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The Ups & Downs of Being a Self-Taught Web Designer

Eric Karkovack
Published: February 16, 2023

Not so long ago, web design was a brand-new industry. As such, there weren’t many opportunities to get a formal education on its fundamentals. Thus, the most direct path to becoming a professional was to teach yourself the necessary skills.

That’s how my career started. I studied the source code of different websites and figured out how things worked. I experimented with Photoshop, CSS, and eventually PHP and JavaScript. Most of what I know has come from the process of trial and error.

But being self-taught brings a mixed bag of feelings and challenges. On the one hand, it’s very freeing. On the other, it can be scary. It can even lead to feeling less qualified than your peers.

With that in mind, let’s explore the good, bad, and ugly of being a self-taught web designer.

Learn What You Want, How You Want

This is where the sense of freedom comes from. There’s an incredible depth of educational resources available for web design and development. Thus, you can pick and choose your focus.

That contrasts with formal education. There, you are obliged to follow a set path in your learning. This is usually for a good reason (you need to understand the basic principles before tackling the smaller details). Still, learning on your own means having the right to set your agenda.

I believe there is a significant upside to learning the skills that interest you the most. For one, you’re more likely to be passionate about the subject matter. When following someone else’s curriculum, it can be difficult to find the same enthusiasm (something I struggled with in school).

And because you are taking a different path, you might start thinking differently. This can lead to creative ideas and solutions that may not have occurred to you otherwise.

Finally, when it comes to how you learn, there are unlimited options. It might be a series of tutorials or a video-based training course. Whatever your preference, you can choose the format that best suits your learning style.

Being selft-taught allows you to choose your preferred learning style

You Might Miss Something Important

Perhaps the biggest downside of being a self-taught web designer is that there could be gaps in your skill set. And that could mean missing something important.

For example, let’s say you want to learn how to do some specific tasks with PHP. You may find a great tutorial and master its content. That’s all well and good. But what if the tutorial left out a major point of emphasis, such as security?

I’ve run into this situation in my career. Learning things in a piecemeal format works to some degree. But when put into practice, I often find that I need to search out other details. Some items may have been either glossed over or ignored.

This isn’t a critique of the available resources. Rather, it’s an observation of this approach to learning. It’s an area where traditional education has the upper hand.

Therefore, it’s important to recognize whatever gaps exist and seek to fill them in the best you can.

Mind The Gap Painted Sign

Staying Relevant in a Competitive Field

Despite the potential knowledge gap, a self-taught designer can indeed hang in there with the competition. There are a couple of reasons for this.

The first is that our industry includes a wide range of niche markets. Each of us has strengths and preferred areas of specialty. Not to mention the array of price ranges out there. As such, the list of direct competitors may be narrower than we think.

The niche I’ve worked in for the past two decades has allowed me to make a decent living. It has also created opportunities for continued learning. I’m not the most highly-skilled person. But it proves that you don’t have to know everything to find success.

Second, the job description has changed for many of us. The prevalence of content management systems (CMS) and no-code tools provide a great foundation. From there, we can go as far as our skills (and desire to learn) will take us.

Understanding how these multiple pieces fit together is as much a part of our job as building a beautiful UI. That provides a market for both formally and self-educated web designers.

A Unique Opportunity for the Right Person

One of the most amazing aspects of a career in web design is that you don’t necessarily need a formal education. It requires a little bit of talent, an internet connection, and a desire to learn. And you can apply your skills as a freelancer or by working for someone else.

Being self-taught may be the more difficult path to take. For all the freedom it provides, you might miss out on both the fundamentals and finer details of the craft. And once you’ve established yourself as a professional, finding time to improve your skills can be tough.

Still, if you understand the challenges and love what you do, you can overcome just about any obstacle. It’s an opportunity that seems truly unique to web design.

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