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How To Become A Web Design Expert

Have you ever wanted to take a client by the collar, shake them around vigorously and demand that they take you seriously because you are the expert? If so, you are not alone. Whether you consider yourself an expert and want recognition or are looking to one day become one, you need to step back and ask why being perceived in that way is important.

Why We All Want To Be Seen As An Expert Link

Many of us desire to be seen as experts because we would like our opinions to be taken seriously. Others want to be respected and valued, partly to satisfy our own ego, but largely due to a belief that we know best and that things should be done our way.

However, as we will see later, being an expert is more than about getting people to listen. If that is all you can manage, then they will see through this shallow desire and not give you the status that you believe you deserve.

Respect is not the only thing we expect from being regarded as an expert. Many of us also think that we would be able to charge more and that people will line up to hire us. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Many experts are largely unknown, even within their field, and do not demand high salaries. Being an unheard-of expert is of little value to your career.

In spite of all this, being perceived as an expert can be helpful when working with clients, and it does create the potential to attract better-quality work.

What, then, does it take to become an expert?

What Does It Take To Become An Expert? Link

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that becoming an expert in any particular field takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice. For most full-time Web designers, this equates to almost four years’ worth of work.

I find this figure of 10,000 hours dubious. While I can see how this would apply to something like playing a musical instrument or a sport, I am not sure it applies to a field as diverse as Web design. 10,000 hours of Photoshop experience, for example, would not make you an expert in Web design. At most, you would be a Photoshop expert.

That said, Gladwell’s claim is right in one respect. To become an expert, you need time and experience.

Many people claim to be experts, but only few invest thousands of hours of work to become one. Image by Brett Jordan2.

Time and Experience Link

There can be no doubt that expertise only comes with time and perseverance. It does not happen overnight, and there are no shortcuts to achieving a high level of expertise. The longer you do the job, the more you’ll see and the less likely you’ll be surprised by new scenarios.

One could argue that things move so quickly in Web design that lessons learned four years ago do not apply today. But I’m not convinced that is the case. In my experience, although technology changes, people do not. The majority of unexpected issues that arise when developing a website relates either to human error or to some element of user experience. Also, years of experience will improve your ability to solve problems. Even if the challenges are new, the fact that you have tackled so many before makes you more proficient at overcoming problems. Your methodologies and processes make you better equipped. Therefore, lessons learned years ago still stand today.

Obsessive Passion Link

I’m not suggesting that only experience matters. For instance, I don’t believe you should require a certain number of years of experience when employing somebody. Instead, look for a desire to learn, an ability to work in your company’s culture and, most of all, passion.

I began my career working at IBM and can attest that years served is not a reflection of expertise. Too many of the people I worked with coasted through the years with no passion for their work. Without passion, they had no desire to learn new things or push boundaries.

I believe that an almost obsessive passion for Web design is required to be a true expert.

In addition, my colleagues at IBM never took risks. Experimenting and making mistakes are crucial if experts are to establish their credibility.

The Importance Of Making Mistakes Link

At the heart of being a true expert lies one universal truth: you need to be willing to make mistakes, and a lot of them.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a culture that celebrates failure. We want winners, people who succeed. But success comes down not to inspiration, but perspiration. Winston Churchill put it best:

Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.

Succeeding in your chosen career and becoming a true expert requires that you fail not just once or twice, but again and again.

Failure is a crucial part of the journey to becoming an expert. As Charles Willson once said:

The definition of an expert is someone who knows what not to do.

Without failure, we cannot hope to learn the best way to do things. Although learning from the failures of others is possible, nothing beats experiencing failure first-hand.

We need to overcome our aversion of failure. We should go as far as celebrating it. Being willing to fail is a sign of maturity, bravery and a desire to do better.

Most importantly, we need to learn to face our failures. When a project goes wrong, people tend to react in one of two ways. Some of us carry on regardless, denying the issue. We pour good money and effort after bad. Knowing when to let go3 is so important. The others get rid of the problem as quickly as possible and pretend it never happened. But this route means that you will never learn from your mistakes. We need to take time at the end of a disastrous project to review where things went wrong and learn from it. This path can be a hard, especially when you have to deal with an unhappy client.

Those who are never seen to fail are either too timid to try, for fear of public ridicule, or simply do not desire success enough to endure the sting of failure.

You may be concerned that public failure undermines the perception of you as an expert. Although this is certainly a possibility, the public’s perception of you is shaped by more than whether you succeed or fail at a particular endeavour.

