Career Advice For Graduating Web Design Students

Career Advice For Graduating Web Design Students

It’s that time of year again: graduation, when students transition away from the classroom to what will hopefully be a long and successful career in their chosen industry. I recently said goodbye to some of my own website design and development students. Instead of teaching lessons in design principles or responsive websites, I spent our final evening together answering their questions. One of those questions was, “What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?

At the time, I didn’t have an answer. I could think of many instances when someone helped me solve a particularly complex design challenge or a complex CSS issue or helped me navigate a delicate client situation, but I wouldn’t consider those “best career advice” moments. After thinking about it for a week or so, I came up with four pieces of advice that I received early in my career and that were invaluable to me as I was getting started in this industry but that are just as relevant and useful to me today.

Learn To Solve Problems

Whether you consider yourself more of a designer or a developer, your real job is to solve your clients’ problems. Yes, a visually rich design with great typography, powerful imagery and a user experience that works great on a wide range of screen sizes is very important. So is clean code that scales to future needs and conforms to best practices. Still, great design and well-written code are not the reasons clients hire you; they expect those things as part of the package.

Every project you work on will require you to make a number of decisions along the way. Those decisions need to be based on how to improve the client’s business and help them meet their goals for the website. You need to become a problem-solver. Doing so not only will improve the effectiveness of your work, but will do wonders for how your clients respond to your suggestions.

As with anyone new to a job, your lack of experience will sometimes be held against you, rightly or wrongly. One of the best ways to ensure that your ideas are taken seriously is to tie them to actual business solutions. A suggestion for a particular approach, like responsive design, or an explanation for why you’ve made certain design choices will be better received if you show how they will solve specific problems.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received as a web professional is that an amazing design that doesn’t solve any problems is not as valuable as an adequate design that addresses the company’s problems and improves their business.

Be Open To Change And Look For Opportunities

When I began working in this industry, my passion was design. That is what I loved to do, and I firmly believed that design would always be at the forefront of my workday. If you had told me then that 15 years later design work would make up the smallest part of my job and that most of my time would be spent leading projects, writing, speaking and teaching, I would have said you’re crazy. Still, that’s where my career has brought me — and I am thrilled that it has!

The web industry is not a single road. You can take many different routes, and those routes are often opportunities to grow. But they also likely entail change for you. Don’t allow fear of change or uncertainty about new responsibilities to keep you from growing. Had I been determined to always focus on design, I never would have discovered how much I enjoy the aspects of my job today, nor would I have achieved the success I have now.

Learn to recognize that some paths you encounter are detours and not right for you, while others are opportunities to be seized upon. Be mindful of these opportunities, be open to change, and be willing to challenge yourself. Which brings us to the next piece of advice.

Challenge Yourself

Focusing on what you do best is tempting. If you are a good designer, then continually honing your design skills is an easy road to take. This might be good early in your career, allowing you to build on your strength as you get some experience under your belt. After a while, though, it will limit you.

Actor and comedian Charlie Day, of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” fame, recently gave a commencement speech3 at Merrimack College. While the entire 20-minute speech is funny and worth listening to, one part really resonated with me:

“I don’t think you should just do what makes you happy. Do what makes you great. Do what’s uncomfortable and scary and hard but pays off in the long run. Be willing to fail.”

This advice is valuable and very relevant here. If you are unwilling to fail, then you will always take the safe path and not push yourself to learn new skills and accept new challenges.

I remember a conversation that I had a number of years ago with my supervisor. It was during my annual review, and he asked me what I was planning for the coming year, professionally. Everything I rattled off were extensions of what I was already doing or good at. When I had finished, he gave me very honest feedback, saying that I was becoming complacent and not challenging myself. Shortly after that meeting, I began writing — which I had been hesitant to try for fear of negative feedback.

Challenged by my supervisor, I worked to overcome those fears. I began writing on my personal blog, then later for other websites and magazines. My writing helped me to better convey my ideas and to become more comfortable sharing them with others. A year or so later, I took a job at an area university and began teaching website design and development. None of those opportunities, from the writing assignments to the teaching position, would have been possible had I not challenged myself and gotten out of my comfort zone.

Work With Good People

From the company you join to the clients you work with, surround yourself with good people. There are many things you cannot control in this profession, but if you work with good people, then overcoming challenges will be much easier (and rest assured, you will face plenty of challenges).

I know that many people will argue that you cannot choose whom you work with, whether colleagues or clients, especially early on in your career, when your options are limited. Still, don’t accept a bad situation simply because you think you have no other choice. You will learn a lot from the people whom you surround yourself with, so do not compromise. If you want to be the best you can be, work with the best people you can find.

Ironically, the person who advised me to work with good people is someone whom I very much disliked working with. Still, the advice was sound. I quit that job a few months later, and I have held myself — and the people I work alongside — to a higher standard since then. That my success and satisfaction are as high as they have ever been is no coincidence. That comes from working with good people.

In Summary

Throughout my career, I have received plenty of advice, but the four points covered here have really stuck with me over the years and have made a significant impact on my career. To recap, here is the best career advice I have ever received:

  • Be a problem-solver, and make design or development choices that help to solve your clients’ actual problems.
  • Do not allow fear of change to limit your career choices.
  • Look for opportunities to grow your skills and to focus on things that you do not do well.
  • Don’t be afraid to fail when trying something new.
  • Surround yourself with good people from whom you can learn from.
  • Don’t accept a bad situation, either with colleagues or clients, simply because you think you have no other choice.


Jeremy Girard

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