There are two directions to go: web designer, and web developer (web programmer)
Design – some say that to be a graphic designer you need to have a talent… But as many websites nowadays aim for simplicity and usability ability to think rational might be more useful then raw creativity. There are also plenty of templates around which you can “creatively modify” and make a site that looks better then the one designed from scratch. In fact every web site on the net can provide you with some ideas on layout and navigation.
The industry-standard graphic design tool is Adobe Photoshop – but I would advise to stick to Fireworks as it is more web-oriented. Download Photoshop Elements instead to try how the Photoshop “feels” and see if it is for you. There are also free online tools that can replace Photoshop, Pixlr, for example.
What is your passion?
It is important to like doing what you do. Try different things and see what activities find most exiting and most rewarding. It is more likely that you will progress faster in the areas you enjoy most.
This will largely depend on the type of personality. If you are self-motivated enough you can learn more or less everything yourself. Just pick up a book on Amazon and go through it from start to finish, then another book on the same topic… At the same time work on something practical (our own web project) so you can utilise the knowledge gained.
The benefits of formal training are:
Structure – your knowledge will be build systematically from easy to complex problem solving. The same can be achieved by using a book or an online video tutorial. Plenty of free tutorials can be found on YouTube.
Support from tutors – I think this is the most useful part of any training course. To some degree you can replace this with asking questions at expertexchnange, or yahoo answers, or related discussion forums. You also can hire a personal tutor, and this could work out cheaper then taking corses as personal training is much more efficient.
Mixing with like-minded people – this is fun, you can not only share problems, but find friends and professional contacts. Social networking sites and networking events can serve the same purpose. Join related groups on Facebook, Linkedin or Ecademy. Find related meetings at meetup.com
Official papers – you will get a certificate, diploma or a degree, depending on how much time and effort you can sacrifice. But you can pass tests on-line and show test results as a prove of your knowledge: see for example brainbench.com. Also I think in digital industry experience and personal portfolio of work is much more important then papers.
Think about future employment
Research your salary. I would suggest to start looking for a job more or less immediately. There are some “low-end” roles, like support, and assistant positions. The money won’t be good, but there might be opportunities: you will experience the environment of organisations you will work for in the future, and meet people that work in positions you are aiming for.
Freelancing, contracting or full-time employment?
To freelance you have to be more then a specialist in web development: you have to market, sell, organise your work, and finances. This is not for everyone, but if you can do it it can be very rewarding. I would say SALES is the most important thing to look at. Especially if you start from grown zero. The competition at the bottom end of skills is tough, there are companies that do the web sites at £20 per page, and there are offshore freelancers working at $2 an hour.
A contractor is simply a person who takes temporary positions, but works on-site, normally via employment agencies. Those assignments can be from several days to 6 months +. I know some people who work as contractors for one company for years… It just happened that their contract is extended every 6 months.
Contracting is a good way to start and to try doing different things. Hourly rates are also typically 30%-100% higher compared to permanent positions, from £12 to £40 per hour +.
Full-time employment – I wish I could comment, but never been in one.