Advice for Young People who Want to Become Web Designers

colorful trees, Autumn in Shadyside
My career as a freelance web designer began in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside about a decade ago.

I receive about half a dozen emails every month or so from young people (younger than me, anyway) who are just getting out of school and looking for work, or who are sidestepping traditional higher education in an attempt to become a self-taught web designer / developer. I can’t always provide all of the information necessary to even get your first foot forward to all of these people, so I thought I’d write a post on it that I can reference them toward.

I feel qualified to write about this subject because I have been both: a graduate of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh (for computer animation, albeit) and I’m a self-taught web designer & developer.

So firstly, the $80,000 question:

Do I need to go to college to learn web design?


That’s the simplest version of the answer. I didn’t, and I found it enjoyable, sometimes frustrating, but always more or less progressive as I was teaching myself HTML. The process, loosely, went something like this.

“We need you to update our website,” my boss told me at my first job with a PBS station in Erie, Pennsylvania.

“Okay,” I frantically rushed to figure out where to start. At the time, it was using Microsoft’s Front Page app. I quickly moved over to Dreamweaver. I studied the code from other people’s sites. Luckily, I found a bit of a mentor online who was willing to throw me a bone when I couldn’t figure things out on my own or needed a little direction, but note, for most things, I did figure it out on my own.

That’s important, because it begins to teach you how to find what you need, and once you’ve got that skill, you can teach yourself just about anything. If all you do is ask questions–a luxury that college provides–then you learn to rely on other people to answer your question directly, instead of figuring out how to go out and find the answers for yourself.

And frankly, as web designers, the people making the Internet and all, we should realize that it’s greatest asset is nearly unlimited knowledge.

How do I get started freelancing?

Personally, I spent the first few months of my freelance career scouring sites like and creating my own website. This was a big deal for me, because I quit a secure job to move back to Pittsburgh and become a freelance web designer. All the while I had a small son who I was responsible for, too. Failing wasn’t really an option, unless I wanted to admit I needed to go back to the world of full-time employment.

During that initial time I also looked at other sites who needed temporary designers and developers, and that ended up landing me enough work to stay afloat while I continued promoting my own freelance services directly to companies. All of this took about six months, and at the end of it, I was at the top of Google’s search results for things like pittsburgh web design. I stayed there, surprisingly, with little competition for years and years. By the end of my first year, I didn’t need to advertise, and I never went out looking for work, it just came to me.

To help get an initial boost, I also did things like designed and developed Bike Pittsburgh’s website (that link points to the most recent redesign a few years ago, but the initial redesign was in 2006 or so) for free. I helped them get a ton more exposure than they were able to with their initial site, and their outstanding success inversely helped promote me a little. I continue to donate a site or two every year to non-profits I love and care about, because it’s a win, win, win. The non-profit, whether they’re in Pittsburgh or otherwise, gets a better website, a great tool to help spread their message. I get exposure and a little sense of having done some right in the world. And the public, whoever the non-profit aims to help, gets a better experience.

I’m a web designer in Pittsburgh, can I work for ClickNathan?

No, not really. I am a one man band. I design web sites. I develop them, with WordPress behind it all. I can even write copy and manage things like social networking, Google Analytics, and Adwords / Adsense campaigns. So…I don’t typically hire out to other developers or designers.

That’s nothing personal against you or your work, I just have found that–over the years–I more interested in crafting the web than managing employees in an attempt to make more money.

That said, give it a go with the agencies out there, try your hand at finding a little work on your own, and don’t be afraid to put a ton of time into your own website.

These days, I travel all around the world with my family thanks to the freedom this little career as a web designers I started up in Pittsburgh way back in 2004. Some things take work, and some work pays off more than others.

Questions? Ask them in the comments, I’m more than happy to take some time to help anyone else looking at a career as a web designer or WordPress developer figure out what the best route for them might be!

Up Next: The State of Website Development in Pittsburgh, 2016 Edition