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The Ups and Downs of Being a Self-Taught Web Designer

on Freelance Design

Not so long ago, web design was a brand-new industry. Because it was so new, there weren’t many opportunities to get a formal education on its fundamentals. Thus, the most direct path to becoming a professional was to teach yourself the necessary skills.

That’s how my career started. I studied the source code of different websites and figured out how things worked. I experimented with Photoshop, CSS and eventually PHP and JavaScript. Over the years, most of what I know has come from the process of trial and error.

But being self-taught in this line of work brings a mixed bag of feelings and challenges. On the one hand, it’s very freeing. On the other, it can actually be a little scary.

With that in mind, let’s explore the good, bad and ugly that comes with being a self-taught web designer.

Learn What You Want, How You Want

Ah, this is where that sense of freedom comes from. With the incredible depth of educational resources out there for web design and development, you really can pick and choose your focus.

That is in contrast to a more formal education, where you are obliged to follow a set path in your learning. Of course, this is usually for a good reason (you need to understand the basic principles before you can tackle the smaller details). Still, learning on your own means having the right to set your own path.

I think there is a great upside to learning the particular skills that interest you most. For one, you’re more likely to be passionate about the subject matter. When following someone else’s curriculum, it can be more difficult to find that same enthusiasm to put in the required work (something I struggled with in school).

And, because you are taking that different path, you might find yourself thinking a bit differently as well. This can lead to creative ideas and solutions that may not have occurred to you otherwise.

Finally, when it comes to how you learn, you have the option to pick the types of materials you like best. It might be a series of tutorials or a video-based training course. Whatever your preference, the idea is that you can learn more effectively when you find a format that suits you.

A person typing on a laptop computer.

You Might Miss Something Important

Perhaps the biggest downside of teaching yourself web design is that, inevitably, there are going to be some gaps in your education. And that could mean missing something important.

For example, let’s say you want to learn how to do some specific tasks with PHP. You find some great tutorials and master their content. That’s all well and good, but what if those tutorials left out a major point of emphasis, such as security?

I’ve run into this situation in my own career. Learning things in a piecemeal format works, at least for those specific subjects I’m studying. But when put into practice, I often find that I need to search out other details that may have been either glossed over or ignored.

This isn’t a critique of the resources out there, but more of an observation of this particular approach to learning. It’s an area where a more traditional type of schooling has the upper hand.

Therefore, it’s important to recognize whatever gaps exist and seek to fill them in the best you can.

Man jumping between building roofs.

Measuring up to the Competition

Despite the potential knowledge gaps, a self-taught designer can indeed hang in there with the competition. There are a couple of reasons for this.

The first is that our industry is a bit more segmented than we might think. There really isn’t such a thing as a one-size-fits-all designer or developer. Each of us has our own skillsets and preferred areas of specialty. Not to mention the wide array of price ranges out there. As such, we’re not competing with every other person out there so much as within a particular niche.

The space I’ve worked and competed in for the past two decades has allowed me to make a decent living, while also affording opportunities for continued learning. Am I the most highly-skilled person in this market? Not by a longshot. But it goes to show that you don’t have to know everything to find some success.

Second (and somewhat related), the job description has changed for many of us. While there are those talented folks who build everything from scratch, that is no longer a requirement. The advent of the CMS and plugins provide a great foundation for designers of various skill levels to build upon. From there, we can go as far as our skills (and desire to learn) will take us.

Sometimes, it seems as if fitting these multiple pieces together is as much a part of our job as building out a beautiful UI. That in itself provides a market for both formally and self-educated web designers.

A graph shown on a computer monitor.

A Unique Opportunity for the Right Person

One of the most amazing aspects of a career in web design is that you don’t necessarily need a formal education. All it requires is a little bit of talent, an internet connection and a desire to learn. From there, you can apply your skills as a freelancer or by working for someone else.

That said, being self-taught may well be the more difficult path to take. For all the freedom it provides, you might miss out on both the fundamentals and finer details of the craft. And, once you’ve established yourself as a professional, finding time to further your skills can be tough.

Still, if you understand the challenges and really love what you do, you can overcome just about any obstacles that stand in your way. It’s an opportunity that seems truly unique to web design.