Jessica Greenwalt on how to make it in web design

The leading web designer reveals some of the secrets of her success to Lee Bob Black of SkilledUp.

Jessica Greenwalt

Graphic designer, web developer and illustrator Jessica Greenwalt is one of Inc. magazine's 10 Women to Watch in Tech in 2014. She wears many digital hats – she's the founder of marketing, graphic design, and web development company Pixelkeet; co-founder and lead designer of CrowdMed, a service for medical experts and patients; and works on branding, graphic design and web development for event discovery platform Gallevent.

Here Lee Bob Black of SkilledUp speaks with her about teaching herself web design, clients who think "everyone" is their target market, and being in a state of constant learning.

At college, you didn't study computer science, so how did you learn web design?

My college's Graphic Communication program was focused on print. In my first design class, the professor proudly proclaimed "Print is not dead! Paper is not going away. We'll always have toilet paper!"

At that moment I decided I needed focus on web design and development. But, being in a print-focused design program, I had to seek outside resources to update my web skills. When I was in junior high, web development was all about HTML tables. Things have changed a lot since then.

I devoted a summer to getting up to speed on web development. I put in full eight-hour work days sitting in downtown San Luis Obispo's Barnes & Noble's cafe reading their entire collection of web development and design books.

Greenwalt spent eight hour-days reading books in Barnes & Noble's cafe

Online, I would also search for articles, sample code, and tutorials. I'd search for websites that impressed me and I'd try to recreate the elements I liked. I'd practice coding and, when I got stuck, I'd consult forums.

What were your first websites like?

I made some absolutely terrible demo websites. But I got better. I made a decent portfolio site and put it online. I responded to 'seeking web developer' ads and got a few clients.

My portfolio grew. People started reaching out to me after seeing my work. Then my website became the number one Google search result for 'freelance graphic designer' and project requests started pouring in from around the world.

The demand led me to build a team and found the graphic design and web development firm, Pixelkeet.

Did your lack of computer science degree hamper you?

I don't have a computer science degree, yet my first job out of college was to build websites for universities around the world. And I've built websites for countless organizations since then.

My co-founder, Axel Setyanto, is one of the best software engineers I've ever worked with, and he dropped out of college.

My experience has shown me that you don't need a formal degree to get a job coding. Especially in the startup world. We care about what people can build, not where they came from.

So what do you think of forgoing a degree in favour of free courses online?

Don't feel limited by the educational institutions you do or don't get into. There are so many resources to help you learn your craft – for free. Your motivation is the only limit to your success.

I don't have a marketing or PR background, but I do spend a lot of time researching user behavior and psychology. Research on how to use social media to promote yourself or your company can easily be found online.

We love how you've branded Pixelkeet. What advice would you give startups on branding and marketing?

Establish your target market. Focus. I constantly meet with clients who say their target market is "everyone." That's never true. Not everyone is going to want to use their product. If you try to appeal to everyone, you're going to be interesting to no one.

Pixelkeet has strong branding around a feathery theme

Take the time to think about your product's user. Be specific. The more specific you are, the easier it will be for you to create a clear message that speaks to your user. Knowing who you are targeting will also make it easier to reach out and find these specific users.

What else can you tell us about your rise to success?

I can trace my passion for tech back to my dad. When I was young, he introduced me to circuit boards, transistors, and other building blocks. He got me planning, sketching, and building gadgets. I feel fortunate to have had this experience, because not many girls are introduced to engineering at a young age. I don't know where I'd be if I wasn't encouraged to experiment with electronics.

It's lucky that my high school had programming classes and graphic design classes too. If I hadn't learned what I did in these classes, I probably would have had a less clear direction for my future.

How much time do you spend acquiring or refining your skills?

I am constantly learning to work with new technologies to keep up with the rapidly changing landscape of web design and development. I meet with fellow designers and developers to see what they've been working on. I frequently attend industry events to keep in touch with the community and get opinions on the latest tech.

What's an average day like for you?

  • 7:00: Get up and check calendar
  • 8:00: Commute to work; on the BART I check email, check Asana (task management app), and read (reading is my relaxation for the day)
  • 9:00: Respond to messages (phone, email, social media)
  • 10:00: Work on design or code for a project
  • 10:30: CrowdMed meeting
  • 11:00: Work on design or code for a project, answer time sensitive messages
  • 1:00: Lunch with CrowdMed team, friends, or contacts

CrowdMed harnesses the wisdom of crowds to collaboratively solve even the world’s most difficult medical cases quickly and accurately online
  • 2:00: Work on design or code for a project, answer time sensitive messages
  • 6:30: Yoga
  • 8:00: Events (meetups, networking, parties)
  • 11:00: Commute home

What tools do you use in your job?

Ooo. I love Zoho Invoice. This has made my life a million times easier. I tried out several invoicing apps, but this one gave me the most freedom for styling invoices (which is important to me since I run a design firm). Their dashboard is also very clean and easy to use.

I'm also a fan of Asana. I use this to keep track of all the projects I'm working on. It's the easiest task manager I've worked with so far.

I check Twitter for design, tech, and business articles.

Words: Lee Black

Lee Bob Black is a staff writer and editor for SkilledUp, a site built to help you find online courses, gain and increase your skills and prove your worth to employers.