What Skills Does It Take to Get a Job in Web Design?

by on 18th May 2011

There is an ever-raging debate in the design community regarding whether or not web design and web development jobs should overlap (if so, how far?). For example, should a Photoshop layout guru also know how to write HTML and CSS? How about JavaScript and PHP? Where does it end?

Ultimately, this debate isn’t settled in design blog posts but in the real world where businesses are hiring freelancers and employees with very specific qualifications in mind. Today we’re going to explore what employers are looking for in a new hire and how you can prepare yourself to land the job.

General Job Assumptions

“Every last one of us has a uniquely eclectic skill set.”

Before we go any further, I should outline some of my general assumptions regarding various designer positions. Every last one of us has a uniquely eclectic skill set so don’t perceive this as me laying out hard and fast rules but instead just what I personally generally expect out of each position. Also note that these positions are almost never mutually exclusive, as we’ll see later.

Graphic Designer

Graphic designer is a term that becomes more vague with each passing year. Once upon a time it usually referred to someone who worked in print design. A graphic designer creates logos, flyers, posters, product packaging, print ads, and anything else that is generally done in page layout software.

Web Designer

Web designers may or many not refer to themselves as graphic designers. Younger web designers often have fairly limited experience working in print and tend to focus purely on website layouts and general UI endeavors. The work is typically done in Photoshop and/or Fireworks and is delivered as layered files.

Many web designers know HTML/CSS pretty well and can easily turn their own Photoshop designs into a live page. However, plenty of them stay purely in the realm of visual design and don’t venture into any coding whatsoever.

Web Developer

I expect a web developer to have a solid or even expert grasp of HTML and CSS-based layout practices. Generally, there is also a highly proficient level of knowledge and experience in one or more supporting technologies: JavaScript, PHP, Ruby, etc. Web developers are familiar with the technical aspects of web servers and the types of applications and sites that run on them.

A web developer may or may not have a firm grip on design. The necessity of converting Photoshop designs from others means they almost always know their way around the apps used for web design but aren’t necessarily the people to ask to define the look and feel of your site.

The Point

These positions are over-simplified here but it helps make my point: there are at least three overarching areas that are often blurred together and/or mistaken for each other while technically having different skill sets at heart.

In a perfect world, the overlap here would be minimal. You could pick which concentration you like the best and focus on learning that to the best of your abilities without anyone expecting you to venture into the others. Unfortunately, the real world has other ideas.

Job Posting: Graphic Designer

I was recently sent an email about a job posting in my area. The job title was simply “graphic designer”. Since it’s my job to keep an eye on the industry, I always look at postings like this to see what’s expected of the employee. The following are the actual requisite qualifications that were listed for this job.

Skills

  • 2-5 years of professional experience in design for web, print and interactive
  • Proficiency in Adobe Creative Suite – Photoshop, Fireworks, Illustrator, InDesign, etc.
  • Strong typographic skills
  • Solid understanding of HTML and CSS, including cross-browser compatibility
  • Knowledge of industry best practices in web design, information design and usability
  • Comfortable working within a PHP environment
  • Experience with MySQL databases
  • Strong working knowledge of WordPress customization and theming.
  • Experience with Flash
  • Copywriting experience (headlines, banner copy, landing pages, etc.)
  • Intermediate Javascript/JQuery
  • Digital photography and digital video editing.
  • SEO

Experience in design for:

  • Print publications
  • Packaging design
  • Email marketing
  • Marketing materials
  • Landing pages
  • Web ads and banners

A Design Superman?

screenshot

With the separate concentrations that we laid out before in mind, let’s see where this job fits in. The job posting states that they’re looking for someone who knows HTML, CSS, PHP, MySQL, Flash and JavaScript. Clearly, these are high-level skills, so they’re looking for a web developer.

However, the position is also clearly for a designer. They want someone who has designed various web-related materials such as websites, email campaigns, banner ads, etc. but also has experience with printed materials and even package designs. This person needs strong typographic skills and a good sense of usability.

