I am teaching graphic design/multimedia at the college level as well as freelancing on the side. We've been discussing among colleagues and wondering what is expected on average for graphic designers and web designers (considering they will all be taking the same classes but some might be more web-inclined). It's not easy to determine how much design vs. how much coding should be included in the classes. I've posted a similar question on LinkedIn before but I would like as much data as I can get so we can take action about what we should focus on.

I've observed wild variations ranging from : just understanding some concepts of web layouts, to being able to update an existing web site to being able, to build the whole website with PHP/MySQL included and javascript/jQuery. Often wondering if the companies who asked for everything ever found proper candidates or just tried their luck.

What is your experience on this? Please mention if you consider yourself a graphic designer or a Web designer.

EDIT: Our program is a 3-year graphic design program including 4 classes of Web design. We are not a multimedia program per say. I should also add that where I am located, students may stop their learning at the college level or go about to do a BA in graphic design (another 3 years) that is much more oriented towards creation.

More precisely, I am looking for answers about what are reasonable market expectations for entry-level graphic designers vs. entry-level web designers?

  • 4
    Not identical but related: Do web designers need to know how to code? Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 15:46
  • +1 for that, although there is no doubt in my mind that a Web designer needs to know how to code, just doubting how much of that should be taught in school (in the context of a general graphic design curriculum) and how much should be self-taught or gained through other more specialized formations.
    – curious
    Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 15:59
  • As it stands I'm voting to close as too broad. There's no possible way to answer this question. What are students expected to learn comes down to what program and courses they're in. You're also lumping graphic design and web design together. Its far too broad of a topic which is why you're even saying "What is your experience on this" rather than asking for any real answer. The other question was works better because its only talking about front end web designers.
    – Ryan
    Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 16:32
  • I would understand a close vote on opinion-based although I think it's possible to reach a coherent answer with multiple inputs. I agree there is some broadness to my question but it relates exactly to our situation as graphic design teachers. I did add details if that helps any.
    – curious
    Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 18:01
  • 2
    I think the edit drastically changes the question.
    – DA01
    Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 18:52

8 Answers 8


I see web design as a subset of graphic design and not always a separate entity so I struggle a bit with the "vs." aspect of the question edit. One can certainly only be a web designer. I'm just not sure focusing so directly on one area makes that person a "graphic" designer. Much the same way one can be a fantastic package designer, but may not really have the skill set to qualify them as a "graphic" designer. I do feel, however, that "Graphic" designer encompasses both print and web reproduction. Therefore the "vs" doesn't play well in my mind. It ultimately, may just be semantics.

Note: This response was prior to the edit of the actual question being asked:

I've been doing both print design and front end web design for a couple decades. I build web sites with a variety of HTML, CSS, jQuery, PHP, MySQL, and when forced, ASP. I do not consider myself a web developer. I am strictly a designer.

I feel, any good designer needs to understand HTML/CSS, Spot Color, RGB, CMYK, resolutions, and separations. This covers the basics of web and print reproduction.

It's important to understand the restrictions when designing. Without an understanding of how separations work, print design can suffer. The same is true for web design - without an understanding of how HTML and CSS work, web design can suffer.

As I'm sure you're aware, web building is really 2 stages - design and development. The more those stages can blur for either the designer or the developer, the better the end result can be. A designer who understands there are restrictions in how HTML and CSS work will not be creating designs that are near impossible to be coded. In the end, I look at HTML/CSS as necessary core knowledge in today's world. Face it, HTML has been basically the same for more than 15 years with only minor updates. And it can be learned in a week or less of simply experimenting. There's no reason a designer should not know it.

I don't think a designer needs to necessarily understand any PHP/MySQL or other server-side scripting/database systems, although it can certainly help. The simplest thing such as a PHP include can drastically reduce the time needed to flesh out a series of web pages.

A basic understanding of what Javascript/JQuery does is needed, although actual functionality would be something I'd not really cover were I teaching. Just the concept of dynamic pages via javascript should be understood. Functionality may require its own class or dedicated area of study and you start blurring the lines with the developer phase due to possible ajax interactions.

As for the ads that want everything... They ask for the world realizing no one actually possesses all those skills. But if you leave something off, you may not get that one application from that one candidate with one spectacular skill in that one area. It's a grab bag. No one should feel inferior or insufficient because they only possess a third or three fourths of the listed skills in a classified ad. Most placing those ads are aware that no one can do it all.


