Whether you’re a traditional graphic designer taking your first wobbly steps toward Internet design or a sure-footed and web-savvy veteran, you face the same challenge–how to continuously build your skills and keep on top of technological advances. It seems that no sooner is a scripting language, software upgrade, or design tool introduced than it becomes a required bullet-point on the resume of everyone in the Internet design field. The task can seem overwhelming: how do you build your skills while keeping on top your regular job and then maybe have a life on the side? Starting a personal training regimen is the easiest way to ensure that your skills remain sharp and continue to grow. By following the steps below, you can put yourself on a program that will pump up your web design skills and make you one of the more attractive prospects in the job market.
Step One: Get the Software
If this seems obvious, let this simply serve as a kick in the pants. Keeping your web browsers upgraded and loaded with all of the latest plug-ins takes a little bit of time, but it will allow you to use and abuse new technologies soon after they are introduced. If you are serious about web design, you should always have the most current versions of both Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer installed on all systems you use. Even if you won’t be using the latest advances on your current projects, you’ll always have a glimpse of what’s to come, so you won’t be surprised when it lands in your lap.
If there isn’t an inexpensive application available, and you don’t want to pony up the cash for an application from a major software developer, you can always try talking your employer into buying it. If you’re a graphic designer preparing web graphics, and you’re department doesn’t own a copy of Macromedia Flash, write a business case explaining all of the great services your firm will be able to offer once you acquire it. Gather together some websites that use Flash animation, then corral your supervisors around your monitor and give them an impromptu sales pitch. If you’re lucky, you’ll come back from lunch some afternoon to find a shiny, new, shrink-wrapped software package on your desk. If you’re not lucky, you just might have to buy it yourself–after all, investing a few hundred bucks in an application like Flash could pay dividends down the road when you land a premium web design job, or you become the only freelancer in your area to offer fully-animated websites.
Step Two: Gather Your Resources
New technologies, skills and applications take a while to filter down to your local community college, and professional-level courses cost so much that even large employers won’t foot the bill. So your only option is learn on your own through experimentation, reading manuals (sic!), studying books and guides, browsing magazine articles, and just plain examining the source code of web pages you admire. Whatever your preferred method, you’ll need to gather your sources first. Checking your local magazine stand or library once a month can help you gather a wealth of how-to articles on almost any subject from Perl programming to tips and tricks for Macromedia Director and Adobe Photoshop. Start to gather an archive of these articles. There are also dozens of books available on a new technology or application almost as soon as it arrives. Peachpit Press has a comprehensive, up-to-date selection of ‘how-to’ titles. Adobe offers the “Classroom in a Book” series for all of its titles. Check the reviews at amazon.com to see what other designers think of a particular book.
And don’t forget the Internet as a resource. There are dozens of websites like this one that offer resources for designers and developers, covering every technology you can imagine, and you can also use your learning time to dissect those sites that blow you away. Once you’ve gathered your resources together, you’re ready to move onto the next step.
Step Three: Develop Your Regimen
Now that you’ve got your browsers up-to-date, acquired the software you need and gathered your learning materials, you can start to flesh out your training program. Find some time you can set aside every day for working on the technology you want to learn, or the skills you want to sharpen. It doesn’t have to be very long—twenty or thirty minutes will be plenty. Any more than that and your brain will rebel. If you’re an average person, you can sustain intense focus for about fifteen minutes; everything beyond that won’t be retained. With a little practice, you can work your way up to thirty minutes of focusing time. If you want to spend more time, say an hour, then work in fifteen-minute spurts with a five-minute break in between. But keep it short, and you will be fine. Fifteen minutes a day doesn’t seem like a lot, but you’ll be surprised at how much you’ve learned after a few weeks.
What is more important than the length you spend studying new material is that you develop a routine that you will be able to stick to for months on end; make it an essential part of your day so that it will be missed when you are forced to skip it. I like to work at eight in the morning when my brain is refreshed. While everyone else in the office is checking their email and voice messages, or reading the sport pages, I’m hitting the books. The work starts to roll in at about eight thirty, and I put the books aside. Some folks use time out of their lunch break. Others like to study late at night after their kids are in bed. Whatever the case, make sure it is at a point that won’t interfere with your current duties, and it’s a schedule you can stick to.
Step Four: Keep a Training Log
When you are finished with your study session for the day, jot down an entry in a some sort of notebook or journal. This will be your training log. Remember taking notes in college? Well, it’s time to pick up that old habit again. It’s true that your brain has an unlimited capacity to store information, but the ability to recall is sometimes flawed; it can be improved by reviewing what you’ve learned. Reread your training log thirty minutes after you’re finished studying for the day, then review it again before you start your next session. Constant refreshing of the new material will improve your ability to retain it.
You’ll also be able to keep track of any ideas that come to mind when you’re in the midst of your studying. You might run into something that makes you say, “hey, I’ll try that on my web page,” only to forget it later on. Your log will be a record of these ideas.
Step Five: Apply Your Knowledge
This one also sounds obvious, but it is not always so cut and dried. If you’re a traditional graphic designer who wants to move into the Internet arena, you may not be able to use your new knowledge at your current job. Conversely, of you’re a programmer working on sharpening you Photoshop skills, the ‘professional designers’ working on the front end might scoff at your attempts to design an interface. What you need is a training ground…a place where you can learn through trial and error.
After you’ve got your design portfolio online and current, start working on some other sites. If nothing job-related is available, use a few hours out of your weekends and volunteer to design a website for your bridge club, swim team, church, synagogue, community center, public library, or your local chapter of the Sierra Club. The more committed you are to the organization the better, because you will be more inclined to produce and maintain a quality product. Use the website as a testing ground for the new skills you are learning. The great thing about this approach is that you’ll have an audience of average endusers to give you feedback. If the Sierra Clubbers are checking your site for meeting times and the dates for the annual backpacking trip, you’ll hear if it’s working or not, or if people are having trouble navigating or finding their way. They’ll also let you know when they think it’s cool, and anything that inflates your ego will reaffirm your commitment to sharpening your skills. After a few extra-curricular projects like this, you will the have experience and samples to round out your resume and portfolio.
Keeping abreast of technology is a huge task, but you should treat it as a challenge, not an obstacle. By sticking to a training program, you can be assured that you are always keeping yourself valuable in an ever-changing marketplace. Learning technical skills gradually is also a lot less painful than cramming to learn some new programming language because you want to apply for a new position has been opened in your company. You’re brain’s capacity to store information is limitless; you should take advantage of any opportunity to start filling it up.