How to Get Web Design Experience

It’s even nerdier than it sounds.

Back in the mid 2000s, I spent a good deal of my free time learning to code PHP in my school’s library while most of my classmates were out partying.

I attended the University of Central Florida, and like many college campuses, there were paper flyer bulletin boards everywhere. I was building a web app that could consolidate these campus-wide boards into a searchable, sortable, and environmentally friendly medium. After spending about eight months perfecting my web app, I launched the site and promoted it as best I could. About two weeks later, Facebook Marketplace debuted, and I quickly realized that there wasn’t much point in continuing.

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The bright side of the story is that my web app landed me my first “real” job writing code professionally. (I was doing freelance work previously.) I was able to showcase my design work and my PHP code, and that was enough to get me hired.

Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like had I not worked so hard learning on my own. It was a big turning point.

Most employers in the web industry care about demonstrable skills above all else (including Treehouse). They’re not interested in college degrees or boring resumes. Rather, they want to know what job candidates can do right now. Building experience and creating a portfolio of work can be difficult, but it’s much easier if you know where to look. The path I took is just one of many.

Photograph of the 3rd floor of the UCF library.

Here’s part of the UCF library, where I taught myself PHP and used that knowledge to ultimately land work. (Photo by Flickr user cybrgrl)

Contact a Local Organization or a New Business

There’s no shortage of demand for web design skills, even for beginners. Every business and organization has a need for a website, from the world’s most valuable companies to local volunteer groups. Smart business people and organizers know that a great website could be the difference between swift failure or wild success. Many of these organizations are just getting started, so even though they might understand the critical importance of creating a web presence, they might not have the money, time, or skill to make it happen.

That’s where you come in. If they don’t have a website or their existing site doesn’t look very good, contact them and offer your skills. When you talk to them, be tactful. The people you’re contacting might take a lot of pride in their current website, so try asking if they’re looking for web design help without offering any critique. Explain to them you’re trying to build your portfolio. If they don’t accept, you’ve at least introduced yourself. Networking could potentially lead to a gig later on.

You may also consider charging a small fee, even if you’ve earned money for your work before. This will help you gain experience negotiating and creating a freelance contract. A little cash can also keep you motivated when frustration hits. Some small businesses may choose to barter and spread goodwill, especially if they’re new. Sometimes this is annoying, but if you’re still gathering experience, trading might be a nice bonus for your time. For example, I was once offered weekly beer deliveries in exchange for ongoing site maintenance. Now that I think about it, I probably should have taken the deal.

Photograph of a dog poking its nose through a chain linked fence.

Building a website for an animal shelter or foster organization could raise awareness and ultimately improve the lives of many animals. (Photo by Flickr user Dave Parker)

If you’re having trouble thinking of an organization to contact, here are a few more ideas:

  • Farmer’s markets
  • Local clubs and meetup groups
  • Volunteer organizations
  • Independent artists and musicians
  • Church community groups

Gain Experience by Building a Web App

Nearly a decade ago, I first learned how to write PHP because I had an idea. Things didn’t go the way I planned, but it was a great experience. Learning with a goal in mind helped me focus on the right things. It was also a powerful motivator because my desire to complete my vision helped me push through frustrating bugs and problems.

The experience was valuable because I had a complete piece of work that could demonstrate my abilities to potential employers. When I went to interviews, I brought my code with me in case they asked for a sample of my work.

Building an entire web app by myself also helped me gain a better perspective of how the disparate components of a website work together. This was valuable experience to draw upon once I was working inside an organization with other team members because it made it easier for me to interact with specialized job roles. I’ve designed and developed several more small applications since and it’s always a helpful experience.

Create a Personal Website

If you don’t feel confident enough to contact a local business or build a web app, build a personal website first. Whether you want to be a designer or a developer, you’ll need a portfolio of work. In fact, this is exactly what I teach in the Treehouse course How to Make a Website.

Screenshot of http://treehousewebsite.com

This is the simple portfolio project in the Treehouse course How to Make a Website.

