Learning Web Design: Self Taught vs. a Formal Education

If you’re looking to get into the web design/development industry there are loads of resources and courses to help with your education, but deciding which route to pursue is not easy. There are two basic approaches: going to a university for a formal education, or taking a self-taught approach and learning on your own. In recent years a growing number of colleges and universities have added degrees specifically for web design and development, and of course a graphic design/arts degree is also an option.

In this article we’ll take a look at the arguments for both approaches, and we’ll also provide information on plenty of resources to help you get started with learning on your own if that is the route that you choose. If you’re considering a career as a web designer/developer, you’ll want to take some time to educate yourself on the options that are available and see what is the best fit for you personally. There is no right or wrong approach, but following a path that isn’t the right fit for you can result in a lot of wasted time and money.

Pros of Being Self Taught

When it comes to web design and development you’ll often read or hear of someone being “self taught”. What this usually means is that this person did not receive a formal education in the field of design or development. In reality, being “self taught” typically involves things like reading books, following online tutorials, watching videos, and plenty of experimentation. The self taught designer still learns from others who are willing to teach, but it’s usually by way of informal articles and tutorials rather than a classroom setting. So don’t be intimidated at the phrase “self taught” as it does not mean that you will need to figure everything out on your own. With that in mind, here are some of the most convincing reasons why you might want to skip the formal education and just learn on your own.

Smashing Book

Photo credit: Ronaldo Ferreira

More Appropriate in an Industry that Changes Quickly

One of the biggest problems with getting a formal education for web design or development is that the industry changes too quickly. New technology and new trends mean that by the time you are done with your education much of what you have learned will already be obsolete or at least somewhat dated. Textbooks and curricula will naturally follow the current technology and trends, but by the time those changes are made to the textbooks and curricula, and then by the time you complete all of your education and get to the real world, a lot has changed.

Learning on your own makes it easier and more realistic to expect that what you are learning is current and relevant. You can choose something that you want to learn and start today. This is a major advantage in an industry that changes and adapts so rapidly. The last thing you want to do is spend a lot of time and money to learn something that is of limited value to you and to potential employers. Regardless of whether you get a formal education or not you will still need to pursue some things on your own simply to stay up-to-date. And if you’re going to need to learn things on your own just to stay up-to-date, why not just take the self taught approach from the start?

Lower Cost

Another major advantage of the self taught route is the money that you can save as compared to attending a college or university. A formal education will likely cost tens of thousands of dollars, and many students will graduate with a significant amount of debt. On the other hand, learning on your own can be done for a much lower cost. You may need to buy some books/books and pay for a subscription to some educational websites, but typically you can do this for a few hundred dollars rather than thousands of dollars. And if your budget is extremely limited and you don’t want to pay for premium subscription-based websites, you can still learn just about everything you would need from free website articles and log posts, you’ll just lose out on some convenience.

Lower Time Requirement

Learning on your own will certainly take plenty of time, there is no getting around that. But it is possible to learn faster on your own than you could by going to a college or university. Depending on the degree that you would get a college or university you may need to take a number of general education courses that have no direct correlation to web design or development. By learning on your own you can focus strictly on the exact things that you want to learn, without the requirements to dedicate time to learning other things as well. That’s not to say that there is no value in those other courses, simply a fact that you can avoid that requirement with a self taught approach.

If you’re able to complete your self taught education faster than you would be able to earn a degree it also means that you could start working in the industry earlier, and you would be making money sooner. On paper a college degree costs you whatever you have to pay in tuition, perhaps room and board, and also the cost of books and other necessities. In reality, there is also the opportunity cost, which is the amount of money that you could be making if you had chosen to take a job instead of pursuing the education. So if you are able to land a full-time job in the design/development industry a year earlier by learning on your own you would be able to make money by working instead of paying to spend that year in your formal education.