How To Ensure You Are Perceived As An Expert Link

Being an expert though never being appreciated as such is possible. Being knowledgeable is not enough; one also needs to be recognized for that knowledge.

This is a common problem and one you may be experiencing. You have done your 10,000 hours, made mistakes and learned your lessons. Nevertheless, your clients or boss fail to recognize the knowledge and experience you have accumulated.

How do you convince them that you are an expert and that they should take your opinion seriously?

Show Some Humility Link

The first step to being recognized as an expert is to stop insisting that you are one. People who are generally regarded as experts are often the last to call themselves one. In fact, they often go to great lengths to point out the limitations of their knowledge and to encourage others not to take their opinion as gospel.

People are suspicious of those who claim to be experts. Allow your knowledge to speak for itself, rather than insisting that people pay attention. But while saying that you are an expert is not wise, you could imply it in a number of ways. One of the most powerful ways is context.

Use Context to Your Advantage Link

If you took some modern art out of a gallery and hung it in a primary school, it could be mistaken for children’s painting. This is because context influences how it is perceived. The same is true with expertise.

Witness how managers take the opinions of consultants more seriously than their staff, even if both are saying the same thing. Consultants are paid more, and so their opinions are more highly valued.

You might not have much room to change your rate; nonetheless, you can change your context so that people value you more highly.

Like a work of art in a gallery, your expertise will be recognized if it is experienced in the right context. For example, people will give your comments more weight if you are standing on a conference stage than if you are in a pub. Likewise, your expertise will be taken more seriously if it is read in a book than shared around a conference-room table.

Me on stage4
I often get mistaken for an expert simply because I stand on stage. Photo by Marc Thiele5.

Getting a speaking engagement or a book deal requires that you first convince someone of your expertise. Conference organizers and publishers act as guardians of quality, and if these guardians have approved you, then people will assume you know what you’re talking about.

Not all of us can secure book deals and speaking slots. In this case, self-publishing, podcasting, blogging and participating in open-source projects are just a few alternatives. Standing out6 as an expert is easier than you think.

Not that context is everything. It’s also about what you say and how you say it.

Style and Substance Link

Another reason that books, presentations, blogs and podcasts are more effective than mere conversations could be that the arguments in them are better structured and more thoughtful.

How you articulate yourself is critical. While something might seem obvious to you, it is not always clear to others, particularly if the issue is recurring. When a client asks you to make their logo bigger or to fill up white space that you have so carefully crafted, being dismissive and irritable is easy because you have heard the request so many times before. Rather, carefully structure your response so that it is as convincing as possible.

That said, it is not just about substance, but also the style in which you present your arguments. An expert should speak with a quiet confidence. The truly great have little to prove, and so talk with a certain presence and authority. They don’t get flustered when someone disagrees with them. Instead, they seamlessly switch to a different approach.

If you want to be perceived as an expert, know yourself, be relaxed and present with confidence.

Unfortunately, problems will arise if the other party in the relationship already has certain preconceptions.

Overcoming Prejudices Link

Establishing yourself as an expert with your current boss or client can be a challenge. When you are seen as a junior member of the staff, their opinion won’t change overnight. Fortunately, you can do a couple of things to help shift that perception.

First, present evidence to support your positions. If your boss is worried about content being below the fold, show them a report on scrolling behavior7.

Graph from report on scrolling8
Quoting research such as this report on scrolling can increase your credibility.

Secondly, quote established experts who support your case. Jakob Nielsen, for one, has written extensively9 on the topic of scrolling.

These techniques have benefits beyond just supporting your argument. They also demonstrate how well read you are in your field. Also, by demonstrating that your position is in line with that of other experts, you build your credibility by way of association. Their expertise rubs off on you!

Unfortunately, there is no quick way to overcome biases. This is hard for those who work regularly with the same people. But over time, by consistently demonstrating your expertise and using the techniques mentioned above, you can change their view.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility Link

The focus of this article is on becoming an expert. But before concluding, I want to say a word about what happens when you finally achieve your aim.

Once you gain the respect of your clients, boss or peers, what next? Becoming an expert has to be about more than having an ego trip. Rather, it should always be about serving others. You become an expert so that you can do a better job for your clients, provide more value to your organization and help others establish best practice in your industry. Ultimately, if all you want is to be loved and respected, you will never achieve your aim. People can detect that kind of narcissism a mile away and will dismiss you as vain.

