Dave Woods - Freelance Web Design Warwickshire

How to become a Freelance Web Designer

I get a lot of emails from interested readers who want to know how to become a freelance web designer so I thought it might be a good time to write an article explaining how to get into this industry and share my experience as to how I got to where I am today.

Qualifications

If you’re naturally gifted in one specifc area then qualifications might not be as important but for most people being able to demonstrate on a CV that you’ve got what it takes to dedicate yourself for a period of time to succeed will certainly be required to impress any potential employer or client.

I always had an interested in Art during school but apart from being drawn to Graphics, I had no idea what I’d actually like to do for a living so after passing GCSEs and A Levels I specialised in an Art course at college which gave me exposure to Graphic Design, Fine Art, Photography and even Pottery and Fashion. After this I decided that Graphic Design was definitely the area that I enjoyed most and did a further year at College in a specialised computer aided art and design course which had a variety of modules on Illustration, Animation, Graphic Design, 3D, Web Design and Logo Design.

Building a Portfolio

The most difficult thing when first starting out is building a portfolio that will impress potential clients and employers. Without a portfolio it’s unlikely that you’ll land a job but how do you build a portfolio without a job? College or University work will certainly help but you might also want to consider doing some work for a local charity who don’t have a website. You might have some family or friends who run their own business that you could build a website for? There’s plenty of independant electricians and plumbers that don’t have websites who I’m sure would be happy to have a website built for them cheaply so that may also be an option.

Any work that can demonstrate to a potential employer that you have what it takes will help you land that first job or client so as tempting as it is to make money, your aim should be to build your portfolio to a stage where it will impress in your job applications.

Personal Projects

It also helps if you have a few personal projects to show that you have a genuine interest in the work you do and that it’s not simply a job. A portfolio and blog like this very one you’re reading is a great start but also think about other hobbies and interests you have which would make a good website. For example, this could be a website for a certain type of music you like, a sport team you support or holiday destination you like to visit.

When I was in college I set up United Online which is still going strong today. Your personal projects don’t have to be huge websites but can be helpful in demonstrating to future clients that you have the creativity and desire to create websites that you’re proud of.

Specialise

There’s nothing wrong with knowing a little bit of everything, infact understanding how Design, PHP, ASP.net, Java, JavaScript, HTML, CSS, Search Engine Optimisation and Online Marketing work is definitely a good thing but spreading yourself too thinly across a number of different areas without being an expert in one single area or a group of areas could actually make it more difficult for you to find employment.

Most web design firms will have a team of people who are experts in their own field. Typically this will usually involve:

  • Web Designers (Design, HTML, CSS)
  • Web Developers (Programming languages and usually database knowledge)
  • Marketing (variety of areas including SEO, Social Media)

Some companies will specialise even further and have a Designer who creates the Photoshop mockup, someone to create HTML/CSS, someone to create the database structure and environment, someone to write the programming code and then someone to test the website or application. So being able to demonstrate that you know everything about a ONE single specific area can be key to landing that first job.

Your First Job

There’s nothing wrong with aiming high and if you do land the perfect job to start with then fantastic but in order to get some experience in the industry you may have to settle for a job that wouldn’t be your first choice. However, you should treat your first job as a stepping stone to bigger and better things and an opportunity to build your portfolio so that should be your main priority when looking for your first job.

When I’d finished college, I applied for every web design job that was in my area (within about a 25 mile radius of my home) and I was fortunate to land my first job with an up and coming web development firm during the dot com boom in early 2000. The pay wasn’t great but they worked with some great international clients which was perfect for building up a portfolio which I’d be able to demonstrate to potential employers in the future.

The point is that your first job should be all about gaining experience so don’t choose your first job purely based on pay alone. I know it can be tempting when straight out of college to go for that job that pays the most but think of the first job as a stepping stone to get you where you want to be 5 or 10 years from now.

Gaining Further Experience

Once you’ve got some good experience and established a decent portfolio you should start to find that it’s much easier to find other work. If you’ve been working in a particular niche industry then you might find that it would be worthwhile to move to a company where the work would vary slightly and you could gain experience in another area but at this stage you’ll probably have started to build up your own ideas and established yourself what you want your next step to be.

I stayed in my first job for five years and was extremely grateful to them for giving me an opportunity but felt it was time to try my hand at something else. The next two years I spent working for a computer game development company and took on the role of managing their website and the design for their internal applications. Following this, I spent a year working for an e-commerce company who had a number of websites specialising in the garden industry. I’m now with PilotBean which for me is the ideal job working for a company who believe in web standards and accessibility who also have the variety of clients to keep projects interesting.

Working as a Freelancer

Becoming a freelance web designer will certainly appeal to a lot of people. Being able to work hours that suit you and work on projects that you decide that you want to work on has its advantages but I’d always recommend getting experience within a company first to fully understand how a project works within a team environment and so that your skills develop alongside similar people.

