How to become a web developer: Tips for those with a print background

Published by | Saturday, March 31st, 2012

I meet a lot of people who come from a print background and are interested in learning new web skills. Learning to make that transition doesn’t have to be scary—I know because I was one of those people who learned about designing for print first and then moved on to the web. I went through my first few jobs working for commercial printers learning about paper, inks, imageSetters, imposition, trapping, film, and typography. When the web came around, I realized that it was the next big thing and I needed to learn as much as I could about it in order to survive in the long run. Eventually I managed to learn what I needed and move on to work on the web full-time.

The web can be scary, but learning new web skills doesn’t have to be hard. It’s like trying to eat an elephant…you have to do it one bite at a time. In this post I will share some of my learning experiences and offer some recommendations for those with a print background who are interesting in learning more about web development. I encourage you to share your print to web journey, and to ask questions, in the comments section below.

Overcome the experience deficit

Every job listing will ask for years of experience. Whether it’s two years or five-plus years, I’ll let you in on a secret—the years are not as important as your portfolio. If you come from the print field, you know what I mean. Generally people get hired based on what they’ve accomplished, not how long they’ve been doing it. I know because I landed my first online job with zero years of experience in the field, and I did it by building a portfolio of work that was equivalent to years of experience. Although I hadn’t worked in the industry, I had projects to show that I knew what I was doing. So, your first step in the print to web development migration is to start building websites as soon as possible.

Start by learning how to build sites with WordPress. It doesn’t require any development skills and it’s pretty easy. You’ll need to know how to set up WordPress and how to set up a server with your own domain name. For help with this, check out Managing Hosted Websites, a course that goes through the process of setting up a domain name and installing WordPress. Once you’ve installed WordPress and set up your server and domain name, it’s time to start building web sites. For this I recommend checking out WordPress Essential Training. Some entire businesses are based on building web sites with WordPress, so it’s a great first skill that will help you gain some of that critical experience everyone is looking for. Plus, it’s a marketable skill that you can use to build a portfolio of work right away.

In this clip from chapter one of the Managing Hosted Websites course, I discuss how to pick the right domain name before you choose your server, since your domain name decision will have an impact on how people arrive at your web site:

Just knowing how to install and work with WordPress is not enough, though. What people will really want to see is how well you can customize a WordPress web site. Go through WordPress: Creating and Editing Custom Themes to sharpen your WordPress customization skills, then dive into Create an Online Portfolio with WordPress (because after you’ve got a few sites under your belt, you’ll need to show off what you’ve done).

Build from your Strengths

Another thing I did when I got started was to focus on building from my strengths. I had a design portfolio, so I started learning software that would let me build on design skills. This was the late ’90s so I began by learning a program called GoLive, a website editor much like Dreamweaver.

I already knew how to use Photoshop, so I worked with those skills and focused on designing projects for the web first in Photoshop, and then transferring those skills to Adobe Fireworks, which is better for preparing online graphics. I knew about formats like EPS, PDF, and TIFF, so I learned about the online formats like GIF, JPEG and then PNG. The point is, when you get started plan to evolve your skills instead of trying to learn too much.

So, if you’re starting with a background in design, check out Designing Web Sites from Photoshop to DreamWeaver. This course will point you in the direction of a quick win and teach you how to build on your existing Photoshop knowledge. From there, move on to DreamWeaver with Dreamweaver CS5 Essential Training.

Find out what the market needs

Even when I was a new designer, I knew that development skills would be very valuable, but that learning development wouldn’t happen overnight. So right away I established learning development as one of my long term goals. I started with HTML since it was the easiest to learn. If you’re just getting into development, I recommend you start with HTML 5 Structure, Syntax and Semantics. It’s a thorough course that explains the basics of HTML. CSS wasn’t as critical to learn when I got started in the ’90s, but it is very today, so I would head in that direction after HTML. If you’re primarily a designer, then this should be an area of focus for you. Start with CSS Fundamentals, then move on to CSS Page Layouts, and plan to go through one new CSS course per month.

In this movie clip from chapter three of the CSS Fundamentals course, James Williamson asks the question “What is CSS3?” and walks you through the answer in detail:

Becoming awesome

Once you’re past the basics, your next skill should be JavaScript—this is a very hot skill. JavaScript is one of those topics that can be tougher to learn, but the better you get with JavaScript, the more sought after you’ll be. Start with JavaScript Essential Training and then move on to jQuery Essential Training. (jQuery is a javascript framework that helps you build interactivity into your projects easily and handling a lot of cross-platform issues.)

Once you’ve got those under your belt, move on to a server-side programming language. I recommend starting with PHP and then moving on to MySQL. Once you’ve spent some time with JavaScript, the same programming concepts apply to PHP and MySQL, so they will be easier to pick up. As you begin looking for development work, you’ll start to notice those two languages featured prominently in job descriptions. Remember, the stronger you are, the more you’re worth. When you’re ready, try out PHP with MySQL Essential Training.


