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Web Design 101: The College Student's Guide

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As the web design industry grows, so does the amount of colleges offering degrees in the web design field. Whether or not a web designer first starting out should rely on self-taught skills or choose to pursue a degree has been a long winded debate - with good arguments on both sides - and it continues to be a hot topic.

This article isn't going to delve into that argument, but instead focuses on pursuing web design at a college level.

My goal is to provide those exploring a career in web design a generalized overview of college-level courses and how to get the most out of them.

Naturally, the experience you will have overall studying web design at a college level will depend on many factors, such as the college you attend, the professors you have, the requirements of your specific major, the content and scope of the courses you will take, and so on. Perhaps the most important factor is your level of expertise starting out. In most cases, someone with absolutely no history in web design will learn a lot more than an already experienced web designer because they have much farther to go. However, there are many tips that you should focus on no matter the specifics in order to make the most out of your time studying web design at a college level.

If you keep these in mind throughout your years as a student, by the time you graduate you will find that you are much better prepared than many of your peers.


Preface: Choosing the Right College

Before delving into the good stuff, it's worth discussing the importance of choosing the right college. Though many may be past this step, for those that aren't, it's crucial to spend a large amount of time researching and making your decision.

Okay. So you've decided you are going to school for web design. But now what?


Some things to take in mind when researching a college from a web designer's perspective would be:

  • What technology is available to you? Specifically check out the computer labs on campus and what software is provided – Is your program Mac or PC based? Do they provide the latest Adobe software? Is a laptop required? These are all important to consider before committing to any program.
  • What are the main courses of your desired program? If the most advanced class is on how to use Dreamweaver, it may not be the best class for the serious web designer. Check out your prospective school's course catalog to find out what they have to offer in this area before making your decision.
  • What resources does the location of the college provide? For the most part, the bigger the city, the more opportunities that it will provide. Keep in mind that when it comes to things like finding internships and organizations to get involved with, it is often much easier to do at larger schools or schools in large cities. Every school has something to offer, but it would be of benefit to you to select one that provides plenty of opportunities of which to take advantage.
  • What do the current students have to say? If you schedule a college visit, talk to current students in the program you are looking into. Find out what they have to say and what positive and negative opinions they have. Hearing it from those who have experienced it first-hand is a great way to get an idea of how good a program is (or isn't).

Although these items are great to keep in mind when researching schools, the reality is that not everyone can afford to go to the most high tech college with only the best to offer. If you are one of the many students in that boat, don't fear! As I said before, no matter what your situation, you can still get the best out of what your college has to offer. It may take more effort on your part, but it is possible to transform a mediocre web design program into a solid foundation on which to start a career.


Tip #1: Develop a Game Plan

Planning is an important step towards any goal. One of the biggest favors you can do for yourself is to go into school with a strong foundation of knowledge. If you are interested in a career in the web design industry, make sure to research that industry as much as you can. Read books, articles, magazines, and anything else you can get your hands on that is related to the industry. The more you learn about your intended field, the better suited you will be to make decisions that will be in your best interests for the future.

There is a plethora of career paths within the web design community. Do you want to focus more on design or development? Do you want to work for a large company or small company? Do you want to start your own business someday? It helps to think about these things earlier rather than later in order to best focus your attention on areas that will enhance your current abilities and allow you to be better suited for your intended path. It's helpful to go in to college with a clear view of what you want to accomplish.

If you aren't one of the lucky few (keyword: few) that know exactly what they want to do, that's okay, too! It's important to start exploring your options as soon as you can. Make sure to take a variety of classes and research all areas of the industry in order to find your niche. In my experience, it's easiest to find out what you DON'T want to do first. If you think you might want to focus on designing for web, take a class on the subject early on. You may find that you don't enjoy it as much as you expected to (or even that you downright hate it), in which case you can move on to trying something else without wasting time focusing on a dead end. College is unlike any other time in your life in that you have the opportunity to “preview” careers without the pressure to settle down you will inevitably experience later on in life.


Tip #2: Don't Assume the Professor is Always Right

In one beginner web design course I took, the professor started teaching us that the best way to create a website was to code it using tables. The disgusted look on the faces of us students who knew better than to commit such a crime went unnoticed and the professor carried on with the lesson. Unfortunately, these things can happen.

Just because a professor is appointed to be in charge of teaching a web design class (or any class for that matter) doesn't necessarily mean that they are worthy of that position or are an expert in the subject matter. As much as we would like to believe that our money spent on a class is being put to good use, there will most likely come a time when you realize that is not the case. Even worse – it's a required course and you don't get to opt out.

For those with more advanced knowledge of web design, these professors are easier to pick out than for those just starting out.


Here are some ways to find out if a class is worth your time:

  • Email the teacher to ask what is covered in the course or check out the syllabus beforehand. Is there a whole section on using tables and not one mention of CSS? Well, then perhaps you should take this course with a grain of salt – or not take it at all, if possible.
  • Talk to a student who has taken the class with the same professor. Did they learn anything from the course? Do they only have horror stories to tell?
  • Start taking the course. At most schools, you can drop a class easily enough after a class or two if it isn't what you were expecting. Don't be afraid to drop a mediocre course in favor of a more advanced one. Push yourself!

