Career Advice For Graduating Web Design Students

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It’s that time of year again: graduation, when students transition away from the classroom to what will hopefully be a long and successful career in their chosen industry. I recently said goodbye to some of my own website design and development students. Instead of teaching lessons in design principles or responsive websites, I spent our final evening together answering their questions. One of those questions was, “What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?

At the time, I didn’t have an answer. I could think of many instances when someone helped me solve a particularly complex design challenge or a complex CSS issue or helped me navigate a delicate client situation, but I wouldn’t consider those “best career advice” moments. After thinking about it for a week or so, I came up with four pieces of advice that I received early in my career and that were invaluable to me as I was getting started in this industry but that are just as relevant and useful to me today.

Learn To Solve Problems

Whether you consider yourself more of a designer or a developer, your real job is to solve your clients’ problems. Yes, a visually rich design with great typography, powerful imagery and a user experience that works great on a wide range of screen sizes is very important. So is clean code that scales to future needs and conforms to best practices. Still, great design and well-written code are not the reasons clients hire you; they expect those things as part of the package.

The reason clients will hire you is for you to help solve their problems.1
The reason clients will hire you is for you to help solve their problems. (Image credit2)

Every project you work on will require you to make a number of decisions along the way. Those decisions need to be based on how to improve the client’s business and help them meet their goals for the website. You need to become a problem-solver. Doing so not only will improve the effectiveness of your work, but will do wonders for how your clients respond to your suggestions.

As with anyone new to a job, your lack of experience will sometimes be held against you, rightly or wrongly. One of the best ways to ensure that your ideas are taken seriously is to tie them to actual business solutions. A suggestion for a particular approach, like responsive design, or an explanation for why you’ve made certain design choices will be better received if you show how they will solve specific problems.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received as a web professional is that an amazing design that doesn’t solve any problems is not as valuable as an adequate design that addresses the company’s problems and improves their business.

Be Open To Change And Look For Opportunities

When I began working in this industry, my passion was design. That is what I loved to do, and I firmly believed that design would always be at the forefront of my workday. If you had told me then that 15 years later design work would make up the smallest part of my job and that most of my time would be spent leading projects, writing, speaking and teaching, I would have said you’re crazy. Still, that’s where my career has brought me — and I am thrilled that it has!

The web industry is not a single road. You can take many different routes, and those routes are often opportunities to grow. But they also likely entail change for you. Don’t allow fear of change or uncertainty about new responsibilities to keep you from growing. Had I been determined to always focus on design, I never would have discovered how much I enjoy the aspects of my job today, nor would I have achieved the success I have now.

Learn to recognize that some paths you encounter are detours and not right for you, while others are opportunities to be seized upon. Be mindful of these opportunities, be open to change, and be willing to challenge yourself. Which brings us to the next piece of advice.

Challenge Yourself

Focusing on what you do best is tempting. If you are a good designer, then continually honing your design skills is an easy road to take. This might be good early in your career, allowing you to build on your strength as you get some experience under your belt. After a while, though, it will limit you.

Actor and comedian Charlie Day, of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” fame, recently gave a commencement speech3 at Merrimack College. While the entire 20-minute speech is funny and worth listening to, one part really resonated with me:

“I don’t think you should just do what makes you happy. Do what makes you great. Do what’s uncomfortable and scary and hard but pays off in the long run. Be willing to fail.”

This advice is valuable and very relevant here. If you are unwilling to fail, then you will always take the safe path and not push yourself to learn new skills and accept new challenges.

As your career unfolds, be open to change.4
As your career unfolds, be open to change. (Image credit5)

I remember a conversation that I had a number of years ago with my supervisor. It was during my annual review, and he asked me what I was planning for the coming year, professionally. Everything I rattled off were extensions of what I was already doing or good at. When I had finished, he gave me very honest feedback, saying that I was becoming complacent and not challenging myself. Shortly after that meeting, I began writing — which I had been hesitant to try for fear of negative feedback.

Challenged by my supervisor, I worked to overcome those fears. I began writing on my personal blog, then later for other websites and magazines. My writing helped me to better convey my ideas and to become more comfortable sharing them with others. A year or so later, I took a job at an area university and began teaching website design and development. None of those opportunities, from the writing assignments to the teaching position, would have been possible had I not challenged myself and gotten out of my comfort zone.

