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From Print to Web: The journey of a 20th century Graphic Designer

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My name is Darren. Six months ago I was a print designer, utterly unaware of the opportunity that lurked just around the corner if I'd just open my eyes. I always believed my skills were totally non-transferable to the world of web design because web designers only spoke in binary and saw the world in CSS and hex-codes. What ignorance! I'd like to discuss for your pleasure and/or inspiration my journey.

Darren as a young man (circa 10 years old) sat on a white sofa with stripes, wearing an orange t-shirt and black and orange tracksuit bottoms

A brief history of moi

A little bit of my background for some context. I still consider myself to be in the early stages of my career. At the time of writing I'm 27 years old and have been in some form of employment since I was 15. I attended and finished school, college and university whilst working part time in a factory. I graduated from the workshop during my college years (circa 2004) when my employer discovered my design knowledge and put me to use on creating promotional materials for the company. Once I had graduated university I decided to make a move to Guildford, Surrey which was a generally prosperous and creative place to be. However, I struggled to find work as a designer due to my lack of experience and thus settled for a retail job whilst I got my portfolio together and searched for the right opportunity.

After 9 months of looking I was gifted the opportunity to join a successful print house in Farnham, Surrey. I had my work cut out. The company in question only employed one graphic designer to handle all of the day-to-day design requirements of their client base and the previous lady had worked at the company for twenty-something years! I had the immense task of trawling through two-plus decades of legacy artwork and creating a system with which I could streamline the way in which the company worked with regards to it's enormous graphic design workload. The job was rewarding and challenging, but after nearly three years I had achieved most of what I had set out to achieve in the role and I started seeking new opportunities.

That opportunity came in the way of a small family-run print business in my hometown Bordon, Hampshire. They were renowned throughout the community I had grown up a part of and the move felt right, but before I'd even reached six months of employment there disaster struck and the company went in to administration. I was out on the street, CV in hand, desperate for anything to keep me going. I'd recently had a son and bought a small house close to this new job and everything was on the line. It was a tough time. However, before long I found the opportunity I'd been looking for - the chance to work as part of a team and to complete larger scale projects.

For a little over a year, I relished the opportunity to work with a team and under the guidance of an extremely talented and experienced studio manager. Things were great, but I couldn't help but feel that something was still missing. I realised what this was much later on, once I had the opportunity to look back and see things with new clarity. All along it was the print industry itself. As passionate as I was and still am with regards to printed media, I have to confess that it has become a cut-throat industry that is overcrowded with talented people who are willing to work for less than I had aspirations of earning. Luckily, then along came an opportunity that many will never get.

A forked path in a green setting, signifying an opportunity to change the path one is headed down

Opportunity, knocking

My brother set up as a sole-trader web designer in 2008, trading under the name Real Life Design. In 2010, he incorporated the business and became the director of Real Life Design Limited. Around 2013 Barry began talking to me about expanding the services of his business and re-branding to Real Life Digital and we worked together on a few projects but never really developed any ideas for expanding his company beyond what it was already doing. In 2014, my face must have been starting to show signs of weariness because Barry dragged me out for a beer to discuss my future.

He told me he had an opportunity for me to make a big change in my life, if I was prepared to get stuck in and immerse myself in the world of Drupal, coding and web design fundamentals. At first, I was reluctant. To me, coding was like learning another language and that was something that wasn't going to happen overnight and I was up to my neck in renovating a house, holding down a job and being a father! But Barry believed in me, and pushed me to spend an hour a night listening and learning all about Drupal and web design. Once I'd shown a level of commitment and interest, he wasted no time in offering me a position which I have no doubt that if he hadn't been my brother, I wouldn't have been offered. I knew I had to step up and get this right.

Apart from this amazing opportunity, I was also offered the chance to visit Amsterdam on company time to attend DrupalCon 2014 and truly immerse myself in a community of people who did this everyday. Of course, I snapped up that offer. My first two weeks were chaos and bliss all at the same time. I had to get a certain amount of knowledge and learning under my belt before flying out to Amsterdam to meet the heavyweights of this stuff! I'd look a complete fool rocking up at a conference and not knowing what on earth anyone was talking about! So I just dived in and got reading, watching and learning.

A man immersed in very deep water without breathing equipment

How to stop from drowning in the deep end

There are so many moving parts to web design and development it's pretty much a given that if you're new to the game, you're going to be intimidated. All at once I'm hearing about MySQL databases, PHP queries, Linux operating system, Apache servers, Drupal custom modules, front-end and back-end development, HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript, jQuery, node.js, C, C++, C#, Java, Python, SASS, LESS, Ruby, Rails, Perl, LAMP, MAMP, WAMP and XAMPP stacks, drush, compass, caches, object orientated programming, binary, responsive design, flat design, skeumorphic design, style tiles etc etc etc!!! And if you found that a completely confusing and unstructured way to list those things, well that's just how I felt when I was hearing about all of it. What on Earth should I do? Where should I start?! Rather than panic I decided to do what I've always done when it comes to expansive and intimidating learning. Switch off.

