Keeping your skills sharp

I recently received a question from Harry asking “what approach do you take to training?”. He has some budget set aside and is wondering how he should spend it.

I love working on the web because there is always some new exciting innovation. Of course the downside of this is that we are always running to keep up and there is always something new to learn.

I was extremely impressed with Harry because he has had the foresight to save some money for training. I think more web designers could do with following his lead. We need to recognise that learning new stuff is crucial to our role and if we don’t then we will quickly find ourselves unemployable.

So presuming you have had the foresight to set aside some cash to improve your skills what are your options? Well I believe you have two; spend the cash or convert it to time.

Spending money on training

There are certainly no shortage of ways to spend your hard earned cash on improving your skills.

One option is to go on a training course as Harry has been considering. I know the guys over at Clear:Left runs some excellent training sessions on front end scripting subjects like the DOM and AJAX. Also Drew McLellan and Rachel Andrews at have started a very popular CSS course.

Training courses are excellent for learning hands on skills in a short amount of time. However they can get pricey. A cheaper solution would be to simply buy a book. Books maybe cheaper but they do take time to read and digest. Nevertheless they are a good alternative if money is tight. I have recommended loads of books in the past so am not going to repeat myself here. However be careful, there is a lot of crap out there teaching bad practice.

If you want to be a bit more forward thinking and strategic with your training budget, then you might want to think about spending the money on attending conferences and meetups. Although these don’t normally teach you practical skills in the same way as a training course, they do advance your thinking about web design and maybe suggest new approaches.

There are some great conferences around. My personal favourites are SXSW, d.construct and the Future of Web Design. SXSW is pricey and somewhat overwhelming but is an experience if nothing else. d.construct and the Future of Web Design are smaller affairs but include a great line up of speakers.

If a conference is beyond your means then consider attending a meetup. Spend your budget on accommodation and go to a hack day or other meetup. You don’t get the great line up of speakers but you do get to interact with other designers who are facing the same challenges as you.

Time equals money

We all know time equals money. This is especially true if you are a freelancer. If you are not working on client work then you are burning cash. Another alternative then to spending your training allowance on courses or conferences is to spend it in the form of time. Use that money to buy yourself time free from project work. Time to experiment and learn online. Personally this is how I learn the most.

I try and set aside time each week to read sites like A List Apart, Think Vitamin or Digital Web. I then take the techniques I have learnt and experiment with them. If I discover a tutorial on AJAX I don’t just skim it but rather sit down and follow it through. If Smashing Magazine lists a load of flash galleries I actually check them out and look for projects I can integrate them with.

By actually physically buying your time back from yourself using your training budget you avoid feeling guilty for ‘messing around’ or ‘sitting about reading blogs’. Spending time experimenting is probably the most important type of training you will do. Take Google’s lead and make sure you set aside some time every week for personal projects.

  • I’m certainly a fan of books. Not only do they provide solutions to real problems but once you have finished reading them they will always be there to help you out some more!
    Conferences are also valuable; maybe not for what you learn there but certainly from the networking side – every new person you meet is a potential source of knowledge in the future….

  • Elliot

    Also, very good web video tutorials, on a vast ammount of web related subjects, and for only $25 a month you get full access to any video, thats less than some of the books, and you can just go month by month depending on your cash situation, thats what I do as a start-up freelancer.

  • “However be careful, there is a lot of crap out there teaching bad practice.” -Wise words Paul!
    You have the Boag book, Hopefully Boag – The movie!
    What about Boag training? Now there is a job title for you…..Paul Boag, Trainer to the minions. Worth giving it a thought?

  • Harry Atkins

    Paul thanks for posting there are some useful links and also appreciate the comments. Biggest worry is spending money only to find the teaching is poor, no follow up support, course notes, out of date information etc etc. The industry could almost do with a “which local” for web designers. Thanks again.

  • I rely on 4 things:
    1. Books
    2. Websites (Online Magazines like the ones mentioned)
    3. Forums / Blogs
    4. Podcasts (no surprises for guessing which one’s my favourite)
    While 2 are online, I listen to podcasts while commuting and read books in the toilet :)

  • I think a good seminar or conference can easily pay for itself. There’s nothing quite like watching someone expert in a topic to really learn quickly. And there’s value in just getting out of the day-to-day and hanging out with other people doing the same stuff you’re doing.
    I found the small web conference run by the A List Apart folks, called An Event Apart, to be quite enjoyable and useful.
    For learning Ruby on Rails, I attended two of the Pragmatic Studio courses, and while they are expensive, they were absolutely worthwhile.
    For web designers who are interested in learning more about Ruby on Rails, I’ve put together a seminar that doesn’t assume much programming background and will be offering it in San Francisco in February 2008. Check out
    if you’re interested in learning Rails.