Can Work While You Learn

The flexibility of leaning on your own is something that appeals to most people. You don’t have to read a book, watch a video, or follow an online tutorial at any particular time or on anyone else’s schedule. You can do it as it is convenient for you. This means that you can do it part time while working full-time if you’d like. Your job could be in a completely unrelated field, or perhaps you may be able to find an entry level job in the industry where you could learn from the job and from your own studying at the same time.

A formal education does technically allow you to work while you learn, especially with the increasing number of programs that can be done online, but you’ll never have quite as much flexibility with a formal program.

Real World Experience

Many people that take the approach of learning on their own will actually gain some of knowledge from real world experience. Once you’ve learned the basics you could continue learning by creating some websites of your own, taking small projects for friends and family, or working as a freelancer on small projects for various clients. At this point your primary focus should still be on learning rather than on finding client work to earn a living, but it’s possible to start putting your education into practice from the very early stages (if you’re taking clients at this stage I would highly recommend that you communicate with them and let them know where you stand in your education so that everyone is on the same page).

As a student who is pursuing a formal education you will probably only get a small amount of real world experience until your education is complete. You may have an internship or a project that involves working on a project in the real world, but for the most part you will be studying in a controlled environment. If you’re able to get some real world experience while learning on your own it can be extremely beneficial. You’ll likely learn much more with any real world project than you can learn from a classroom environment. This experience can not only help to improve and speed up your learning, but it can also be valuable when you are ready to start looking for full-time employment in the industry.

Convenience

Along with the flexibility of learning on your own comes a lot of convenience. Because you can follow tutorials, read articles, and watch videos whenever you have the time, the self taught approach is much more convenient than a formal education.

Pros of Formal Education

While the pros of the self taught approach are pretty strong, there are still some good reasons to consider getting a formal education.

Degree

With a formal education from a college or university you’ll have the opportunity to earn a degree. The degree may be helpful in your job search and it can allow you to apply and be considered for some jobs that you might not be eligible for otherwise. A college degree is something that many people use as a gauge for a level of education, achievement, or success. However, in the web design and development industry there are so many talented people that don’t have formal degrees that it really is not considered to be an absolute necessity in most cases. Employers typically want to see that a designer/developer can get the job done, and whether or not he or she has a formal education and a degree is not as important as it is in some other industries.

Solid Foundation of Knowledge

Probably the most beneficial aspect of the formal education is the foundational knowledge. As I mentioned earlier, much of the technical information that you’ll learn with a formal education will be obsolete by the time you graduate. However, the foundational knowledge not only will last, but it will be useful in a wide range of positions. On top of that, this foundational knowledge is sometimes the most difficult to learn on your own. There are plenty of tutorials and courses that can teach you how to do specific things in Photoshop or how to code something in HTML and CSS, but quality instruction on design theory and other foundational topics is harder to come by. This, in my opinion, is where those with a formal education often have an advantage over self taught designers.

Structure

While learning on your own can certainly be convenient and flexible it will lack the structure that you can get from a formal education. The structure has a few different benefits. First, the courses and curriculum have been set up to provide you with a complete knowledge (as complete as possible) and the order of the courses and the things that you will be learning are also usually structured appropriately. With the self taught approach it can be difficult to know where to start and how you should progress, but with a formal education these decisions are basically made for you by someone who has experience. This can wind up saving you time and headaches, and it can help you to learn more effectively because of the appropriate order.

Another benefit of the structure is that it helps to hold you accountable. Self learning works well for some people, but it’s not a good fit for everyone. A lot of people have the intentions to take time and learn on their own, many even get started, but without structure or accountability it is hard for some people to stay on task and to put in a consistent effort. The end result is that many people never make it as far as they intended. But if you pursue a formal education the structure can help you to work through it without needing to practice as much self discipline. If you’re paying for the courses, chances are you are going to go and try to get something out of them because you are invested.