I look at any general educational experience as a multi-tiered experience. It is important to expose new students to the wide variety of possibilities, if only minimally. Then the students themselves can better target and move towards the areas they find intriguing and exciting. As a basic core, any student under the "graphic design" umbrella should be exposed to the basics of web design, print design, video/multimedia/game design, and marketing. I feel it is most likely these areas which will inspire and help students realize their own strengths and weaknesses. Nothing gets more basic for web design than HMTL/CSS. That's the foundation all web design is built upon, much the same way all print design is built upon CMYK/Spot color separations. If a student then wants to focus more on web design, they should be able to seek courses teaching advanced CSS or jQuery/javascript. Just as if they wanted to focus on the marketing side they could seek courses in demographic studies and statistical analysis. Make no mistake a "Graphic Designer" with strong web skills is just as valuable as a "Graphic Designer" with strong marketing skills. However, in my experience, when the Human Resources department places an advertisement for a "Graphic Designer" they are seeking someone knowledgable in either print or web design and most often both to some degree.

I chose to go in the direction of print, and then subsequently web front-end. But I could have easily chose to go toward print and marketing or video and then web. Without the initial exposure to each area I never would have known where my skill set (and passions) lay.

  • 1
    +1 for 'the more those stages can blur...' VERY well said! I might steal that sentence from you!
    – DA01
    Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 14:46
  • Thanks Scott! Can you clarify "In the end I look at HTML/CSS as necessary core knowledge anymore." (seems like a word is missing or syntax is off, although english isn't my first language) :-) I figure you mean that you consider HTML and CSS as the core knowledge.
    – curious
    Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 14:54
  • 1
    Yes. HTML and CSS should be considered core knowledge. (There's nothing wrong with that sentence, except perhaps a missing comma.)
    – Scott
    Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 15:02
  • The "anymore" is what got me hesitating, to me it sounds like a negative. But that would be an explanation I should ask in the English board :-)
    – curious
    Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 15:07
  • 2
    @emile: that "positive or future looking 'anymore'" is a regional American English thing. Scott's page says West Coast US, but that is a very strong mid-atlantic marker.
    – horatio
    Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 15:16

The average is somewhere between "Freaks out if they see an HTML tag" and "can build everything they design in code".

Point being there is no typical average here.

In general, though, if a designer is going to focus on a particular medium (say web design) then the more they know about said medium, the more they can do with it. So it's definitely something to encourage. Teach it. It will 'stick' for some and they will go on learning more. For others it won't. And that's probably OK.

As scott points out, graphic designers don't HAVE to know how a printing press works. Or how line screens or overprinting works. But those that do know how all that works are ultimately better professionals in that they are able to design something that they can then actually get printed.

Same goes for web design.

UPDATE: I think the edited question title is slightly different.

What are reasonable market expectations for entry-level graphic designers vs. entry-level web designers?

My list would be:

  • a solid portfolio
  • ability to talk through their portfolio and offer insights into their process and how they think.

In other words, for entry level, I'd be looking for thinking ability over any particular toolset. We can teach them the tools, but I would hope that the university would have taught them how to think.


I market and consider myself both a graphic designer and front-end web developer. As someone who graduated less than 5 years ago, taught myself to code in HTML/CSS/JavaScript as well as Java, and recently have been testing the job market, I can tell you the competitive landscape of the graphic designer occupation is changing.

First and foremost, a majority of junior level positions either require knowledge of HTML and CSS or prefer it as an additional skill. The reason for this is businesses are increasingly obsolete without some sort of web presence. If you have a multifunctional individual who can create assets for both marketing and web-- as well as implement them, you are filling two pillars of your business for the price of one salary. Even a limited knowledge of what designing for web means in terms of optimizing images, UX and UI principles, and web trends, you become immediately more valuable.

The size and type of the company also matters as well to the web skills they require. Smaller startups tend to favor technical-minded designers, whereas you might find that larger corporate entities would prefer you to fill a specific designer role within the company. This often means that there is no pressing need for web skills because that is often outsourced to another company.

A lot of this speaks to the bigger burden employers are placing on graphic designers to be generalists. We want our graphic designers to also be photographers, printing proficient, UX ninjas, and coding savants (I was asked recently if I knew anything about 3d rendering for a completely unrelated job) . Ultimately, if you want to prepare students for dynamic environments in the real world, they must be prepared to have limited technical web skills. They must speak the language to convey and communicate ideas in this new landscape.

