Do You Need Formal Qualifications to Become a Web Designer?

Posted By Sarah Jee Watson on

Well there’s a question. One that I feel somewhat qualified to weigh in on, having recently completed a Bachelor of Web Design & Production at the University of Canberra.

If you’re one of the many, wondering whether you need a piece of paper to be successful as a Web Designer or Developer, then read on.

Where Did I Start My Career in Web Design?

Ok, I don’t know many creatives who are happy to talk about themselves, so let’s get this bit out of the way. It’s kinda relevant.

These days, I’m a Web Designer/Front Developer and Digital Marketer at my company for one, Get With The Brand.

In the absence of anything better to do, I went to college after school, where I completed a Diploma of Popular Music. I was then accepted into University where I started a Degree in Popular Music. I lasted 3 months, left to join a 7-piece soul band and spent the next 13 years making a living making music. (Here should sit an appropriate meme about getting a proper job - the muso’s amongst you will understand). I had a ball.

I started dabbling with Adobe Creative Suite when I got my first Mac circa 2005. (Aged 28). I made posters for the band and promoted us with a very dodgy home-spun website. It was love at first keystroke.

When I emigrated to Australia in 2009, I was lucky to be given a job selling shoes online - my dream job it seems. I grew sales from 2 pairs a week, to 70 pairs a week, and loved every minute. I learnt about digital marketing (Diploma of Marketing) and conversion optimisation (Page Fights) and got frustrated with the website when it couldn’t do what I needed. Thank goodness for Facebook!

I started to learn a bit of html/css and eventually moved to a College marketing department, where I used the tools they provided to entice new students and increase conversion rates.

Why am I telling you this? Because it’s life experience. I didn’t just leave school and decide to be a web designer. In actual fact, we only had one computer in the entire school when I left - the internet wasn’t even a thing (gulp). I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. By the end of this article, you’ll see why this is relevant.

Where Do You Start to Learn About Web Design & Development?

There are so many resources available, but amongst all the noise, my journey started with simply with a book. I then moved to Treehouse pretty quickly and was amazed in an instant - an opportunity to learn when it suited me, meaning I could study around my job. I started working my way through the basics and followed the Web Design and Web Development ‘tracks’.

Treehouse was great, but my biggest frustration was having no-one to ask when something went wrong. I eventually signed up for the Treehouse Tech Degree, (which I have yet to finish), because this came with access to tutors via Skype. Mind. Blown. On a near-daily basis. So much to learn!

What Do You Learn in a Web Design Degree?

I signed up for the Bachelors of Web Design & Production because of a Facebook ad.

True story - Facebook advertising works kids! I wasn’t even contemplating full-time study at that point.

Being somewhat jaded from working in a College marketing department, I approached it methodically and asked the Head of Faculty a lot of questions before signing up and handing over my pennies for the first three units. I was excited. It would take a long time but was 100% online and I could fit it in around work (haha - silly me). I was going to learn how to design and develop websites properly and get the degree I never finished the first time around. I absolutely love the web, and figured if I was to be qualified for something - this was it!

Turns out, the degree was a culmination of sparkly new web-focussed units, combined with not-so-new graphic design units. As a mature student with experience in the game, I didn’t see the point in spending $800 a pop to learn how to use Photoshop, InDesign or Illustrator. I already knew. After much back and forth, and 3 solid days creating a visual masterpiece showcasing my design and branding work, I applied for RPL (Recognised Prior Learning) and was credited with some basic units from the degree. Phew. Time and money saved. Still a lot of study to do but every bit helps.

In my opinion (because that’s what you’re reading here), the issue with the other graphics-based units, was that the tutors were clearly not used to a) dealing with mature students who work full-time; or b) delivering anything online. This was a major disappointment (um, WEB degree course) and a very expensive box-ticking exercise. Watch out for this if you’re thinking about an online degree with a ‘traditional’ university. You’re not exempt from being taught the stuff you already know, which is incredibly frustrating, time-consuming and expensive. Your street smarts count for nothing without the painful (also time-consuming) process of being granted RPL.

Units Required to Gain a Bachelor of Web Design & Production

Let's move onto exploring the modules you'd be covering in this type of course (including some slightly cringe-worthy examples of my early work!)...

Intro to Graphic Design Practice
Summary: Learn how to use photoshop etc

Networked Media Production
Summary: Learn how to create a blog

Foundations of Research & Creative Enquiry
Summary: Thinking about design

Graphic Design Thinking & Research
Summary: Thinking and researching your designs

Web Design & Production
Summary: Learn basic html/css. Build a simple site

Digital Media Literacy
Summary: What is digital media

Responsive Web Design
Summary: Build a responsive website

User Interface and Experience
Summary: Learn how to ask questions and design mock-ups

Publication Design
Summary: Design a book cover and innards. (Chosen from over 70 submissions to be published!)

