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8 min read

Web designers must be constant learners

A blossoming career in design requires gaining experience, as well as regularly and actively seeking new ways to learn and grow.

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Here’s the number one thing I have learned as a website designer: You have to keep reinventing yourself every day to make it in this fast-moving world.

My journey and evolution as a designer started with designing printed products on a computer almost right out of college. Over the last 20 years, that’s changed quite a bit, and now I do most of my work in the responsive web space.

None of it would have been possible without a thirst for constant learning.

And while that’s part of my DNA–in multiple iterations of taking the CliftonStrengths assessment, my top strength is “learner”–you can teach yourself to continuously improve.

Web designers need a mix of experience, self-training, and formal learning to find continued success. While there’s no secret ingredient, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned throughout my career.

They include a combination of online learning, networking and professional groups, going to grad school, and staying current with certifications. And you can find time for it all.

Online learning

The online learning space is full of resources for upping your web design skills. Just the fact that you are reading this blog proves that you have an interest in the field, its trends, and how to be a better designer.

Online learning comes in a few different forms and formats:

  • Reading blogs and information

  • Taking classes

  • Working on personal portfolio pieces

  • Engaging with the design community on networks such as Github or Dribbble

Online learning for me is a journey between places and platforms. Reading and looking at great design can be the inspiration to learn new concepts and techniques. One of the best places to browse new projects is Awwwards.

Once you see a technique or trend that you like, start doing some research into how to do it on your own.

Designer learning online on laptop

For most web designers and developers, there is a definite strong side to their skillset: visual design or technical coding. If you are looking to up your game, seek out learning opportunities in the area where you are least comfortable.

For me, that started with learning HTML, CSS, and later some programming languages. It was not a comfortable experience at all. All of my design experience was visual, dealing with aesthetic theory and rules of typography and space. This new stuff seemed like gobbledygook to me.

While there are many platforms available, Codeacademy was my savior in terms of online learning. The online tools are pretty amazing if you are just getting your feet wet in the technical parts of website design.

There are also plenty of 30-day design challenges circulating on Instagram and Twitter; big companies such as Adobe offer them as well. Pick a challenge and go for it!

If you don’t know where to start, the best action you can take to facilitate more learning is to read relevant, web design-related content online. There are plenty of great blogs and resources, and even writers on Medium, sharing their knowledge about website design. Give yourself 30 minutes each day–pencil it in your calendar for accountability–and read something new.

Professional development and networking

Your professional network can be a top source of information and web design inspiration.

While current events aren't allowing us to congregate in person as much as we might like, professional memberships and organizations are a solid place for expanding your thought process. The same is true for industry conferences.

As a freelance designer, a lot of my work is done in isolation, but there are some problems that require extra brain power. That’s where my professional network comes in.

People I have met locally at networking events, nationally at design conferences, and internationally through social networking seldom say no when I ask to brainstorm ideas for a project. These sessions are often short and almost always result in helping me think about a design dilemma in a new way.

Audience at a design conference

My brainstorming partners often offer advice and ideas on how to execute a new technique and will even look at projects before they go out the door.

While you can’t create a network like this in a day, it’s worth every ounce of time and effort. My network includes mentors in all disciplines of design, and I am starting to provide the same brainstorming help and advice to junior designers.

A conference or networking event can be a little intimidating, but to get the greatest takeaways, you must engage. Look for small groups that you can ease into conversations with. Smile and say hello to people checking in while you do. When you sit down in a conference session, greet the person next to you and ask them a question about themselves. (Try “what has been the best session you’ve attended so far?”)

These simple conversations can help you find a friend to share the event with.

If you can’t go to a meeting or conference just yet, start with an online forum or engage in conversations on social media (groups can be great for this).

Don’t let professional networking be a one-way learning opportunity, though. You can glean just as much from helping someone else as getting assistance yourself. Make a point to find a mentor and mentee, and put in the time with each.

Formal learning

The formal education process isn’t for everyone. While some job descriptions require degrees, I know plenty of great designers who didn’t complete any college, but, for me, the organized, planned nature of formal learning suited my style and equipped me with the right tools in a place where my kit was sparse.

More than a decade after finishing my undergraduate degree, I came to a conclusion: I needed to go back to school.

A pile of art and design books

Running a freelance website design and content marketing business was fun and exciting. I was also learning fast that there was a lot I did not know and sought out a formal education plan to fill those gaps.

Feeling like I had a good grasp on the creative side of things, I went back to school to earn a master’s degree in business administration. The MBA provided a broad enough education to help me through the challenges of running a business successfully.

It also helped me define my style as a leader and good colleague.

Making time to gain more formal education can be tricky. I did a full-time, two-year hybrid (with in-person and online work) while working. That’s definitely not for everyone, but if your lifestyle has room for it, managing both is totally doable. (You can do anything for two years, right?)

When it comes to formal education and training, you can opt for in-person or online classes. I went back to the same university where I got my undergraduate degree, but that’s totally optional. What matters is picking a program that fits your learning style. I needed the structure and accountability of going to class and working on projects together in real time, but online education can be just as effective if it fits your learning style.

Speaker presenting app design at a design conference

The toughest part can be figuring out what type of classes or degree program to enroll in. For me, it was all about something that could help me advance my career and would provide a return (in terms of advancement and future wages). For some, going back to school is all about maintaining creative inspiration or getting up to date on modern design philosophies and techniques.

Before you start any formal training program, have a good look at your calendar and obligations. Talk with your spouse, partner, or kids about the time commitment it will take and what sacrifices you might have to make in terms of time and finances to make it happen. Figure out a plan before you get started to ensure that you can finish.

Self-training and certifications

If you like learning and earning swag in the form of professional certificates and certifications, there’s plenty of opportunity for you.

What’s nice about this learning track is that it is mostly self-directed and fairly inexpensive. Some certification exams come with a fee, but it is nothing compared to the cost of a formal degree.

Certifications are also great because they can help you showcase a very specific thing you are good at in a way that clients understand. The credibility that comes with a professional certificate can carry a lot of weight.

Close-up of signature on a certificate

You can find certifications almost everywhere. I went through Google certification to boost my digital marketing and search optimization skills because they are great compliments for website design clients. Many of these even link right to your online resume on LinkedIn and can even generate new leads and clients.

The hard part is navigating all the options out there. Ask people in your network which certifications they feel have provided the most value to them.

Then block a little time on your calendar each week to work toward those goals. Most online certifications include some training, such as reading material or videos, followed by a timed online test. It’s a daily independent process, and your best chances for passing are working through the material and testing in a short window of time.

Keep in mind that many continuing education credits and certifications are only valid for a certain time frame and have to be renewed every few years. Once you have that credential, don’t let it expire.