Advice, Trends, and Resources for People Entering Web Careers in 2009
Tom Osborne, Former VP, Design
Many have us have spoken to people who will soon be entering careers in web design related fields this year, and this led us to have discussions with each other about what we thought was important for those people to know. Each of us had different advice to share based on each of our own unique perspectives, so we thought it would be helpful to put it into a blog post. Some of the questions we wanted to respond to were:
- What trends have you noticed in the past year?
- What advice do you have for people entering the field?
- What are some resources to help people get started?
Advice: Don’t Grow Up Just Yet
Many of the students I’ve taught and worked with want to hit this field’s ground running, but tend to be confused and overwhelmed by all of the various titles, processes and disciplines involved in working on the web these days. If you’re feeling this way, remember that you don’t have to pick a definitive career path or niche in the web just yet (if ever)! Instead learn about and try all of these disciplines as your work allows. You can always dive deeper into those that really strike a chord. Until then, don’t sweat those fancy terms or titles too much. And here’s a secret, some of the strongest web professionals are “generalists” instead of “specialists” in a particular area.
Advice: Work Smarter
Find ways to automate repetitive tasks for yourself – its usually an enjoyable problem to solve for yourself and will reward you with more efficiency. Finding and tweaking a series of applications and services that help you achieve is crucial. Some of my favorite set-ups include:
- LittleSnapper + Dropbox + A Dedicated Flickr Account = A quick and great way to organize (with tags) design inspiration across multiple computers and to share online.
- TextMate + Some Awesome Bundles + Your own templates + TextMate Projects = The start to a lean and mean front-end development area (for extra points, dive into things like Shell Variables)
- Delicious Subscriptions RSS + Delicious Network RSS + Flickr Design Inspiration Sets and Groups + select blog/site RSS Feeds all in Google Reader or Feedstitch = A good, portable start to having your ear to the ground on what’s happening around you (for extra points, you could add Twitter to this in EventBox.)
Trend: Tuning Out
I’ve heard more and more designers this year talk about cutting back on blogs, Flickr feeds, and magazine subscriptions, in an attempt to to overcome the noise of “inspiration.” Sometimes, consuming design is a convenient excuse for procrastination, so be careful about how much you’re watching vs. how much you’re doing.
Advice: Try It
You can have a huge stack of Readymades and an RSS reader full of A List Apart articles, but if you’ve never built any of the stuff they’re talking about, you’re missing out. Take some time to play around with new ideas, techniques, or plugins whenever you can. It’s fun, it relieves stress, and you often learn more than you expected to.
Resources: Firebug & Designers Toolbox
For buildout, you should know about Firebug, the smart little tool that makes diagnosing layout woes a snap (and has the muscle to fix much bigger problems down the road). And in general, you should know about Designers Toolbox, a one-stop shop for print sizes, templates, web element PSDs…you name it.
I have seen many people try to master everything when they first get into web design. It’s ok to know lots of stuff but you run the risk of spreading yourself too thin. My advice is to focus on one area and do it really well. However, don’t limit yourself. Work on that one focus but always try and have at least a little knowledge in most areas of the web. Knowing something about design will come in handy even if you’re a developer.
It’s odd, but when I switched from drawing comics in art class to making web pages in the computer lab I never thought I’d be coming back full circle. Sketching is cool in interaction design, very cool. Whether with good ole’ pen and paper, or sketching in code, designers are prototyping, exploring, and iterating faster.
Advice: Build It
Resources: The Design of Everyday Things
Design on the web is as much about human behavior as it is about visual design. Read The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman and you'll begin to appreciate just what it means to design for human behavior.
Trend: Don't Reinvent the Wheel
A big trend on the web is leveraging existing data instead of creating your own from scratch. Look into APIs and how you can use them. Pull bookmarks from Delicious, images from Flickr, short comments from Twitter, or even mash-up a list of your favorite blogs using Yahoo Pipes or FeedStitch.
Advice: Make It Easier On Yourself
Advice: The Learning Starts Now
Those of you who are graduating students, you probably didn’t learn what you needed to know from your classes in school and that is perfectly normal. I think most of us would agree that we didn’t actually learn anything until AFTER school when we were in real world situations. School was only meant to give you an introduction; it’s up to you to do the rest. Get a web host or setup a local server on your computer and play around with stuff on your own. Get involved in communities both online and in your city. Get a website up online to post your work and blog if you have ideas to share. This will all lead to networking with people with common interests, learning from the people you meet, and possibly scoring a job. I've learned the most from the jobs I've had and working with smart people.
Resources: Consume Everything
Advice: Go Crazy When You Concept
Don’t start a project by giving the client what you think they think they want. Cast your creative net far and wide. Reach for ideas and concepts that stretch your clients comfort-zone and encourage them to come along for the ride. Even if you have to pull back later your end results will be more creative than if you gave them the expected idea to begin with.
Advice: Be Fearless
Be ready to be wrong, but trust yourself and your instinct as a designer completely. Uncertainty breeds shoddy execution. Be prepared to fail. Be OK with that. Take ownership of your work and be prepared to explain your choices.
