As a technology professional for many years, the question of “What should I learn to become a web designer?” is one I have answered many times. As an instructor at different community colleges, it is a question that I created programs and courses to answer.
If someone asked the question in terms of building construction, “what do I need to be a construction worker?” the answer would be similar. Get a general understanding of all the areas of building construction, and they find an area of specialization. We will take that same approach in answering the question of becoming a web designer.
It is not as easy as question to answer as some may think. As I frequent many online forums I see heated discussions on basic definitions of terms like web designer. There are also frequent debates on what specific technologies are hot right now, and what technologies are core requirements for a job in web development. For the sake of addressing this question, we will focus on the open source school of thought. While someone studying strictly Microsoft technologies will have similar objective, the specific path will be a bit different.
Defining Web Designer
For the sake of this discussion, let us begin by defining web designer from a technology viewpoint. The web is collection of information held together by a group of technologies, the core of these technologies is the language of HTML, Hyper Text MarkUp Language. The vehicle by which these technologies are delivered to the people using the web is know as HTTP, Hyper Text Transfer Protocol. The standard definitions of these technologies are maintained by an organization know as the W3C, World Wide Web Consortium.
From strictly artistic point of view, one could define the web designer as someone who creates interesting content that captures an audience, or conveys a message, while focusing more attention on how a web site looks rather than how it works. This side of web design becomes very subjective.
There are many paths to becoming a web designer, we will outline some core skills that will help you in an broad understanding of the topic. In the programs that I helped to develop, we stressed a broad range of basic skills that touched on both the technical and artistic side of being a web designer before specializing in any one area, A basic understanding of networking
Many folks who call themselves web designers never touch an ethernet cable, or perhaps never even see a router. But a basic understanding of networking can help you to enter the field of web design, and advance your career in web design. Students who learned a bit of basic networking often commented how glad they were to finally have some idea of the meaning of many of the phrases they heard being used by their colleagues. You do not need to be a network engineer to understand enough networking technology to better communicate with someone on the help desk helping to troubleshoot why your web page is not being displayed to your end users.
An overview of web server technology
Many web designers create web pages and graphics on a desktop computer, and upload them to the server, having their only exposure to the server as a very small part of a much larger process. For the same reason that a basic understanding of networking is extremely helpful to a web designer, having a basic understanding web server technology helps to work with other technology team members in troubleshooting problems, as well as having a better understanding of the total picture of all the elements in a functioning web site.
In the open source world, LAMP is an acronym for the components of a functional web site. The letters represent the first letters of the operating system, Linux, the web server application, Apache, the database application, MySQL, and the common scripting languages used in web technologies, Perl, PHP, and Python.
Apache, while considered an HTTP web server application, is usually taught as part of the Linux operating system, as it is a core component of any installation. As a web designer you do not need a comprehensive understanding on Linux, but the ability to execute a few tasks will come in handy as you troubleshoot problems.
While HTML is the core scripting language that is used to create a web page, Perl, PHP, and Python are all languages used in addition to HTML to create dynamic web pages. Once you get a very basic understanding of how they work, it is likely you will focus of learning one of them, or perhaps even a similar web language to create a dynamic page.
Understanding Web Design tools
If you have studied the previously discussed topics, by the time you get to this point in your journey to become a web designer, you may already have some ideas on what tools you will need to move forward.
If you are working with a content management system, an application that runs on the server that creates dynamic web pages, you may find that all you need is a text editor at this point to design web pages. On the other hand, you may find that you need some application to help you automate and organize some of your web building processes.
Adobe Dreamweaver is one tool that has evolved quite a bit over the years, as the Dreamweaver application has changed hands many times, and is now part of the Adobe family of products. Classes on Dreamweaver are found in many tech schools, as well as through many online sources. While Dreamweaver is one of the most popular applications, it also comes with a hefty price of $400..
If learning to use a design tool is more a matter of personal budget, rather than what looks good on a resume, there are low cost alternatives such as CoffeeCup Software, at around $50, or open source, as in free, applications such as KompoZer.
What should I learn to become a web designer?
Some employers may be happy with demonstrated skills, and a great interview, while others may look at certifications and credentials. Whether you need certifications in each of these areas, or simply some self taught skills to prove your knowledge at a job interview is a different debate beyond this article. You can decide based on the time you have to spend, as well as resources available at your local tech school or community college, how to best move forward.
As we began this article, comparing the original question to that of “what do I need to be a construction worker?” hopefully you now understand that both questions are similar in that they are very broad questions, rather than a specific question.
As you progress through your learning you may find an area that suits your interests or abilities that will ultimately help you to answer the question.