Take a person with artistic ability and add some technology skills, and what do you have? The perfect recipe for a web designer.
Amy Parnelll, user experience design manager at LinkedIn in Belmont, Calif., began taking art courses while at Santa Monica High School. "I've always been a painter, a sketcher, a writer, and an analytical thinker," she says. Lacking a professional portfolio, she wound up in a community college entertainment technology program, but the technology at the time was painfully slow. Eventually, her blended skills led her to web design. "The design work was fun, the web was an unexplored and endless creative canvas, and the immediate gratification kept me wanting to do more and more!” Today, Parnell manages a team of designers who help craft user experiences for LinkedIn members.
The Routine: Web design combines a fair amount of client interaction to produce a web site's graphics and appearance. Zac Van Note, a web designer for more than 12 years who lives in Albuquerque, N.M., began his career as a graphic designer. He manages a team of web designers and multimedia developers at Creative Fuel. "I manage to do a fair amount of hands-on work, in addition to management duties," says Van Note. He's also taught hundreds of courses to aspiring web designers.
Hands-on work might include meeting with clients, studying competitors' sites, developing a layout and framework for the site, gathering graphics, evaluating the site's usability, applying design principles and developing and presenting a design document. Web designers work with many other members of web development and information technology teams, and often the skills of web designers and web developers overlap. "Along the way, I've also picked up web development skills," says Van Note. "I've learned basic database and scripting and programming skills in addition to the standard design skills."
Tool Kit: Both Van Note and Parnell balance the worlds of design and technology well, and enjoy doing so. "I often think it's impossible to get everything in one person; it's such a mix," says Parnell. She says the job requires creative vision, visual design, typography and page layout skills, interactive design, technical expertise and communication skills. Van Note agrees, adding that a basic knowledge of web scripting/programming and database design are strong pluses.
Ups and Downs: The pay is good, and the outlook means plenty of jobs in communities of all sizes. Working as a team to design and create user experiences is a plus for Parnell, who also loves the products she works on and the connections her work helps people make. Van Note enjoys designing a site's look and feel, along with the user experience. "It is very gratifying to see your ideas take shape and get used by thousands of people," he says. The hours might be long when close to deadlines. And Parnell says, "You have to be able to live and breathe it," but she doesn't see it as a drawback because she loves the work. Van Note says you must stay current with technology and trends. "If you enjoy that kind of challenge, then this might be a good field for you."
The Outlook: Nearly every company needs a web site, and the sites must remain current in look and platforms. For example, many companies are revamping sites to look and function better for users accessing them from tablets and smart phones. Growth is expected to continue, at up to 22 percent through 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Pay: You can make good money once established by working on your own, or by working your way up. Web designers earn an average of $52,000 a year, or $50 an hour as freelancers, according to a 2011 AIGA/Aquent survey. Senior designers and developers earn more.
The Way There: Complement your current design and technology skills to become a web designer and learn on the job, or at a certificate or community college program. "A strong portfolio of at least two to three complete web sites is also important when you're looking for work," says Van Note. If you have the aptitude and the desire, this is a great career path. "My dad told me once, 'Amy, find something you love, and then find a way to get paid for it. That's real success,'" says Parnell.
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