Work With Good People

From the company you join to the clients you work with, surround yourself with good people. There are many things you cannot control in this profession, but if you work with good people, then overcoming challenges will be much easier (and rest assured, you will face plenty of challenges).

I know that many people will argue that you cannot choose whom you work with, whether colleagues or clients, especially early on in your career, when your options are limited. Still, don’t accept a bad situation simply because you think you have no other choice. You will learn a lot from the people whom you surround yourself with, so do not compromise. If you want to be the best you can be, work with the best people you can find.

Ironically, the person who advised me to work with good people is someone whom I very much disliked working with. Still, the advice was sound. I quit that job a few months later, and I have held myself — and the people I work alongside — to a higher standard since then. That my success and satisfaction are as high as they have ever been is no coincidence. That comes from working with good people.

In Summary

Throughout my career, I have received plenty of advice, but the four points covered here have really stuck with me over the years and have made a significant impact on my career. To recap, here is the best career advice I have ever received:

  • Be a problem-solver, and make design or development choices that help to solve your clients’ actual problems.
  • Do not allow fear of change to limit your career choices.
  • Look for opportunities to grow your skills and to focus on things that you do not do well.
  • Don’t be afraid to fail when trying something new.
  • Surround yourself with good people from whom you can learn from.
  • Don’t accept a bad situation, either with colleagues or clients, simply because you think you have no other choice.

Additional Advice

The idea of offering advice to new web designers and developers has been on my mind recently after reading Cennydd Bowles’ “Letter to a Junior Designer6” and Andy Clarke’s follow-up, “A Different Letter to a Junior Designer7.” These two articles offer competing suggestions, but each contains valuable advice and I encourage you to give them both a read.

Additionally, “The Habits of Successful New Web Professionals8” offers advice to web professionals who are starting their first position in this industry.

On behalf of the entire SmashingMag team, we wish all graduates the best of luck going forward in their careers! Believe in yourselves, in your talents and skills, and always keep learning, growing, and realizing the best in yourselves! Cheers!
On behalf of the entire SmashingMag team, we wish all graduates the best of luck going forward in their careers! Believe in yourselves, in your talents and skills, and always keep learning, growing, and realizing the best in yourselves! Cheers!

How About You?

In addition to the CSS tricks and technical lessons you have learned along the way, what career advice has been particularly helpful to you?

(al, il)

Footnotes

  1. 1 https://www.flickr.com/photos/opensourceway/4749432145/
  2. 2 https://www.flickr.com/photos/opensourceway/4749432145/
  3. 3 http://youtu.be/IulvPqb1Eus
  4. 4 http://mysuccessprinciples.com/general/8-strategies-to-open-your-mind-to-change/
  5. 5 http://mysuccessprinciples.com/general/8-strategies-to-open-your-mind-to-change/
  6. 6 http://alistapart.com/column/letter-to-a-junior-designer
  7. 7 http://alistapart.com/blog/post/a-different-letter-to-a-junior-designer
  8. 8 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2013/11/14/habits-successful-new-web-professionals/

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Jeremy was born with six toes on each foot. The extra toes were removed before he was a year old, robbing him of any super-powers and ending his crime-fighting career before it even began. Unable to battle the forces of evil, he instead works as the Director of Web Development for the Providence, Rhode Island based Envision Technology Advisors and teaches website design at the University of Rhode Island. His portfolio and blog, at Pumpkin-King.com, is where he writes about all things Web design.

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  1. 1

    Thanks for the thoughtful write-up. I graduated three years ago, leaving school and thinking I was the bees-knees. Well was I wrong. There are many things schooling can teach you, but few things you can learn without experience and determination. “Become a problem solver” hits the nail on the head, the one word of advice I would like to add to that is “Learn how to learn.”

    We are in a field that changes every year, every month, every day and if we want to stay relevant we each need to understand that things will change, learn to be flexible, and learn to teach yourself. School is a great jumping off point because you have (hopefully) good teachers to help jump-start your education, but what most people don’t understand is that you will not always have someone to teach or explain a new language or concept and learning to learn on your own is invaluable.

    I appreciate the words above for the general advice they offer, however I usually prefer more tangible, actionable items to consider. I recently wrote an article for my friends and future alum entitled “It’s Time to Graduate”, stating several simple steps and words of advice to help take the leap from the university system to the working world: http://calebsylvest.com/its-time-to-graduate/

    -4
    • 2

      Great advice! Thanks Jeremy

      0
    • 3

      Agreed. The Web industry requires an appetite for constant learning, so finding a way to balance your work life with your personal life with the time to continue growing your skills is certainly important. Thanks!

