So you want to become a web designer. Cool!
But are you ready to put in the work it takes to become one?
Because it does, indeed, take a lot of work. I’m not gonna sugarcoat things for you.
In my research for this post, something became abundantly clear to me. There is a lot of misinformation about what skills you need to have in order to design websites.
Most of this information included things like “HTML!”, “CSS!” and “Javacript!”
C’mon guys. This isn’t 2002. You don’t need to know any of that stuff to build great websites. Or even to build your very own web design business.
There are, however, some really important skills that you must know. Crucial skills that I believe are not discussed enough.
Some of these may even be surprising to hear. But hey, that’s why I’m here. 😉
These are the most important 10 web design skills to develop:
The rock-solid foundation of a web designer people want to work with
When most people think about developing the proper skills to become a web designer, they naturally think of the techy stuff. User experience, SEO, speed optimization, content marketing, etc…
But they’re looking at things backwards.
Regardless of whether you simply want to land a web design job, or start your own web design business (I highly recommend the latter), developing the following skills will make you more desirable to work with and infinitely more productive.
It just might even make you a happier person…
The difference between winning and losing is, most often, not quitting. – Max Levchin (Co-Founder of PayPal)
Whether you’re job-hunting or business-building, developing the necessary skills to improve yourself as a web designer is most definitely a long-term game.
Perhaps it’s those dang millennials, or the instant gratification loops we constantly receive from social media, but it sure seems like people expect results far too quickly these days.
We’ve become so accustomed to getting what we want, when we want it.
Hungry? Push a button on your phone and get food personally delivered to your door in under 30 mins.
Bored? Binge an entire season of TV in one night.
Want a new book to read tonight? One-click order it from Amazon and have it arrive by dinner time.
Want to become a web designer? Slowly and methodically develop the necessary skills through consistent personal and professional development, and achieve satisfying results in a few years.
Uhhh… maybe I’ll just head back to Netflix…
There’s no way around it. Time + effort = results. Persevere!
2) Time Management
There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all. – Peter Drucker (Author)
You already know this one.
We are in a new era. The Attention Economy. Everyone and everything is constantly vying for your eyeballs. More eyeballs = more ads/subscribers = more money in their pockets.
Cable TV, Sports, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO, Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Playstation, Xbox, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Radio, Billboards… I could go on and on…
And that’s just the entertainment options. Nevermind the things that actually matter in life: family, friends, spirituality, education, diet, exercise, personal growth…
Looking at those two lists you could easily say there’s no time left to do anything else. But it all comes down to this principle:
You have to take time to make time.
3) Empathetic Communication
For this one, I’m going to use a wonderful little illustration from Stephen R Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Suppose you’ve been having trouble with your eyes and you decide to go to an optometrist for help. After briefly listening to your complaint, he takes off his glasses and hands them to you.
“Put this on,” he says. “I’ve worn this pair of glasses for ten years now and they’ve really helped me. I have an extra pair at home, you can wear these.”
So you put them on, but it only makes the problem worse.
“This is terrible!” you exclaim. “I can’t see a thing!”
“Well, what’s wrong?” he asks. “They work great for me. Try harder.”
“I am trying.” you insist. “Everything is a blur.”
“Well, what’s the matter with you? Think positively.”
“OK. I positively can’t see a thing.”
“Boy are you ungrateful! And after all I’ve done to help you!”
What are the odds that you would go back to see this guy?
How quickly do we attempt to prescribe solutions without first diagnosing the issue? This problem is running rampant in our societies today. Everyone is shouting their solutions from the rooftops without first attempting to truly understand the issues of those they’re shouting at.
Empathy is powerful. It makes you a better listener. It gives you a healthy dose of perspective. It fosters a clearer world view. And, yes, it will also make you a better web designer.
Clients are coming to you because they don’t know how to build a website themselves. Oftentimes, they don’t even know what they want. They’re not sure how to describe it. All they can offer are vague ideas and confusing interpretations.
Are you going to diagnose the issue? Or jump ahead to a hastily-drawn conclusion?
4) Emotional Intelligence
You’ve heard of IQ, but do you know about EQ?
EQ, or emotional intelligence, is defined as “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.”
Empathy plays an important role in healthy emotional intelligence, but there’s more to it.