However, working for yourself also has the disadvantage that you’ll be solely responsible for paying any bills. If you don’t get the work then you don’t get paid so it’s important to consider that risk and I’d certainly look at building up some savings from a regular full time job before taking the plunge into the freelance world.

Personally, I like the security of a fulltime job so that I know my bills will get paid but also take on freelance projects in the evening and weekends when I have some spare time. I know a lot of web designers that do this as a stepping stone before becoming taking the step into becoming a fulltime freelancer as it reduces the risk and helps you to see build a client base so this might also be an option to you.

Summary

Are you looking to get into the web design industry? Are you considering taking the next step and becoming a freelance web designer or are you already in the industry and would like to share your experience? Please feel free to leave your comments or questions below.

13 comments on “How to become a Freelance Web Designer

  1. Pingback: Freelance Web Designers Johor | Online Freelance Work

  2. Michael Johnson

    Great article, makes it sound so easy! Are there any books I can pick up from the local library which will give me a basic understandgin of HTML, XHTML AND CSS. I think my real speciality is the layout and colour scheme of a design so maybe my ideal role would to be to create the Photoshop mockup? But as you said there’s nothing wrong with knowing a little bit of everything. Any suggestions for books?

  3. Dave Woods Post author

    Hi Michael, personally I really like the SitePoint books and you’ll definitely find this one useful: http://www.sitepoint.com/books/html2/

    Also, a lot of what I learnt when I was first starting out I picked up online. Obviously there’s a lot of bad information out there too so you have to be careful but if you want a basic understanding of HTML/CSS then the following is a great place to start: http://htmldog.com/guides/

  4. david

    all i need to know about is the financial, legal & business side of web design (like tax, IR35 & whatnot). all the other stuff – the skills, portfolio, etc – i’m ok on

    do you know of anywhere that explains all this stuff for UK web designers? a book would be ideal (or preferably a handful of them)

    [ better still would be a book that also includes tips on how to make websites pay for themselves using ad’s, referrals, etc. though i understand if that’s classed as a different subject ]

    anyway, if u could give me any links or pointers i’d appreciate it

  5. Dave Woods Post author

    Hi David, unfortunately that’s really something that I’ve picked up as I’ve gone along so I’m not sure of any resources for that side of things. This year though, as I’m now working from home fulltime I intend to get an accountant to take a look at my tax return as I believe there’s a whole load of things that you can claim for including part of your utility bills so am pretty sure I’ll save money by paying an accountant.

    The only book that I can think that might help is this one:
    http://freelancefolder.com/book/

    I’ve not read it personally but have heard good things about it. Hope that helps?

  6. david

    I bought “How to Start a Home-based Web Design Business” yesterday, by a guy called Jim Smith. Its supposed to be good but it won’t contain UK-oriented legal/financial information – which is my main reason for wanting it – cos its written by an American.

    I’ve checked the link u provided & will have a think about it, but I’ve a feeling it’ll be similar to the book I’ve just bought. ie:- lacking the main information I want out of it.

    Cheers anyway dude.

  7. Web Basics

    Hi David,

    Great article, thanks for sharing… Sound advice for a change!

    I genuinely believe that most people fail, D.I.Y web designers anyway, because of a combination of the seemingly confused evolution of the www and something you mentioned… being out dated material.

    Of course there is plenty of good info out there but Mr. Google and his friends does insist on serving up ‘aged’ information which in this case is a bad thing!

    I had such a bad experience sucking up all that stuff when I started out that I eventually went on to create Web Basics Developer Training over at http://www.webbasicsroadmap.com. Which is still growing today!

    Like you said in the article, you have to be careful when you’re starting out. Be warned!

    Warm regards

    Web Basics

  8. Andy Morley

    Hi Dave, a very nice article I think it will be very valuable for people starting out trying to get into our industry or people thinking of branching out into Freelancing.

    For the actual work processes and how to to the job I think your post is ideal.

    However I have found a lot of people in the industry have a large number of skills in Web Design but very little knowledge in business and even how to set up a business. I have started writing a few blog posts about how to become a freelancer, Part 1 is about setting up a company in the UK and the two main types of business, (Sole Trader and Ltd)

    Have a look – How To Become A Freelance Designer.

    Thanks – Andy.

  9. Gabrielle

    I think I might be thinking of this the wrong way, but the bit I don’t understand is where you keep your websites and what do you do with them once they are finished?

  10. Pingback: First of Many? « judahroux

  11. Faye Lynch

    Hello. I’m 19 years of age and should have been in university by now waiting to be a scientist…except I moved out too young and had to get a job and I have now discovered that yes I want to work and want to try really hard in what I do yet I want to enjoy my job and I want to control the hours I work…alot of people have mentioned about freelancing so I thought about something I would like to do and I remember from being at school I loved designing websites in ICT albeit I was working on a program that helped design websites rather than work with html language ect therefore-this part I know nothing about… I dont know whether to sign up part time at my local college or to buy a book or what the course will cover or what to look for….I just know that I enjoy designing on computers-any ideas? Faye