Advice: Be Design Agnostic
Be a well-rounded designer, try different types of design. Print, web, interactive, packaging, industrial, apparel. You will find that ideas and practices of each will bleed over, giving you an edge in any medium you work in.
Advice: Be An Artist
Be an artist. Be an illustrator. Be a drawer. Be an iconographer. Be a typographer. Be more than a designer. Take your creative passions and use them. Don’t let a challenge stifle or restrict your creativity or force you down a certain design route.
Advice: Take Restrictions And Own Them
Don’t let clients, deadlines, negative feedback and tight budgets get in the way of your passion and skill as a designer. Know your deadlines, know your restrictions, and then lock them away in a box and put them at a safe distance until it’s necessary to interact with them. Give your mind and body room to be creative and focused.
Identify 5 places you’d love to work and follow them religiously. Study their work, read their blogs, find out as much as you can about their process and thinking. Don’t do it all with the intent of engaging them about a job. Do it because they’re awesome and because you aspire to do work at their level. If you engage them, start small and smart (simple, thought-out blog comments are great).
Use LinkedIn if you’re not already. It’s not just for “business people” and its benefits are amazing. Explore the ‘Advanced Search’ feature. It’s eye-opening when used well.
Understand that truly good web design is as much about what is invisible as what’s visible. Concern yourself with usability, semantics, accessibility, code validation, search engine optimization, load times, maintainability, and measure-ability (see Google Analytics). Be a super-creative designer AND be a super-smart designer. The best designers concern themselves with things that are below the surface, understanding that a lot of these elements create true value.
Advice: Surround yourself with the best.
Identify designers that you admire and do your best to surround yourself with them. Even if you can’t work with them, or for them, make every effort to seek advice and design criticism from these people. There are hundreds of forums out there brimming with bad advice. Be sure you examine who’s giving you feedback and why. Everyone has an opinion and motive. Learn to be wise about how you hear them. Seek honest, relevant and pointed feedback from people you admire, and trust.
Advice: Find your sandbox
Don’t ever stop learning, being creative, and stretching yourself. Creativity and inspiration are everywhere so when inspired be sure you have your own place to ‘play.’ This can be a personal web site, a painting studio, or a potter’s wheel. For me this is my own personal web site. Over the past two years I’ve redesigned it close to forty times. Most of these designs have never seen the light of day but for me, it’s my creative outlet. Every job and position has restrictions, that’s just part of life. So find your own sandbox where you can work without restrictions, go crazy, explore art, technology and feel creatively energized.
Trend: ‘inbox zero’
Learning to manage your virtual work spaces is nothing new but recently I’ve seen a big trend in keeping your your inbox at ‘zero.’ The idea here is to create folders to organize, sort and route your email. Moving important to-do’s, urgent replies, work requests, etc into appropriate folders. Managing your work flow and inbox can save you a lot of time and help you stay efficient.
Resources: Pattern Tap
Web galleries are a good resource but can sometimes influence us to copy an idea too literally. That’s why I particularly enjoy a site call PatternTap. It gives you little snippets of inspiration without being swayed by a full idea on concept.
There is so much good information out there and you’ll never remember it. So use social bookmarking sites like delicious to store, tag and archive your web history. For me, this tool has been invaluable.
Blogging. Check out the ALA survey: 70% of respondents to the survey have blogs. Its the #1 thing that shocks my intro design students: changing their perception so that blogs are a resource and a tool rather than just a form of entertainment. Information on blogging also is the #1 things students respond to in the feedback survey they send to me at the end of the class as being the most valuable thing they learned during class. Weird to read after busting my butt on type for 4 weeks…but thats the case.
Blog, Network, & Never stop learning. Design is about people, connecting with people will give you a insight into who to design for. Blogging will help you to articulate design in a way that will give you practice for doing it with clients.
I have a page of them here
Speed. There seems to be a trend of “more for less” going around. That includes less money, less time, and less people. Customers are more and more used to getting things quickly and cheaply. Think taking your car in for service. It shouldn’t take long to fix your car, right? Wrong! There’s no magic formula for all the service you need. It takes time and labor to service your car appropriately. Though it’s not an apples to apples comparison design isn’t much different though compared to getting your car fix it can take MUCH longer. It takes people and it takes time to do an effective job.
Related to that, expectations aren’t changing. If you can design high quality work faster you will be handsomely rewarded for it. Take time to learn keyboard shortcuts. Build a methodology for getting clients to open up and understand their brand personality early to avoid “I’ll know what I like when I see it” later on. Have your own personal library of inspiration to turn to for quick influence. Build a network that includes people who can help you do things you are not good at doing quickly or keep you in the loop of useful finds. Always be curious and work hard to learn more.
- Keyboard Shortcuts: Ants Magazine Cheatsheets
- Eliminating Guesswork: A List Apart Article a great article about user goals and brand personality
- Inspiration: Scrnshots one of a million places to start
- Networking: Twitter as much as I hate to say it
Hopefully those of you entering a career on the web can find something in our advice useful. Those of you reading who are already in a web career, please share your thoughts in the comments.