So, you want to get into Web Design?

Note: This article was originally written in 2010. Facts may have changed.

So you’re looking to get into web design? It’s a dog-eat-dog world and below I’ll take you through what the industry is like, what kind of jobs you can do, what skills you need, how you can market yourself, how to communicate with clients and how to make money by charging appropriately.

The Industry

In September 2009, the United Kingdom Design Council told the government that the design industry was the largest in Europe with a total turnover over of £11.6 billion and has an international reputation for quality and value. The research which the design council also presented also showed that companies that invest in design outperform in practically every measure of business performance including market share, growth, productivity, share price and competitiveness. This was added with the fact that adding value through design brings market confidence and competitive advantage and reduces the need to compete on price. You can read more of the details, specifically, points 33 and 34.

In the current climate, many old hats are saying that manufacturing will once again bring the UK economy back to rights. This is an old view, especially with how fast things are changing in the world today, the creative industry is moving at a staggering pace. The UK design industry is known for quality and value yet other European companies are chasing and acting on new advice to move and look at creative and technology industries as a core movement.

This is where our design sector has everything to play for. Not just as a solid exporter but as the key to unlocking UK innovation and future wealth creation. Design is not a luxury but an essential ingredient for survival and growth. Rather like the bees, if we vanish so does the economic honey says Chief Executive of the Design Council, David Kester.

Working in Web*

There are many areas within web design that you can work. Our design ‘field’ is expanding on a daily basis with job titles like UX Designer, UI Designer, Visual Designer, Front-End Engineer, PHP Developer… the list is truly endless. Whether you’ve been designing since a young age or have been to college and university there will come a point where you need to decide what route to go down. Do you want to be free of pressures from above and work as a freelancer or do you want to work with a team and be part of a bigger picture and work at an agency? Both will take you on a different journey, both will be exciting and both will add in certain pressures on your life that you wouldn’t expect.

Most designers that I know of work as freelancers even when working at an agency. You will, however, have to have this approved by your manager, some allow it, some don’t. Always check your contract first.

Working in an Agency

How to get a job in an agency – Agencies expect for you to be at a certain ‘level of requirement’ before they offer you a position. Larger agencies even tend to look at you academically rather than at your portfolio pieces. Smaller agencies might look at your portfolio and offer you a position on the spot. Always have your portfolio in a good working order and then think creatively at how you can get the attention of a prospective boss. Always do your research on the company before you apply as 9 out of 10 times when you’re in an interview you’ll be asked about what you know of the company. Thanks to Google and Facebook you can now do your research in full. If you’re looking for a design job within an agency, check out their company websites or places like authentic jobs.

Life in an Agency – Depending on the company you join, your working life can vary drastically. You may be given certain perks like Carsonified who offer a 4-day working week, your own iPhone and lunch on the house every day. The alternative is that you will be a small cog in a large wheel and will be expected to put in long hours with certain pressures from above. Most of the time, life within an agency is fun. You build up great relationships with your co-workers and you become a lot like family doing the best for each other.

An Agency Wage – Depending on the company and your geo-location, a low-entry design job can usually pay a starting wage of £17k. You will find that depending on your geo-location some areas will pay more e.g. London jobs tend to pay more as a wage because the cost of living is higher.

Working Freelance

Working for yourself is great, you have no one looking over your shoulder telling you what has to be done by when. There is no boss to impress and you earn your own cash.  Sounds great yeah? Just stop and think for a second… It’s a world of uncertainty and hard work.

Everything You Do Is Work – You think you can be a freelancer and only work 9-5? Go ahead and give it a shot, it’ll last a week before your brain starts telling you that you need more hours in the day to make more money. Every single hour of every single day is a money making minute to you once you’re freelance if you don’t work you don’t earn a penny (cent – for my American readers).

Work Doesn’t Just Find You – An agency is great, you get your work set out for you. As a freelancer, especially setting out as a freelancer you have to find the work not the other way round. You have to devote time and energy to finding new work if you don’t then guess what? You don’t earn a penny (cent – for my American readers).

