From Nothing to Something: Story of a Self-Taught Designer

Mar 28 2011 by Michael Tuck | 29 Comments

From Nothing to Something: Story of a Self-Taught Designer

I teach at a middle school in the southeastern U.S. located in an area plagued with grinding poverty. The kids on the football team wear t-shirts with the slogan "From Nothing to Something," a brand that I find somewhat disturbing. Are these kids "nothing" before they join the football team, or before they come to our school?

But the slogan does apply to the idea of learning any new discipline or art: you start with "nothing" and after a time (hopefully) you achieve "something" — whether it is to become an accomplished web designer, web developer, a painter, or an auto mechanic.

Many of us in the web design and web development field are self-taught. To one extent or another, we taught ourselves at least the fundamentals and rudiments of the field before going to a college or joining a design firm.

An article I wrote last year about U.S. public school websites led to the formation of an international community of developers and designers interested in bettering public school websites, both in the U.S. and abroad.

In the inception of that group, I heard from a South African web designer named Cara Wilton who taught herself into becoming a web designer in order to give the school she was teaching at, a new website.

I found her story compelling, and asked if I could share her story. She agreed.

What makes Cara’s story so interesting is how universal it is to the design community. Maybe twenty years from now the design community will be dominated by the products of college degree programs — but right now, it’s still largely dominated by self-taught professionals.

These madwands — to borrow writer Roger Zelazny’s marvelous appellation — are a wild, woolly, individualistic, iconoclastic, and often cantankerous bunch whose sole commonality is that they found their own paths to success (however they define the word).

There is no right or wrong way to become a web designer; all you need is the impetus, the desire, the passion, and the willingness to learn the craft.

In Cara’s case, she combined all those elements with something else: an imminent need. Someone had to step up for her school, and so she did.

You probably won’t learn any new design techniques or nifty code snippets from this article (there’s plenty of that on this site already). What you might gain is some inspiration to keep pursuing your craft, and, if needed, a bit more appreciation and tolerance for someone who isn’t coming into web design or development in the very same manner you entered the field.

There are many paths to enlightenment, grasshopper, and there are even more paths to design and development proficiency.

In the Beginning

If anyone over 30 tells you they grew up wanting to be a web designer, they’re probably lying. When I was a kid, we were more likely to tell the teacher that we wanted to grow up to be a Klingon than a web designer. Not only did the job not exist, neither did the Internet (as we know it now at least). And it took some time before a significant number of folks looked around and decided, "You know, I could make a bucket of money designing sites for people and businesses. Hmmm…"

Cara is a teacher working at a small private school in Pretoria, South Africa. She grew up with computers, playing games on old DOS-based computers, making slideshows with Harvard Graphics, and creating posters with CorelDRAW. Not familiar with these applications? That’s because they haven’t been on the market since the days of dollar-a-gallon gasoline. (Okay, Corel Draw is still around, but not the version Cara used.)

Needless to say, she didn’t think about becoming a web designer.

When she started teaching, she began using computers to make worksheets and do research. In 2006, she was volunteered to teach a computer course — schools and the military love to "volunteer" their members for all kinds of daunting tasks — and she had to learn about making databases and websites as part of her coursework.

Ironically, she had no trouble teaching the making of web pages — she just turned her kids loose on Microsoft FrontPage to make rudimentary web pages.

MS Access, the other unfamiliar component of her new curriculum, was far more daunting. But by 2007, she had created a database in Access to manage her student records. The school still uses that database today.

When she began working at her school in 2003, the school had an old, outdated site maintained by a local ad agency. She was hired with the understanding that she would help the agency update and transform the site, but, as she recalls, the whole experience was a wash. For two years, as Cara recalls, "I would send material to the agency, they would lose it … the owners were always away and in general the whole thing was just a nightmare."

Part of the problem was, of course, her complete lack of skills and training in web design and development.

For a brief time in 2005, she worked with a professional designer who used her hand-drawn sketches of what she thought the site should look like to update the site, but the designer quickly turned to other projects, and, as she remembers, "our little school project dropped off his priority list."

The Learning Process

In late 2007, Cara’s school decided to take the bull by the horns and wrangle the site into some semblance of order. Or rather, the school decided Cara should do the bull-wrangling. They gave her a budget, and she hired yet another outside design agency to manage the site. Six months of cost overruns, missed deadlines, and poor product followed.

She decided that if anyone was going to wrangle this particular bull, it was going to have to be her. She put on her cowboy duds, fired the design agency, and got down to wrangling.