If all else fails and you get stuck in a similar situation, try to make the best of it. Perhaps use this opportunity to talk with the teacher and help them to see the error of their ways. If that approach doesn't work, then just make sure to forget everything you learned from that particular professor as soon as you are done with the final exam.


Tip #3: Learn Outside of Class

Rome wasn't built in a day, and web design can't be learned in one semester. If you are serious about this profession, you need to supplement your education with self-exploration outside of the classroom.

In one of my classes, our professor instructed us to complete a task that we had not previously covered in the course. The next class period, half the students were complaining that they had no idea how to do it because they hadn't been taught that yet. It was as if they had yet to discover the power of Google (or Bing or whatever). DON'T BE THAT PERSON! Never rely on someone to “teach” you something when you are very capable of discovering it yourself. Don't limit your education to what the professor has on the syllabus, but go out and use the vast resources of the internet to advance your skills.

Lucky for you, you chose a career path that centers around the computer, which is your best resource. In fact, if you are reading this article right now, chances are that you already have a good start. There are countless resources available to you on the web that will help you learn and grow as a web designer. One class can't cover everything there possibly is to know about web design, especially due to the fact that industry is changing every day. You have to be self-motivated and determined. You have to have the drive. A good web designer is a self-sufficient and resourceful web designer!

Try to make a goal every week, month, or even semester. Tell yourself one thing that you are going to learn and then learn it. Setting these goals will help you to push yourself and to advance more quickly. Some of the most useful skills I learned in college were those that I had to seek out myself.


Tip #4: Don't Shirk on the Homework!

Although nothing helps you to learn as much as experience and time… practice definitely helps! Just because you've discovered that you can get an A on your homework simply by doing it doesn't mean you shouldn't give it your all, especially with web design. Sure, the teacher isn't expecting you to be an expert right away... but take that extra step to learn something new. Try to incorporate a new technique on every assignment. Not only are you benefiting from discovering new skills, but you also can impress your professor and your classmates.

If your professor tells you to practice a skill, don't just do it once, but do it multiple times. Research all the possible uses of it. See how other web designers in the business might incorporate what you're learning. Find out as much as you can about everything presented in the classroom in order to widen the scope of what you are learning. This way, you are learning twice as much as the other students!

Another way to approach your school work is to complete it as if you were working for a client. Imagine what a client might be expecting in order to start getting into that particular mind set. For example, if your assignment is to re-design a website, think of what someone asking you to do that would actually want. Do the research, create multiple designs, create wire frames, develop site maps - whether or not any of that is a requirement! If you take the time to really think it through and to exercise your creativity, you can take the average assignment and turn it into a better learning experience.


Tip #5: Get Involved

As a college student, you are going to hear it over and over again: get involved. No, really. Get involved. Not doing so is one of the biggest mistakes you could possibly make, especially in the web design industry where networking is a great way to advance quickly in your career. One more time: GET INVOLVED. And network, network, network!

At many schools, every program has a corresponding organization. Make sure to find out what organizations are available to you that relate to web design. Not only should you join these organizations, but you try to get as much out of them as possible. For example, at the university I attended, there was an organization for my major that held the occasional meetings. However, for those serious about getting involved, there was also a portion of that organization that got together and did work for clients. Take that extra step and you won't regret it! It's a great way to meet people with the same interests as you while building your portfolio (which we will talk about more in depth shortly).

Another way to get involved that is so often overlooked is to make friends with your professors. Seriously, this could be the best decision you will ever make. There is a lot to get out of developing those relationships with your professors. Not only can professors serve as a mentor throughout your college experience, but many employers have connections to those professors and will use them to find students for open positions!


Tip #6: Utilize This Time to Gain Professional Skills

Everyone wants to focus on the technical, but I'll let you in on a secret: that's the least important part of going to school for web design. Sure, you can spend countless hours buried in HTML and CSS, but college is a great time to focus on building those skills that you can't get behind a desk. Being a web designer isn't just creating websites, but it's learning to communicate effectively and become a professional, among (many) other things. It's up to you to take initiative and take advantage of such opportunities that the self-taught web designer will take much longer to learn.

Instead of taking that Easy 101 class, consider taking a public speaking class, or a technical writing course. This is why discovering what aspect of the industry you are most interested in is an important step. It will guide you towards taking the appropriate classes to enhance your learning experience. If you are more interested in design, make sure to take courses in areas such as art or graphic design. If you think you may want to be a programmer someday, make sure to pick up some programming courses along the way. If you want to be a freelancer, take a couple business courses as your electives. It is tempting to choose the classes that your friends say are easy or classes that are more “fun”, but think about what you are really getting out of those classes and whether or not you would rather gain professional skills that will be more important in the long run.

