Many people ask me, “How can I get started in web design?” or, “What skills do I need to start making web applications?” While it would be easy to recommend stacks of books, and dozens of articles with 55 tips for being 115% better than the next guy, the truth is that you don’t need learn anything new in order to begin. The most important thing is simply to start.
Start making something. If you want to learn web design, make a website. Want to be an entreprenuer and start a business selling web based products? Make an app. Maybe you don’t have the skills yet, but why worry about that? You probably don’t even know what skills you need.
Start with what you already know
If you want to build something on the web, don’t worry about learning HTML, CSS, Ruby, PHP, SQL, etc. They might be necessary for a finished product, but you don’t need any of them to start. Why not mock-up your app idea in Keynote or Powerpoint? Draw boxes for form fields, write copy, link this page to that page. You can make a pretty robust interactive prototype right there with software you already know. Not computer saavy? Start with pencil and paper or Post-it Notes. Draw the screens, tape them to the wall, and see how it flows.
You probably don’t even know what skills you need, so don’t worry about it. Start with what you already know.
You can do a lot of the work with simple sketches or slides. You’ll be able to see your idea take form and begin to evaluate whether or not it really is something special. It’s at that point you can take the next step, which might be learning enough HTML to take your prototype into the browser. The point is, go as far as you can with the skills and tools that you have.
Avoid self doubt
Many times the reasons we don’t start something have nothing to do with lack of skills, materials, or facilities. The real blockers are self-criticism and excuses. In the excellent book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, the author, Betty Edwards, discusses how we all draw as kids but around adolescence, many of us stop developing that ability.
“The beginning of adolescence seems to mark the abrupt end of artistic development in terms of drawing skills for many adults. As children, they confronted an artistic crisis, a conflict between their increasingly complex perceptions of the world around them and their current level of art skill.”
At that age kids become increasingly self-critical and equally interested in drawing realistically. When they fail to draw as well as they know is possible many give up drawing at all.
This feeling continues into adulthood. We want to design a website or build an application but if our own toolset doesn’t match up to the perceived skillset we never start. It doesn’t help that the internet gives us nearly limitless exposure to amazing work, talented individuals, and excellent execution. It’s easy to feel inadequate when you compare yourself to the very best, but even they weren’t born with those skills and they wouldn’t have them if they never started.
Do — there is no try
People who succeed somehow find a way to keep working despite the self-doubt. The artist, Vincent Van Gogh was only an artist for the last ten years of his life. We all know him for masterful works of art, but he didn’t start out as a master. Compare these examples from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain showing an early drawing compared to one completed two years later:
He wasn’t some child prodigy (he was 27 when he started painting), he learned his craft by hard work. If he’d listened to his own self doubt or despaired that his skills didn’t compare to Paul Gauguin’s it’s likely he never would have even tried.
This is all to say that there are many things that can get in the way of the things we should be creating. To never follow a dream because you don’t think you’re good enough or don’t have the skills, or knowledge, or experience is a waste. In fact, these projects where there is doubt are the ones to pursue. They offer the greatest challenge and the greatest rewards. Why bother doing something you already have done a hundred times, where there is nothing left to learn? Don’t worry about what you need to know in order to finish a project, you already have everything you need to start.