Web Design Education: Academic vs. Self-taught

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 Hello Smart Mama,

web-design-educationSo you’re wondering about academic vs. self-taught Web Design Education?

Before I started studying for a bachelor’s degree in web design and interactive media at the Art Institute of Pittsburg Online Division (AIO), I was confused about whether I should train myself through online courses or get a formal instruction though an educational institution. I had visited many websites that offered fantastic courses that covered everything from basic html to PHP and Dreamweaver, for a very reasonable price. Compared to what I would have to pay for a formal education, the short unaccredited courses were looking very attractive. I wondered if it was worth getting into so much debt for information that I could get on my own. After dedicated research I came to the conclusion that the best path of becoming a successful web designer and developer is to acquire a formal education with an accredited educational institution, such as the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

Because web design and development school curriculums and academic programs were developed not too long ago, the majority of the most experienced web designers and developers out there don’t have any formal education, but have developed their skills by personally taking care of their education through whatever means available to them. The fact that these “professionals” could do this, and be in such high positions in the field, has sent a strong message to the world saying that we don’t need formal education to be a web designer. However, it is more and more apparent that we do need formal education, not only because there are more probabilities of being hired if we have a degree, as opposed to just having experience and a nice portfolio, but also because when we acquire formal education we also acquire other necessary information that supports our career. For example, within the academic curriculum for the bachelor degree of web design and multimedia at AIO, some of the courses included in the four year program are, among many others, media law and ethics, logic, and speech. A self-taught student would probably not think to deepen in these subjects and would miss out on their important contribution to creating a well educated web designer.

Although it is possible to become a financially successful web designer through self-taught means, “there is still a prerequisite of design talent that one must have in order to succeed.”(McDaniel). According to McDaniel, who is a completely self taught successful web designer, “the downside of being your own professor in web design is that you have little or no idea what you need to learn until the need arises.” which can be very strenuous for the self taught learner, even if she has the talent. A well thought-out web design curriculum provided by an accredited educational institution will be able to prepare the future web designer in all areas, so that when faced with new situations and challenges, the designer will know what to do and be able to provide the client or boss with exactly what is being asked for.


Top factors to getting a web design job and how it affects both the academically trained web designers and self –taught web designers

One scenario for working as a web designer is to become a contractor or be the owner of your own web design business, in which case you can get away with ignorance in many aspects of web design, but another very different scenario is to try to get a cooperate job as a web designer. To work for a company, the web designer will need to have to comply with the following factors:

  1. An academic degree. The majority of job postings request either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Once you have a degree and at least a few high quality designs in a portfolio, you can confidently apply for jobs. A self-taught web designer will have a tough time competing with academically educated web designers, who bring a wide variety of trained skills to the table and have proof that they actually know their trade.
  2. Ability and talent for design. A degree will most likely improve our chances to become a professional web designer during the application process, but this alone will not give you talent. As web designers, our job will be to conceptualize and create appealing websites, so knowing what constitutes attractive and unattractive designs is typically considered a necessary skill to be hired as a web designer. Although this skill could be learned in school, lacking a natural eye for art might not make it impossible for us to become a successful web designer and get the job. Although our talent in “design” will be best shown in our portfolio, the best portfolio will probably be from academically trained job postulants. For example, some of the classes included in the AIO curriculum for web design are fundamentals of design, color theory, and instructional design theory, to name a few, which are of tremendous value when developing innate talent.
  3. Work Experience. Education is of utmost importance, but be sure that knowledge is enhanced with solid experience. The companies who want to hire a professional web designer will take the time to not only view the designer’s portfolio, but also interview their previous clients. Was the designer timely and efficient? Did they answer e-mails promptly? Did the designer make an effort to keep them up-to-date on the progress of their Web site? Are they, the client, happy with their Web site design? As a recently graduated web design professional, this requirement will be hard to fulfill, and it will take a lot of perseverance and determination to get that first job counting only on professional degree and an impressive portfolio. In this case, self taught web designers, who have been training themselves for years through work, will have plenty of experience to show forth, giving them a possible advantage over their recently graduated counterpart.

Coding: What does code have to do with it? A lot.