Remember the elephant…one bite at a time. Don’t get overwhelmed with all the technology. Make yourself a plan and remember to be consistent with learning. Even if you watch only one movie a day or a few movies a week, you can make a dent in that virtual elephant and build enough experience before you know it. Using myself as a case study, I know you can do it. There weren’t any special skills I started with, I was a print designer just like you. If I can do it, I know you can. Just remember, even when it seems overwhelming…you can learn it!

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12 Responses to “How to become a web developer: Tips for those with a print background”

  1. Nick M says:

    Very good blog post! My problem is that I was a web designer forever (XHTML and CSS) and never took the time to learn Javascript or PHP. I always ended up just using the free scripts available on the Internet (jquery sliders, etc). Now I need to catch up with HTML5 and CSS3..and definitely do agree about Javascript being a hot skill these days. I no longer build sites from scratch…I always start off with a WordPress foundation.

  2. Rosemary Davis says:

    Great advice. I have been in the printing industry for 30+ years, and I have seen many changes in production – starting from coldtype to the present day. It is true that the Internet is taking over. I need to be able to transfer my skills in print into an interactive environment. is a great place to help me learn these techniques. Thanks for providing an outline of what I need to do in order to grow with technology.

  3. Jahanya Roy says:

    Hi Ray
    I have a very simple question to ask from you. How much knowledge of PHP is required before learning wordpress 3.0.

  4. Jim says:

    Your article caught my eye because I was surprised to hear this is still an issue … ten, fifteen years ago, you had to recruit print-media professionals and train them up on the Web because it was new and unfamiliar – I’d expect that these days anyone with a degree in graphic design has had a course or two in the no-longer-new media of online and mobile.

    I also wonder if it might not be harder now to help someone transition nowadays: during the same time (ten or fifteen years ago) most print designers who used computers had to use coding systems on systems that didn’t have a WYSIWYG interface – you keyed a formatting code to specify a font treatment, such as bold text, then keyed it again to return to roman text – so it was pretty easy for them to learn the “code” to do the same online.

    It must be exponentially more difficult to train up someone who has always used a visual layout tool and never saw or even thought about the code behind the formatting.

  5. Will Piner says:

    “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.” – -Mark Twain.

    When I first decided to learn web development, I taped a piece of paper with the above quote to my laptop. It is the same idea as “eating an elephant one bite at a time” and is crucial to not being overwhelmed when learning this complex skill. helps make this one step at a time approach easier since you can finish a large course one video(bite) at a time.

    I very much agree with your advice Ray. I am happy to see that I have followed a similar path to what you suggest, and encourage others to follow your advice. I would also say, if you have the time, do not be afraid to explore other technologies like Ruby On Rails instead of PHP or Drupal instead of WordPress. Eventually you will gravitate towards the technologies you are the most comfortable with and find your niche.

  6. Hi Jahanya,

    You don’t need any PHP knowledge to install or use it…It’s only required if you want to build plug-ins, create or modify templates. That’s why it’s good to start by building first and move slowly towards development.

  7. Nick,

    WordPress is awesome. You can start and really build a whole business just on mastering WordPress sites. It’s not for everything though…so if you want to move on from that, it’s a great idea to dig into JavaScript and then PHP and MySQL.

  8. Hey Rosemary,

    I left the print industry just as they were getting rid of film imagesetters. Glad you’re making a transition…we’re here to help.

  9. Jim,

    It’s true that nowadays, schools teach courses on online media, but there’s still a lot of us who came from that background that haven’t made the transition…There are tools like Adobe Muse that will help those who are still visual designers to create websites, but in the long run, those people should learn some of the new techniques…that’s why I recommend starting with WordPress…it gets people going quickly and doesn’t require coding skills.

  10. Love the quote Will. RoR and Drupal are awesome. I think that for someone with a print background, WordPress is easier than any other content management to learn with. I would definitely explore those in conjunction or after some of the other skills.

  11. Arman Jon Villalobos says:

    hey Ray, we even have same surname! Are we related? joke ;). I’m gonna graduate next year, this sem is my ojt period, and i’m really looking for web development firms, some call centers have one, i’m familiar with wordpress, i already made 2 sites, a Hotel Restaurant Reservation System and a E Commerce site, but they are just hosted locally, and im still beginners, and i really to much on Themes on WordPress since it has all the plugins available. Do i really need to go back to HTML and CSS or just explore more on WordPress? I have this WordPress : Complete pdf book havent got time to read but i am now. I love the web. Because u really don’t need something heavy system to work with.

    • Whoa! Maybe we’re cousins or something. Actually, the name Villalobos is not uncommon. it was in the movie Highlander where, Sean Connery played a spanish conquistador named Villalobos. It’s also the name of the farm in the Animal Planet show Pitbulls and Parolees.

      But I digress. Understanding HTML and CSS will let you build better templates in WordPress, since you’ll be able to customize things better. It’s at the core of all web skills so I would definitely put it on my list of things to learn.

      WordPress is a great place to start and you can even create a business solely on it, but like any piece of software, it can get limiting. We’ve got a ton of excellent WordPress content, so maybe you can continue to master it and then move on to other things.

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