A diploma won’t make you a designer

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First of all a small trip down memory lane for me: started web design in 2002. I was working as a radio DJ back then and started a site just for fun. Since I didn’t have money, but had a lot of time, I worked on it and started learning how to manage it from scratch. It was created as a Front Page site with a predefined template and I had someone show me how to use a FTP client. Everything else was build on that shaky foundation.

Back then I didn’t even have a PC at home. So I’d stay at the radio 4-5 hours more each day and work on my small project. There I found out how to make a banner, how to chose colours and started reading thousands of web design articles. The internet is a HUGE resource. If you know how to find your information, you’ll be just fine.

After some months I got as a present a very weak Pentium 2 I think. There were way better computers on the market, but I had that 266 MHz processor and 16 MB video. It didn’t stop me. At least I had my own PC and was able to save information on it, read articles and try to develop some more.

I was getting more interested in this and my work hours increased accordingly. I think I can discuss about an average of 10 hours a day (in weekends I’d be online even 13-17 hours, depending on my schedule). It’s not a “healthy” work schedule that’s for sure, but the good thing was that I could be online from my radio job too. Instead of using the messenger like my coleagues or watching funny movies, I’d read articles about SEO, content creation, forum management, making changes on my layouts, starting some new projects.

I never had the chance to go to a proper school for web design or at least take a course. I had to learn a lot and make a lot of mistakes. Yes, learning comes with mistakes too. After some years I was even able to land a designer job just by showing my portfolio. And now I have my own web design firm and clients who love what I do and know I can develop good sites for them too. In this business a good portfolio speaks more than 10 diplomas.

I don’t speak AGAINST a specialized class. I just try to make you all understand that if you cannot go to such course, you can still develop nicely. It takes HUGE work, but if you love this, you won’t feel the effort. Here are also some of the advice I can offer after 5 years of schooling myself:

1. Read a lot, but also DO.

I have read countless articles, I have made myself many of them. Theory is just awesome. Make sure you KNOW how to do this in practice. Start a project about anything you love and work on it.

I hear many people say something “am gonna learn web design” .. I always ask: OK, have you started a site? How can you learn web design without working on something? This is not like saying I’ll learn poetry. If you have to know a poem, you just recite it till you get dizzy. In web design there are no set informations. We are talking about countless sub-topics when it comes to develop a site. Some people are awesome when it comes to Photoshop, others are good with the CSS. Some know php like no one else. Others can make anything move with action scripts in Flash.

A site needs too many aspects taken care. And in each separate “specialization” we have infinite possibilities. Then .. how do you expect to learn something if you don’t do it? Create a site and then you’ll see what you need to put on it. Instead of learning “in theory” you’ll learn what you need at the exact moment and grow your skills more each day.

2. Prepare for mistakes

This is something we all did: mistakes. Bad judgment based on lack of experience and knowledge. Don’t worry .. after 10 years in the business I still make mistakes. Take this easy and relaxed. READ a lot and maybe get someone experienced to hang out with. They’ll share some of their mistakes and you’ll be able to avoid them.

I didn’t have any mentor. I did read a lot and avoided some mistakes others did, but believe me I had my share of blunders. It’s called learning, so it’s not the end of the world.

3. Try to see what you like best and specialize in it.

We are all Jacks of all trades. I know to design, a bit of code, content creation, forum management, SEO etc. But I am not as good in all of them. I don’t know any Flash for instance and wasn’t trained in 3D as well. I didn’t have the need and the time to develop more. My main specialization is design, but I try to manage the other aspects as well as I can so that I can develop my own sites.

4. WORK WORK WORK

The most important thing in the end. Experience doesn’t come from keeping a nice shiny diploma in your hands, it doesn’t come just because you want to be a developer. It comes after thousands of work hours, after almost killing your eyes looking on that monitor, it comes after getting angry just because you have a broken SQL table and by being that stubborn as to not let it go until you do solve that alignment issue within the CSS.

You have to be passionate. I cannot imagine spending 70 hours a week on my sites and not loving each second. Webmaster activities are not for people who don’t like this. If you don’t see yourself working many hours on the sites, then do yourself a favour and just give it up. It’s a horribly hard work sometimes and you lose so many nights with it. But if you really love this, it’s all worth while.

The conclusion in the end is that NO diploma makes you a developer. You get here by learning well at school (if you have the chance) or by yourself. You get here after working a lot. Asking questions, finding answers, and then working again. You don’t need certifications to succeed. Look at me .. I am a Romanian-English teacher who just loved web design. I run my own small business and perfect my technique each day. I earn a decent buck from a job I wasn’t trained in. I loved it with a huge passion though .. and after all these I still can’t get enough of it.

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