Web designers are individuals tasked with combining both creative and technical elements into a user-friendly, effective, and efficient package. In other words, a web designer must have a strong sense of what aesthetics a target audience will respond to, along with the technical expertise necessary to make the website functional and scalable.
With regards to a formal education, no single degree stands out as an absolute necessity to become a web designer. This means that even if you’ve started (or finished) a degree outside of the purview of web design, you can still learn the skills necessary to succeed in the field. That said, having a bachelor’s degree in computer science and/or graphic design will often put you a step ahead of other self-taught artists who are competing for the same jobs.
But, what is the difference between web developer and web designer?
Both web developers and web designers fill similar, and often complementary, roles. However, there are substantial differences between the two. Web developers are primarily focused on the programming language of a website (e.g. HTML, CSS, PHP, etc.), and making sure that the back-end functions work well. Web developers often build websites and programs for the site essentially from the ground up. Web designers, on the other hand, help create the website, both from a technical and an aesthetic standpoint, but with a focus on functionality and design. For web designers, it’s about making everything work well together.
Although not required, most employers prefer a web developer candidate to hold a bachelor’s degree in website design, computer science, or a closely-related field. However, sometimes a designer with experience and an associate degree in web design will land an entry-level job. Other motivated individuals will land a job simply by learning design and programming skills on their own. However, web site design is a very competitive field and successful candidates have a least a few years of education and experience prior to applying for a job in this field.
A website designer should be artistic as well as computer savvy. That’s why many degree programs will combine digital media classes with computer and web programming classes. Common coursework at the associate degree level typically includes web design, programming concepts, digital imaging, animation and multimedia design. Coursework at the bachelor’s degree level may include database management, web design, networking, math, and a lot of time spent learning and mastering programming languages, like HTML and Dreamweaver. Some designers opt to focus on color theory and composition and earn a degree in visual arts or visual design.
Web designers can become certified. This may benefit someone who did not attend college or earn a degree when applying for a job. Certifications are available through many software companies, professional organizations, as well as continuing education programs.
Regarding design principles, there are several key components web designers should also be deeply familiar with. While this is not a comprehensive list, it covers the main elements every web designer should understand:
Consistent Aesthetic: Web users should be able to intuitively understand the layout of a website, including each individual web page. To accomplish this, the aesthetic and overall design of a website should be consistent throughout. In other words, if a user can understand one web page, they should be able to understand and navigate them all.
Balanced Layout: The concept of balance exists in many design fields, not just web design. The concept itself demands an understanding of balancing light and heavy elements. In other words, large, dark elements should be balanced with smaller and lighter ones. Graphics and fonts play a part here.
Appropriate Levels of Contrast: In addition to balancing design elements, having appropriate levels of contrast is essential as well. Contrast will mean different things in different situations but can be summed up with the use of complementary colors (on the color wheel), alongside appropriate contrast among the different shapes and textures used by a web designer.
Unified User Experience: Another important element of web design is ensuring that users have a unified experience across the entire website — and across any other channels (social media, etc.) that the web designer is responsible for. In addition, each element on a web page should be easily organized mentally by users.
Proper Emphasis: Emphasizing the elements on a web page that are a high priority for the owners of a website is a key function of web designers. By drawing attention to the right places, web designers ensure that the website is effective in converting users to appropriate goals (e.g. sales, registration, email lists, etc.).
Even the best web designer in the world will have trouble finding consistent and profitable work if they are unable to build a positive and well-known reputation. One of the best ways to showcase talents is to utilize an online portfolio, which can highlight the very skills that a web designer wants to use in his or her day-to-day work.
Branding one’s self is important as well. While an online portfolio is a key component of this, branding also requires having business cards and looking for networking opportunities, both offline and online, to participate in. Even for employed web designers, networking with others at industry events is a powerful way of building a name, becoming more valuable, and learning the latest information about the industry itself. This also means keeping an eye out for the best industry conferences and events in the region (or traveling to events out of the area, if and when appropriate).
For web designers that see themselves as somewhat introverted, building interpersonal skills is a critical component as well. Searching for career-related organizations and clubs, and using contacts that were made while in school are also great ways to network and find work.