In addition to taking relevant coursework, consider taking part in an internship or co-op work experience. Many programs require this, but if yours doesn't, I would still highly recommend it. If your program does require it, make sure to take it seriously! At my school, we had to complete three different internships over the course of the program. At first, this seemed a very daunting task that was often the source of frustration and complaints. However, looking back, I would say that this was the most important part of my college experience. I learned more from my internship experiences than I ever learned in a classroom. Even the best web design course can't quite beat “real-life” experience in the field. You usually don't realize how much you don't know until you are expected to do it – not to mention doing it under a deadline and with the boss standing over your shoulder. Many internships are even paid, which makes fitting them into your plan even easier. Even if you have to take that extra loan out for a semester of on-the-job experience, it would be worth it.


Tip #7: Take Advantage of Being a Student

The world of opportunities opens up to you the minute you say the word “student”. When you are a college student, people are more likely to grant you opportunities that they wouldn't otherwise. Employers are more likely to hire you for internships, people that you wouldn't expect to give you their time will talk with you, and the university's vast resources are there for the taking.

As I mentioned above, an internship can be one of the best experiences you can get. Luckily for you, employers are more likely to hire students. They recognize that (unfortunately) don't have to pay students as much money, as well as the fact that they don't have to commit to any long-term working relationships. On the other hand, some employers simply hire students because they remember what it's like trying to get started and want to help out. No matter the reason, take advantage of this and seek out these opportunities while it's easier to do so. At the very least, call up a local business and ask to job shadow someone in your intended field for a day. Again, being a student, you are much more likely to be granted such access.

Some people just love helping out students. To illustrate my point: I was doing a report for a music class I was taking, and our job was to write a research paper about a recording engineer. I emailed a well-known recording engineer's publicist for information, expecting a few photos and a biography at most, but instead she set up a phone interview! Had I not been a student seeking information for an assignment, chances are that he wouldn't have taken the time to help out. People are just generally more likely to help you out when you are a student, so take advantage of that. You never know what doors may be open to you unless you try to open them first. So go out there and knock on as many doors as possible! It never hurts to try, I promise.

Lastly, don't ignore your university resources. Many students go through school without ever realizing what was available to them the whole time! The majority of schools offer some type of career building opportunities, such as help with resume writing and interviewing, job fairs, networking opportunities, and presentations/talks from industry professionals, to name a few. Sometimes these things aren't always advertised as well as they should be, so make it a goal to keep informed on what your university has to offer you. Having such resources available is something you shouldn't take for granted, as once you graduate, it may not be as easy to find those resources… or as free.


Tip #8: Start Building Your Portfolio ASAP

This is SO IMPORTANT! Ask any web designer in the industry what tools they find the most useful when it comes to finding a job, and he or she will probably mention a portfolio. Anyone can make themselves look good on a resume if they get creative enough, but employers tend to see through that. Your portfolio is essentially your “proof” to what you state in your resume. It's your super-personalized tool that reflects who you are as a web designer. It is the item that will often be the deciding factor as to whether or not you get The Job. It's something that will continue to grow and evolve as you continue to grow and evolve. Does this sound like something you should put a lot of effort into? Definitely yes!

My advice to you is to start building your portfolio right away. Don't wait until you are a senior in college to throw something together at the last minute, just to realize you really don't have all that much to contribute to a portfolio. That is probably a worst case scenario. Instead, take every opportunity you can that will allow for a good portfolio piece. Don't just take paying opportunities, but think to yourself “will this make a good portfolio piece?” If so, then do it! Many students don't consider this until it's too late. Developing a solid portfolio will give you an advantage over those students.

Although it may sound simple, it's often hard to find portfolio building opportunities when you are first starting out. You don't have to have a job to get projects that you can use in your portfolio.


Here are some ideas of ways to get experience:

  • Ask your teacher if they have any projects to throw your way. Many teachers have side projects that they might need help with or know of people that are in need of a student to assist on a project.
  • Get involved with your university's website, if possible. Find out what department is in charge and see if they have any opportunities available to help out.
  • Create a website or other marketing materials for your student organization. Most organizations rely on their members to contribute to their promotion, which can result in a website built by someone who doesn't exactly specialize in the area. Offer your services to gain a portfolio piece while helping out your organization at the same time.
  • Create something for fun! Everything in your portfolio doesn't have to be done for someone else, and that isn't always realistic for students who are just starting out in the industry. Instead, create a website in your spare time that really showcases your skills.

These are just a few ideas to get you started. Get out there and find other ways to build your portfolio!


Epilogue

I hope that you find these tips useful, whether you are just beginning your journey, or even if you are half way through – there is still time left to take charge! Whether you're in the best web design program in the world or at a small community college with limited resources, there is always a way to make the best of it. Remember these tips and do your best to incorporate them in order to make the most out of your college experience and become a professional web designer in no time. It isn't always easy, but it definitely pays off in the long run.

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