Possible Assistance with Finding Employment

Depending on the college or university that you attend, you may benefit from some assistance with finding a job. This could be either for an internship during your education or for a full-time job after graduation. This won’t apply for everyone that pursues a formal education, but in some cases it can help with landing your first job in the industry, which can be a major advantage. If you are considering a formal education and you’re looking at a few different colleges or universities, this is definitely something that I would recommend that you find out about each institution. Ask for information about how they help graduates with finding jobs, and try to get as many specifics as possible about what services they offer and percentages of students that find employment with their assistance.

When you’re comparing a formal education to learning on your own, this is potentially an area where learning on your own can’t compete. However, just because a college or university can give some impressive statistics about how many of their graduates find full-time employment in the industry does not mean that you’re guaranteed to be placed in a job when you graduate. Things can change pretty quickly and the dynamics of the economy and the industry may be much different by the time you actually graduate.

Increasing Options

In recent years the number of colleges and universities offering degrees related to web design and development have grown substantially. Also, many of those schools offer the degrees through distance learning and online courses, so as a student you probably have far more options than you would have had just 5 or 10 years ago. Having more options means that you’re probably able to find a program that is a better fit for you, one that is in a better location or allows you to take classes online, and possibly one that will cost less money.

My Opinion

I have a degree in business but no formal education in design or development. It wasn’t until after I completed my business education that I wanted to pursue web design, so most of my learning came by way of books, online tutorials, and experimentation. My personal opinion is that the real world experience and convenience that you can get by learning on your own will outweigh the benefits of a formal education in most situations. I know there are plenty of people who don’t share that opinion, and I think the answer of what is best for you is something that only you can decide for yourself.

There are some areas where I think I could definitely have learned and benefited a great deal from a formal education. If I were to go back and do it all over I would probably consider taking some courses, either online or at a local college, in areas like design theory, color theory, and typography. I wouldn’t pursue a degree, but just a few basic courses could provide some foundational knowledge that would be useful regardless of changes in technology or trends. While you can learn these things on your own, the resources for doing so are not quite as good as the resources for learning the specifics of designing and creating websites.

What You’ll Need to Learn

If you want to pursue a career in web design/development here is a look at a few of the basic necessities that you will need to learn. Later, we’ll look at some resources that can help you to learn these things.

Design Theory

Design theory is a broad term that I’ll use to cover the knowledge of what makes a design work. You’ll need to learn basic design rules and principles, color theory, typography, etc.

HTML and CSS

Even web designers who focus on the visual aspect of design should know how to code HTML and CSS, even if they don’t use it in their every day work. Knowing how to code a website will help you with decision making during the visual design process. And with today’s environment, designing a website in Photoshop and passing it on to a developer to code is not nearly as common as it was just a few years ago. With responsive web design now the preferred method for most projects designing in the browser is often a more efficient process than creating a full layout and design in Photoshop. In order to design in the browser you will need to be able to code.

Usability

Being able to design a website that looks pretty is not enough. You’ll need to also be able to design something that will work well for users in order for the project to be successful.

Adobe Software

Photoshop and Illustrator are pretty much a requirement for working in the industry.

Resources for Learning on Your Own

If you’ve decided that you want to pursue your education on your own, or if you want to at least see what type of resources are available, here we’ll look at some of the best resources and websites for learning web design and development without a formal education.

Books/Ebooks

If you want to learn on your own, books and ebooks are a great option. There are books available on all different topics, and you can get more in-depth information with a book than you can get from blog posts and online articles. Some books cover specific topics in great detail while other books cover more general topics with a broad look.

Smashing Magazine

Smashing Magazine is not only one of the leading web design blogs, but they also produce excellent books and ebooks that can prove to be very valuable in your own education. Their books and ebooks are written by a variety of experts in the industry and they cover a range of different topics. Their books are read and respected by both professionals and beginners, so there is really something for everyone. Check out the printed books available as well as the ebooks that are available. They currently offer more than 60 different ebooks. Any of them can be purchased individually, or you can get a subscription to their library for $99 per year.