      0
  2. 4

    “I don’t think you should just do what makes you happy. Do what makes you great. Do what’s uncomfortable and scary and hard but pays off in the long run. Be willing to fail.” Isn’t that sort of what everyone says? Everyone says do what makes you happy. I think Jim Carrey’s commencement speech had a way more powerful statement.

    “My father could have been a great comedian, but he didn’t believe that that was possible for him, and so he made a conservative choice. Instead, he got a safe job as an accountant. When I was 12 years old, he was let go from that safe job, and our family had to do whatever we could to survive. I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.”

    I thought THIS was a very powerful quote. People think that going the safe route is always presumed “safe”. Well its not. So do what you love.

    Adding on to your learn paragraph. Always be open to learning and know there is always someone who knows more than you. Let that person teach and educate you, whether directly or indirectly.

    My only criticism is this article had very little to do with actually being a Web Designer. I was hoping a little more for industry expectations and the future of where web designers need to be and need to go.

    3
    • 5

      Thanks for your comments. I thought Jim Carey’s speech had some great points as well, but the Charlie Day one, particularly that part about “doing what makes you uncomfortable”, is one that I feel is more poignant. I don’t think you hear that enough. I think many people do say what Jim Carey says about “doing what you love”, and I can say from personal experience that if I only did what I loved or avoid stuff I was afraid of because I wasn’t good at it, I would not be where I am today. The reality is that many of the things I love about my job today are things I was afraid of at one point. I have no idea I would “love” them until I took a leap, struggled to find my way, and pushed myself to be my best at those activities, some of which I do indeed love today. This is why I think “doing what you are afraid of” is a more relevant message than just doing “what you love.”

      As for your last comment, about tips more relevant to the industry, check out the links in the last section of the article. I think you will find what you are looking for in those pieces.

      2
      • 6

        Do what you love? How many people actually LOVE doing web / graphic design under pressure for clients? What does love mean in this context? Love, in the same way I love my wife, love surfing in the sea, love hanging out with my friends, love seeing the sunrise after an amazing night out in a foreign country?

        All this brainwashing makes people believe that if their job feels like work then they are in the wrong job.

        Work is work, and we should stop pressurizing people with statements like “find the job you love and you’ll never work again”. Imaging you’re under a deadline pressure, the client is hassling you about the landing page not “feeling quite right yet” and you’ve got 6 other tasks to finish before lunch time. Is it helpful to think ” do I LOVE this?”. Or is it better to think “I’m thankful to have a career that is not boring or backbreaking so I’ll continue doing my best to get the job done…?”

        4
        • 7

          I think you are taking the word “love” a bit too literally and also assuming that “love” means there are no bumps in the road. You made the comparison about “loving your wife”. I love my wife, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t frustrate each other at times. We argue like anyone else, but at the end of the day, we certainly do love and appreciate each other. Just because everything is not perfect 100% of the time does not diminish that love that we share.

          My job is no different. Yes, there are times like the ones you describe where the work is stressful, but you have to look at the big picture. When I say that I “love my job”, I am not trying to brainwash anyone, nor am I being disingenuous. I truly do love what I do for a living, even if not every second of every day is perfect.

          I think we all need to remember that “love” does not equal “perfect” and that is perfectly ok.

          2
  3. 8

    Great write up Jeremy. This advice is not just for web professionals, but for all professionals alike. As for another bit of advice that has really stuck with me over the years:

    “Your job isn’t who you are…It’s just what you do” – quote from a Disney TV show that I can’t recall the name of

    I see a lot of designers not expand their skill set because “that is not what they have their degree in”.

    Degrees are nothing more than a piece of paper and a couple skill sets. Not expanding beyond those limits is a sad thing.

    3
    • 9

      Anders Grimsrud

      June 14, 2014 9:14 am

      A good article with great advice Jeremy, thanks! And I think even established professionals will benefit from going back to basics rethinking their career occasionally.

      And Scott, you are absolutely right in your comment! I can see all this advice apply to my second job too, as well as others I’ve had in the past.

