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What is a Web Designer? — Educational Requirements
by William Szczepanek

Article 11: March 28, 2008

Often the word designer implies the task of creating or being creative.  Design evokes images of innovative, artistic presentations or exotic, architectural concepts.  Talented designers make our world a more pleasant place to live. Today though, it seems anyone can become a Web designer. Your background isn’t really important.  So, after reading a few books or articles on programming and software design tools, just about anyone can do this. Right?

Does Your College Major Matter?

A recent MSN Encarta article Does Your Major Matter by Donald Asher indicates that your college degree major doesn’t matter anymore.  According to the article, any major prepares most students for most jobs.  Even in high technology companies most managers’ positions are filled by people without a technical degree. Corporate recruiters “Hire for attitudes and train for skills”.  If this is fact then maybe it explains why we are losing so many jobs to foreign countries, where students have been more successful at specialized coursework than those in the USA.  Maybe that’s why Bill Gates looks to foreign countries for scientists and engineers, because there aren’t enough qualified engineers coming out of our schools.  It is more likely that there is no incentive for young people to go into science and engineering in this country because the jobs are being outsourced to foreign countries for low wages.

So, while it’s true that many people succeed in jobs outside of their college major, these people are usually pretty bright and have the brain power or talent that enables them to learn.  They have obtained their skill set from somewhere, not necessarily from their major of study.  They are resourceful and self-made people.

Web Design and Development Educational Requirements

We must also remember that there can be significant differences between the talents required to be a Web designer versus a  Web developer.  Much of it depends on what you like to do. Developers must understand programming languages.  Most good programmers can learn to program in any language.  Most designers like the creative aspects of page look and feel and consequently have backgrounds and experience in art and layout. While some people are good at both design and development, most people will move in the direction that supports their likes and abilities.

I felt that a degree in engineering would prepare me to do just about anything.  I stopped doing brain surgery due to lack of practice and too few willing patients, even though my price was very affordable.  Oh, you need a license to do that?  I guess most people would prefer a surgeon who studied medicine.  Sometimes the emphasis of study is extremely important. If I were hiring an actuary, I’d really prefer someone who studied math. Many piano performance majors are successful in other areas like business or politics; however, very few business majors are successful concert pianists.

Associate and bachelor degree programs for Web Design are becoming more common degree programs, particularly at online schools, but most of these curricula do not provide the critical thinking skills necessary to be successful.  Your college major may have little to do with what your job becomes, but it is the foundation.  Knowledge is important.  The ability to think in a broad sense is very important. Abstract reasoning, problem solving and even basic logic are very valuable in many lines of work, but are they available in all curricula? The Web design arena may actually be responsible someday for the creation of a course called BasketWeaving 101, the fundamentals of shopping cart design.

Undergraduate education is about broadening your mind and honing your thinking skills.  Graduate degree programs are for focusing your skill set and your thinking, then applying those skills to what you are doing.  Graduate school is most beneficial when classes can be applied directly to work-related problems. There are a growing number of online masters programs with an emphasis in Web design, but the most successful Web designers have had to learn their trade on their own.

Definition of Web Designer

A few definitions of Web designer from the Internet include the following:

A person or business that designs and prepares content for the World Wide Web, including text, images, site architecture and multimedia.
A person who designs Web pages. Usually a designer will produce a mockup of a page in a graphics application (for example, Adobe Photoshop or The GIMP). ...
A web designer is the person responsible for creating the design or look & feel of the web site. The web design will create 2-3 design ideas and drill down to a final design that properly supports a company's branding and message. ... www.webdesigninsite.com/web-design-glossary.php
A Web designer is a person who creates web sites. Web designers may use Web-authoring software or an HTML editor to create the actual pages, or they may design the overall look and let a Web master do the actual coding. Most often, they are also proficient with Web graphics and images. www.vitalnet.net/h/support_glossary.html

Web Design Curriculum

But, what kind of education can enable you to become a Web designer?  Some would say that an art background is important.  Others would say that programming skills take precedent.  Others would say that content is king and writing ability is crucial. Do all of these aspects well and you still need to manage a project and keep it on schedule. All of these are probably true to a certain extent, but miss the mark about the true role of a designer.  A designer needs to be creative, but still pay attention to detail. There’s a need to be technical, but you also need broad experience and an understanding of the requirements. A well rounded education can sometimes be more valuable than a specialized education, but you can become so well rounded that you lose your edge.

Today, Web education is out of date, largely because the industry and the tools change much more rapidly than the schools can. The most important aspect of Web design and development is maintaining the knowledge necessary to continue in this fast-paced world. Ongoing education in current technology is critical. Learning to use specific tools should not be the responsibility of a university. The concepts and foundation to learn how to use any tool is the purpose of an education.

Some of the more important skills that a Web designer must have are the ability to solve problems, induce efficiencies, condense elaborateness, convey ideas, extract feelings and ultimately cause actions. It’s about results and consequences.  It is about solving the problems of the client. They don’t teach these skills in most Web design classes.  In fact, they don’t teach these skills in many universities.

Can anyone be a Web designer? It seems like many are trying. But, just trying doesn’t cut it much like brain surgery.

For an excellent overview of the tools and knowledge required for various Web careers, see About.com.