She notes that she had two things going for her: a grounding in the very basics of HTML/CSS and sheer desperation. Thusly motivated, she got down to business.

The previous experience with her students had taught her that using site-building tools such as Microsoft FrontPage was a bad idea, as the sites the kids produced never looked right in Firefox or Opera. As inexperienced as she was, she knew that a page that only looks good in IE6 isn’t a good page.

So she came across Google’s not-quite-so-awful-as-FrontPage tool called Page Creator and built herself a "sandbox" site called CHouseLive with which to experiment and learn.

"Over a period of about two months I spent every spare moment building the site," she says. "I learnt an incredible amount during this time."

One of the things she learned was that Page Creator (and really, any online site builder) "had many limitations and would not work for a larger site like what the school would require."

She tried WordPress and Blogger hosted sites, but it didn’t take long for her to realize that while a blog would do wonderfully for the newsletter, it wouldn’t do for the actual site itself.

The first thing a madwand (or a wannabe Harry Potter) should learn is what not to do: how not to set yourself on fire or turn yourself into a palmetto bug. Cara had learned that site builders and other "helpful" software programs were not going to give her the results she wanted. Now it was time for her to learn some real craft. "I couldn’t find anything straight away that worked for me, which was probably a blessing," she says.

Armed with Notepad and an Internet connection, she set about using online tutorials to begin advancing from novice to journeyman.

"I must have read a hundred articles and the following aspects seem to run through most of them: WYSIWYG editors are frowned upon, using Dreamweaver’s code editor or a HTML editor was preferable, table based designs are old fashioned, tables should only be used for tabular data, and CSS should be used for placement and styling," she says.

Even after all this, Cara still wanted assistance from software. Her school owned a license to Expression Web 1, so she began using that to assist in her site construction; she also found a free template that she could deconstruct as a learning tool.

She put the two together and began transforming the CHouseLive site from a web-code Petri dish into a sustainable site. Creating a functional site provided another course of self-directed apprenticeship.

"I spent hours looking at coding then trying it out on my page. I quickly picked up patterns. If you want things to lie vertically, you should add a float. I noticed he always put clear:both in his footer. If I left it out, the page would not flow down, but instead parts would disappear when viewed in my browser. I would then follow this up by using Google to find articles written about floats and so learnt that a float must be cleared so that the natural flow of the page which is vertical can be re-established," recounts Cara.

"And slowly I managed to put my first hand coded page together. In this way I learnt how to centre [sic] pages, how the box model works, the difference between a class and ID, and on so on. Of course the process was made easier by certain Expression Web features. The code editor has auto-complete code and error highlighting features which help keep one on track."

She’s kept the original product she churned out based on the template she found online.

No schooling required, just basic computer knowledge, desire and common sense.

Entering the Real World

Apprenticeship served, in October 2008, Cara decided to tackle the real project: the school’s website. She sat down with pencil and sketch pad, roughed out a design, and cobbled up a demo, which she has preserved here.

The demo, with some modifications, went live, and Cara then began the lengthy process of revision and improvement, redesigning it from the ground up at least four times in the next year.

As the site became larger and was forced to manage more and more content, Cara began to teach herself PHP in order to maintain the site’s various elements, particularly the menus, headers, and footers.

She also opened an online blogging platform for the school’s newsletter, and figured out the ins and outs of Feedburner to generate an RSS feed. "The system works marvelously and has cut out a lot of admin time," she says.

Courtney House has contracted with a graphic design artist to generate pamphlets, ads, business cards, and other promotional and marketing materials. The design artist has worked with Cara to redo the design of the site and implement the new branding features. Cara brings a wealth of self-taught design and development skills to the table, and she works with the design artist as an equal — unlike the relationships she endured with the previous designers the school employed.

Future Plans

Cara wants to extend the site to be more responsive and interactive for students and teachers alike. She’s opened a private WordPress blog for staff members to help keep track of upcoming events, give the teachers downloadable templates and a forum for sharing ideas, and so forth.

Eventually, she wants the teachers and admins to contribute most, if not all, of the site’s content, and do most of the legwork in updating and reconfiguring the site.

Lessons Learned

Like any good journeyman who is working towards mastering her craft, Cara has kept track of the lessons she’s learned in her largely self-driven odyssey of becoming a capable web developer and designer. Here are just a few of them.

Before you start, decide what your objectives are and then work towards achieving them.