  • Totally agree with this - The more versatile you are, the more opportunities you have and the more valuable you become. It is the old "jack of all trades, master of none" argument. The trick is to be master-enough at several trades and make that your cross-over niche. Most employers are looking to consolidate a larger scope into one position. If you're a graphic designer, you really should know something else like motion graphics or web or something that offers additional bonus value if you want to stand out from the crowd.
    – John
    Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 17:44
  • This nails it in the last two lines of the first paragraph. We've long since moved past "print-only" as a viable skill set for freshly-minted designers, and one who doesn't have a decent grasp of web fundamentals starts way behind in the job market. Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 7:18

That would depend on what you are basing this on because you mention web designer and graphic designer which are two different fields. Web designer mostly designs for the web as such and a print designer should design for print as such.

The industry thinks designers should be the masterminds for all. That said and with the transition to mostly web it is expected that graphic designers should have a solid understanding of HTML and CSS. Some colleges even throw a course or two in this area. With the development and simplicity of jQuery it was intended for designers with the ease of use and some expect a basic understanding.

The ones that do ask for a full-out web and print designer are usually small scale shops that dont want to pay for a team when they should. Most of the time, I do see within a two or three year period the company is looking for work again because the designer that was hired has gone been burned out by all the requests.

If you introduce back-end coding you are transitioning from a web designer to a web programmer. If you are wanting to do strictly web I would encourage basic understanding of code such as PHP, SQL, AJAX, and ruby on rails.

Coming from design it is hard to come from a creative thinking to transition to a code logic. What I mean by that is some designers cant code even though they try because they cant seem to see the end product. I have seen some illustrators artists that are well in graphic design can't see past a pen. I would strongly advise to pick one and stick with the field. It is very hard trying to stay current with software (both code releases and software revisions).

I would also like to point out look at a portfolio of one that tries to master all. It is very hard to fine talent of a designer that executes a solid, well rounded, portfolio that can say their a master of all. There's too much fine detail involved in print VS web.

I would also like to extend this since we are on this topic. As discussed in the comment below my answer, I don't think its fair to designers. Its a burden to be a mastermind and really not fair to raw talent for the some that it comes to so easily. I also believe it's hard to stay frequent in everything and it should be noted if you want to be a well rounded in both web and print it will take you a lot of effort and commitment.

  • "it is hard to come from a creative thinking to transition to a code logic" = I tend to disagree with that slightly. In my experience, coding is as creative of an endeavor as visual design. It's different for sure, but a good programmer is also creative. I think that's especially true when we start talking 'interaction design' where the details of the code and the details of the visual interactions must meet together in harmony.
    – DA01
    Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 14:48
  • I respect that but seeing first hand what someone goes through with Illustrator's pen tool and freeze up when you ask them to code because they cant see it through code.
    – user9447
    Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 14:51
  • 1
    oh sure, there are plenty of designers who can't comprehend code and plenty of coders who can't comprehend type. But there's also plenty that do, fortunately. :)
    – DA01
    Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 14:54
  • 1
    +1 for that but that is why I noted it because it should be mentioned it is not for everyone.
    – user9447
    Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 14:55
  • 1
    I've seen incredible feats of creativity from programmers who would never consider themselves "Creatives". Kind of a shame we push one definition of creativity. Definitely a different type though in accessing different parts of the brain. Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 14:55

My experience with this has varied depending on my job.

I've worked for "brand identity firms" that employ multiple people with multiple skillsets and offer a full spectrum of multimedia services. The designers were, for the most part, strictly designers and had little to do with the functionality of a project, especially when that project included databases, security requirements and/or proprietary systems that needed to be included.

As a developer, I had little to do with the design aspect of things. More often than not, I would be given design specs and assets that were to be laid on top of the framework, and it was my responsibility to determine if those design specs were achievable. I may or may not have been the one to actually apply them, it all varied by project. For the majority of circumstances however, there was a line drawn between design and coding.

On the other hand, I have also worked many years as a freelance print and web designer/developer whatever you want to call me. I've never really bothered assigning myself a title in that sense because in the end it wouldn't matter. The majority of my clients don't know the difference between a designer and a developer. They don't know the difference between 72 and 300 dpi, they don't understand why you can't use their PMS colors on the website and why when you try to match it as best as possible, it will still look different on their screen compared to yours.

My point here is that if you are a one man show, then you better be able to do it all, at least in your clients eyes. If you are working for a place with established roles and practices, then your employer will most likely utilize your strongest talents and allow for others to fill in the gaps.

Me personally, I tend to place more value on learning to code and would prefer as much of that in a design program as possible, without turning it into a development program. Design is a talent that many have naturally and I like to think I have a touch myself. Not a lot, but enough to impress the local florist down the road, or Mom's friend who wants to up the ante on her Mary Kay business. The ability to write code or develop systems is another story. It can be very technical and not something that comes naturally to many.


The issue I have with this is that Graphic Designer has become very synonymous with Web Designer.

