What is a web designer? A comprehensive guide

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April 12, 2021
5 minute read

Web design is a fascinating career where your entire job is to make websites look beautiful and function as they should. If you’re a highly visual person that loves to play around with technology, it could be a dream career. The best part is that being a web designer lends itself well to freelancing, full-time employment, and side-hustling because web design is in high demand as the world becomes more technology-forward.

Breaking into web design requires a solid understanding of what the role entails, necessary technological and soft skills for the job, and knowing what kind of career prospects you’re looking at. That’s what this comprehensive guide is for.

What does a web designer do all day?

Web design has a lot of tasks and responsibilities underneath the umbrella. First and foremost, it depends on what kind of website designer you are.

User experience (UX) designer: The key job of UX designers is to make websites or web applications usable by humans—they design the page flow and tweak how a user experiences a page (hence the name) to get the company’s desired result.

Visual / User interface (UI) designer: Visual designer—also called a UI designer—is a broader term for any person working on the front end design of a website or web application. They will often collaborate with brand or marketing teams to create a visual look and feel for the company.

Because of the overlap between UX and UI, many companies combine the role into one—that’s why you might see a lot of “UX/UI Designer” job postings or freelance call-outs. However, be careful to not apply for these roles unless you have the entire skill set necessary.

Interaction designer: Interaction designers think of the small details of design such as button location for maximum clickthrough or applying color theory to motivate users. This work is meant to design web pages in a way that entices users to take the action you want them to.

Graphic designer: The basic tenet of graphic design is creating visual representations of a message. They use various graphic design tools to create images that can be used later as web design or web development features.

Tasks that web designers are responsible for on a regular basis

The general basket of tasks for a web designer varies, but includes common work such as:

Landing pages: Taking a company’s key designs (which they may have also created) and applying it to landing pages for ad campaigns.

Branded ad creative or images: Building and designing brand-specific images for social media or other digital ad campaigns.

Developing brand design guidelines: Writing out the guidelines for anyone else to work with your brand’s designs (the media, developers, or other designers).

Conversion rate optimization (CRO) tests: Applying color theory, testing color schemes, adjusting UI elements, or other forms of A/B split testing to see what encourages people to convert effectively.

Applying digital designs to other company campaigns: Applying ad campaigns from digital campaigns to things like billboards or physical office designs for a consistent brand look.

Building user flows: Thinking through the pages and stages of a given experience, for example user sign up.

Types of companies web designers work in (and how work differs)

Web design work applies to all different types of companies. What changes is the work itself, since design will be tweaked based on specific company needs.

Startups: In a startup, designers are likely to do a bit of everything. Whenever the company is trying a new experiment or launching a new feature, the designer will likely be present.

Big enterprises: When designers work in an established company, they either do one specific task (e.g. landing page design) across the whole organization or become an “in-house” designer for a specific department and do multiple different tasks under one umbrella.

Agency or consulting: The agency and consulting world is client-driven, so you may focus on one thing or work across a variety of tasks depending on your clients. Further, agency work and consulting will often have an educational element, training the client’s in-house teams to take over once your engagement is done.

Freelancing: As a freelance designer, your work will be similar to agency work or consulting—it’s very client-driven and depends on what work is available (or you’re willing to take).

Technical skills required of web designers

In web design, there’s a foundation that all people are expected to have. From there, designers can customize and expand depending on their passions or career goals.

Must-haves to get started

Prototyping tools: Marvel, Figma, Sketch, InVision Studio, Justinmind, and Axure RP 9.

Graphic design tools and platforms: Adobe Illustrator, Canva, InDesign, and Webflow.

Responsive design: Basic knowledge of HTML and CSS.

An understanding of UX principles: Meeting the user’s need, creating a clear hierarchy, understanding accessibility, keeping things consistent, and the concept of less is more.

Composition: An understanding of how to place text, images, and use color for easy reading.

Content management systems (CMS): You need to know how to use common CMS systems like Webflow, Wordpress, Contentful, and Joomla.

Photo editing: PicsArt, Pixlr, and Photoshop.

Web browser management: Designing for different web browsers like Chrome, Edge, Firefox, and Opera.

Required skills to progress in your career

Working knowledge of CRO techniques: Color theory, AB testing, and split testing.

Basic copywriting: To fill out web pages as you design them.

Advanced knowledge in front end development languages: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

Necessary soft skills for career (or freelancing) success

Web designers translate business ideas into beautiful web pages and applications. As a result, they can’t succeed solely on technical skills alone. They also need a lot of business and soft skills, such as:

Time management and prioritization: You could spend hours fixing one pixel, or you can get an overall-good image out the door in 20 minutes. The “right” approach depends on each project—you need to know how to tell the difference and manage your own time.

Emotional design: A part of design is evoking the feelings in people that you want them to have—and hopefully frustration is never one of them. Designing for emotion means being aware of how people feel when interacting with your creations, then making changes to get the desired result.