There are some other interesting skills thrown in here as well like copywriting, video editing and SEO. Now, is it just me or is this company trying to take an entire department and shove it into one person? Should it be the case that the guy building and editing promotional videos is expected to know how to create custom WordPress themes? Doesn’t that sound a bit like only hiring auto mechanics with experience in laying tile floors?

“Doesn’t that sound a bit like only hiring auto mechanics with experience in laying tile floors?”

I think there’s an inherent problem in non-technical people hiring for technical positions. They don’t really understand what a job entails so they simply throw in every single skill and buzzword they’ve ever heard and hire the person with whom they can check off the most items. If they really want one man or woman to do all of these tasks, the job is likely to be an absolute mess of unrealistic expectations and will no doubt change hands several times in the years to come.

How Should We Respond?

screenshot

Now, we can jump up and down and stomp our feet all day long about unrealistic expectations for workers in our industry, but at the end of the day the job postings still look like the one above. Employers still want the holy grail of employees that can do anything from building a custom web application to designing enticing packaging for a line of cat treats.

“Placing a graphic design job ad in Craigslist in Phoenix (where I live) will net you around three hundred applicants.”

As an even bigger problem for you as a job seeker, these freaks of nature exist! In a down economy such as the one we’ve seen globally for the past few years, jobs become scarce. This gives employers the upper hand and affords them the right to be picky about who to hire. I know for a fact that placing a graphic design job ad in Craigslist in Phoenix (where I live) will net you around three hundred applicants. If you’re looking to get hired, that’s a lot of competition!

Consequently, the people walking away with jobs are those who have either legitimately or artificially padded their resumes with an incredible range of skills. Unfortunately, your convictions that the average web designer shouldn’t have to know PHP and JavaScript won’t exactly bump you to the top of the list, neither will the argument that those other guys probably don’t know their ten skills as well as you know your three.

Whose Side Are You On Anyway?

At this point you may be a bit confused about where I stand in this mess. On the one hand I lamented that so many job postings look like the example above and on the other I seem to think that designers should just shut up and deal with it.

The truth is, I’m far from convinced that the fabled design superman is a good solution for the employer, the employee or the industry as a whole. I laughed out loud when I read that the company above was looking for a packaging designer who knows PHP. The entire idea seems ridiculous to me. Further, I hate the realization that, no matter how much I learn, there will always be employers who are asking for much more.

“Even with all this, I’m still not qualified for the simple ‘graphic designer’ position above!”

I’m a highly qualified candidate with several years of experience working with major international marketing companies designing all manner of print materials. I possess a degree in global marketing from one of the top twenty business schools in the United States. I could write a book on design theory and have plenty of experience developing visual communication on the web and off. I can teach HTML, CSS and JavaScript and am quickly growing in other areas of web development. I have expert knowledge of the Adobe Creative Suite and am even a professional photographer. Even with all this, I’m still not qualified for the simple “graphic designer” position above!

This is frustrating, enraging, disheartening and flat out depressing. But hey, that’s the web design industry. If you’re on the outside looking in, this is what it’s like. Those of us crazy enough to be inside it and actually enjoy the work that we do have a natural hunger for learning that’s so intense that we end up reinforcing the tendency of employers to ask so much of us. I’ll keep learning everything I can and advise you to do the same because if we’re ever both desperate for work, we’ll be using that knowledge to compete for the same jobs!

Conclusion: Be a Freelancer

To be fair, not all employers are like this. In fact, many large corporations go to the opposite extreme and divide their design departments up into so many separate factions and positions that it’s nearly impossible to cut through all the bureaucracy and actually be productive.

There are even companies that find that perfect mix of challenging their employees and stretching their skills without overwhelming them. They’re hard to find but once you get one, relish it my friend.

What’s the best scenario that I’ve found? Work for yourself. As a freelancer you’re definitely still competing with others but you have a lot more freedom to decide what type of projects you do and don’t want to take on. You can also decide how much of your time you want to dedicate to learning new skills and keeping yourself competitive, a luxury that many FTEs don’t share.

Leave a comment below and let me know what you think of all this. I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether you think employers are asking too much or designers are too often lazy about expanding their horizons. How do you stay competitive as a potential employee and how much of your time do you devote to learning new skills?

Photo Credits: Ben Northern and Carol Browne.

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