Like most things in life, no career is without its share of challenges and revelations. What’s really amazing is how experience can change our perspective and provide both insight and hindsight. It serves as a reminder that, no matter how smart we think we are, we often start out with very different ideas about what it takes to be a web designer.
This has all prompted me to think about the 20+ years I’ve spent in this industry. With it comes a whole host of things I wished I had known when I was just starting out. It may have saved a stressful incident or two, along with pushing me ahead of the curve when it comes to change.
So, fellow designers, I’m here to pass along some of the tidbits of knowledge that I wish someone had told me back in the day. May they help you on your journey! Or, at the very least, give you a hearty laugh.
1. You Don’t Need to Book Every Project
At the start of my career, my philosophy was essentially: “You need a website? Sure, I’ll build you one.” It provided a lot of experience, including a few I’d rather forget. While there is some value in that, it took me years to realize that I didn’t have to settle for every lousy project that I could find. It’s a common struggle.
When just starting out as a freelancer, it’s tempting to take every single project that comes along. But the reality is that you’re not a convenience store. The goal isn’t to sell product to everyone who walks through the door. Web design is a more nuanced game.
There are plenty of reasons why a particular project might not be a good fit. The size, the scope of work or the client’s personality can be major factors. The amount of available time in your schedule is also worth considering.
Plus, taking a project often means being stuck with it for some time. If that client comes back to your for maintenance or web hosting, you’re going to have to deal with them repeatedly.
So, before you say “yes” and sign that contract, think about the consequences and whether or not it’s the right gig for you.
2. Stay Flexible and Expect Change
Web design is a profession that doesn’t stay the same for very long. Trends come and go, as do tools and technologies.
As a beginner, I was very set in my ways. I just had to write every bit of code by hand (and deal with sore wrists at the end of the day). Layouts and graphics also had to be done a certain way.
But over time, I found myself out of the loop on more modern practices. This meant still using old-school table layouts while the world went to CSS. It was using my own clunky method for organizing content while the CMS was changing how websites were built.
Eventually, I figured out that I’d better adapt if I wanted to survive in this industry. While still a bit stuck in my ways, I try to acknowledge when I need to make changes to my workflow.
My advice: Love your work and your tools. But don’t expect them to last forever. Eventually, you’ll need to adapt to something new.
3. Don’t Be Afraid of What You Don’t Know
Part of the adaptation process is in boldly going where you haven’t been before. The problem is that the unknown can be awfully scary.
This was the case for me, as I often hid from the types of projects I didn’t know much about. eCommerce, for example, was terrifying. I’d convinced myself that there was simply too much to learn, and that I couldn’t possibly get up to speed.
Eventually, though, you need to take a chance or risk becoming a relic of a bygone era. And you know what? It’s not nearly as difficult as we may think.
Web designers literally have libraries worth of educational resources at our fingertips. Even better is that much of it is either free or low-cost. All it takes is the willingness to try.
4. Referrals Can Be the Lifeblood of Business
Signing up new clients can take up a lot of resources. And while it’s a necessary evil, if often means spending time away from design and development (a.k.a. the “fun stuff”).
In my earlier years, I spent way too much time on things that didn’t work. I tried various forms of advertising and made cold calls. The results weren’t justifying the commitment I was making (Side note: it might be because I’m terrible at sales gimmicks).
What did seem to work, however, was satisfying current clients enough that they referred others my way. This ended up being a great way to get new business – while requiring much less time and effort.
It takes a little while to get going, but once referrals start coming in, you might just say goodbye to rounding up new clients the old-fashioned way. It also goes to show that some patience can really pay off over the long haul.
5. Success Requires a Commitment
If you want to be successful (however you define it), don’t expect it to happen overnight. Maybe this sounds like common sense, but it’s not always so obvious. Especially when you’re first starting out, trying to establish yourself as a respected designer.
For the first few years of my career, I was convinced that I knew more than most of the people around me. It’s ultimately what led me to venture out as a freelancer. But, once I got out into the world, reality hit me like a ton of bricks.
I learned that I could only get so far on half-baked skills and little commitment to building a solid foundation. Eventually, I realized that my business couldn’t grow unless I grew as a person.
A little bit of humility, along with a strong work ethic, can help you get to where you want to go. It just takes a commitment to the process.
Advice Is One Thing, Experience Is Another
Looking back, maybe knowing all of these different things from the start wouldn’t have made such a huge difference. Why? Because the real knowledge comes from actually experiencing them.
In that way, none of the lessons above are a game-changer in themselves. But they can serve as good reminders about what it takes to be a web designer. And, more importantly, they provide those “a-ha” moments as we navigate our careers. Over time, it all adds up to a better understanding of who you are and what you do.