Staggered Earning – You invoice, you work, you invoice. Sounds easy. Until the first invoice, you sent doesn’t get paid straight away. You might want your money straight away but the companies you work for would usually have a minimum of 30 days payment terms and these days you could be looking at anywhere from 30 – 90 days payment terms. So guess what happens if you don’t keep on top of your invoicing? You don’t earn a penny (cent – for my American readers).

Being a Loner – Freelancers tend to work in a room. Your room. No one else is there and after time you’ll find yourself talking to yourself, your dog or your Optimus Prime figure on your shelf in amongst all of the chit-chats on twitter or facebook. You could, of course, move into Co-Working space but that costs more money which means you need to find more work, work more and invoice twice as often. (See the pattern?)

You have a lot to think about when you start out freelance. You need to think about setting yourself up as self-employed. Depending on who you talk to they’ll advise you to get a good accountant or take care of things yourself. And then you need clients… You might just want to punch yourself in the face.

Bit of Both?

You could, of course, go for a bit of both. Our industry is one where it almost seems the norm that most people in full-time employment will do work outside of the 9-5. This depends on the employer. Some employers dislike the fact that you could be working outside of your normal hours and it could be added to your contract that you are not allowed to work. It is always worth talking to your employer about the possibility of you doing this as you never know where the next opportunity may lie. It could benefit the company you are working for at the same time as you giving you extra money.


* I took out the word ‘design’ as the article was going to cover all areas of the web industry.

How to ask for feedback that might be hard to hear

Recently I’ve been giving a talk on impostor syndrome. As part of that, I discuss strengths and shortcomings.

An approach to recognising shortcomings should be a good thing. Without recognising your shortcomings we will never truly recognise our strengths.

When we are able to see both, the resulting growth is incredible.

Failing to provide vital feedback

As humans, we find it hard to look introspectively. For many, self-awareness is a fluffy term that we shy away from.

Generally, the normal British way to provide feedback is to only provide the good bits. We fail to deliver vital pieces of information that might be hard for the other person to hear. We shy away to not hurt a person’s feelings.

By not being honest behaviours continue. These lead to a bad working environment, broken relationships or worse.

Giving permission

My belief is that we must reframe our thinking on giving and receiving feedback. We have to break the cycle which has continued for years in the workplace. We have to provide feedback that might be hard to hear.

We must give permission.

And it’s hard.

As much as it is hard to provide, it’s also hard to receive that type of feedback.

There’s an open-mindedness required.

Here’s the generalistic normal way a person may think about it…

What if they give me bad feedback and I have to let my manager know? I’ll get marked down or my performance will be stopped.

Here’s the re-framed version…

If I give them permission to provide me with feedback that I might have usually found hard to hear, can I use it as a strength? There may be things I can work with or on to make me a better person, a better colleague. I can use it to ask for help and support that I might not have recognised.

How to ask for the feedback

You can ask for this feedback at any time, you can do this with friends, family and colleagues. In work, mid-year or end of year reviews can be a good time to do a peer review.

As part of my teams mid-year reviews, I’ve nudged them all to ask for feedback that may be hard to hear. There’s a way to do it which also gives permission for the other person to feel comfortable about doing so. To help, I wrote out a message for the team to use as a baseline and you can use it too.

Hi X,
I have my mid-year review coming up and I’d like to get feedback from my peers. I’m really looking for honest feedback and need it to make sure I can continue to progress. I’m looking for all feedback, no matter what end of the scale it is, I give you my permission to send this directly to me and I won’t take it personally.

We then go through the feedback and I ask each member to give me their thoughts on the feedback they’ve received. It’s always interesting to see how they take the feedback and what they’re going to do with it.

This whole process is constructive. It will enable you to become better and you will see your personal and professional growth speed up.

Creating a mentor programme

The back story

Throughout my career I’ve advertently or inadvertantly acted as a mentor for someone. That’s 13 years of caring and nurturing many different personalities.
In the last two years I have broken through my impostor syndrome. I finally had room to accept that I had a mentor, even if they didn’t know it.
In the past I’d have tried to become that person thinking that if I was them, then I’d be as good as them.
That’s the wrong way to think about it. As humans, we’re unique in own right. We have different skills, different strengths and different short-comings.
If I could use my mentor to help develop my skills and evolve my strengths I would be in an excellent position. And if they could help me recognise any short-comings my growth could be interstellar.
I became a sponge.
Watching and listening became more key and these were skills I was already good at. My development has increased ten-fold. I fulfilled my own user needs.

