My journey to becoming a web designer and running a design company didn’t come by the usual routes of knowing you wanted to become a designer and going to school to study design.
No, my route to becoming a web designer was much more circuitous. I’m telling my story to hopefully be an inspiration to someone who thinks its too late to change careers or find another passion in your life.
Early days as a Musician that needed a website
I’ve been a dedicated musician since I was about 20. Early on I noticed I needed a website. I eventually figured out I’d probably need several websites. So out of necessity I slowly started teaching myself the basics.
I actually go back to the BBS days of the late 80’s, chatting with unknown people online way before the internet even existed. I knew it was super nerdy, yet somehow cool, but I had just started fitting in to the difficult and awkward pressures of adolescent school life and I didn’t have much time to dedicate to posting on BBS’s.
(Shout out to my high school friend Kent Schoen for turning me onto the world of BBS’s, A.K.A. the first internet.)
I needed a website for my new project and my talented friend Mark Thornton recommended we use wordpress, because it was easy to update without being a webmaster or knowing how to use Dreamweaver. So I started using wordpress not long after it was introduced to the world.
Becoming a Web Designer – It all starts with Pen and Paper
I started by drawing my ideas for a website layout on paper, which is how I still usually start a new website design today. I prefer using pen and paper to figure out the most efficient and elegant way to layout the information that’s most important.
For those early years, I was making my designs on paper while I was carefully watching and learning how Mark translated that into a wordpress layout. After realizing that I was going to need to keep my website up to date, probably for the rest of my, I figured I might as well start learning to do it myself.
But back in the early to mid 2000’s online tutorials were light years behind where they are today. Today, there are so many resources for learning all aspects of design, both free and paid, it can be kind of overwhelming. As the years went by I learned more and more about wordpress and eventually got comfortable making whole websites myself. Honestly they weren’t anything special, but it was a very empowering feeling to be able to create your own website and put it on the web for the whole world to see.
When I started playing with a new band in 2004, Fishtank Ensemble, of course we needed a website. At first a super fan we had, Mark Ryan (a different Mark) made an html website for us. After discovering how much more difficult it was to update html websites, I decided to redo it myself in wordpress. I think it was the first ‘real’ website I ever created.
Soon, friends who also were in bands started asking me if I could make a website for them. This was the proverbial ‘light bulb moment’.
If I could get comfortable enough making websites, I could have a great side job (music was still my main focus and source of money) that I actually liked and that was completely flexible.
A Midlife Crisis Becomes an Opportunity
After 10 years of playing all over the world with Fishtank Ensemble, we decided to slow down and not tour so much at the same time that I met a girl I wanted to marry.
It was a bit of a mid-life crisis since music had been the source of 80% of the money I earned. I was almost 40 and left without a reliable source of income. My wife was in a similar situation despite being younger. She had always been a visual artist, and though she was quite skilled at Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, she hadn’t really considered what a career outside of visual art would be like.
The answer to our common problems was right in front of us all along. In a moment of inspiration we decided to take a leap and start a design company. I would work on becoming a web designer and Sheina would work on being an awesome graphic designer. And thus was born Visualab Design.
Early Days of our Design Company
In the early days of starting our company, we mainly got business by reaching out to our friends, many of who were also musicians, as well as craigslist. Responding to ads on Craigslist is one way we paid our dues.
Here you will find most people want to pay the least amount possible regardless of the quality of work. However we did meet a lot of good clients we still work with but we did find better success in placing our own ads on craigslist and have people respond to us.
These years of working through pretty bad gigs turned out to be very important to our evolution. We got a lot of experience learning how to deal with clients, determining an appropriate price and learning about a large variety of real world situations any prospective designer will inevitably be faced with.
After hustling for about a year and a half we finally had enough clients, online reviews and know how to run a successful small business doing web and graphic design.
In upcoming posts on this design blog, we will be discussing all the tools and skills you need to know in order to be a successful designer as well as how we grew our small business, with just the two of us into a medium sized business, with a few employees and started making enough money to be comfortable.