That said, being taken seriously is important in our line of work. If we are not taken seriously, then good websites can go bad. I am sure you will share in the comments stories of how Web projects have gone wrong because people didn’t listen to you. But hearing some experiences of how you convinced bosses and clients to take you seriously would also be nice.

Cover image credit: Aural Asia10


Footnotes Link

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Paul Boag is the author of Digital Adaptation and a leader in digital strategy with over 20 years experience. Through consultancy, speaking, writing, training and mentoring he passionately promotes digital best practice.

  1. 1

    It seems like at least some of the difficulty web designers have being heard is that it’s very easy to say what should be done instead of why something should be done, and that is usually what they present. People tend to have more interest in the “why” than the “what” because it directly affects them, and their project like in that great scrolling example. After getting into the habit of presenting why things should be set up in certain way (especially if it saves time and money again and again) it’s a lot easier to be heard.

  2. 2

    Good title.
    It also means I won’t be reading this article. I don’t want to become a Web Design Expert so easily, I want to get there the hard way by acquiring years and years of experience.

  3. 6

    Being seen as an expert is a lot easier when you are behind a company. I have found that I come across a lot more issues with clients on freelance work because they are always in a “I know what is best” state of mind, where as the work i do for my company has very little friction because the clients trust the company without ever knowing me. I would love to have people as confident in my freelance work as they are with the company so this article is much appreciated. I know this takes time.

    • 7

      The key is to build a reputation around you as an individual rather than around your company. At Headscape we offer suffer from the opposite problem. Even though most of my staff are far more skilled than me the client will not listen to them as they do me because they do not have the reputation. This is absurd and really annoying!

    • 8

      That’s a very interesting statement, I actually find almost the opposite, in my freelance work, where I have the freedom to suggest, imply and present myself as a professional (without the “trainee” job title prefix), I am taken with the utmost seriousness and professionalism, in my work place – while do not get me wrong I am respected as a professional and an individual, my opinions tend to be easier unheard

      • 9

        I’ve found this comes with time and patience. Also, it really helps as you get older and you’re age catches up with that of your clients’. This generally helps as you’ll find you have a little more in common with them.

  4. 10

    One of the more difficult things to tackle on the road to becoming an expert in any field is facing the subjective definition of “expert” that everyone has. Confusing, blending or comparing “expert” to “professional” also generates some fascinating dilemmas.

  5. 11

    punctual, confident, resilient and passionate = being an expert.
    Great article. Thanks

  6. 12


    August 25, 2011 7:13 am

    I love @TheAL’s turn of phrase. After 10 years in design I would consider myself a professional, but never an expert.

    I’m always learning, there will always be questions. I would never consider myself the know-all…which is what I define as ‘expert’.

    Just strive to be the best you can be…expert or not

    • 13

      I would agree the term expert is loaded with different perceptions. In most cases being an expert is largely down to acting like one. I think some of us could do with acting more like experts in order to gain the respect they deserve.

      • 14

        I find that using the term “Professional”, it becomes *overused*. If you look in ads I often see “we are the professionals”, and I think using the term, “expert” is obviously above that, but it creates a higher personal *image* in my mind that any person that is a professional.

        Become an expert, and not just a professional… but that’s just me…

  7. 15

    nice article, never stop learning!

  8. 16

    This is odd, because its seems like it’s hard to define an expert … I live in a area where there is two design groups and they bring in big name designers, there are a lot of print: Chip Kidd, Armin Vit and others. It seems hard to get Web guys because the industry is not as old as print and most Web designers work as a team where print designers can do it all themselves. I hope it changes with Web experts having blogs and what not.


  9. 17

    Wise and insightful. The things you discussed applies to most fields in general, not only web design. Thanks.

  10. 18

    Peter Riley Osborne

    August 25, 2011 8:45 am

    I have worked for over 12 years in web design, and yet in the last two years I have learned more than in the previous ten. Not necessarily because of hours spent working or because I coasted those first ten. The difference was that I worked too much those first ten years so I had to rely on what I knew to get things done quickly. Learning was a painstaking process and more often than not I learned a technique for something I would use once and then tossed it because it was taking up too much valuable (and limited) brain space.

    Then, two years ago, I lost my job and had to find some work. In that time I started reading articles on sites like Smashing Magazine and realized A) I didn’t know crap and B) The amount to learn was daunting. So I took over the obsessive part of this article and began spending time every day trying to throw a pebble into the grand canyon sized hole in my knowledge base on design, UX and programming.

