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Can you become a successful self-taught web designer?

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So you are wondering whether it is possible to become a successful self-taught web designer in a modern world full of highly educated and passionate people. The short answer to your question is: Yes, it is definitely possible to become a successful self-taught web designer.

I will dedicate this article to talking a little about myself and how I became a successful self-taught web designer. Not because I am self-absorbed but because I believe my experience can answer the questions you might have and prepare you for the road ahead. Becoming a self-taught web designer is possible cause I am living proof of it, but the road to success is rugged and requires lots of discipline to stay on course. The pot with gold at the end of your journey is worth the wait, but you will have to be patient and work hard to get there. I am not trying to scare you away, but just spare you months of your life if you aren't passionate about design and development. If you are the right type and up for a challenge, then read ahead to begin your journey.

Fighting a world that values education over passion

The world we are living in highly values education, and some countries more than others. I grew up in Denmark where education means everything. From the time you start in school till the end you are being groomed to choose what you want to work with for the rest of your life. That might sound a bit rough, cause you can always change your path, but doing that once you have kids, a house, a car, and all the other grown-up stuff is hard. Believe me, I've been there. Going from a decent salary to pennies is hard and it takes a toll on everyone you live with.

Choosing what you really want to do for the next many years is hard when you are only 15 or 16, so often people have to change careers midway when they realize they only took the job because it seemed cool. I don't think that's the case for everyone, but for me it was. Changing career usually means going back to school, spending a few years learning, and then you are ready to go out and contribute to society once again. Luckily some paths don't require learning from a university to get a high salary, and being a web designer is one of them. The world of tech is changing all the time. Every single month new frameworks, libraries, and compilers are coming out, and it is literally impossible to keep up with them all. Imagine for a moment how many tools that come out during 4-6 years of education. Learning them all would require the study plan to be changed daily just to be able to get a general understanding of each of them.

I am not saying that education is irrelevant in tech. I have deep respect for those who choose to get a computer science degree because you learn lots of stuff that you otherwise wouldn't. Learning the meaning of tuples, signed and unsigned integers, or binary trees might not be the highest on your study list but knowledge like this will have great value and relevance in many jobs. Since the computer science degree focuses a lot on theory, you have the chance to bring something else to the table that gives you value. If you become really good at certain frameworks and libraries then you might raise your chances for certain positions that can make you compete with the highly educated.

It is of cause not everywhere in the world that education is the key to getting a job. There are many countries where they choose to look at your passion and interest before the diploma. You can be a highly educated person but if your interests lie elsewhere then you can be very bad at your job. I got my first full-time job as a web designer in Sweden and my position got me working alongside designers and developers with 20+ years of experience. 

Self-taught web designer salary vs. highly educated salary

The salary of a web designer is as most people know fairly high no matter where you are located in the world. Some people earn a lot of money while others earn a fair amount. To begin we will take a look at some statistics to give us a bit of an insight into the average salary. 

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for a web designer in 2020 was $77,200 annually, and about 75% of all web designers earned at least $55,390 per year. Statistics from 2021 show that the mean salary for web designers in certain areas was:

  • California: $94,060 annually
  • New York: $77,680 annually
  • Texas: $77,880 annually
  • Florida: $84,900 annually
  • Wisconsin: $58,030 annually
  • Utah: $63,090 annually
  • Maryland: $96,460 annually
  • District of Columbia: $95,180 annually
  • Colorado: $87,310 annually

We also found out that about 17% of all web designers are self-taught by attaining their skills through earning certificates. While it is safe to say that you most likely will get a smaller salary when you are self-taught it depends on aspects such as location, responsibilities, your skillset, and your experience. Your salary as a self-taught web designer could be less than $40,000 per year.

The study plan that made me a self-taught web designer

When I started my journey to become a successful self-taught web designer, I had no idea where to begin. I remember spending days trying to figure out what I already knew and what I had to learn before I could be taken into consideration by a company. That information is quite hard to find online, or at least it was at the time I tried, but I decided to see if I could find an online course that would take me all the way and prepare me for what was ahead.