The true definition of EQ can be debated, but it’s widely accepted that these are the 5 core principles that make up healthy emotional intelligence:
- Social Skills
The more that you manage each of these areas, the higher your emotional intelligence. Let’s break these down a bit:
Know your strengths and, more importantly, your weaknesses. If you’re self-aware, you know how your emotions and your actions can affect the people around you.
Personal accountability. A quality that is sorely lacking in our modern world. People who regulate themselves effectively don’t verbally attack others, make rushed or emotional decisions, blame others for their shortcomings, or compromise their values.
Self-motivated individuals work consistently toward their goals, and they have extremely high standards for the quality of their work. If you can ensure your motivations don’t rely on external factors outside your control, you’ll be well on your way to a high EQ.
As discussed above, this is probably the most important quality of EQ. A person who possesses true empathy can put themselves in someone else’s shoes to try to understand where they’re coming from.
4e) Social Skills
A person who does well socially is a great communicator. They’re able to handle hearing bad news, work well within teams, can calmly manage conflicts, and are eager to jump in and help when they can.
It’s not that I’m so smart. It’s that I stay with problems longer. – Albert Einstein
Between designing websites, building a business, and dealing with clients, there are many things that can go wrong.
Overreacting to Photoshop crashing for the third time today or using a passive aggressive tone with a needy client is a quick path to failure.
And I can tell you from personal experience: people really appreciate it when you show patience. Often times a prospect or client realizes when they are being a bit much, and this is the point where most other web designers would drop them.
If you’re willing to listen to them, try to understand their problem, and then work with them to solve it, you will easily stand out from all of the other lazy designers out there.
The techy side of being a great web designer
Now that you’ve got your foundational skills in place, it’s time to develop the “typical” web designer skills. You know, the stuff you expected to see when you came here.
And that’s because you don’t need to learn to code to become a great web designer. (I can already hear the stampede of angry coding web designers on their way to fight me)
6) User Experience Design
This is the #1 technical skill you need to learn as a web designer. Hands down. Ignore all the other stuff until you have this figured out.
You need to understand how visitors interact with websites. In particular, it’s important to learn the fundamentals of designing a website around the user.
So, so many web designers get caught up in making something unique or artistic. While it’s certainly important to build something visually attractive, doing so at the cost of UX is a huge mistake.
For example, let’s say your website has a stunning and custom-illustrated video as an introduction to their entire website. The video is about 30 seconds long, and automatically appears regardless of what page your user lands on.
Everyone you speak to universally agrees that the video is amazing. However, after taking a look at Google Analytics, you notice that the majority of your visitors actually quit the video after just 6-7 seconds.
It’s clear that the majority of your visitors aren’t interested in the video.
What do you do now? Well, there are a number of reasons why this could be happening:
- Visitors are not getting what they expected when they clicked on your link, and leave immediately as a result.
- The video does meet the needs of most of your visitors, but it loads too slowly, so people leave before it even starts playing.
- The video displays and loads wonderfully on desktop, but is cut off on mobile. Since most of your visitors happen to be on mobile devices, they get frustrated and leave.
These are all UX problems. When you encounter issues likes this, you need to determine what the problem is, where it’s coming from, then resolve it.
There is one thing you certainly cannot do. Which is leave the video up as-is because you personally love it.
I have personally had some blog posts that I was super proud of fail miserably. My users’ needs and wants were clearly different than what I wanted to make.
Are you going to put your users’ experience above your own artistic expression?
7) CMS Tool
Ah, yes. My favorite topic of all. The CMS. (Content Management System)
These days? That’s no longer necessary. There are many coding-free, online-based CMS’s to choose from.
Then you have more advanced CMS’s like Drupal, Joomla and Webflow.
To choose the right web design tool for you, you need to consider:
- Your objective. Are you trying to qualify for a job, or build your own business?
- Your current abilities. Do you have a few years experience under your belt, or are you a complete newb?
- Your patience level. How fast do you want to see results? How much time are you able to commit to learning?
I was a complete newb when I started, so I began by using Weebly. As my skills gradually improved, I progressed to WordPress.
There is no right or wrong choice. Just choose the tool that best fits your current situation and future goals.
8) Performance Optimization
Surprised that I put performance optimization above SEO?
The web is moving towards a performance-first world. Your Google rankings will be dramatically affected based on your UX and site performance.
