How to get from media student to web professional
March 6, 2011 3:54 PM   Subscribe

Getting into web design (or maybe graphic design?) professionally a couple years after completing a good but in some ways lacking college education. I'm looking to fill in the blanks in my knowledge. Am I on the right track?

I've been pretty familiar with HTML, CSS, and Photoshop, and I've done work with these since I was a teenager. In school I learned about audio production, video production, and web design, however I don't really feel like I learned enough skill in any one particular area. (School involved a lot of criticism and analysis, and not as much production as I would have liked, but also I was kinda lazy and passed up some opportunities.) Since I finished school a couple years ago I've been working in an unrelated job, but now I'd really like to get into the web design field professionally. (I like graphic design too, but I don't think I'm as close to being employable in that area, and it seems like there might be more jobs in web design these days.)

I spend some time reading design blogs to keep myself exposed to different ideas and up-to-date on newer trends, and I've been pursuing some more in-depth resources to get a broad base of general knowledge in the variety of areas that seem to be generally required to land a job.

So, right now I'm reading Web Design In A Nutshell to brush up, which I had from a class. After that I'm planning to go on to read the following three books:
Learning PHP, MySQL, and JavaScript: A Step-By-Step Guide to Creating Dynamic Websites
Adobe Illustrator CS5 One-on-One
Adobe InDesign CS4 One-On-One

I'm also working on a few sites to get myself familiar with different technologies, including WordPress and other CMSs. (Also so that I have some newer, solid work in my portfolio.)

Does this seem like a reasonable list of things to take in to get myself to a decently employable level?

The one thing I feel like I should add is some sort of book about the principles of graphic design. I've learned some things and I feel like I have a decent grasp of what looks good and what doesn't, but I think a more solid artistic foundation might be helpful. Does anyone have any recommendations for that kind of book, or any other recommendations that might be helpful in this situation?
posted by miraimatt to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm not sure about the aesthetic part of the design stuff but when it comes to the coding part you seem to have a firm grounding and your reading should leave you well prepared. Nothing prepares you like practical experience doing cross-browser development from drafts of course but from what you say that seems covered as well. If you learn a scripting language, some slight database stuff and javascript you'll be all set.
posted by the mad poster! at 5:36 PM on March 6, 2011


Become an expert in certain platforms.. wordpress, twitter, facebook, etc. and that specialization will help you land better work.
posted by the mad poster! at 5:37 PM on March 6, 2011


Note: My answer is geared towards graphic design rather than web, but here goes:

For Illustrator/Indesign I like Lynda Hands On Training (H.O.T.) books. Also if you're proficient with photoshop, shouldn't be too difficult to pick up on Indesign/Illustrator.

As for principles, I'd recommend you to master typography, grid system, and composition. Some good books on these topics are:

Grid Systems in Graphic Design by Josef Brockmann (a classic)

Making and Breaking the Grid: A Graphic Design Layout Workshop by Timothy Samara (more accessible than the Brockmann book)

Thinking with Type, 2nd revised and expanded edition: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students by Ellen Lupton

Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst (Another classic book)

Acquaint yourself with Gestalt Principles of Perception:
A decent introduction Gestalt

Browse AIGA Design Archives and study the work, figure out what makes them tick.

Study work of AIGA Medalists

But there's only so much you can learn from books. The best way is to create a project for yourself. Pick an interest, issue, topic, and explore it visually. Also I'd suggest you to leverage your school's career center to get internships (or even better, a job), nothing beats experience.

Good luck!
posted by pakoothefakoo at 5:40 PM on March 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


(I'm a freelance web designer/developer of ~10 years, support my family with my work and in most respects consider myself successful. Also taught design classes for my local college's art department.)

I've been pretty familiar with HTML, CSS, and Photoshop, and I've done work with these since I was a teenager.

Good. Hopefully you are collecting these projects to show to interested parties?

In school I learned about audio production, video production, and web design


Good! As a web designer you'll be able to use all of those things if you want. I am thankful every day that I have audio/video experience on top of the web design stuff.

however I don't really feel like I learned enough skill in any one particular area.
This is a pretty common way to feel after college. Give yourself another 10 years and then ask yourself if you have attained enough skill. :-) (You will -- the real story doesn't start until some years have passed)

School involved a lot of criticism and analysis, and not as much production as I would have liked


Yeah, school in a nutshell, eh? I felt that way myself, then went on to teach at a college and found that students just need to have side projects going if they want to really ramp things up.

but also I was kinda lazy and passed up some opportunities.

Ah, see, there ya go. :-)

Since I finished school a couple years ago I've been working in an unrelated job, but now I'd really like to get into the web design field professionally.

Smart idea!

(I like graphic design too, but I don't think I'm as close to being employable in that area, and it seems like there might be more jobs in web design these days.)

You may be right, but I would avoid the "more jobs in X" path in favor of the "I want to do X" path. There are still jobs for horse carriage designers even though we've had cars for around 100 years now. If you end up liking graphic design more, don't be afraid to chase it down -- plenty of successful graphic designers are around.

