Everybody wants to take advantage of the Internet and the glorious opportunities that it presents us with. Unfortunately, the opportunities were limited. Too many people are branding themselves as “web designers” or "web developers" Because there are no barriers to entry into the web design industry, this has resulted in a saturated market.
I’ve had a few people contact me recently, asking how to succeed as a freelance web designer. Rather than answering everybody individually, I thought I’d post my thoughts online.
What sets designers apart from others? What makes one designer more successful than the rest? Some will say that the best design skills will reign supreme. While this is an ideal scenarios, this is unfortunately not the case most of the time. Today, it’s not just design skills alone that will make you more successful than other designers. Here's what sets out the successful ones from the crowd:
1. Focus on one thing
This is the area I think most newbie fails - Trying to be a generalist. If you can't embrace one thing and keep doing it, then their is a great chance of loosing. Although, getting a wide variety of experience as you can is a good idea (only if you can stand it). But I think you should instead experiment around until you find one thing that you love and are good at, and then specialize in that for awhile. Not forever. But really take the time to learn it inside and out and become an authority or a go-to guy in that field. I think mastery is a lost art.
I was always far more impressed by someone who deeply knew at least one thing, than by someone who broadly but barely knew lots of things. We're all, as a community, too scatterbrained, hopping between a dozen different things. It doesn't work that way. Trust me.
2. Love what you do
To become a successful web designer or developer, you have to not only love what you do but also enjoy doing it. You need to have a great passion that will keep you focused and motivated. Passion is what will keep you working late into the night when the rest of your friends are down the pub or fast asleep.
What does passion look like?
It looks a little something like this: waking up refreshed, being excited for work because it doesn’t feel like actual “work,” wanting to share what you’re doing with others, feeling totally satisfied inside and wanting to scream from the rooftops. You’re just that happy.
For one thing, the passion route may be more rewarding, but it’s hard. It takes determination, hard work, thick skin and some faith.
3. Build your communication skills
Effective communication is one of those skills that can make or break you in any field, but it’s especially important in web design where communicating with a client, art director, or developer can dictate the success of a project. It is quite understandable that creative souls are not intuitively chatty in nature; However, when it comes to presenting yourself and selling your work, one has to be bold and clear in his communication with the client.
Whether you are answering questions from clients, presenting design concepts in a meeting or brainstorming with colleagues, communicating your ideas in a way that meets your company’s expectations is important. This skill will increase your value to the team and set you up to take on more responsibility.
4. Never stop learning
I am constantly reading articles with new tips, techniques and best practices in our industry, and I spend many nights and weekends working to master these new techniques. When I discover an article or idea that I think is valuable, I always share it with my mates or publicly.
The web is a medium that changes at warp speed. You can’t expect to learn web design once and coast on the knowledge you have for the rest of your career. The best web designers are endlessly inquisitive and always want to keep abreast of the latest trends and technologies. They will scour the web reading every blog post or article they can find, their RSS reader literally building under the weight of new content.
If you don’t love to learn, the web will be a frustrating place to work.
5. Keep distraction to minimum
I could go on for days about this. We live in the world of short attention spans and an ocean of media. Every time I turn around, I am getting an email, a phone call, Facebook message, a text message, or anything else that you can imagine. You have to know how to filter and tune everything out so that you can concentrate.
This is one thing I personally struggle with, I have a site I'm running, and a phone call from a new client could mean a few thousand in revenue, so turning my phone off during normal work hours is not an option.
6. Build a killer portfolio
Building a good portfolio is crucial to any designer’s success, but web designer’s face a unique problem: your work needs to stay current! While a poster designer can probably get away with keeping projects from the 1980′s in their portfolios because the designs are still relevant, consider how awful your web-design portfolio would be if you kept projects from the 1990′s!
The portfolio is the best medium for web designers to showcase their creativity and aesthetics, but more importantly, it shows potential clients that you are current, relevant, and active in the design world of right now, not 5 years ago.
And again, don't be shy to brag, it's not a sin. If you are involve in any project, don't hesitate to state it. Justify the decisions you made and demonstrate how you contributed to the success of the project. Above all, be honest. If you didn’t do the design, or worked in partnership with another agency, let people know.
7. Differentiate yourself from the crowd
This is perhaps the most important thing I have learned about being in a competitive industry and marketing in general.
You need to make sure you stand out from the crowd. If you are doing the same thing as everybody else, the chance of a potential customer picking you out of the crowd is slim to none. If, however, you are doing at least one thing better than your competitors then you are giving clients a reason to choose you.
8. Be a web designer, not graphic designer
It is a general misconception that graphic designers, owing to their computer graphics skills, can also be web designers and vice versa. While this might be true in theory, there are very few professionals that bridge the gap between print-based projects and web-based projects on a regular basis.
After initial research and wireframe sketching, my design process is 20% in Photoshop/illustrator, 80% in browser. Working this way means I can quickly get some ideas and visuals together. When I’m fairly happy with the visuals I’ll jump into HTML and CSS to continue the design in browser. I may jump back to Illustrator to visualize new sections or modules, but then as soon as I can, it’s back into browser again.
A mockup in code allows for interaction, a canvas-less view and of course the ability to re-size the browser to see how the site responds.
9. Network like crazy
Networking sounds like a scary thing to do, but in reality it’s usually just a case of hanging out with people in your industry. A moderately-skilled designer who’s really good at communicating with people is worth more to most businesses than a brilliant programmer who prefers to be left alone all day.
Don't just sit all day in front of your computer screen tweaking and coding. Attend local user groups, meet-ups, and developer conferences. These events can require a significant time commitment but are invaluable because everyone is there specifically to meet you (and people like you.)
On a basic level, people much prefer doing businesses with somebody they have met and feel comfortable with. Next time they need help on a particular project, they are much more likely to remember you and get in touch. If they know you are actively looking for projects, they are also more likely to recommend you to other people. Your goal is to become known as someone who solves problems, rather than the “web guy.”
10. Manage your time
You should be able to manage time effectively. Every project has a deadline and you have to be conscious of the amount of time things take you. You’re not going to cut a project short and hand someone a design that looks awful simply because you are time scheduled. However, you should always be aware of how long something takes. This comes from carefully planning out a project before starting.
Try as much as possible to finish your work before the deadline, so as to have the time to re-check everything and correct any errors.
Completing the task before the deadline leaves a good impression upon the client, and it is a good thing for you in the long-term.
Wrapping it all up
Being a successful designer isn’t rocket science. You don’t need to have some lucky charm or magical powers. All you need to do is have a great set of habits and set goals that are mainly just common sense if you stop and think about it.
Try to avoid being a generalist and embrace your passion. Always keep learning. Don’t rest on your laurels or get discouraged even if things do not go exactly as expected. Be different from your competitors.
Minding the clock means balancing your professional and personal time. Don’t burn yourself out by trying to be a superhero who does nothing but work. Life is too short for anything else. Get out their and mingle with new fellas. Good luck!
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