      As for expanding your skillset outside your primary field, you obviously can’t master everything. But I still think familiarizing yourself with adjacent fields of work will help you understand other professionals’ position, which is essential for working well with others. And it makes everything so much more interesting!

      2
    • 10

      This is an interesting comment. Most of the Web professionals that I know did not go to school for Web design. When I first started working on the Web in the late 90’s, there really were very few “Web design” courses (at least in my in my area), and those that did exist were all trying to figure out exactly how they could teach this new and constantly growing medium. Many of the designer/developers I know that came from that time kind of fell into Web design as a happy accident. The result of this is that they often have other skills and backgrounds or even other degrees that allow them to bring a very unique perspective to their work. They are already doing something that not “what their degree is in.”

      On the flip side of that are students graduating today, where schools ARE offering really great programs in Web design. They graduate and, to your point, are sometimes hesitant to expand outside of “what their degree is in”. This can indeed be limiting in a number of ways. If you refuse to take on challenges or tasks outside of the narrow definition of what you feel “your job” or your skill are in, you limit your opportunities for growth.

      Looking at that reluctance to expand outside of your normal job definition from another angle – if you work for a small company, you will find that you will be unable to “just do your job”, because with a small company, you often have to wear many hats and not only do your job, but do what needs to be done to help that organization succeed. I once had the owner at a small company that i worked for tell me that “no one here should be too high and mighty that they cannot pick up a broom”. He said that to me while he was cleaning out the toilet in our office’s bathroom. That definitely wasn’t part of “his job”, but it needed to get done, so he did it. That mentality to do what needs to be done, not only what is in your job description, is another important lesson I learned early on in my career.

      4
  4. 11

    I am really inspired after reading your article… that’s why I want you to give me suggestion for my career… I love doing programming codes and even I love doing web design. Can I select both options for my career? Or I should concentrate on one thing..?

    1
    • 12

      Meher,

      I was about to post the same question, and I welcome any advice on this topic. But somehow, it just clicked me that instead of wasting time on thinking about this, we should focus on work, we need not choose between design or development. We should focus on problem solving as suggested by the author.

      0
      • 13

        Varun,

        Actually I am intrested in solving problems as a web programmer and web designer… How to get clarity finding what I can do..? Can I do both together i.e designing and coding? Confused.

        0
        • 14

          Yes, you can do both. Just believe in yourself and pace yourself accordingly. Don’t try to learn everything quickly. Be consistent & try to learn one new thing in both areas daily.

          1
    • 15

      You can absolutely do both. While there are many in the Web industry that specialize in one specific area (design, development, user testing, etc.), there are many more that are “generalists”. I count myself in that camp – Web professionals who do not specialize in one area, but instead have a working knowledge of many different aspects of our industry. If you have a passion for both design and development, then you can hone both of those skills to make yourself a valuable team member that can solve problems from two fronts. Best of luck!

      0
  5. 16

    Two bits of seemingly conflicting advise:

    “Look at the bigger picture”
    “The devil is in the details”

    I firmly believe in a holistic approach to web development, yet the industry has taken a while to understand that all skill sets in a project need to work together, instead of being in independent silos. Everyone needs to know the end goal. I’ve worked at traditional print design agencies taking on web work and treating it the same as print. The designers get wireframes they had no part in creating. The coders get designs they had no input on. Only the PM knows the bigger picture = delays and poor quality.

    Wherever you work, make sure the bigger picture is always visible to you.

    As for the details, I believe you have to be meticulous in the approach to any web project for it to be a true success. A web project is *never* finished and if you haven’t paid attention to the little details while developing, you are in for a whole world of post project and maintenance pain.

    Wherever you work, ensure the quality and attention to detail is maintained.

    0
    • 17

      Excellent pieces of advice. The “make sure the bigger picture is always visible to you” advice is actually in-line with my “solve problems” advice. After all, if you do not see and understand that bigger picture, you are not really solving the problems that the client hired you or your company to address.

      1
  6. 18

    Okay so now how I do I get this in front of every designer who applies for a role here? :-)

    0
  7. 19

    Great advices! i personally love “Be Open To Change And Look For Opportunities” as i believe we will always find great surprise waiting for us when we take another route or try new things every now and then, cheers!

    0
  8. 20

    I am designing from last 5 years and enjoying my work, sharing knowledge and working with good team but I never realised that these 4-5 advices are surrounding me from beginning.

