Working in Web Design – Experience or Education?

This is the full version of an opinion piece that is featured in this month’s .NET magazine.

Something I am becoming increasingly aware of these days is the long list of educational achievements that appear on young people’s CVs.

Whilst these are impressive in their own right, I have to say that as the owner and managing director of a marketing design agency, qualifications are far from the top of my list of priorities when I’m looking to fill a vacancy within my own organisation.

I recently held a series of interviews to fill the position of Web Development Assistant at NSDesign, and I noted with interest the disparity in skillset that exists between the recent graduates and those who had gone straight from school into work.

On the whole I found the latter group to be far more competent and capable of handling the tasks that I would ordinarily task a junior web developer with, as opposed to the former group, even though they had been studying the subject full time at university for three or four years.

Like all employers, I want only the very best web designers and developers in my business to ensure smooth operations, and fundamentally to fulfil and exceed our customers’ expectations.   That is why I employ staff based on a whole variety of factors, rather than on their educational attainments alone.

As an employer, what I’m looking for is staff with the technical know-how, communication skills and initiative to do the job well. Whether a candidate has gained these skills through formal education is secondary – and young people interested in entering this industry should definitely bear this in mind.

Technical skills

First and foremost, what most employers are looking for in a web designer or developer is someone with the relevant skills to do the job properly.   A ‘typical’ day’s work for a web designer will involve anything from visual interface design, wire-framing and user experience planning to front end development and coding using the latest web design standards.   Employers want to see evidence that candidates have these skills and they are able to apply them in practice – and not just apply them, but apply them well.

When I was conducting interviews recently, I was eager to find out from recent graduates what they had been taught about at university.  From their feedback, it quickly became clear that web-design degrees focus on table-based layouts – often ignoring vital and fairly basic web design elements such as semantic mark up, standards and CSS.

By comparison, candidates with relevant work experience were well versed in these elements – they had the practical skills that I was looking for and would be able to hit the ground running.

Unlike other professions, web design doesn’t lend itself to the conventional university learning environment of classroom teaching and library textbooks.  In practice, it requires candidates to be familiar with the latest technologies, trends and software – that means practical skills-based learning, not immersing one’s self in a textbook.

One of our web designers – Paul – is university educated, having completed his Applied Graphics degree in 2005.  Paul says he gained a lot from his studies – he was taught about flash animation, 3d modelling and multimedia presentations and learned the basics of web design.  However, he admits that if he could go back in time he wouldn’t choose the same path again.

After three years working for NSDesign, Paul’s advice to others looking for a career like his is to  concentrate on building a strong portfolio to show an employer at the interview stage.  Rather than go to university, Paul thinks that the best way to learn the ins and outs of web design is through the wealth of web design tutorial websites, blogs and books on offer – these are all geared towards teaching people the principles of good design, high standards and technologies that are being used in the industry.

As an employer, I have to agree – the web provides a huge array of up-to-the-minute learning tools, and youngsters that take advantage of these and come up with the goods are by far more employable than those who have been learning about table-based layouts.

Customer service

Next up on my list of priorities for suitable candidates is an awareness of the importance of customer service standards.  I’m sure most employers will agree when I say that a business can have the best designers in the world, but if they are unable to communicate effectively with clients then that organisation is doomed to failure.  Key responsibilities for a designer include meeting with clients to discuss their requirements, deciphering briefs, and delivering training on how to operate websites, blogs and social media networks.

NSDesign’s Designer and front end developer, Matt, briefly studied graphic design at college but dropped out after a year, opting to teach himself the tools of the trade instead.    He describes himself as a bit of a jack of all trades, having gone on to work in a variety of different jobs, including retail, manufacturing and call centre jobs, learning about web design in his spare time.

Out of all of our staff, I can quite honestly say that Matt is the one that excels at customer service – much of his work involves meeting with clients to discuss their aims and objectives and to train them on WordPress and other content management systems.

At first glance, Matt’s CV may seem quite eclectic, but his experience in the world of work has been absolutely invaluable to his ability to be excellent at his job and contribute to this business.  His background has given him the confidence and business acumen he needs to do conduct his role effectively.

Rather than being a drawback, Matt’s lack of formal education is in fact his biggest selling point – he’s used his time productively to gain business experience and practical expertise that really pays off from the point of view of an employer and from our clients.

Ambition and initiative

Last, but certainly not least, what I’m looking for in a candidate is an ability to show initiative at work.  As is the case in all industries, one of the biggest pressures on employers these days is time.  The majority of my working week is spent outside the office – delivering workshops, meeting clients and following up business development opportunities, so what I need is staff who can deliver high quality websites and designs on receipt of a tight brief.

I was thoroughly impressed with one candidate I interviewed recently when he showed me his own portfolio site with various personal and mock client websites that he had worked on.  He had no formal training, but his dedication and quality of work spoke volumes, and he was the one I ended up hiring.  I could see from the quality of work he showed me that he was ambitious and that he loved this kind of work.  Nothing beats that – showing that you are willing to go the extra mile really speaks volumes at the interview stage.

The same goes for one of our web developers Martin.  He started out in the web industry after teaching himself about the trade through books, tutorials and web forums.  Entirely self-taught, Martin has now been at NSDesign for five years.  Now that he has established his career in web design, he has decided to embark on an Open University course to obtain a BSc degree in Information Technology.

I’ve always admired Martin’s ambition and enthusiasm for his work, and his desire go back to university now speaks volumes about his dedication.  It is interesting because Martin has gone full circle – only now, after teaching himself about web design and succeeding in establishing himself as a web developer, does he feel it is important to provide solid educational foundations for his learning.

Whilst I’m confident that Martin can give his job 110% without a formal education, this recent move demonstrates his commitment to his career – from an employer point of view there is nothing better than that.

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