Communication: Sometimes a client (or employer) wants something that doesn’t make sense from a design principles perspective. Or they are just simply asking you how a project is going. Communication will become a tool you use to keep people informed, limit distractions, and get high quality work out the door.

Patience: Design takes time. Sometimes you will have to spend hours fixing that one pixel—so cultivate patience.

SEO/digital marketing/social media fundamentals: Since you’re designing for a desired outcome, you should have an understanding of how your designs will be marketed.

Business admin and client management (even if you’re an employee): Upward management, setting expectations, and holding people accountable for their end of the project are critical business skills that allow you to create wonderful designs.

Certifications available in web design

As you think about your career, there are a lot of certifications you can get to prove your skill set. While certifications are not necessary to break into web design, they may be helpful in seeking out specific opportunities. Here are a few of the common (bigger) certifications and web design courses that you may want to pursue.

Google Developer Courses

What you can learn: Developing within the Google ecosystem.

How it applies in a web design career: The Google ecosystem is one of the most used tech ecosystems in the world. Knowing more about how it operates will be helpful for designers that work in the tech industry particularly.

Price: Free.

Link: https://developers.google.com/learn

Hubspot Academy

What you can learn: Digital marketing, SEO, email marketing, content strategy, social media, and more.

How it applies in a web design career: Design is a crucial part of digital marketing, so the more you know about what marketers will do with your designs, the better designer you become.

Price: Free.

Link: https://academy.hubspot.com/courses

Adobe Certifications

What you can learn: The ins and outs of how to use Adobe products in a wide variety of business contexts and settings including ecommerce, UX design, product design, and ad design.

How it applies in a web design career: Designers regularly use Adobe platforms such as Photoshop or Illustrator, so certifications here demonstrate that you know some basic tools of the trade.

Price: Between $95 and $225 USD each.

Link: https://learning.adobe.com/certification.html

Facebook Blueprint Certification

What you can learn: In-depth knowledge of Facebook’s ad platform, in particular details like UX design for Facebook or how to design ads for different device sizes depending on your target audience.

How it applies in a web design career: Facebook has one of the largest advertising platforms on earth and is regularly used by the majority of businesses. As a designer, chances are at some point you’ll be designing for paid ads, so knowing a large platform like Facebook could be helpful.

Price: Free.

Link: https://www.facebook.com/business/learn/certification

Job outlook and career progression for web designers

Web design is a great career choice not just for how varied the work is, but also because it’s projected to be in high demand for some time to come.

Career outlook in web design

Web design is a very in-demand career, and that’s only projected to grow. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, web design is projected to grow 8% from 2019 to 2029, which is significantly faster than the average growth rate for all jobs.

Job search tips for web designers

When looking for a job or freelance gig, here are some tips to remember:

Build a portfolio: Showcase your best work—even if it’s just work you did for yourself and not for a paid client. Make sure to showcase your different web design skills, such as UX design, UI design, or interaction design.

Be open to non-tech industry work: Design can be in any industry, so don’t assume that the only good design work is in tech.

Think of your passions: You don’t have to limit yourself as a designer. One of the reasons people hire designers is for that person’s unique eye and style.

Think about the bigger picture: Design is almost always a part of a larger outcome. Ask about what the whole business or organization is trying to accomplish, then think about how good design can help them achieve it.

Career path for a web designer

If starting from scratch, chances are you’ll begin as a junior web designer. From there, you have a lot of growth opportunities:

Senior web designer: Double down on your experience and continue working as an individual contributor, taking on more responsibility and leading projects.

Management: Use your skills and coach new junior designers or lead teams of senior designers on complex projects.

Freelancing: Leave regular employment to become a freelance web designer, flexing your entrepreneurial muscles.

Joining a startup and expanding your work: You could take your design skills to an early stage startup where you’ll be heavily focused on how design impacts business strategy.

Starting your own agency or design firm: If you know a lot of other great designers, you can strike out on your own to build an agency.

Web designer salaries

According to Payscale, web designers in the United States make between $35,000 to $78,000 per year. The starting salary depends on your design experience, what other skills you bring to the table, and in many cases your geographic location.

After you have a few years of experience, you could easily increase your earnings: A senior web designer pulls in an average salary of $104,000.

These salaries are slightly lower than the average web developer salary, but they are still higher than the US average salary.

Freelance web designer pay rates

If you want to go freelance, you can still earn a great living: Freelance web designers charge an average of $60 per hour, which annualizes to over $100,000 if you’re working full-time.

Finding a web design job or freelance gig

Web design roles—both full-time and freelance—are fairly common, both on designer-specific job boards and on more general careers sites.