Smashing Magazine

Sitepoint

Sitepoint is another popular blog in the industry that is know for publishing high-quality books. They currently have almost 40 different books that can be purchased in ebook format from their shop. Many of their books are also available in paperback format at Amazon and other retailers.

Sitepoint

Online Courses and Training

In recent years a number of websites have popped up that can make it easier for you to follow along and learn at home. In most cases the content is in video format, so any place where you can get an internet connection can serve as your school. You’ll find a variety of different courses available, some more in depth than others. These are not educational institutions where you will earn a degree, but the courses here can help to help you very practical information, and they are affordable.

Udemy

Udemy is a great place for taking online courses. They have a wide variety of courses related to web design and development. They also have courses that will teach you how to use specific software, like Photoshop. The courses at Udemy are offered by various instructors, so be sure to read the reviews and check the ratings of the particular courses and instructors that you are considering. They do offer some free courses, but most are priced below $100, with some more advanced courses being priced higher. The courses are all done by video and once you’ve purchased a course it will be available to you indefinitely with no end or expiration. You can also take notes within the course area and interact with the instructor or other students. The courses at Udemy offer a great deal of flexibility. You can watch them whenever you have the time, and you can even skip over certain parts if you want.

Udemy

Learnable

Learnable is a project of Sitepoint. You can get access to all of the Sitepoint ebooks plus lots of video courses (over 4,000 videos) at Learnable. They have courses and books on just about everything you could want or need to learn related to web design. You can buy courses and ebooks individually at Learnable, or you can purchase a membership and get access to all of it. Membership is available at either $29 per month or $180 per year.

Learnable

Learn Web Development

Learn Web Development is a resource for those who want to run their own business. The course will teach you how to improve efficiency and increase your income. You’ll learn how to find clients and market your business, but it’s also intended for beginners with no experience in the industry. It’s a 16-week course that will cost $49.95 per month.

Learn Web Development

Lynda

Lynda.com is a great source for online training videos. They currently offer more than 2,000 different courses on a variety of topics like design, development, photography, business, as well as software-specific courses. Pricing starts at $25 per month or $250 per year.

Lynda.com

Treehouse

Treehouse is a site that offers educational content on web design, programming, iOS development, Android development, and business.They offer foundational content that is appropriate for beginners, and they also offer more advanced tutorials and courses that get into greater detail. They have plans available at $25 per month and $49 per month. Both plans offer access to over 1000 videos of educational material.

Treehouse

Tuts+

Tuts+ is a popular blog and premium content network from Envato. While most of the blog content at their sites like Psdtuts and Nettuts is free, they do offer members a wide variety of premium tutorials. As a member you can get access to tutorials on web design and development, Photoshop tutorials, Illustrator tutorials, photography tutorials, and more. The cost of a membership is $19 per month or $180 per year.

Tuts+

Train Simple

Train Simple offers in-depth online courses on web design and the Adobe products. You can get access to hours and hours of these video courses for $9.99 per month or $99.99 per year.

Train Simple

Photoshop Video Academy

Photoshop Video Academy is a new site that offers video tutorials on web and graphic design. The site includes some tutorials for Lightroom and Illustrator in addition to Photoshop. At the moment they currently offer more than 40 different tutorials. The price is $29.95 per month or $199.95 per year.

Photoshop Video Academy

Share Your Experience and Opinions

If you have any thoughts on the issue of formal education vs. being self taught please feel free to leave a comment. Also, if you have suggestions of good resources for learning on your own also feel free to leave those suggestions in the comments.

Published October 30th, 2013 by

Looking for hosting? WPEngine offers secure managed WordPress hosting. You’ll get expert WordPress support, automatic backups, and caching for fast page loads. Visit WPEngine.

Join Our Newsletter!

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter chalked full of useful tips, techniques, and design goodies. We have 20,000+ loyal readers and counting! We’ll even send you a free e-book (Freelance Designer’s Guide to Multiple Income Streams) and a $10 discount on our most popular product the Freelance Starter Kit.