Starting Out Small in Web Design


People often choose a career in web design because they find it fascinating and/or have a real talent for it. In my own case, I spent my late teenage years playing around with HTML a bit as a hobby. It turned into a passion that has now lasted into a second decade.

My first professional gig came after high school, maintaining the website for our local newspaper. It was a great experience, but it came with a bit of a laughable salary (buy me a beer and I’ll share the tiny number with you).

One of the things that stands out most to me from this time was how ‘used’ I felt. I believed that I was worth a lot more than I was being paid and that the work I was doing wasn’t being treated seriously. The web was a pretty new medium in terms of its use for business and some colleagues weren’t so impressed with its potential. That led me to a feeling of apathy and really made it hard to get motivated.

Some of what I felt was based on the reality of my circumstances. The other part was more about ego and entitlement. That’s the side of things we often don’t like to talk about. But it affects many of us – especially when we’re starting out in our careers.

A Snail’s Race to the Top

It’s no wonder some of us feel like we’re getting the short end of the stick. After all, the internet brought about an age of instant celebrity where a small effort can produce huge rewards. As an 18-year-old kid with a somewhat unique skill, why wasn’t I just rocketing up the company hierarchy?

In short, the answer for this was that I really didn’t know anything at all. Like many a youngster in an Afterschool Special, I just thought I knew what I was doing.

Web design is a field where experience really does matter. You have to put yourself through all sorts of real world situations in order to learn and improve your skills. Things have to break before you can learn to fix them. You’ll have to absorb different forms of client feedback so that you can learn not to take it too personally. There’s just so much a class or online tutorial can’t teach you. Experience fills in those gaps.

So the fact that I knew a bit of HTML and could put together a rudimentary website didn’t exactly mean I was to be regarded as CEO material. Despite my own feelings, it turned out that I was exactly in the place I needed to be – right at the bottom of the ladder.

Patience Brings Growth

Patience Brings Growth

Sometimes, it seems like the hardest thing to be is patient. We all want what we want, when we want it. And so the fact that building a design career takes time isn’t always so easy to digest.

But building a portfolio and gaining a good reputation takes time. And the lessons you learn day after day add up to the point where you can become truly confident in your abilities. That confidence can also help you realize the things you don’t know – keeping you humble and willing to learn.

Personally, I learned a whole lot in the time spent at that first job. When I started my freelance business a few years later, I entered a whole new phase of learning. But I had at least formed a general philosophy of what I wanted to accomplish and how I wanted to go about doing it. There were things that I knew I wanted to do differently from where I’d been.

Making the Climb

Making the Climb

We can all recall stories of famous people who have had too much, too soon. Usually the endings aren’t very happy ones. That’s why there’s a real advantage to starting at the bottom. You can take the time to build upon your experiences and learn the ins and outs of your craft. From there, you can evolve to take on more responsibilities.

Of course, there’s also the matter of finding (and taking advantage) of the right opportunities for growth. Part of this comes from developing your own sense of what direction you want to move in. The positive traits you’ve gained can then help propel you to that place.

As for me, I wouldn’t say I’m anywhere near the “top” in terms of any sort of arbitrary ranking of web designers. That’s not necessarily what drives me. But I am doing what I love to do (mostly) on my own terms. To me, that is what’s most important.

We each have our own motivations for our careers and dreams of what we’d like to be doing. So, whatever your motivation – just give it some time. You’ll have to work your way up your own personal ladder in order to reach the top.

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