Here are a few of the biggest ones:

You can also source jobs from your personal network on LinkedIn and Twitter. The key for success with self-sourcing is to be open with the fact that you’re looking for work (LinkedIn has a specific feature for this and you can put it in your Twitter bio), then engage on the platforms authentically. Join Twitter chats, respond to people’s LinkedIn status updates, and share your own views, work, and opinions.

How to learn website design

There are multiple different ways to learn web design, but the top four options are through university or college programs, bootcamps, learning via your employer, and self-taught learning.

University and college programs

Most universities and colleges now offer some form of website design education to students, usually through the computer science department or through extra curricular groups. One challenge is that universities and colleges often lean heavily on teaching theory instead of practical skills.

If you choose the university or college route, make sure to read the syllabus carefully and ask course counsellors which programs will help you learn tangible website design skills instead of just theory.

Bootcamps and coding courses

Outside of the traditional university and college system, bootcamps are a great way to focus explicitly on the practical elements of web design. These programs are geared explicitly for career change or progression, so there will be very little theorem taught. Depending on whether you’re taking a skills bootcamp or a full career-change course, prices can easily range from $1,000-$15,000 or more.

If you think a bootcamp is right for you, make sure you talk to alumni to see if they achieved the same outcomes that you want to achieve, whether career change, pay increase, or learning new skills to launch your own business.

Through your employer

A lot of businesses offer professional development budgets or apprentice-style teaching with experienced employees. This can be a great way for you to learn new skills or shadow experienced people to learn on the job.

If you’re considering this route, be aware of a few things. First, many budgets are not that high so you may not be able to cover a whole course by yourself. Second, these budgets might have restrictions on them or only apply to specific types of learning, so check. And third, most of the time these budgets are geared for in-job professional development, so if you’re not already working adjacent to web design, then your company may not want to pay for you to learn from scratch.

Self-taught

Self-taught web design is great for people who have the time and feel they already have a sense of their own style. You can learn through communities like Dribbble or through online courses like on Coursera or Udemy.

When learning by yourself, the key is to experiment—a lot. You have to be willing to fail, and try again. When you get stuck, that’s where the community can help. You can also augment any formal education with additional self-taught learning for extra practice or to go beyond what college, bootcamps, or your employer can offer.

How to become a web designer

If you’ve decided that you want to become a web designer, here are the steps to follow to go from zero to making money.

Step 1: Focus on exposure first

Take a look earlier in this article at the ‘must-have’ skills list. Then pick one—just one—to learn first. Poke around on the platform, read some tutorials, and get comfortable with it. Then try another one, and another. That doesn’t mean you become an expert. This step is about exposure to all the relevant skills and platforms you’ll need to pick up.

Step 2: Decide how you want to learn

The next step is to think about your learning style and goals to figure out the best way to learn. Here’s a guide to help you kickstart the process:

  • If you need to learn quickly and have some money, a bootcamp could be effective.
  • If you like to learn at your own pace, self-taught could be effective.
  • If you want a holistic, in-depth education with a mix of practical and theoretical, you may like a university or college program.
  • If you’re already doing similar work in your job, you may be able to get money from your employer.

Step 3: Learn, fail, and iterate

The only way to learn is to give it a try… then be willing to fail. When approaching this kind of learning, the only outcome should be using the platform and picking up a new habit - either a new skill entirely or refining a skill you already have on the platform. Eventually, you’ll take your best work examples and create a portfolio that will help you find work (which you can update as you get better and learn more).

Step 4: Think about the kind of work you want to take on

As a web designer, you can go for a full-time role, do design on the side, or go full-time freelance. You don’t have to make a single decision for the rest of your life, but you do need to know which step you want to take first.

A job is a great way for beginners to learn. Starting design on the side while you work somewhere else is great if design is a passion but you’re not sure if it’s a full-time career goal for you. And freelancing can be fantastic if you already have a good portfolio and a bit of a network, since you can make more money freelancing than an average employee.

Step 5: Source work

Whether a job or freelance work, make sure you’re getting paid for your efforts so you can cover your bills. We’ve linked to a lot of job boards above in this guide, but you can also source work from your network.

Step 6: Continue learning on the job

Always keep learning. You will continue to make mistakes as you go, but that’s part of the game. Even the most experienced people mess up sometimes, so don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Of course, you’ll have to ensure you’re delivering high quality work in the end, but you can make mistakes and fix them along the way.

The final word on becoming a web designer

If you’re not a coder but are passionate about technology, then web design can be a solid first step. The platforms used in most web design roles are code-adjacent, meaning you can learn more about understanding code and working with developers while getting paid to your job.

Even if you have no desire to learn to code or become a developer, web design is a fantastic career by itself. You’re in charge of building the front end of websites and web applications, making them not only beautiful but functional. There’s also a strategy and problem solving component, since so much of the job is building websites that users want to interact with (and helping your clients or employers meet their engagement goals along the way). As you think about your career in web design, remember to think about business more holistically. There’s so much opportunity out there, and all it takes is to just get started.

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