Don’t assume using a CMS will make things easier. If you are to use a CMS, you should still understand the basic languages which run them, HTML, CSS and PHP. Otherwise, the end result will have a very pre-packaged template feel to it.

Schools often have committees that make decisions, and trying to please 10 committee members is an almost impossible task. If you have to work with a committee, sit down and get all their opinions, then go off and put together your proposal. Whittle it down to the best three options then go back and get them to vote for the best. This why they are still involved, but you the person doing the work can keep control of what is expected. If you try follow every idea, you will drive yourself mad!

Accept that your colleagues will not be as interested in the website as you are.

A website is a dynamic beast that requires constant tendering. "A web page is like its own little organism. It never stops," she says.

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About the Author

Michael Tuck is an educator, writer, and freelance web designer. He serves as an advisor to the Web Design forum on SitePoint. When he isn’t teaching or designing sites, he is doing research for the History Commons. You can contact him through his website, Black Max Web Design.

29 Comments

Kagai Macharia

March 28th, 2011

It reminds of my journey, to where I am today. Very inspiring to know that I am not alone

Michael Gunner

March 28th, 2011

All well and good documenting how someone becomes a web designer. But the key question is, is the work they’re producing any good? Is it a credible, professional standard? Or is it still clearly the work of an amateur?

Kaushik Panchal

March 28th, 2011

Great article, I’m also a self taught designer and I’ve a long way to go.

Steve Schwab

March 28th, 2011

Sounds familiar…
It’s a fun journey. My biggest frustration is the right brain stuff. I’m a trained engineer so the code stuff comes fairly naturally. When you are in a situation such as Caro, you probably won’t have a budget for graphic designer help. You often wind up producing great code but fall short on the aesthetics. Templates can help out enormously but often the sites are obviously generated from a canned template. Wish there was an easy solution for this dilemma but my advice is to seek out the art teacher for collaboration.

Robin Burks

March 28th, 2011

What a great story! I can already see a few comments from people I’m assuming who did go to design school and are trying to justify that. I would like to state that I am 100% self taught because when I started becoming interested in web design, the web was still relatively new. There were no classes that taught that sort of thing. So you, more or less, had to be self-taught.

My first website went live in 1993 and ever since then, I have been learning. I’ve used books and the internet as a resource and spent some time with a professional design company until I began freelancing. I feel my work is up to par with many of my younger friends who did go to school to study web design and I tend to have a better knowledge because I remember coding in HTML 1.

Ted Thompson

March 28th, 2011

Nice article, I too am self taught. Started out in the late 90′s round the time of the dot com boom, all I had was a crappy old Tiny pc and a book on HTML from the library, I think I renewed that book four times before it had to go back! Everything I’ve learnt since has been from books or the web, Google has been my biggest source of knowledge. You don’t need fancy certificates or a degree to be a web designer/developer, just passion and a willingness to learn!

Thanks for a good read.
Ted

Richard Fleming

March 28th, 2011

Great read! I can remember starting off this way as well and know ALL of those programs :)

Just a curious question on the use of sic though. I always thought it was a no-no to sic British/American spelling variations.

philipcaplan

March 28th, 2011

Most educators fail to remember this basic fact – somebody who is learning something that they NEED TO DO is more likely to truly learn it than if they are simply told “LEARN THIS”.

After all, many young people learned how to text without it ever appearing on their schools’ syllabus or list of desirable skills!!

John Wayne

March 28th, 2011

Great case story about a boot strapped and self taught web developer/designer. I appreciate and think it’s important for web designers to get to know the material with which they use to design by learning how to code a bit. I still have problems with the title of this post, but I’ll save that for later. Hurray for people who get to know their materials!

Michael Gunner

March 28th, 2011

I’m degree educated, & I’m not seeing all these comments from anyone trying to justify going to design school or suggesting it’s the only way into the profession. I simply asked a question, and my question was not (if you read it carefully) targeted at those who have not got a formal qualification in design. I simply suggested that what is more important than how you became a web designer is how good you are, regardless of whether you did a degree or not.

I would, however, argue that a degree in design gives you a flexibility to take your skills and abilities across all areas of design – and other subjects. Whereas if you are a self-taught web designer, you can’t really just stop and start designing products or furniture instead – you’d have to spend months teaching yourself all over again.

Each to their own, let’s not start bashing each other for how we got to where we are, we make our own choices.

Barry

March 28th, 2011

wow, I spent 20 years in medicine before coming to this field. I’m self taught like she is and have learned as I went along. I bring many lessons from medicine to my art now. Fine story.