Creating the programme

I had been the guinea pig. So now to focus on the people in my charge.
The personal and professional development of my team is paramount. I’m proud to say that I know each member of my team well enough to know what makes them tick.
One afternoon I sat down and made a 3 column table.
  • Column 1 – names of the people on my team
  • Column 2 – the skills, strength and short-comings I’d recognised
  • Column 3 – names of people who could suit as being a mentor to the team member
There were two simple rules.
  1. The mentor must be in a different area or department of government to that of the mentee
  2. The mentor must be at least 1 if not 2 levels above the mentee’s experience

Contacting potential mentors

I knew the people I was contacting. We’d likely have crossed paths somewhere in government or I’d had coffee with them. That isn’t to say that these people weren’t already mentors or had the time to do so.
The initial contact was made over Slack or email and went something like this;
Hi X, I mentioned I was setting up a mentor programme for my team. I’m on the hunt for mentors and you were on my list. Is it something you’re doing now, would think about doing or willing to do? I think it could be something like a 1hr hangout every six weeks with the mentee?
The response was better than expected. Everyone wanted to get involved.
There was something interesting about contacting the potential mentors. A couple replied back saying they were unsure if they had anything to offer.
I became a mentor again.
I jumped on the phone to guide and explain the process and my vision of what a future could look like. I’ll take you through that in a future post.

Can you set up a mentor programme?

Of course you can. I’ve shown how simple it was.
I will say that you may have one challenge. The matching.
If you don’t know your individual team members well enough the idea will become unstuck.
If you don’t know the potential mentors well enough the idea will become unstuck.
Take it slow, it’s a bit like a chess game.
If you have any questions, drop me a DM or an email.

Geek Mental Help Week 2017: Newcastle

I am organising Newcastle’s first Geek Mental Help Week event. It will take place at the Mining Institute in Newcastle on 3 October 2017 at 6pm.

What is Geek Mental Help Week?

It is a week-long series of articles, podcasts and events about mental health issues. We’ll hear stories from those who suffer as well as those who care for us and find out how to help.


Mental health is still a taboo subject. It’s often thought that because we ‘work behind computers’ that our jobs are not stressful. Mental health affects everyone from all walks of life. No one is immune.

Geek Mental Help Week gives people a voice. More importantly, it starts the open communication the topic needs.

Over the past couple of months I’ve been touring the UK giving a talk on Impostor Syndrome for that very reason.

Who will be speaking at the event?

The event is being supported by Colin Oakley, a Front-end Developer at DWP Digital in Newcastle. Colin co-organises Frontend NE. I’ll be hosting the event and have invited a few people to speak:

Register for a place

The more we talk about mental health, the more we can break down the stigma that surrounds it. By attending you can add your voice to the conversation or simply listen to what others have to say.

If you’d like to attend, register for a place.

The day that Ben left

Today, Friday, is the day that Ben Holliday leaves the Department for Work and Pensions.
In one way, it’s a sad day. Ben will be a huge miss within the team, but also a miss within the wider realms of government. An influential voice with experience to match. His work and effort has had a positive impact on the whole design community whether they know it or not.
For my last two years in government, Ben has been a strong leader, mentor and friend. He spent time supporting me at my lowest, and pushing me at my highest. I spent time watching him work, learning how to articulate the thoughts in my head to a larger group of people. He helped me figure out the maze that is government and where to focus my energy. He left the department after making me a better, stronger, more experienced person than I was.
And as much as it is sad, there is also a bright future ahead. There have been some strong personalities who have left Government since I joined. It is often said that this could cause huge repercussions. It never does. Yes, we will miss those people, but we should treat it like a changing of the guard.
As long as there are enough of us left to pick up the flag and keep making our line in the sand, we’ll be ok. We will keep moving forward.
Thank you, Ben. A million times over.
For the rest of us, we have much work to do, let’s #keepgoing.

