Creating websites is not geek's work - it's one of today's most innovative and creative careers. And it can be very well paid, says Nick Jackson

A quick glimpse at the world of web designers will reveal a sizeable gaggle of crazed Nathan Barleys. But if the loons put you off, the salary won't; top freelancers can earn as much as £500 a day (although the going rate is closer to £100), and in-house designers earn from a little under £20,000 to more than £50,000 a year. All this for a job you need no formal qualifications to do, and one that has become more exciting than ever with the greater uptake of broadband, adding music, film and games to the web designer's palette.

It's all a long way from the old Usenet that Manuel was addicted to as an English student, wasting many a late night in the computer room chatting on text message boards. The arrival of the web was a chance to put those hours to good use. "I stuck up a site, just to see how to do it," he says. "I named it the Cow Liberation Front, and as we were at the height of the BSE crisis, it got into the papers."

It opened the way to his career route ever since. Manuel dropped out of university and has won publicity and commissions with his outrageously puerile but very funny website, He calls it the "bedroom nutter against the world" approach.

It's not quite as nutty as it sounds. Ad agencies regularly scour the net for new styles to use to promote brands, and if you strike a chord it's better than any diploma in a marketplace where skills become outdated within months.

At the moment, Manuel is working on a web quiz for the Barbican Centre called Nuts About Films, with squirrels re-enacting scenes from favourite films. "The best so far is Psycho," he says. "We've got a squirrel in a dress with a huge kitchen knife, going [mimes stabbing motion] 'Squeak! Squeak! Squeak!'"

Alongside the anarchy of b3ta, there are many more functional, informative sites on the web that need to be designed - and nothing is more irritating for a user than trying to book a flight or find a fact and being barraged with a stash of Flash. "I pride myself on my minimalist sites," says Steve Tearle, 35, a freelancer who's designed sites for everyone from London restaurants to major banks. "I like sites that provide information quickly and easily."

This pragmatic approach reflects Tearle's route into the industry. "I'd just done the whole round-the-world thing and then I'd done a bit of dillying and dallying," he says. "And I just thought, 'I quite like the sound of that.' I used to like drawing at school. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision."

Tearle did a 12-week web design course at a computing skills college, and - even during the crash - has never been out of work for long since.

When working for larger companies, much of the more techy nitty-gritty of programming and upkeep is left to web developers. What's more important for a site creator is a sense of how design works, and indeed many web designers have started their careers in graphic design. Phil Stuart, 28, did graphic design at school and university, doing his finals exhibition in interactive animation.

"I always wanted to make cool shit, basically," he says. The exhibition led to him being taken up by Good Technology and then Preloaded, a London design consultancy, where he works as art director.

Most of his work is in the entertainment or sports industries, working for MTV, the BBC and Adidas. "Web design is just one aspect of what we offer," he says. "We do branding, marketing and promotion."

For Stuart, web design is not an end in itself, but a tool. "The web is just a way of delivering creative ideas," he says. "It's about having a conversation with the consumer, how you engage with and entertain people. If it's for Adidas, it needs to embody the brand values of a pair of trainers."

Which is what web design of all kinds is about - communication. "Do people read the BBC news website because of the nice design?" asks Rob Manuel. "Nope, they read it because it's the best way of keeping up with the news, and the design helps them by not getting in the way."