I spend some time reading design blogs to keep myself exposed to different ideas and up-to-date on newer trends, and I've been pursuing some more in-depth resources to get a broad base of general knowledge in the variety of areas that seem to be generally required to land a job.

Seems good, keeping your education up. How is your practical experience coming along? I have a lot of former students who come to me and say, "I'm studying X, Y, and Z," to which my response is, "...and do you have projects live on the web that integrate these things you're studying?" Even if it's simple and minimalist or a website devoted to your favorite K-Pop group, that applied-skills part is a good way to stand out from the crowd. It shows that you are probably able to take an employer's needs, learn the appropriate technology or software, and start turning that into real projects that fit their needs.

So, right now I'm reading Web Design In A Nutshell to brush up, which I had from a class. After that I'm planning to go on to read the following three books:
Learning PHP, MySQL, and JavaScript: A Step-By-Step Guide to Creating Dynamic Websites
Adobe Illustrator CS5 One-on-One
Adobe InDesign CS4 One-On-One


Do you learn well from books? That's something to consider as you work through them. I take a backwards approach: I download the source code from the book first, adapt it to my needs (like converting their "CD database" into a "Phone conversations database") and then use the text as a reference while I continue to work on the project.

I'm also working on a few sites to get myself familiar with different technologies, including WordPress and other CMSs. (Also so that I have some newer, solid work in my portfolio.)

That's great! I would get as broad a base as you can, CMS-wise. When I hear "I know Wordpress," for example, I think, "OK, you and everyone else, let's move on and talk about interesting things..." but when I hear "I tried Wordpress, but prefer CMS X for projects like Y, even though I'm sure I could work with Wordpress should it be the most appropriate choice," I feel like I have a VERY promising candidate to work with.

Wordpress is extremely popular. That's good for people "selling shovels" (theme marketplaces, plugins, consulting, conferences, books, DVDs, etc.) but that doesn't automatically mean it's the best tool for any job.

Anyway, sounds like you are headed in the right direction.

Does this seem like a reasonable list of things to take in to get myself to a decently employable level?

Yes. Emphasis on documenting things you do, keeping them up, keeping them around so people can check them out, and documenting what you learned and how the project made you feel.

Web design is not a set of skills, like what you'd read on a job listing. Web design is problem-solving in a unique communications medium. The only way to know if you speak the language is by looking at work you've done, evaluating what problems it solved, and comparing that to other approaches. You do that again and again and pretty soon you are an expert web designer.

Which reminds me -- take a look at "finished work" forums and "case studies" that are offered at different CMS communities. See how people modified the CMS software. Nobody is using the "out of the box" version of anything to really do professional work these days. Modification is key, and the more you learn about that, the more you stand out.

The one thing I feel like I should add is some sort of book about the principles of graphic design.


I agree with previous posters about nothing beating experience. If there's one book that's helped me with graphic design, it's Thinking with Type. For some crazy reason, that made everything else click for me. You'll probably have a similar experience -- you'll find some random corner of graphic design that resonates with you and go from there.

I've learned some things and I feel like I have a decent grasp of what looks good and what doesn't, but I think a more solid artistic foundation might be helpful. Does anyone have any recommendations for that kind of book, or any other recommendations that might be helpful in this situation?

*raises hand*

Go connect with every local graphic designer that you can. Just ask them if you can swing by and do a short informational interview, get to know them. If this turns into a working relationship (perhaps you do web-side design for them) then you will never need another graphic design book, ever. They will help you get solid experience and critique. I did this and it was amazing.
posted by circular at 7:12 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've worked as a webdev for a while, doing mostly backend stuff. Here is a general workflow that would make me want to work with you.

I give you a site layout map, you make a few wireframes.
I select one or two wireframes, you make me a few mockups in photoshop.
I pick a mockup, and you make me standards compliant cross-browser html/css/javascript.

That at least, should be a familiar workflow. Now, people who can do that in my experience are relatively common (the standards compliant cross browser stuff not so much maybe...). If you want to put yourself a class above the rest, learning how to make template files for common CMS's or templating languages will likely put you in high demand, and this is with relatively trivial PHP/other scripting language skills, and no database skills.

I would be very wary of starting programming and doing database stuff at a non-trivial level. If you do, I would recommend a very basic understanding of data structures, algorithms, and database normalization. This is probably not a view shared by many, and would definitely lead you away from the design side of things, which is why I only suggest it if you're going to be writing non-trivial code.
posted by yeahwhatever at 1:55 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh yeah, additionally some designers have had positive experiences with version control for their own stuff. Familiarity with version control would be a cool plus.

Also, I neglected to mention basic network tools, notably sftp. If you really want to get crazy, familiarity with a command line, ability to edit files remotely etc would all be good job skills.

This is kinda fun, it's like designing a designer I want to work with.
posted by yeahwhatever at 2:01 AM on March 7, 2011


Here's a recent question regarding web aesthetics.
posted by backwards guitar at 5:40 AM on March 7, 2011


Thanks for your help, everybody! Lots of good ideas and good resources here.
posted by miraimatt at 4:49 PM on March 10, 2011


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