Introduction to JS & Frameworks
Summary: Make a quiz, make an interactive cup of tea

3D Animation
Summary: Learn how to use Blender

New Web Contexts
Summary: Design an app and create a prototype

Cross-Media Production
Summary: Market a fictional obscure movie launch for no reason

Major Creative Project (6pt)
Summary: Build a big fancy website with a small team

Design for Dynamic Data
Summary: Make a simple app using an API

Infographics
Summary: Visualise Data Graphically

Identity Systems
Summary: Design a logo and write a lot about it

Plus 6 elective units:

For me, about half of this was useful. Really useful, insightful, challenging, (JS anyone?) and interesting. The rest was expensive, time-consuming fluff. I’ve included links to some of the works, so you can (hopefully) see how things improved over the three years it took me to complete the degree. I did learn some good stuff!

What you can’t see is the hours and hours of self-learning that still had to go on, aside from the degree. It wasn’t uncommon for the first 3 weeks lectures to be replaced by a huge amount of Lynda videos. If I had wanted to learn via Lynda, I’d have paid for a Lynda subscription and saved myself thousands of dollars. What I wanted was access to lecturers who could help me when I came unstuck. That wasn’t always what I got. The helpful lecturers were the minority.

website qualification

Now don’t get me wrong, a small number of the lecturers were excellent, engaging and enthusiastic humans who loved to share and teach and show. The others were, in my opinion (there it goes again), clearly in it for the money, in the wrong job, or both. I understand that teaching online students is challenging, but if you’re going to call yourself a teacher in this day and age then I think you’re pretty much stuck with it, so you might as well be creative and use it to your advantage.

Also, note the lack of WordPress-related stuff in that list. I mean it’s only powering about 27% of the internet, shouldn’t I expect to learn about it? Where was the talk of conversion-optimisation? Where’s the unit that talks about designing for web, and even more importantly accessibility?

Yes, you could use WordPress on a project if you wanted. Yes, I understand the importance of building sites from scratch before learning WordPress. But I felt a bit put-out that CMS’s and frameworks didn’t have their own unit. I mean, I doubt I’ll ever make a 3D render using Blender again (and still for the life of me can’t work out what this has to do with web design!). I’m 100% certain that that time (and money) could have been better spent on a skill that would help me build awesome online experiences. I waited (with the excited apprehension of a 3-year-old on Christmas morning) for the User Experience unit, which I'm just crazy about, but the user experience was so bad I hated it and got my worst grade for the entire degree. Irony much?

So What Did I Learn at University?

  • I learnt how to code from scratch (having previously only dabbled with Wordpress).
  • I learnt how to be a better researcher.
  • I learnt how to write about my work.
  • I learnt some JS.
  • I learnt that JS is hard.
  • I learnt that I don’t want to be a 3D animator.
  • I learnt how to juggle my studies with my freelance clients.
  • I learnt about airport signage (uh-huh).
  • I learnt about editing a book and designing a book cover - not sure why, but I did enjoy that.
  • I learnt to ask a lot of questions.
  • I learnt about Skype Wine (best enjoyed at the end of every semester with fellow mature students).

Should You Go to Uni to Learn How to Code?

So back to that question about whether you need a degree to be a web designer/developer. In short, absolutely not.

I’m glad I finished the degree, although at 40 I’m a little late to that particular party. It feels good to be finally ‘qualified’ in something and I’m confident that if I ever find myself looking to be hired, my degree might keep me off the ‘no thanks’ pile a little longer.

I wish the degree had less fluff and more practical web-based skills. I’m sure that any students who didn’t work on side-projects and didn’t study from other sources will struggle to be employed as web designers/developers after graduation. Industry-ready is a term a lot of universities throw around in the marketing department, but the sad fact is there is a massive disconnect between that and the education that’s delivered.

Here's My Take On It...

If you’re just finishing school/college and you’re interested in design/development: a Web Design degree would be a great way for you to get qualified in something that will help you work out which direction you want to move in.

If you’re a mature student and have heaps of self-discipline: get yourself a Lynda subscription, sign up for Treehouse and/or Codecedemy and knock yourself out. You’re only as good as your portfolio, so work on that and avoid all the writing about it.

What Happened Next?

Between my last 2 semesters, I signed up for WP Elevation. I’d been following Troy around the web for a couple of years, and already implemented some of his awesome tips in my growing freelance business. It was time to talk business.

The WP Elevation Blueprint is basically ‘the missing university unit’. Within a week of signing up, I had rebranded my freelance business and set up my company. 6 weeks later I had ‘graduated’ and was meeting potential clients with a new found confidence. It didn’t teach me how to code, it taught me how to do business. There was nothing in my Bachelors of Web Design & Production that taught me how to get a client and how to look after them. Even if you want to graduate uni and work for someone else, the WP Elevation Blueprint will help you connect the dots in a way that will give you an advantage over your peers. I recommend it.

Soon after I attended my university graduation in Canberra (top of the class as you would expect at my age) and breathed a long sigh of relief that it was finally over.

So There You Have It!

If you’re learning how to design or code and thinking about studying in the traditional sense, I hope this helped you decide. If you want to ask me questions about my experience you can find me on LinkedIn.

Go get ‘em!

Sarah Jee | Get With The Brand

Note: Special thanks to Dr. Sam Hinton & Ben Butler of Canberra University, who are fighting the good fight for online students!

Troy Dean at WP Elevation

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