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WELCOME

...to the second part of my new blog series, where I talk about how and why I became a Web Designer.

In part one, I talked about the circumstances that led to my career change. In this article, I'll talk about how I got started in Web Design, what difficulties I had to overcome and some of the mistakes I made along the way.

After making the decision to start a new career, the first thing I did was enroll on an online course to learn the basics of HTML and CSS. I also bought a book to teach me how to use Adobe Dreamweaver (Adobe Dreamweaver CS6 Classroom in a Book). Whilst I no longer use Dreamweaver (I'm a Brackets fan in case anyone is wondering!), I do think it's a good program to start off with. Its code/design split view makes it easy to visualise how the code you write transforms into what you see on the webpage. Microsoft Expression Web 4 is a good free alternative to Dreamweaver, although it's only available on Windows. I also learnt the basics of editing images with Adobe Photoshop. I've stuck with Photoshop as my image software of choice, but there are plenty of free alternatives out there. Gimp is a very good one.

After finishing both the course and the book, I was eager to put my new skills to the test. Luckily I had a friend who needed a website building for his own company and he agreed to let me have a go and see what I could do. It was a fantastic first project and I learnt so much just by building the site and fixing all the bugs and problems I encountered. The finished website wasn't great by today's standards (in fact I've since designed and built a new website for the company, completely replacing the old one. View the project here.), but for a first attempt at designing and building a website, it turned out really well and my friend was very pleased with it. He even insisted on paying me, even though we'd agreed I'd do it for free.

Picture of Website for Whitfield Construction Services

Things progressed slowly but surely from there. My next project was for a colleague of my friend, who had seen the website I'd built for him and wanted me to do something similar for their company. With every website I built, my knowledge and skills improved and each website was better designed and better built than the previous one. Whilst I wouldn't advise anyone to attempt to build a website without first learning the basics, I would say, from my own experience, that the best and quickest way to learn is to actually "get your hands dirty" and build a website. I learnt so much during that first project and whilst I couldn't have done it without the knowledge I'd gained from my course, designing the website, building it from scratch, manually writing the code and fixing all the bugs and issues I encountered, taught me so much more than any course or book could have.

I don't want to give the impression that starting my career in Web Design was easy. From these articles it probably sounds like everything fell into place straight away and the projects came flooding in, but that's far from how it actually was. I haven't talked about the months where I had no work to do and had to rely on my savings to pay the bills, the clients that offered me work and then went AWOL, or the projects that went from being an easy week's work into a nightmare that took months to complete. Getting to the point that I'm at today has been hard work and has taken a lot of self-belief and commitment. When I first announced my career change plans to friends and family, not everyone was supportive of my decision. A lot of people thought I wouldn't succeed, either because I wouldn't have the determination or willpower to stick at it, or simply because they thought I didn't have the talent. Whilst it was a bit of a dent to my confidence when people didn't believe in me, it also gave me that little bit of extra motivation to succeed. The determination to prove those people wrong.

Another hurdle I've had to overcome has been money. My old career had always been pretty well paid. Without going into detail, I'd always had more money than I needed and so it was a bit of a culture shock to go from a comfortable lifestyle, to one where some months I wasn't earning enough to pay the bills. I'd be lying if I said I was never tempted to just go back into my old career, for the financial security it offered. But the motivation for me to change careers was never about money. Whilst I do want to earn a good living in my new profession, the motivation for me to start a new career was to do a job that I enjoyed. I would rather enjoy my work and earn a modest living, than earn a lot of money and hate every minute of my work. That's just my own personal opinion of course.

On a final note, I'll talk about some of the mistakes I made and things I could have done better. In the early days, when I had nothing to do between projects, I'd fill the time by trying to study and learn, using online tutorials, videos, articles, etc to improve my knowledge. Whilst none of it was a waste of time, in hindsight I wish I'd spent the time designing and building dummy websites for fake companies. For example, I could have made up a catering company (Neal's Meal Deals) and then designed and built a website for it. Whilst it would never have been a genuine company or website, it would have been great practice and a much better way to learn and improve my knowledge than just reading articles and watching tutorials.

I also wish I'd taken the plunge and learnt JavaScript a lot earlier than I did. Javascript is a more complicated language than HTML and CSS and when you're an inexperienced Web Developer, it's a bit daunting to attempt to write Javascript for yourself. It's very tempting to just copy and paste other people's code, which can often be a useful time saver, but in the long run it's much better to learn the language and write the code yourself. Learning Javascript really broadened my horizons in terms of what I could do and what services I could offer to clients. I'd encourage anyone who has already mastered HTML and CSS to learn Javascript.

Finally, my own website. It took me far too long to get round to building it and getting it live. It always took a backseat to the other work I had going on and consequently took the best part of a year to get designed and built. Who knows how many potential clients I missed out on whilst I didn't have a website of my own.

I'll wrap this article up here. Hopefully there's some useful advice in there for any other aspiring Web Designers/Developers out there.

Neal Skilling - 29th November 2016