    What this freed me up from was worrying about being an expert because A) I was never going to be an expert compared to the real experts out there and B) all my feelings on being an expert did was make me feel entitled and had me saying silly things like “That is impossible” to clients.

    Now I know that there is very little that is truly impossible these days and rather than saying NO, or That is a terrible idea, I say things like “That is an interesting idea, here are five studies that show people who have thought the same things and their results.” Often I find out I was wrong, but by presenting other research, I am not just saying I am an expert, I am saying I have access to a limitless number of experts and that when I give an opinion, chances are I have consulted a few of them.

    Anyway, that is a long ankle way of saying Great Article! Especially the Obsession part. That is vital!

    • 19

      I agree. If you work too much without keeping in touch with what is going on in your industry you’ll get left behind. Tutorials, webinars, reading blogs, magazines, books, and continuing your education is a must for any designer. I am so glad there is such a wealth of informational available online.

  11. 20

    Enjoyable read, valid points, and several, oh, can I identify with that moments.
    I would like to read more on this:

    “That said, it is not just about substance, but also the style in which you present your arguments. An expert should speak with a quiet confidence…. They don’t get flustered when someone disagrees with them. Instead, they seamlessly switch to a different approach.”

  12. 23

    I will never be an expert and I don’t want to be perceived as the know-it-all. I think sometimes the naive suggestions can turn out great!

  13. 24

    A pretty nice article, even if the title ends up being a little bit misleading.

    The moral of the story is that there’s no real shortcut. It takes time and effort to go form good to great at something, and even then you have to be passionate about what you do to really master it. It really shouldn’t come as a surprise to many by now, but it’s always nice to feel reassured reading that one article every now and then.

  14. 25

    Indeed. The only way to become and expert is to be continually learning, applying what you learn, and putting in the time, especially serving others.

    I like what Marc Thiele said, “I often get mistaken for an expert simply because I stand on stage.” I think success on a grand(er) scale is necessary just to get noticed. And perhaps a bit of luck.

    Just like there are hundreds of thousands of books published every year, the ones that make it to the best seller list are scant in comparison. That doesn’t mean that none of the others were good enough to make the list. They just didn’t get recognized for whatever reason. Lost in the fog.

  15. 26

    I sometimes feel that web designers get a bad wrap as someone who’s tech savy. I think it’s so easy now a days to build a site, that they take that for granted. I’ve come across some clients that think web designers are like hired guns. We only have one mission and that is to make any design possible.

    I don’t think people understand layouts, usability testing, white space and all of the other things that go into a good design. I don’t omit something, just because I forgot. Or I don’t put a bullet somewhere because it looks good.

    I think people sometimes forget that web designers, like journalist, doctors, chef’s and doctors… all went to school and have studied the why’s and what’s of design.

  16. 27

    This is a great article. It’s spot on the issues I’ve experienced and struggle with at work.

    Not only being seen as an expert to the client (externally) is important but your colleagues (internally) should respect your knowledge and expertise in order for you to do better work.

    • 28

      To the author’s point and in my personal experience, if you focus on servicing the needs of the client, many other things will fall in place for you including respect from your peers.

      I’ve watched many struggle with the fact that design is first and foremost a SERVICE INDUSTRY. Everyone wants to be rockstar and thinks, “If I design it, they [clients, respect, accolades] will come.” This isn’t the art world where your innate genius talent is discovered by chance and then devoured by an eager public.

      Our public are businesses with communication problems and financial goals. If you frame your design in the context of these needs, not only will they sing your praises but your ability to design effectively will improve as well.

  17. 29

    Nice post on being an expert in general =) I especially agree with your point on humility. I will take caution to anyone that says that they are an expert outright. Accomplishments and content speak much louder than words.


  18. 30

    This is a great article… I agree with Allen. I believe that the context of this could be applied to more than just web design. The title did seem a little misleading as I am not a web designer, but I very easily related it to a lot of what I do as a graphic/production designer. Humility was the first thing I had to tackle my first year at my job as there were a lot of “Experts” running around our department… of which I believe none are left. Thank you for this because to be quite honest I felt alone in my practices, a lot of which you’ve stated here. Outstanding sir!

  19. 31

    How to be taken seriously: Wear a metal watch and a ring, and pants that fit. Don’t act like you know something you don’t know.

  20. 32

    Oliver Ahlbrecht

    August 25, 2011 10:54 pm

    Spiderman ;)

    (“With great power…”)


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