Young

March 28th, 2011

Pretty sure HTMLgoodies was my only resource when I started out. I taught myself HTML in early high school with nothing but my notepad. Photoshop and Illustrator I learned from a few books – and the vector techniques through…literally trial and error. I have never fooled around with other IDEs like FrontPage, though, and I’m glad I didn’t, seeing how many atrocious sites have come into being through it. In college I decided to learn PHP and MySQL after a friend had a business idea and I saw the need to get my hands dirty in the back-end. It’s been a fun ride ever since.

Antonio Ciccaone

March 28th, 2011

I know global is cool right now, but there’s plenty of homegrown stories of success that your website could bring attention to. I was born to a crackhead mother who gave me up at two weeks old… I was homeless for three years, living in shelters and fields, selling my plasma for 20 bucks a pop, smoking used cigarettes. I came so close to the end, and I should be dead, but I’m a web designer.

Third-world countries are just that, it’s kind of expected. When you wake up in America and you’re walking through the dangerous underbelly of a city – that’s your story. When you’re robbed with a gun to your head, run from the law, and join a traveling sales crew to get to California… That’s a story.

Just saying.

Thomas

March 28th, 2011

Great read, 90% of what I’ve learned has been through practice and exploring various methods to achieve the same tasks. i think you need to constantly be learning to evolve in this profession. Keep reading, keep practicing, expand your skillsets.

Michael Tuck

March 28th, 2011

@Michael, that’s a judgment each of us has to make for ourselves. If the stakeholders of Courtney House find her design useful and appealing, then it works for them. Ask ten “credible professionals” if a site meets their standards, and while you probably won’t get ten completely different answers, you’ll get some widely varying perspectives (and probably start a lively discussion in the process).

@philipcaplan, excellent point. I have students that don’t learn the basics of, say, paragraph construction simply because they don’t want to, but they have taught themselves the rudiments of Japanese in order to play games that appeal to them. Like so many of us (well, me at least), Cara learned what she needed to learn to achieve a goal and complete a task, and found out along the way that the art/craft of Web design was appealing in itself.

I’m glad people liked this article; if Jacob is amenable, there may be more along these lines in the future.

Kristin

March 28th, 2011

I came from print design, and taught myself web design to stay viable in this job market. There is nothing you cannot learn if you have an internet connection.

Jacob Gube

March 28th, 2011

@Michael Tuck: Definitely. I love personal stories like these, and this one particularly, being self-taught myself, hit home. So, yes, I’m up for it!

As for the educated/self-taught sentiments above:

I’ve worked with college-trained web designers and web developers, as well as self-taught web designers and web developers. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter — it’s the product that counts. It’s not how you get there, it’s what you do once you’re there.

As for my personal experience, to be self-taught takes a lot of personal motivation and drive because I don’t have someone (like a teacher) motivating me and gauging my education. I’ve had to set personal standards and the only person I’m competing with is the yesterday me (“Am I better today?”). I’ve also had to learn the hardest way possible, by breaking stuff, getting complaints from clients and users, and then having to fix it quickly.

I agree with what Michael implies in his article; this profession is so new that colleges haven’t really had the time to create a solid curriculum for it yet. The other thing that makes it difficult is that the nature of the profession shifts, like, every year. Right now, everyone’s doing mobile and server-side JS. A year ago, we were all doing CMSs. How do you accommodate these huge paradigm shifts into a 4-year degree? There are great programs out there today, but they’re still few and far in between. And especially if you’re in my generation, you had to teach yourself most of the things you know now while on the job and in your personal time because there were no decent college-level web design/web development programs in the universities we could attend.

SmittenbyBritain

March 28th, 2011

I found this article so inspiring. Like Cara, we didn’t have computers in high school and I was only introduced to them when I joined the Air Force in 1987. The recruiter asked me if I would like to become a communications specialist and he told me that working on computers would be the next hot thing. He wasn’t wrong. I became a computer repair tech for four years and then left the service. I barely touched a computer again until I returned to college in 2000. There I worked as a work study student for a professor who was in charge of a student organization in need of a website. I loved the internet and websites so I took on the challenge of teaching myself Frontpage. I loved every minute of it.

Then three years later in a new job I volunteered to make another site for my department, again using Front Page. Fast forward five years and I began blogging, designing my own headers and layouts in blogger and eventually moving to WordPress. After teaching myself Photoshop and designing headers for blogging friends I’ve finally decided to scratch the itch and turn my love of web design into a career.