2 years ago

2 years ago I started my first day working at the Department for Work and Pensions. It’s been a wild ride with no sign it’s slowing down.

I’m enjoying every minute.

For the first 10 days of my time in the department, I made a point of posting some thoughts and observations in the form of a tweet per day. I kept them and thought this was a better time than any to take a look back.

Day 1: 1st Day was great, topped off by catching up with @csswizardry over Thai food.

Day 2: 2nd day at @DigitalDWP, there’s a tremendous amount of people that really care and strive to make a real difference for users.

Day 3: There are no ego’s in Government Design teams, everyone cares and shares. #ofthegovernment

Day 4: The need to make Gov Services better doesn’t stop with Designers. User Researchers, Product Owners, FED’s and more work in cohesion.

Day 5: Proud of working as part of a multidisciplinary team who aren’t just passionate but they’re emotionally invested. #ofthegovernment

Day 6: Iterate. #ofthegovernment

Day 7: You can’t set an assumption in stone unless you’ve done your research on it. It’s also ok to have assumptions.

Day 8: It’s not just your team and service, Government Digital teams communicate A LOT to build a better digital service. #ofthegovernment

Day 9: No matter how simple *you* think something is, user research will always inform you of a reality. #ofthegovernment

Day 10: Proper design challenges, stuff that matters. #ofthegovernment

To sum it up

Day 10 sums it all up. I’m two years in and we still have ‘proper’ design challenges on ‘stuff’ that really matters. More now than ever.

There’s a lot of hard work ahead of us. We’re only just getting started.

I’ll be hiring soon.



Service Goals

A little under two years ago, I joined Government at the Department for Work and Pensions and began work on the Get your State Pension service.

The team had just finished their discovery work. Anna had done some excellent user research and clearly presented the user needs for the service.

Based on the user needs we could see that people needed to be prompted or nudged, they needed to be authenticated to make sure they were getting ‘their’ pension, they needed to give us the right details (change in marital status matters) and then they need to do something like submit their application/request.

It sounds quite simple, but not everything is simple in Government. That’s our problem, not our users. For them we want to make it easy and seamless and most importantly fullfil their need.

Our Goals

At the time and as a multi-disciplinary team we created service goals to make sure we always had focus. These were;

  • It works – it doesn’t crash and the end result happens as expected
  • It’s simple – users can navigate through with ease
  • It’s trusted – users believe the data they see
  • It’s not a long process – when we need to confirm details we don’t make the user feel it’s a massive thing

How has it worked out?

Over the last six months as I began to manage and lead the interaction design team at DWP, I stepped further away from the service team but still keeping an eye on the outcomes.

I’m proud to say that the goals have been realised. The service is in private beta and whilst a lot has changed, overall the service is still simple to use and the analytics show that it’s not a very long process at all.

Catherine Hope has started a series of articles talking about using analytics on the Get your State Pension service.

What is the hardest part of running a design team?

This was cross posted from Quora where I’m answering questions on design leadership.

I don’t think anything is ‘hard’ per sè. There are various challenges of running large teams and then even more for running large teams in different locations.

It all boils down to communication.

If you’re an effective leader, with solid communication skills and are focused on making your team better than you are then you’re well on your way.

Create a community

This should be the base of your role, everything stacks on top of it. Get the right balance of bringing the team together face-to-face and virtually. Make sure they’re open with their work and are also effective communicators

Remove blockers

Your team can’t do their best work when they’re constantly embattled with silly processes

Get a seat at the table

Sell/Preach the value of your profession up the chain, these days in any organisation, design should have a seat at the table

Develop your team

To develop your team you have to know them. Know them well enough so the personal and professional development becomes easy for you to support them with.

Listen to your team

They’re on the front line, often working with other professions and personalities in multi-disciplinary teams. Support them.

Remember your role

You’re not supposed to be there until you retire. You’re there to let everyone in your team have the chance at taking your job at some point in their career.

Hope that helps. If you want to know more, send me an email.