A basic skill a web designer must have is to be able to code. Most self-taught web designers don’t have this training and rely on the use of WYSIWYG (What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get) programs, which are so widespread right now, and they seem to get by just fine. “Some people will tell you that because WYSIWYG programs are so wide-spread, you don’t need to learn HTML.” (Kymin) So, is complete knowledge of HTML and CSS necessary to be a successful web designer? Although it may seem unnecessary to know HTML and CSS, the answer to this question is yes, we do need to be able to code. “Unless you’re going to stay in business for yourself, eventually you will come across a hiring manager or firm who wants you to prove you know HTML. Beyond that, HTML is the backbone of Web design, and if you know how Web pages are put together, you will be better at the job – even with a WYSIWYG editor.” (Kymin) Although we, as trained web designers, have the right to say we do not want to code, there is a big difference between choosing not to code a particular design and being unable to do so. Web designers should know HTML/CSS — even if it’s just limited to the fundamentals — for the sake of being able to create web designs and web interfaces that work on the medium. Web designers may choose not to write the HTML/CSS themselves, but knowing how markup and CSS works is essential to being a web designer. Web designers might not need to be HTML/CSS experts, but it serves them well to know (at least) how their web layout comps are converted to a website. Learning how to code is best learned by formal academic education, but it can also be learned through a self-teaching method using short courses on the web.


web-design-educationWeb designers and Web developers

A web developer is someone who builds web applications – sometimes called ‘database driven websites‘. Essentially, a web developer is concerned about the functionality of a website and not necessarily the look. Functionality includes things like contact forms, shopping carts and anything else that takes a website from just being a series of pages, to being an engine that performs some task. These types of sites are built using languages like PHP, PERL, Ruby and many others. The training to become a professional web developer is best obtained through a formal academic program, but it can also be learned, with more effort, through a series of online courses and much trial and error.

Web design typically refers to the process of designing a web site or web page layout and often includes the graphical elements on a page. Design is the act of planning and fashioning artistically. Design prepares a preliminary sketch of the form and function of something. In the web world, design implies just the “pretty parts” of a website: how a site looks and feels which can be developed using a graphics program such as Adobe Photoshop. The training for this type of work can be obtained both through an academic program and through a self-taught approach. Again, to be a good web designer talent is extremely important, and creativity is not learned but perfected, and the best environment for that is through formal education using an accredited program that is designed to tap into our creativity and develop it to its highest potential, with the support of a professor and classmates.


So, what is the best path?

There are many reasons why an academic degree is vital to become a successful web designer, however  it might be incomplete due do the rapidly advancing technology in the world, and although we might be tempted to do it all on our own, the best option is to follow a school curriculum that will give us the best training possible for that point in time. However, it is imperative that the web designer, during and after her formal education, be constantly updating her knowledge in addition to what she learns in the classroom. It seems, after all, that the best path is to acquire an academic degree and at the same time have a courageous spirit as  those who are self taught. This is how we will get the best education and be up to date in this wonderful and ever advancing field.

For those of you who want to wait for the formal accredited education, but want to have a head-start, here are some great books and resources:

BOOKS (check out the Amazon reviews)


The Principles of Beautiful Web Design by Jason Beaird


Learning Web Design: A Beginner’s Guide to (X)HTML, StyleSheets, and Web Graphics by Jennifer Niederst Robbins


HTML and CSS: Design and Build Websites by John Duckett


The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web by Jesse James Garrett


A Book Apart publishes highly detailed and meticulously edited examinations of single topics. They produce brief books of about 100 pages—the perfect size in terms of subject depth and coverage for topics like HTML5, CSS3, content strategy, responsive web design, and more.

a book apart


Websites that offer online courses:

The World Wide Web Consortium (free courses):



Lynda.com offers amazing video courses for an affordable price (they also have a trial):



Lodestone provides certified classroom training and on-site training in Macromedia and Adobe software. Additionally, Lodestone offers production and consulting and co-developent services.



 Learnable is a growing library of online books and online courses tailored to the specific needs of web designers and developers.



I hope this article helps you in your path to become a web designer.





  1. I quite like looking through a post that
    can make men and women think. Also, thank you for permitting
    me to comment!

  2. Thanks for your comment! I’m glad you liked this post :)

  3. I am a web developer with 10 years of coding. But no academic education. I am agree with all you wrote. Thanks

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