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.
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.
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.
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.
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.