See: What are the branches of Graphic Design

There are so many established branches that I don't think its fair to say all graphic designers need to learn how to code. Does it open lots of jobs? Sure. But where does it end?

10 Must Have Skills for Front End Devs from 2009 while written very arrogantly lists such things as version control / GIT, jQuery, CSS3, HTML5, SQL...

And the truth is he isn't far off for a front end web developer. But a lot of these should be in a specific web design / front end developer specialization in any school program not requisite for all graphic design students.

Do I wish I knew more of these things? Yes. But I know lots of other skills like CAN-SPAM Act Compliance, advanced segmentation in e-mail marketing. Goals, filters and events in Google Analytics as a few examples. Are these requisite for graphic design either? No. These too should be a specialization, a single branch in the larger tree.

Different companies do it different ways. I think a big part of my difference is that I'm in the B2B sector exclusively. Not since I did some freelance work back in high school and college have I done anything aimed at a segment of the general population.

So which design works better?

Well this is a problem I have with a lot of designers, marketers, and the so-called "blogosphere." They lead people to believe that mobile is essential, great design uses at least 5 different frameworks and grids and this script and that script, and everyone has to have a blog.

When I joined the company I work for their website was written with inline html <font size='15' color='white'> for those that don't even remember what inline html looks like. I haven't redesigned the site yet but I did rebuild it with very basic HTML/CSS. More important then adding jQuery and AJAX and mobile responsiveness was to then improve the SEO and Analytics. I can tell you exactly who visits from where, what they click on, if they download our brochure, start our promo video, finish our promo video... on Bing we even show up on related searches for some of our key word searches and that's been driving very high quality traffic.

Is it a great design? Guess that depends. Do you want a fancy design that you might find on Awwwards that nobody has ever heard of and can't be found on any search engines - but looks sexy as anything. Or do you want a site that is bland and boring but gets great results?

Ideally, you want a balance. But the industry and marketing promotes the flashy stuff and frankly as a result more and more students want to work only on the flashy stuff. I speak from experience. A lot of my peers chose to leave good design jobs in Miami to move to NYC barely making enough to survive working for trendy upstart #217. Others I know are not working at all and won't apply to any design firms that don't seem fun and fresh. Forget government jobs - I don't know a single designer other then myself that has applied to any government design jobs despite incredible pay and benefits with high level jobs well into the 6 figures. Why? Because its government and stuffy and instead of needing to know jQuery and the framework of the week you need to know Accessibility Standards and Acrobat Pro.


Teach whatever the students expected when they signed up for the program. Some basic HTML and CSS certainly doesn't hurt. But neither does Accessibility Standards, Copy Writing, Print Processes, Mail Merges to InDesign, or any other of the less fashionable aspects of Graphic Design.

Another tip that I use and this is a really good one---don't search career sites for "Graphic Design" instead pick the most complex software you know and like and search for that "InDesign" "SASS" "After Effects" "Responsive Design" "jQuery" whatever it is. Tell your students to search by skill not by title.

  • "Teach whatever the students expected when they signed up for the program." I have to disagree, the students don't really know what to expect as they haven't learned yet when they sign up. They just know they have an interest in the field and would like a job at the end and a college diploma/entry to university. If we just teach them the stuff they want to learn but they get no job because the market wants designers who can code, it would not be doing them a favor. It's part of our job to adapt to some of the market requirements.
    – curious
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 5:10
  • On Monster.ca right now there's more jobs for Acrobat then jQuery. There's more jobs for Powerpoint then GIT. There's more jobs for Marketing then Web Design.
    – Ryan
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 11:36
  • I'm not telling you not to teach them basic coding, and I also didn't tell you to teach what they want. I said to teach them what they expected - as in if I signed up for a specialized program on Creative Coding and Laser Printing then you should teach that. If I signed up for a generalized GD program then you should teach more generalized stuff. And most importantly, my point is to not underestimate the corporate job market for whats currently fashionable BY MEDIA. The MEDIA focuses on "sexy" jobs. In the real world for every sexy job there's hundreds doing corporate gigs.
    – Ryan
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 11:37
  • And those corporate gigs while not sexy and always inspired. Generally pay better and have better benefits. Go look at a starting Design Consultant for JACOBS or Lockheed. Just making presentation boards for their engineering teams starts around 60k a year with full benefits. No coding required.
    – Ryan
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 11:40

The keyword to focus on is entry-level. It's simply unreasonable of a company to expect a grad student to know how "the real world" works - for the most part they would have amassed theoretical knowledge, some in-vitro project experience (of variable quality) and possibly an intern background.

