I’ve spent countless hours training graphic designers to work on the web. That’s included writing a book targeted at this audience called The Designer’s Web Handbook, teaching a web course at my old school, the University of Missouri St. Louis, speaking at the HOW Interactive Design Conference, and writing and teaching interactive design courses through HOW Design University.
My goal though all of this has been to teach people how the web works, how to design for the web, how to code and ultimately how to the make the most of working with the medium. Amid all of this, I keep coming back to one confounding question: Are designers really prepared to go all in?
I’ve spent the better part of 10 years acquiring my web knowledge and skills, and one aspect of working online only gets more clear the more I learn: I will never know it all. No matter how hard I try or how intensely I work, I will never be caught up. Smart people around the world are continually creating new tools, developing new techniques and finding new ideas. It’s a never-ending brainstorm session that can be overwhelming to newbies. (And that’s not even mentioning the growing mountain of existing stuff I want to learn.)
I definitely consider myself “all in” with the web, but I don’t dream of ever being caught up. And I struggle to imagine how someone could just dabble in web design or development. I think anyone hoping to embrace the medium has to take the plunge and get fully immersed in it. To do that successfully, I’ve found a few traits I believe are key for web designers and developers:
1. Love to learn.
The web is a medium that changes at warp speed. You have to love learning and exploring new things, because it will be a natural part of your day-to-day work. You can’t expect to learn web design once and coast on the knowledge you have for the rest of your career. When you work on the web, you’ll learn new things on a daily basis. Most of it will be bite-size developments, but sometimes there will be radical shifts in the industry that force you to revisit and relearn aspects of your trade. If you don’t love to learn, the web will be a frustrating place to work.
2. Learn to problem-solve.
One of the best skills I developed came from my time in the IT field. When I was working in IT, I learned to quickly find answers rather than memorize the solutions to every single possible problem. That left me with a knack for finding answers and learning just enough to apply the fix. This is a critical mindset online. Since you’ll never be completely caught up on how to do everything, knowing how to find an answer when you need it helps reduce the need to learn everything completely. Of course there are many things that you’ll learn in-depth, but there are many things you don’t need to commit to memory. Just learn as you go.
3. Love code.
When I was in design school, graphic design students always started off with how print materials are made. Designers learning about the technology and fundamentals of the web is just as critical. We can debate whether web designers should learn to code all day, but one thing is crystal clear to me: You and your work will be more valuable if you know code. Even if you’re working with a development team and not writing code yourself, designers who understand what’s possible with code and knows what development has to do to make their designs reality generally have more control over the work they do. Once you understand the core concepts of code, it isn’t too hard to stay current on web trends. And with this understanding, you can better plan your designs to fit the needs of each project.
4. Be persistent.
If you give up easy or just want to coast in your job, the web is not the place for you. To find success, you need to develop a passion for the web, love technology, love creating usable designs and be fully committed to engaging people in interactive mediums. If you aren’t persistent, you won’t make much progress. If you skip class, leave early, turn in homework late and generally just skate by, you won’t fulfill your true potential online. But if you refuse to be left behind, thirst for knowledge and persist in mastering your trade, you’ll do well.
I’ve found that if you ever feel comfortable in web design, you’re probably just growing increasingly unaware of how far behind you are. I feel increasingly behind the more I learn, which tells me I must keep moving forward. At times I’ve been in jobs where I was intensely focused on one set of skills. I would master these skills and begin to feel like I had arrived at some point of achievement. But as I pulled myself out the bubble I’d see that the world had moved on and I’d missed out on many developments. If you never feel left behind, you’re likely to be even more behind than the guy struggling to keep up. Are you prepared to go all in with web design? If you doggedly pursue it, I think you’ll find success.