If you don’t have anything to put in your portfolio yet, you can omit the portfolio portion of the site or fill it with related content. For example, maybe you’ve done graphic design work and you’re making the switch to web design. Alternatively, you could save the portfolio site for another time and just create a personal site to showcase a hobby or talent that you enjoy, such as photography or baking. This is a fun way to get started because the focus is on you and your own personal expression.

Going Further

There are plenty of ways to get experience in the web industry, and these are just a few. If you have anything to contribute or any questions you’d like to ask, let me know in the comments!

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Nick Pettit

Nick is a designer, public speaker, and teacher at Treehouse. He is also a co-host of The Treehouse Show. Twitter: @nickrp

Comments

26 comments on “How to Get Web Design Experience

    • Pierson Arruda,
      I have been a Treehouse student for about 2 years now. This has been the best decision of my life.
      currently I work an overnight shift at a food manufacturing plant in Massachusetts. I have just published my first website which I created for my wife. http://www.skinnywrapfacts.com . I am hoping to be off the overnight schedule before the end of 2014. Good luck! You are making the right choice.

      Dave Doyle

  1. This very helpful. My problem is learning when to stop or setting limits, if Nick or anyone feels so inclined, please share how they prevent from being taken advantage of while doing portfolio work.

    • That’s a very interesting question. It’s tough, because that kind of sensibility only comes with experience. Many designers and developers I know have done a project for less than they’re worth at some point during their career, and it’s only easy to see in hindsight.

      My advice would be to feel out the market as best you can and just do some basic sales tactics. What are other people in your area charging for similar services? Also, if everybody is saying “Yes” to you, it might be time to increase prices and see how many people still accept.

      • Sound advice Nick.

        If I may, I’d like to add my two cents?

        Treat pro-bono work like paid work. It’s easy for some of us to say that, since we have experience working with paying clients. However, for those of you who don’t, and are looking to build a portfolio, start establishing your working criteria and agreements for pro-bono work now. This will give you the experience needed for creating contracts or agreements, and allows you to stipulate the terms on which you will provide work for your clients. Don’t forget to include things like a timeframe, revisions, etc…

        Also, when you’re just starting out, it’s okay to be flexible. Adding a few extra little revisions, or helping teach a businesses I.T department how the admin front end works can be that little touch that spreads your name and gets you your first paying gig. Just remember that an agreement is your way, and a clients, to understand and reference project details and terms.

  2. Thanks, Nick.

    I just started learning web design in December, and I’ve built a site for a course I help teach. I’ve done student surveys… and the teaching team is happy to have something that isn’t Blackboard (a Learning Management System that helps profs build impossible-to-navigate websites with aesthetics from the late 90s). I’ve got experience and some helpful feedback from students. I suspect that the other instructors are hesitant to give critical feedback because they don’t read many websites, and because I’m offering something valuable for free. Where would you (all) recommend I look for web-savvy, disinterested, trustworthy people I can ask for criticism?

    Thanks,
    Alex

    • I would look on community sites like Dribbble, Reddit, and basically post it places where you feel comfortable doing so. You might also want to try the Treehouse Forum. Treehouse teachers, moderators, and students, are always happy to give feedback there. :)

    • What is the site address. I love to look at websites and think about what is done well and what could maybe done better. helps with my own skill development.

  3. Great post Nick ,
    I feel like this is me. I’m getting ready to teach myself PHP with some online tuts. I’m a big fan of WP and recently built my own personal site To freelance and build a portfolioI. Im very interested in Treehouse and look forward to when I can make a commitment to a monthly membership. It seems that web design is moving so fast I hope I don’t miss the boat. So much opportunity and so much to learn.

  4. Hi Nick,

    Thanks for the great post it was very informative. What is your opinion on companies that are requiring degrees in computer science along with experience in .NET development with C# and C++ for web development positions?

    • It totally depends on the job itself. Some jobs will involve subject matter you learn in a computer science degree, but in my experience, most do not.

  5. Nick,

    Great informative post. It can be a challenge to nail down that first project. However, once you do it’s amazing how much you learn and it seems like the others get a bit easier to land. Like you mentioned, I used a non-profit as one of my earlier stepping stones and it was a great win win for both sides.

