Education vs experience

This article first appeared in issue 229 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

Something I am becoming increasingly aware of these days is the long list of educational achievements that appear on young people’s CVs. While these are impressive in their own right, I have to say that as the owner and managing director of a marketing design agency, qualifications are far from the top of my list of priorities when I’m looking to fill a vacancy.

I recently held a series of interviews to fill the position of web development assistant at NSDesign, and I noted the disparity in skillset that exists between the recent graduates and those who had gone straight from school into work.

On the whole I found the latter group to be far more competent and capable, as opposed to the former group, even though they had been studying the subject full time at university for three or four years.

Technical skills

First and foremost, what most employers are looking for in a web designer or developer is someone with the relevant skills to do the job properly. When I was conducting interviews recently, I was eager to find out from recent graduates what they had been taught. From their feedback, it quickly became clear that web-design degrees focus on table-based layouts – often ignoring vital and fairly basic web design elements such as semantic markup, standards and CSS.

By comparison, candidates with relevant work experience were well versed in these elements – they had the practical skills that I was looking for and would be able to hit the ground running.

Unlike other professions, web design doesn’t lend itself to the conventional university learning environment of classroom teaching and library textbooks. In practice, it requires candidates to be familiar with the latest technologies, trends and software – that means practical skills-based learning, not immersing one’s self in a textbook.

One of our web designers, Paul, is university educated, having completed his Applied Graphics degree in 2005. Paul says he gained a lot from his studies. However, he admits that if he could go back in time he wouldn’t choose the same path.

After three years working for NSDesign, Paul’s advice is to concentrate on building a strong portfolio to show an employer at the interview stage. Rather than go to university, Paul thinks that the best way to learn the ins and outs of web design is through the wealth of web design tutorial websites, blogs and books on offer.

What I’m looking for in a candidate is an ability to show initiative at work

Next up on my list of priorities for suitable candidates is an awareness of the importance of customer service standards. I’m sure most employers will agree when I say that a business can have the best designers in the world, but if they are unable to communicate effectively with clients then that organisation is doomed to failure. Key responsibilities for a designer include meeting with clients to discuss their requirements, deciphering their briefs, and delivering training on how to operate websites, blogs and social media networks.

Ambition and initiative

Last, but certainly not least, what I’m looking for in a candidate is an ability to show initiative at work. As is the case in all industries, one of the biggest pressures on employers these days is time. The majority of my working week is spent outside the office – delivering workshops, meeting clients and following up business development opportunities, so what I need is staff who can deliver high quality websites and designs on receipt of a tight brief.

I was thoroughly impressed with one candidate I interviewed recently when he showed me his own portfolio site with various personal and mock client websites that he had worked on. He had no formal training, but his dedication and the quality of his designs spoke volumes, and he was the one I ended up hiring. I could see from the websites he showed me that he was ambitious and that he loved this kind of work.

Nothing beats that – showing that you are willing to go the extra mile really speaks volumes at the interview stage.

Also read: 'Create the perfect design portfolio: 30 pro tips' on our sister site, Creative Bloq.

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