Google, and your visitors, love to watch for things like:
- Loading speeds
- Zero popups of any kind
- Very few and unobtrusive ads
- Lots of unique visuals
- Variety of different styling and formatting
- Easily viewable from any device
- Mobile-first design
Think anyone wants to sit through 1,500 words without any of this to liven it up? Think again.
Just look at this blog post as an example!
9) Search Engine Optimization
Websites with no traffic are lonely places.
It’s like paying thousands of dollars to put up a billboard at the bottom of Mariana’s Trench.
With Google’s algorithms constantly evolving, SEO is a never-ending game. One that gets more challenging every year. You need to constantly stay on top of it.
It’s astonishing to me how many people don’t understand how Google works. Even if you’re not planning on getting into web design, Google 101 should be taught in classrooms all over the world.
This lack of understanding is a huge reason why we find ourselves in the era of “fake news”. It’s also why so many people and companies have been able to manipulate the public for a quick buck.
But, that’s an article for another time. For you, our intrepid web designer, you simply need to understand the basics of SEO so that you can implement it in your clients’ sites.
10) Graphic Design
I can hear you freaking out already. “I have to learn graphic design on top of web design??”
Don’t worry, you don’t need to be a graphic designer. But you should most definitely learn the basics of graphic design. It will drastically improve your website designs.
Get to know some of the amazing, and often free, graphic design tools available to you.
Eventually, you can even branch out into logo design, something almost all small businesses need!
Of course, you’re not supposed to view all of these skills as a linear journey, slowly developing one at a time. People don’t work like that. You can develop all of these simultaneously.
But the foundational, personal and “people” skills will always trump technical skill and ability. Especially communication and emotional intelligence.
I know so many people who are chock-full of amazing technical skills, but lack the ability to effectively communicate with their prospects, understand and solve their problems, and display true patience for when things don’t go 100% according to plan.
So, yes, always continue to sharpen your skills in web design, SEO, UX and the like.
But don’t forget about those core foundational skills. They will take you much, much further in life.
These are some of the most common questions I receive from people who are trying to become a web designer.
What does a web designer do?
While most people will launch into a bunch of confusing buzzwords and industry lingo, here is what web designers actually do: Web designers help people and businesses sell their products and services on the internet. Boom.
How much do web designers make?
There is no way to know for sure what the average income of a web designer is. It varies widely. The top web design agencies make tens of millions of dollars a year, while the designers who work for these agencies often make between $60,000 and $100,000. And it gets even more varied when it comes to freelance web designers.
What programming languages do I need to learn to become a web designer?
Need? None. You can become a web designer without knowing how to write a single line of code. That said, if you want to get hired by a web design agency, instead of starting your own web design business, you almost definitely should know HTML and CSS.
How can I build my own personal brand as a web designer?
I wrote a complete guide to building a new brand from nothing right here: How to Build a New, Attention-Grabbing Brand From Scratch
Is it better to sell my web design services as an agency/company or with my personal name?
The most important thing is to be authentic. If you are a one-man shop, be open about it. Don’t pretend you’re bigger than you are. People will see through the facade. Know your limitations. Don’t take on jobs that are too complicated for your current skillset. Generally, I find it’s best to use “I” instead of “we” when communicating with clients. It’s more personal and less corporate.
How can I make sure I don’t have to rely on freelancing platforms, like Upwork?
When you’re first starting out, you can’t. You’re likely going to rely heavily on freelancing platforms in the beginning. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Many web designers have made a lot of money from platforms like Upwork, and steadily grew their business until they no longer needed them to bring in new customers.
Should I tell my clients what tools I use to build websites?
It’s not necessary. In fact, most clients won’t even know what you’re talking about. Unless they specifically ask, stay clear of the tech stuff. Focus on how your services will solve their problems and help them accomplish their goals.
Which is better? Cold emailing or cold calling?
Neither! Stop doing things cold. Warm your leads up before you pitch them. This requires genuine and thoughtful relationship-building, and it’s why so many web designers are too lazy to bother. Don’t be one of them!
What’s the difference between a web designer and a web developer?
Web designers focus on “front-end” design. While web design will often include some back-end work, like SEO and performance optimization, it generally focuses on the stuff you can actually see. Web developers deal mainly with “back-end” programming and coding. The kinds of things that are behind the scenes of websites and applications, and tend to be more advanced.