technologies mentioned above.

I can’t stress enough the value of decent SQL knowledge, basic Photoshop skills, hand coding your HTML, browswer compliance of your code (you just can’t ingore Safari) and decent programming skill. Don’t forget that you need be able to communicate complex ideas and plans in written documents and proposals. Most schools will offer classes dealing with most aspects of these skills.

The basic skills are very much a commodity. You don’t have to look very hard to find a free-lancer or college kid who’ll do basic HTML pages for <= $20/hr. You can’t operate a business at those rates and I sure wouldn’t give up my Director’s seat for it.

I know there’s always a market for those with unusual/exceptional skills. In this regard, I’m always looking for developers who can bridge the gap between code and design and do both. Another valuable skill is someone who keeps up with the search engine trends and tricks. Flash has been demonized in the past, but the newer versions of ActionScript have some powerful database/XML features, your typical Flash “guru” knows the UI side, but they can’t write the code and that’s where the good stuff is.

We do some J2EE application development and I have great difficulty finding web developers that can put the UI on the applications. It is a different skill set to apply the HTML/CSS to the code and not break the java tags or to work in XSL.

Personally, I’m not sure of the value of a degree in some cases. In the end, it’s the skill that’ll get you the work not the paper. Some people need the structure of school to get the skills, some can do it on their own. My experience here is that I like the self-taught, they’re typically better problem solvers. The value of higher education for me is when we’re working on enterprise level applications, those developers need the architechure, theory and best practices usually picked up in college.

I had to smile when I read Quartz’ comment. It is a valid question. (Out of the frying pan?) But as an IT director myself, I certainly understand your pain.

Sperry, thanks for the post and you are right, Quartz’ question is absolutely valid, but I am at the point where QUALITY of my life is starting to matter to me more and more.

Well, hang on. Design can be lucrative, with one big caveat: You have to have talent. Real artistic talent. If you’ve got that, then perhaps the design route is a good one for you. Really talented graphic designers who can also work with the technical side of things are hard to find.

Here’s an example of someone who has carved out a decent niche building custom-designed blogs for people: Sekimori Design.

I like those designs, btw. Very simple and clean, with an emphasis on readability and a good theme.

Yeah - after our basic course on using Flash, we’re basically concentrating on ActionScript and syncing up databases and such and just using Flash as the frontend. I was never a big fan of Flash sites. Flash is great for specific uses like games, but like tables, shouldn’t be used for layout exclusively.