How Do I Make a Living in Web Design?

Here’s an email I got a couple of weeks ago from a follower in Kenya.

I receive requests like these fairly often, so, rather than scribble out a quick reply, I offered to write up my advice into a full blog post.

Hi Ben. My name is Brian. Am from Kenya and am good at web designing. However, I want to make it my source of income. I’m not employed by any firm and the problem comes in whether to create a website of a business firm I have in mind or just a simple page about myself and what I can offer as a marketing strategy of myself out there. I already have a couple of projects as my portfolio.

Please help me out. Thank you.

Brian Mwashuke

(Here are a few of Brian’s demo sites: 1, 2, 3.)

And here’s another comment on one of my posts that just came in today, which I think is related…

Dear Ben, Greetings. I’m new to web designing, was previously into development, but now i realize the most difficult thing is crafting a good user interface. Just finished learning HTML5, CSS3, JAVASCRIPT, etc but combining them is the task.

To make my question clear – colour combination, write up, suitable graphics that’ll best match what the site is intended to offer. you know, if there is any book / guide on that, i’ll appreciate. In a nutshell, i want to learn DESIGNING now, instead of DESIGN TECHNOLOGIES(like html, css3,etc)

Wisdom Ugochukwu

Before I answer their questions, I’d like to start by acknowledging what Brian and Wisdom have done here. They’ve taken a step that many of us are too proud to do, reached out and simply asked. Good on you, guys!

Although these questions seem to be asking very different things, the answers will actually be very similar, and it’s all about the end of old-school “web design” and the new skillset that we’ll need to master for the future.

Web Design Is Dead

Web Design is DeadIf you haven’t read “Web Design is Dead” yet, I’m still giving it away for free, and you can get it immediately by signing up for my mailing list.

In a nutshell, it says that the old way of crafting every website by hand is not only outdated, it’s redundant. The main reason is to do with maturation, standardisation, and productisation of website publishing.

In short, you can now BUY a website template that looks and works great, for a fraction of the cost that anyone could possibly create by hand.

The old all-rounder web design role is going extinct, and that’s actually really good news.

The Future of the Web Designer Role

I’ve been a professional web designer for over twenty years, and I mastered HTML, JavaScript, and CSS.

But now I barely use those skills — at least not to the depth that I used to in the web design dark ages, where I would sometimes spend days fiddling with spacing and cross-browser testing.

Why? Because I can now buy or rent themes and platforms where all that work has already been done for me.

I won’t bother repeating everything in the book, because you can read that at your leisure, but let’s look at Brian’s and Wisdom’s situations.

I’d say Brian’s demo pages look hand-coded, and very well hand-coded at that. And there’s a paradox here that we should explore.

On one level, it strengthens you to know HTML and CSS in some depth. Today, I’d say I mostly use CSS to customise the off-the-shelf WordPress themes I use.

Today, I’ll maybe type out about 30 lines of CSS hacks to override the theme defaults (I’m very picky about typography, in particular). I barely write any HTML tags any more, and I couldn’t tell you the last time I wrote a line of JavaScript.

Of course, they’re all related, and doing your apprenticeship hand-coding pages will give you a very good foundation for crafting future websites. However, as you move ahead to doing this professionally, you shouldn’t hand-build those sites!

So, maybe it’s okay to hand-build until you understand semantic HTML, how and where to use which elements, the DOM (Document Object Model), and are intimate with all the CSS properties, but then STOP!

As “Web Design is Dead” will explain in detail, the future of the web designer role does not depend on those production skills (or graphic design) in the way that it used to. Sure, there’ll always be some market for HTML/CSS hackery, and there are still clients who (ignorantly) believe they need hand-coded sites. But I think we’re over the peak of the technology adoption curve in this case. The all-round webmaster is going extinct. It will take time, but the writing is on the wall.

As for Wisdom’s question (about how to get good at the visual design part of web design), much the same principles apply.

Yes, I’m an expert graphic design, and I’m a Photoshop whiz. But I don’t DO much graphic design or Photoshop (or Pixlr/Canva) work these days.

Why? Because, no matter how good you are, it’s still time-consuming!

Just like the production and front-end development stuff, the themes I use have already taken care of most of the graphic design fundamentals for me. All I need to do is add imagery and maybe a logo.

And, if I need a logo, it’s quicker and more cost-effective for me to commission someone on Fiverr or UpWork to do it for me.

Here are the most important future web designer skills

1. Work Smart

The web designer of the future must transcend production. They’ll know how to select and to combine existing platforms, themes, and plugins rapidly to create functional sites.

Know what’s on the market (themes, plugins, platforms), and keep yourself educated.

Implement at a high level, and resist the temptation to customize unless it’s absolutely necessary.

If you ever find yourself thinking, “I wonder if…?” do not try to invent anything. Someone else has probably already done all the hard work, made it look and work great, and tested it to destruction. Do not reinvent the wheel!

2. Master Strategy

Know that the fundamentals of marketing (brand positioning, product, proposition, promise, and market) will have a far greater impact on your clients’ success than the visual appearance or technology used on their website.

Study the Open-Source Marketing “Circuit” model in detail. Try to understand when and why each question in the Circuit Questionnaire matters. Each client’s situation is different.

It’s our job not to make our clients look appealing.

Our job is to help them find and deliver their most compelling and powerful message.

Also practice thinking bigger. That’s one of the most crucial, and least talked-about, aspects of strategy. I could write a whole book on this subject alone. Get intimate with the Circuit Review process.

3. Content & Messaging

Figure out what your clients’ brands should be saying, and help them to say it clearly, simply, and powerfully. Deliver real value in your content. Don’t try to be like the competition.

Not everyone is a writer, but everyone can learn to write pretty well. The biggest tip I can offer is not to be clever. Get clear about what you want your reader to know, and set it out simply, in easy-to-follow steps. Use short sentences and paragraphs. Don’t tease, just serve the best you can.

If you are (or your client is) really hopeless with the written word, how about video or audio? Find the medium that will most easily communicate what you want to say.

4. Position Yourself

I guess my final message should be to get clear on which aspect of online marketing is right for you.

Find what you’re good at, you love doing, and that there’s a demand for. Don’t stop looking until you’ve found it.

If you’re a great coder, or CSS hacker, and it makes you happy, get a job in an agency or product company doing that.

If you love writing copy, specialize in that.

If your special power is helping clients with their strategy, do more of that, and outsource the stuff you don’t like doing so much.

Life is short, so spend it serving with the most valuable work you’re capable of doing.

“I’m Here to Help”


If you have any questions, thoughts, or queries of any kind, please feel free to comment below. I’ll be happy to clarify any of the points I’ve made, or to discuss further.

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