  6. Hey Nick i have a quick question what book would you recommend to start developing web apps? (Already finished the how to make a website. Just editing and tweaking it a bit more)

  7. Hey Nick,

    Sometimes I feel like freelance web design is dying. A lot of small businesses I have In counter use a free templet. I see more and more adds of companies that make templates for a very low price or even for free. I try to explain how a custom professional site could benefit their company more, but they are content with templets. And also people in India are building sites for dirt cheap. Which is hard to compete against. I feel that the only way to make a living through web design is getting a job with a company. And to do that you need to have a large portfolio, which is hard because of customizable templates. Please tell me I’m wrong lol. The idea of free lance seems awesome and I would love to do it. I just don’t think it’s possible

  8. I think it’s also worth mentioning that blogging about what you’re learning is also a remarkably great way to 1) solidify lessons learned 2) share your knowledge with the world and 3) attract prospective clients/employers.

  9. A great way to get the ball rolling is through social networking. I posted on Facebook that I am looking to build a web portfolio and am offering for a limited time a special deal on website design to the first 4 people to Private message me for details. I have just scored my first website project from someone I went to High School with and haven’t seen in over 25 years. It is for a vacation rental spot in Vermont where her father is a board member. I am getting a free week stay because they are struggling and don’t have cash. The value of the stay is about $1400. Make it known to your friends on facebook/twitter and you will get some kind of response. Someone you know is bound to know someone that has their own business. Good Luck and great post Nick!

  10. You are very true that there is always need of designers in the industry as everyone wants the website for their business or for himself.The idea of freelancing is great

  11. Hello, sorry to be the downer, but apply your learning efforts in some other platform that has a future.
    Website designers are rapidly becomming a dying breed. I have been designing successfully for 15 years and now I am at the verge of unemployment.
    Everyone is going to the new process of websites that make you a website for free.
    Yes the website is an ugly template, cookie cutter website, but it’s FREE!.
    And the rest are going to Indian companies who charge only $7.00 an hour. How do you compete with that?
    Anyway don’t waist your time on learning a job that has no future.

    Just my two cents and good luck with any future you choose.

    • Have to say I completely disagree with you here. The people that are using the likes of wix and squarespace are doing so because they know that they don’t have what it takes to build the site themselves and are looking for a quick fix. The people that go with designers in places like India where work is extremely cheap usually end up begging for someone to take over the project cause there is so many problems.

      I have been involved in the hosting industry for years and have seen all sides of this argument, the fact is that web design / development is not a dying industry, infact its booming more now than ever.

      Sites like wix and squarespace generally only suffice for 6months – 1 year, after that any solid business will be looking for a proper site designed that suits their needs and can be modified further down the road without too much hassle.

      I am just starting out in web development and learning a ton of stuff through treehouse and it is really helping me improve as a dev. I started out similar to what Nick suggested, was approached by a friend who knew I was wanting to learn web dev and he asked me to build a visitor tracking database for a church, once I built that I was then approached by the admin of my childs daycare and they asked if I would build them a website.

      The first job I did free of charge as it was for a good friend and also as there was no timeline (although I put myself under plenty of constraints to get it done) and it was my first project. For the day care, that is being done as a trade, they are knocking off a large portion of the next bill i have to pay for my child, and in return they get a simple enough website and I also get portfolio material.

      The long and short of what this long winded reply is getting to is, do not listen when people say that web design / development are dying cause of sites like wix and squarespace. Sure there may be a lull for a while, but sooner or later those people will realise they need a real site and accept that quality costs money.

      Best of luck to all that are learning with treehouse, I’m already learning so much and loving it.

  12. My favorite part of this article is about how smart companies hire. They want someone who can deliver something impressive, meaningful and tangible, now. And that usually means someone who can demonstrate they’ve already delivered something like that recently.

    So a good takeaway is that the best way of achieving a certain position in your current organization, or entirely new job in a different organization, is to present something that people who hire for that position will find relevant and impressive. This is how you beat people with more education and potentially even more relevant experience who are going for the same role as you.