    Loved your article and awaiting for more and more.

    0
  9. 21

    Really good article. Thanks. I would say always keep learning, ask for help and never be scared to try something new.

    0
  10. 22

    I would say, “Do what makes you happy” is the best advice. Happiness is far more important than challenging yourself (although, that can be what makes people happy, as well) for the sake of challenging yourself. If you’re not happy with your life, then you need to change it.

    I went to school to be an illustrator. When I got out in the mid 90s the market wasn’t great, so I went into graphic design and also taught myself web design. It was a really exciting field at the time – brand new and it made me happy learning it and building websites that could “magically” appear on the other side of the world for someone.

    Now it’s 2014 and there are all kinds of different devices that display websites and everything is constantly changing. More importantly, everything has become extremely complex. Building websites has become tedious now rather than enjoyable for me. I have to worry about different screen sizes rather than crafting a nice design. I have to worry about someone hacking my sites. I have to make my sites “trendy” in their design because when someone finds a responsive site they like they want it copied almost exactly instead of designed to fit their own brand. Basically, I can’t design things how I want to design them anymore. I have to make everything flat looking, because that’s what people want.

    So, I am making the transition back to being an illustrator and it is making me happy to push my computer aside and hold inking pens and a watercolor brush in my hands again. It’s making me happy to feel the texture of paper as I run my fingers over it. I can self publish my work if I want to at relatively low cost.
    The technology on the internet can do some amazing things today. It’s unfortunate that design has to suffer because of it.

    1
  11. 23

    One thing that has never been communicated to me is to be resourceful (this might go with Open to opportunities).

    After quitting a previous design job, moving to Los Angeles, and having all my connections fall through – I was stuck with no steady work for six months. I ended up getting work with a global media company because of a talent agency I found out about at a User Experience Meet up I went to a year before.

    Events and meets can be awkward and difficult initially but there are so many benefits from doing some research and looking into organizations and events that are held within the digital/design space.

    0
  12. 24

    The best advice I have ever received is “Fake it until you make it”. That gave me the confidence when I was a graduate and now in a solid job.

    0
  13. 25

    There is a fine line between playing your own game and listening/implementing criticism. When you’re just out of school you have zero game, so it’s best to take those critiques and learn from them. People are more often than not actually trying to help you. Once you’ve become a seasoned vet you have the right to pick and choose who you listen to.

    Be willing to work out of your comfort zone. If you’re moved on to a project that you don’t feel totally qualified to do it’s not a punishment. Someone thinks you’re capable of doing it. It’s an opportunity to learn new skills and get more experience.

    Do as much work for free, or for trade, as you can swing. You’d be surprised how much better you feel about doing design work when the pink elephant of money isn’t in the room.

    Figure out what you are. I used to think being a jack-of-all-trades designer was a good thing, as though I could tackle any type of project. The truth was that I was merely okay in a bunch of different areas and not an expert in one. Once I found what I was really good at I focused on that and immediately grew in my profession.

    0
    • 26

      This is all excellent advice. The “working outside of your comfort zone” is the exact sentiment I was going for with my “challenge yourself” suggestions.

      Thanks for sharing and adding to the conversation!

      0
  14. 27

    Great article, sad to say that my company that i’m working right now is i feel so safe. Do i really find a new job for me,? so that I can grow? Do you have any piece of advice for this? but I need this company to keep my wheels moving.

    0
    • 28

      Can you not grow at this company? Do you have to leave to grow your skills? If you are happy where you are now, I would work to find a way to stay there, but still expand your skills. This could be taking on additional responsibilities at that job and tackling new projects. If that is not a possibility, you could look to side projects and other avenues to try to grow those skills and engage in different types of projects. Bottom line, if you work for a great company and with great people, there is a lot of value in that. Rather than look elsewhere for new opportunities, see how you can stay where you are, but still find the growth you need. Good luck!

      1
      • 29

        Thanks man, I really need this now. I will keep pushing now.. I wish I could give you a handshake.

        0
  15. 30

    Joe Wojciechowski

    July 21, 2014 1:02 pm

    I find ‘Work with good people.’ to be one of the greatest pieces of advice. I’ve had “good” jobs (aka high salary) and I worked with a bunch of people I didn’t see eye to eye with. It was horrible. I find working with people you get along with to be much more important than making money. This is your life, so you should surround yourself with people you like all the time.

    0

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