I’m 43 now and it’s hard to not have doubts and think that maybe it’s too late to catch-up, but I’m willing to give it everything I’ve got.

Dan Bowen

March 28th, 2011

Although I don’t typically comments on a lot of posts, I felt compelled to comment on this one. I’m a self taught, uneducated web designer who started a few years ago with one small client and a dream. A few years later, my company has 4 full time employees and we manage 150+ websites. College and school in general were not for me from day 1. I often struggled at school because I didn’t have the attention span for it and it had an obvious impact on my grades. I was told by numerous teachers and administrators that I would turn out to be NOTHING. I now make more money than any person in the school district and I’m doing something that I honestly enjoy. I had a rough start to what is now a fast growing, successful business.

Michael Tuck

March 28th, 2011

@Antonio, yours is the making of a hell of a story. I notice there’s nothing about your life story on your site. You should consider telling it in some form or fashion.

@Jacob, it was only a year or so ago that a friend of mine was taking a “fundamentals of Web construction” course in college, and learning tables, frames, and all those things we thought had been consigned to the scrap heap. Table- and frame-driven design ten years ago, Web 2.0 three years ago, CMSes last year, mobile apps this year…the field is defined by its constant mutability.

Michael Tuck

March 29th, 2011

@Dan, any teacher that would tell you to your face that you would turn out to be “nothing” deserves to be chased out of the school with a sharp stick. (As a teacher, I can say this…!) Your story is exactly why teachers and others should never, never give up on any child. Like Antonio, you have a terrific story that deserves telling. (And you should never describe yourself as “uneducated.” “Self-educated” is much more accurate, I’d say.)

9swords

March 29th, 2011

I love being a “self taught” web designer, but the expression escapes me. Being that there are people (teachers) behind the documentation on the web that was written expressly for learning. (Online research skills are a must) I would say this. Absorb and test everything interesting you can find, Do your research, learn it, master it, and afterwards create your own thing.

Claire

March 29th, 2011

What a great story and very inspiring article!
If you really want it to happen, you can MAKE it happen, regardless of what others say, educated or not!

I’m 38, self-taught freelancing here and there next to ordinary jobs, all the way until a year ago, where I started on my education as a Graphic Designer (3 years left). Mainly because I wanted be able to focus on learning even more on what I love to do.
The first 20+ years of my life there was no mobile phones, no computers, no internet (that we could use anyway) or Photoshop for that matter.

I handcoded my first website (tag-soup) back in 1995, taught myself flash and did flashsites for years, until I just recently learned myself HTNL/CSS before going back to school.
And this year passed, they couldn’t really teach me anything on webdesign and I was the best in my class.

So, even when being faily “Old” compared to a lot of other webdesigners – EVERYTHING is possible as long as you have your mind set on it.

Mama Gená said:
“If you trust your dreams half as much as you doubt them, you will get everything you want.”

vitmel

March 30th, 2011

Nice article. Sometimes I am worried about how much information we gonna need to fit in our heads to be able to keep up with technological progress. Every month something new comes out on the market and we have to use most of our free time on reading and learning what’s new going on in this area. That’s why aliens have such big heads :)

Todd

March 30th, 2011

Yeah, this is definitely that type of field where you constantly have to keep up with the changes, the times, the styles, and continue improving your abilities. Thanks for posting this great story, I’m sure it will be inspiring for many out there.

Gaurav Mishra

April 5th, 2011

Completely Agreed! “A web page is like its own little organism. It never stops,”

I’m also a self taught design individual.

Christian Krammer

April 6th, 2011

Nice read! Also reminds me of my “career”. It really is a good feeling to know that all of that you teach yourself and nobody helped you. Makes me proud a little bit. ;)

Irina Shishkina

April 6th, 2011

Inspiring article, thanks for sharing. Teaching and motivating yourself is of course much harder than being taught at a university. But once you start working it is important to carry on learning because ‘the truly educated never graduate’. If you are passionate about something you will use every day as an opportunity to learn more, to improve and evolve. It’s good to have a formal qualification especially if you are looking to work for a company; however, I believe that most employers look for passion and devotion. I think there is no reason why you can’t get a job if your work is good and you are passionate about what you do.

Jafar

May 2nd, 2011

I started by reading the Flash MX 2004 documentation…then I moved to Dreamweaver…someone should have told me to pick up an SQL book…

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