A graduate hire is an expensive long-term investment for the company. New recruits have to familiarize themselves with anything from CRM systems, bugtrackers and version control to corporate idiosyncrasies and mailing list etiquette. Normally be paired with a senior/intermediate peer for support and guidance, they will quickly advance to more complex tasks and will, ideally, be retained within the company long enough to become a valuable asset.

Exposure to modern technologies is definitely beneficial, but focus on skill transfer-ability. Just because the college focuses on ASP.NET should not make them avoid a Java environment, or Ruby on Rails, or PHP. This is especially true for a web designer/developer, where means of producing html differ relatively superficially (compared to writing deeper "functional" code).

A web designer will eventually end up "minoring" in UX, web development or remain a powerful generalist. Knowing of css/html perils makes the designer-developer collaboration much more efficient (e.g. not wasting time sorting through unnamed/ungrouped layers in photoshop, having pixel-aligned layouts and spritable graphics). A valuable way to stand out from equally, or even better-qualified graduates is to accrue some project experience through a freelance marketplace.


I think it is like this: In the future we are going to automate stuff more and more. Lots of white collar jobs are fading out and those that will be left are going to be higher productivity jobs like design. This means also there's going to be much more competition.

Now to survive this it is useful to know how to really program. Stuff like CSS and HTML aren't really programming code. But rather markup, which is sort of the bastard child of code. Understanding markup is immensely beneficial because it offers a better view on things. It would also be beneficial to know markup isn't code but rather an alternate way of input. While I understand it quite commonly refereed to as code by non programmers (this position is a bit untenable as this would mean saving word photoshop document would count as coding). The distinction is important for the rest of my answer.

Now when I say that everybody needs some understanding of programming code, nearly everybody gets it wrong. Universities certainly do, mainly because they push a computer science agenda that has nothing to do with programming. On a personal level most of you think in terms of needs to do an app.

But rather the programming skill one needs is much simpler than any of this. It is rather how do you get the computer to repeat the task you did but over all these data sources. How to turn all these word documents to PDF. How to fetch addresses of all workers in company x and pair them with your design. Something where a for loop can do wonders on your productivity and getting a specific app would be cost prohibitive or the app simply doesn't exist.

A simple example

Let's link a question on this site; this example is at the sweet spot of knowledge needed though granted you can ask stuff like this (sometimes you won't though):

Font Awesome as Photoshop Custom Shape Set (warning possible self advertisement). This is a very specific use case and it's very unlikely that this script exists or you'd know about it quite quickly as it would be easy to Google. The script may look complex but it is actually just 3 lines of code that I wrote, the rest are just tidying up and cleanup or something I recorded. The main point is that it is basically for loop (in other words a repeat structure) paired with 5 minutes of research. Before that 5 minutes I didn't know how to do this I had to learn it form scratch. I had never used the script listener plugin or done anything with shapes in Photoshop before in my life. So yes languages change but you can learn new things in 5 minutes if you have the basis.

Complexity wise this somewhere between writing a shopping list and a cooking recipe. Now this isn't necessarily an easy first script, but the second modification should be pretty trivial once you understand the first stage (and was done with search and replace). Also being confident enough to follow instructions without freaking out would be nice.

Knowing what you can expect a developer to do can help. Being able to throw some code can reduce a month long job to a two day job. So it's more of being alert on what a programmer does more than anything else. Also understanding that not all code is equal is good to know. Being able to understand that a DB admin is way different from a shader writer gets you very far.

In the end code has the ability to permanently increase your self worth, is in it self a good reason to learn it. Just don't focus too much on code itself, rather on its utility. Additionally knowing how programmers do version control can literary change how you work.

So you should be able to teach them enough so they don't run scared when they see code but can say to themselves I can manage this.

  • I get your point about code, that it's quite more advanced than markup (though I wouldn't change the wording on my question because I believe most people wouldn't necessary understand the subtelty). I also agree an understanding of how code works can increase your skillset immensely in the future (though not only in graphic design so I wouldn't put it in our curriculum). Then again, a lot of HTML/CSS gets outsourced nowadays for relatively cheap, this is also part of my concerns.
    – curious
    Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 15:37
  • @Emilie Yes true but still its more about being shown once so it isn't too scary than teaching something truly useful you wont catch all of them anyway. I actually work as a university teacher except off course I teach machine designers the problems are comparable. The level is just higher.
    – joojaa
    Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 18:44
  • Agreed with what you added to your answer though I don't think it falls in the scope of our program but that's something that should be taught in high school or something. Learning how to learn is going to be big for the next years to come. We have information overload and everything at our finger tips at the same time.
    – curious
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 12:40

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