Step 1: Find a full-stack online course

The first step I took was to find an online course that would teach me both the basics of frontend and the basics of the backend. That way I could easily build portfolio projects that I could show to companies when applying for jobs. I know many web designers would call me out on learning backend as well, but there is a saying “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” What I mean by that saying is that learning backend is not a waste of time. Most often as a web designer you will be working with backend people, and being able to understand their job can make both of your lives easier.

I wanted the course to contain languages that were widely used in today's industry, and I found that JavaScript, Node.js, Express.js, MongoDB, jQuery, HTML, and CSS, were some of the most common. By learning these languages I could make myself as relevant as possible to the industry I was trying to apply for a job in.

The course that I found was The Web Developer Bootcamp made by Colt Steele. It's a course containing over 600 lessons stretching over more than 60 hours of on-demand video teaching you everything you need to know. Don't judge the course because it is sold on Udemy, because this actual course is one of the main reasons I made it.

Step 2: Spend all your spare time studying

Once I found the course I started studying, and I would spend as much time as I possibly could every night by the kitchen table while my significant other was watching tv. I became obsessed with learning more, and the more I learned the more interested I got. 

Over the next 3 months, I would sit for approximately 4-6 hours every night studying and creating portfolio projects using the knowledge I've gained. I was watching the same videos over and over until I could remember the details and use them in practice.

Step 3: Create portfolio projects or do freelancing gigs

I remember this step as being the fun one because I finally had the knowledge to turn my thoughts into actual products. The first real project I built was called "Where can i" and it was an online community for people moving to new cities. It would show the best nightclubs, restaurants, public toilets, hotels, etc in the area you were located. I never got to actually publish the web application because the business idea behind it wouldn't pass, but the 400 hours I spent developing it gave me lots of experience with different parts of development.

I don't say that you should go out and spend 400 hours on a portfolio project as I did, but you should definitely build some small projects that showcase your knowledge, talent, and skills so that it becomes easier for companies to make a decision about whether you fit the role. Start by building a small portfolio with 3 different projects showcasing certain but different skills.

Step 4: Study, practice, build and repeat

As a web designer, you will never stop the learning process. Every day new valuable tools are getting published, so you will always find yourself learning no matter how talented you become. I would actually say that the day you stop learning new things, is the day your value as a web designer starts to decline.

There are two books that I found very useful while studying, and they both taught me so much about HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. In a moment of honesty, I will tell you that video courses won't teach you everything you need to know about HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. In my opinion, you need extra material that will teach you the languages in more detail, and these two books were perfect for me.

The first book I would like to recommend is HTML and CSS: Design and Build Websites by Jon Duckett. This book will teach you everything you need to know about semantic HTML, structure, elements, and practical information. If you see the book in my office it is full of colored post-it notes containing things I have to remember, and since I got it it has become my bible when working with HTML.

The other book I would like to recommend is JavaScript and jQuery: Interactive Front-End Web Development. Through video courses, I learned a lot about how to do certain things and handle certain situations, but it was first when I read this book that I understood what was happening behind the curtain. If you want to become fluent in JavaScript and jQuery, then I most definitely recommend this book.

If you are more interested in buying these books as a set, then you can get them here on this link.

Applying to your first job

This is the exciting part about becoming a self-taught web designer. You have studied hard for months, and you have become fluent in multiple languages. Now it is time to update your resume, take your portfolio under your arm and start applying to as many entry-level jobs as you can find. 

What I did was write down a list of about 40 interesting companies in the city I live in, and for each and every one of them, I researched the company and made a custom job application just for them. I made it clear in my application that I was self-taught but probably also one of the most dedicated and passionate persons they will ever meet. I also made sure to include the portfolio description so they would have something to look at. 

I know what you are thinking... 40 companies sound like a lot, and I promise you it is. But it is worth it. Normally when you apply for jobs you send a few at a time and often you wait for months or even years. But when sending a lot of applications at the same time you will get to the finish line faster. Just like you worked hard to learn how to program you also have to work hard to get the job you want. When writing this I remember my mom and dad telling me as a kid that nothing will come to you in life while sleeping. What it means is that if you want something you have to work hard for it.


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