Looking back at ten years of web design
“Every website tells a story,” my homepage proclaims. Well, here’s a story for you. I can only do one thing. And I’ve never worked a job that’s not web design.
It’s true – while most kids get their start flipping burgers or busing tables, I sold my first website project to a client in ninth grade. I got into web design just as HTML tables were being phased out, and I had my own Geocities page. I had started half a dozen websites by the time I finished ninth grade.
That’s what attracted me to the web in the first place: anyone can write anything on it.
My first “real” website was a daily Bible verse – my uncle helped me with the site, and I sent out the verse via email each day to about fifty subscribers (here’s a snapshot, from before Archive.org saved CSS). I had tons of websites: a book review blog which later became Into the Book (intothebook.net), its short-lived movie- and briefly video-game- oriented cousins; a blog about being a third-culture kid, among others.
Anyone can have a platform on the web, for better or worse. Before social media, which amplifies every word to a thousand people, blogs were the currency of the web; and blogrolls, community, and comments were the way your website spread from person to person.
I think it was this capacity to create that attracted me to the web in the first place. After building my own personal sites on Blogger and elsewhere, I started learning how to customize those sites. I followed dozens of online tutorials, and learned HTML and CSS piece by piece, editing files in notepad and uploading them via FTP or Blogger’s backend editor.
I finally built my first “real” website, hosted on my uncle’s server: Psalm 139:23, my “online showcase and home,” as I put it (Archive.org did crawl this one, and I still have an archive copy on my server). At the time, it was a combination of my blog, nascent web design business, and personal hobbies. It was built in Photoshop first, then developed by hand to look exactly as I envisioned it. With some important difference, that’s nearly the same basic process I follow to design a website today.
In ninth grade, my best friend and I launched Mosaic Web Studios. He was a backend guy and I had the experience with HTML and CSS and design. After one summer without any clients, he moved on and I took the business solo. Later that year, I sold a website to an online acquaintance for $80 (here’s an incomplete crawl from 2011 of that design – built on Blogger. I later rebuilt the website with a new design on WordPress).
It wasn’t much, but it began to snowball. I continued to get work: real, paying work. By the time I graduated high school I had enough saved up to pay for my first semester of college. My first week in Minneapolis for college, I applied to work at an agency in town, with nothing to boast but a portfolio (at the time, my freelance “business” looked like this)
I don’t know if I believed them at the time, but they hired me. I worked for two years as a junior developer behind some great folks (Steven Miller and Philip Grey, in particular). I absorbed everything I could about website development and design. I revised my first project – for a cleaning business – a dozen times. After two years, I started doing full-time freelance, and pulled in enough to meet a college student’s living expenses.
When I moved to Kansas City in 2015, I had no job lined up. But on the strength of my freelance portfolio, I landed a job at Midwestern Seminary. By this time, I’d been doing paid web design work for six years, and my portfolio looked more like something I’d be proud of. I was the first web hire at Midwestern, and over three years there I was lead web designer and developer on most of our major project launches.
Which brings us to today: since June 2018, Mosaic is again my full-time job, and I contract out to dozens of unique, interesting clients around the United States. I love my job, and I’m proud of the work I do.
I’ve never worked a job that’s not web design.
I have no formal training in web design, development, or running a business: and yet I’ve been doing some combination of the three for ten years now. The older I get, the more ridiculous it seems. I’m only here because my uncle gave me a Photoshop disc when I was fourteen, and showed me the basics of his then-freelance web business.
Here I am: ten years in the workforce, and I am a total one-trick pony. When I was thinking about leaving Midwestern last year, I took some time to look at other job options. Without a four-year degree, and with no work experience to speak of, my prospects were limited. But more web design is a different story. Any prospective client gets to see the work I’ve done – many found me through other projects I’ve done – and I tell them, “I do good work: see?”
The web is one of the few fields where that kind of career advancement is possible. Somehow, in the strangest way possible, I’ve made a living out of what was once my ninth-grade hobby. Through tons of trial and error, imitation, and practice, I’ve developed a craft and methodology from a start on Geocities. That’s pretty amazing.