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How to turn web design from a hobby into a career

August 11, 2019Will Leffert

This weekend, while attempting to relax, I reached out to friends for questions they have regarding web design & development. I like to keep busy, and relaxing isn't easy, so the best way for me to relax is to.. Well, work.

One question came up that peaked my interest; how do you make a career out of web design, when it is just a hobby for you?

There are 3 paths you can pursue in order to make web design a career. First, though, we need to talk skills.

What skills does a professional web designer need?

The answer to this question has changed so much over the years, so we'll focus on the "right now" skills.

Web designers need to have a somewhat solid foundation in graphic design in this day and age. Understanding visuals, hierarchy, balance, colors and more are critical in order to truly succeed as a web designer. Your tools will be software like Photoshop, Illustrator, XD (or Sketch, typically) and more in order to create visual mockups of websites.

As well, you need to understand how websites work on multiple devices. Being able to plan for elements of your design to adjust to work on multiple screen sizes, ranging from huge monitors to phones, is exceedingly important today, and in the future.

Finally, it really helps to understand the foundation of the web. While you may not write it on a regular basis, understanding HTML, CSS, and even a little Javascript can give you a leg up, although this part of web technology is more of a front-end developer's purview, now.

Finally, you'll need to study user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design. These skills have become a very large deal for web designers, and being able to perform user research, understand design trends, and know accessibility are absolutely critical.

With that out of the way, let's talk about the 3 different career paths as web designer.

Web design career path: Freelance

Freelancing is both the easiest to get into, and the hardest to sustain. You need to manage not just the design, but the platform the websites will built on, and more, typically. As well, you're going to have to sell yourself, manage your finances, and handle support when things go wrong.

Many freelancers I know work on a single platform; SquareSpace, Wix, and more all try to remove the technical challenges from building a website, such as code, but you won't be building the next big thing on those platforms typically. You'll be limited in your client base, but you can focus on small businesses who don't need the latest bells and whistles.

You could also focus on WordPress; WordPress is one of the industry's largest, and most widely-used platforms for websites. While more technically challenging to set up, you can actually work with theming systems like X/Pro to build a fully custom website without touching a lick of code. Need additional features? WordPress supports plugins. You'll want to have a library of standard ones, as well, because WordPress out of the box won't have everything you need. Understanding Custom Post Types, Advanced Custom Fields, and having preferred plugins for forms, sliders, analytics and more are all important skills for a WordPress web designer.

Web design career path: The dedicated designer

The second career path can actually be simpler than freelancing in the beginning, as you're focused on just one business' web products (your employer's). As well, you may end up working with a team of people, allowing you to focus on just the visuals. You'll craft your designs in Photoshop, XD, Sketch, or something else similar, and pass those designs on to a team of programmers who will take your vision and make it real.

Alternatively, you may work for a smaller business where you're managing marketing and an existing website on WordPress, SquareSpace or some other platform/builder.

Getting your foot in the door, however, can be a challenge. You'll need to have a good portfolio that demonstrates experience necessary to the business, and frequently, you'll be competing with not just other designers seeking a job, but also freelancers.

Web design career path: The agency designer

If you like variety in your life, you'll want to pursue an agency for a web design career.

The larger agencies, like larger businesses, will employ a team of UX designers, front-end developers, and back-end developers who will collaborate on multiple projects at one time.

You'll need to be able to work in a variety of platforms to best succeed as an agency designer. Knowing how platforms like WordPress, Joomla and Drupal work are important. As well, you'll also need to understand design methodology common with web apps, because any larger agency is going to have clients who request them.

Smaller agencies may operate more like a freelance designer, in that they utilize a platform like SquareSpace to crank out simple websites for small businesses, but even the small teams work in larger scale client bases, so don't assume anything!

Final notes on becoming a web designer

Ultimately, you'll always want to be learning. Look at job postings and see what people are asking for, and learn everything you can. Put what you learn into practice. Without experience, you're unlikely to get a good job in the field, so never stop building!