This is seriously my advice. Just. Switch. Off. You'll be amazed at how effective it is to just forget about it all. I find it helps to write all of these terms and channels of learning down on to a piece of paper - a bit like a brainstorm. Briefly Wikipedia each one (a few seconds per item) and work out roughly how they fit / work together and make a few notes. Then choose one item from that piece of paper to dive into, and put that piece of paper to one side and forget about it until later. The item I chose to begin with - which was purely logical - was HTML. I knew a little bit about HTML and I certainly knew that it was how everything on the web is structured (at least visually) and that was what I was interested in.

So I started looking around online for some quick "bring-me-up-to-speed" videos on how to code in HTML and what HTML actually does. I found this video by Jake Wright called Learn HTML in 12 Minutes and I can't recommend this video highly enough. Within 12 minutes I had the fundamentals covered. I then read about a relatively new book called HTML and CSS: Design and Build Websites by Jon Duckett which many claimed was the best way to learn everything you need to know in a short time period. I was sold on the reviews and instantly purchased a copy. Within 12 hours I had HTML down. Seriously. It was that quick and easy. I then referred back to Jake Wright's YouTube channel for his video Learn CSS in 12 Minutes. Once again, within 12 minutes I felt very confident I was going to be able to write CSS successfully. And another 12 hours later I'd whizzed through Jon Duckett's CSS portion of his book and I was buzzing. I'd learned two languages within a few days and I was excited to get going. I wanted to just dive right in but I was aware there was a third element to front-end design - the dreaded JavaScript.

JavaScript was a shock to the system. Understand, this is utterly different to HTML and CSS which are logical and easy to understand. JavaScript really is like learning another language and will take some time to get to grips with. To be honest I am still getting to grips with it! I purchased Jon Duckett's JavaScript and jQuery: Interactive Front-End Web Development and whilst this was equally as well written as his HTML & CSS book, I think only time and experience will ever suffice to make you feel comfortable with this coding language! However, I followed the YouTube tutorial Tetris with HTML5 and JS by Rhuno and this was an incredibly fun way to learn about JavaScript and really makes you consider the possibilities of how coding languages can be used to achieve targets. This also provided a real-world example in which to test my new HTML and CSS skills.

In essence, every time I felt I had enough of a grasp of a particular element of web development I would revisit my scrap of paper and select another angle to investigate and skill up on. Within a couple of weeks I was feeling more confident that I was capable of being a useful web designer and Drupal themer, and happily hopped on to a plane to Amsterdam, with a vodka and coke in hand, ready to begin the next step of my adventure!

Thousands of drupal developers and users pose for a photograph outside of the RAI centre in Amsterdam for the 2014 DrupalCon

Positivity, community, opportunity

I suppose I'd built up a picture in my head of what these web folk were like. I hate stereotypes but I must admit I envisioned a conference building packed with long haired men in oversized baggy gaming t-shirts but this really couldn't be further from the truth. I was instantly captivated by the complete inclusiveness of the community. There were a lot more women in attendance than I had previously anticipated given the worrying lack of women working in tech. There were people from all age ranges - literally from ten year old kids who were immersing themselves early, to seasoned IT professionals who were probably closer to retirement age! There were people not just from every corner of Europe, but also from the States, South America, Asia and Africa. There were those from privileged and underprivileged backgrounds, all pulling together to form a movement of developers, designers and beyond. It is the first time I've ever been truly overwhelmed by the feeling that here is a community of people that literally don't care about your class, gender, race, sexuality, age or background. And even your level of skill or commitment back to the community wasn't questioned or brought in to conversation. Those who were ahead were only too pleased to support those who were behind.

It struck me that I'd never experienced this level of positivity from any job I'd had before and it got me thinking. Perhaps it is because the web development industry is exploding at the moment. In a time of economic hardship and austerity, perhaps here is a way out for many people. The opportunities are endless and anyone can do it. So if you are like me and you're feeling trapped in an industry that is increasingly becoming more competitive and less lucrative then consider your options. Don't be fearful of re-training and the confusion of the unknown. It's actually pretty fun once you get your head in to the right space. Perhaps I'll see you in a few years, in a random city somewhere in the world and you'll tell me you read this and it changed your life. I certainly hope so. And you can buy me a beer!!

A man looks in to the camera through a pair of binoculars

So now what?

The future looks bright for me and I feel for the first time in my life I have unlimited options and that I don't even need to chase any of them down just now! I have a great position, working for a brilliant company and my boss is a pretty cool dude! I get to travel and meet different people from all over the world, peers and clients alike. I get to do something creative every day. I'm surprised by how much I learn as each week passes. As each month rolls in to the next I'm not panicking about my career or my future. And hopefully as these seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks and months roll in to years I will continue to feel as passionately about my job as I do now.

I'm hardly wise. I'm hardly in a position to offer life advice. But if you want to join us in this wonderful, diverse, fair and exciting parallel universe, then stop procrastinating and come get stuck in!

Darren Fisher - Designer & Frontend Dev

Written by

Darren Fisher

Designer & Frontend Dev

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