Tuesday, September 28, 2010

I Want To Be A Web Designer When I Grow Up

Editor's Note

This article is a rebuttal of "Does The Future Of The Internet Have Room For Web Designers?," published in our "Opinion Column" section a couple of days ago. In that section, we give people in the Web design community a platform to present their opinions on issues of importance to them. Please note that the content in this series is not in any way influenced by the Smashing Magazine team. Please feel free to discuss the author's opinion in the comments section below and with your friends and colleagues. We look forward to your feedback.

— Vitaly Friedman, editor-in-chief of Smashing Magazine

Last Thursday afternoon, I spent about 30 minutes doing a question-and-answer session over Skype with a Web design class in Colorado. I was given some example questions to think about before our session, which were all pretty standard. "Who are some of your clients?" "What do you like about your job?" "Who is your favorite designer?" I felt prepared. Halfway through the interview, a question surprised me. "So, are there any jobs in Web design?" When a teenager from a town with a population of 300 asks about job security, and the others sit up and pay attention, he's not asking out of concern for my well being. He's asking out of concern for his own future.

My response was, Yes, there absolutely are jobs in Web design. "Web design is a career that will take you far, if you're willing to work hard for it." And that's the truth.

Two days later, I go onto Smashing Magazine and see Cameron Chapman's article, "Does The Future Of The Internet Have Room For Web Designers?" and nearly choke on my cereal. After reading what amounts to an attack piece on my blog, and after corresponding with Smashing Magazine's editors, I suggested that they let me write a counterpoint. They agreed.

We're Not Web Designers

One of the biggest misconceptions about designers (and usually Web designers) is that we're just Web designers — that the scope of our skills begins with Lorem ipsum and ends with HTML emails. This is ridiculous.

Everyone in this industry fills dozens of roles throughout a given day. On a call with a prospective client, we take the role of salesperson. After the contract is sorted, we become researchers, combing through the client's outdated website, looking at analytics and identifying breakdowns and room for improvement. Soon after, we become content curators, wading through the piles of content in PDF format sent by the client, identifying what works and what doesn't.

Then we're architects, laying out content to get the most important messages across, while ensuring that everything in our layouts remains findable. We design the website itself. We manage client expectations and work through revisions. We write code. We introduce a content management system. We carefully insert and style content. We create and update the brand's presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. We help to create an editorial calendar to keep content fresh and accurate. We check in on the analytics and metrics to see how the website is performing.

Notice that "design" is mentioned only once in all of that work.

You have only to look at the topics covered on websites such as Freelance Switch and Smashing Magazine to see the range of roles we fill. We're used to adapting and changing; and as the Web adapts and changes, Web designers follow suit. Just as video didn't kill the radio star, Twitter won't kill the original website.

Scrivs wrote a great article on Drawar highlighting some fallacies in the original article on Smashing Magazine. I think he sums up the "You're just a Web designer" issue well:

You can't get caught up in the term "Web designer," because if you do then you are taking away the idea that a great designer can't learn how to translate his skills to another platform. If we are designing applications that slurp content off the Internet to present to a user, then soon we will all be Internet designers. That removes the Web designer burden and changes things a bit.

Content Has Long Been The Undisputed King

Let's make something very, very clear. Good Web designers know that their job is to present content in the best way possible. Period. Bad content on a beautiful website might hold a user's interest for a few moments, but it won't translate into success for the website… unless you run CSS Zen Garden.

In her article, Cameron gets it half right when she says:

As long as the design doesn't give [the user] a headache or interfere with their ability to find what they want, they don't really care how exactly it looks like or how exactly it is working.

I agree. The user is after content, not your gradient-laden design and CSS3 hover effects. Your job is to get them there as painlessly as possible. At the same time, great design can enhance content and take a website to the next level. Great design not only gives a website credibility, but it can lead to a better experience. Mediocre design and great content lose out every time to great design and great content. It just makes for a better overall experience, where content and design both play a role.

Content in I Want To Be A Web Designer When I Grow Up
Kristina Halvorson, habitual content supporter, giving one of her famous content workshops. (Photo: Warren Parsons)Image credit

You Can Always Go Home

Cameron makes the argument that feeds are taking over the Web and that, eventually, companies will just use them to communicate with customers.

The idea to simply rely on facebook.com/companyname instead of running an independent website where content originates and filters out simply won't take with companies. Companies will always need a "home base" for their content. The change will be in the media through which healthy content filters out (such as Facebook, Twitter and RSS).

Scrivs makes this point in his Drawar article:

In essence, what is happening is that sites have to realize that their content is going to be accessed a number of different ways, and if they don't start to take control of the experience then someone else will. RSS didn't kill website traffic or revenues because there are some things you simply can't experience through an RSS feed Just because how we consume content is starting to change doesn't mean that design itself is being marginalized.

Content isn't just about press releases and text either. Ford would never give up ford.com for content in a variety of feeds and aggregators. Ford.com lets you build a car: where's the feed or application for that? Ford's entire business depends on the functionality of its website. Its Web team has worked hard to create an inviting user experience, unique to the brand's goals and issues. No company wanting to preserve its brand or corporate identity would give up its main channel of communication and branding for random feeds sprinkled across the Web.

In the same vein, no company would suddenly give up its carefully crafted creative and regress to a template. Templates have been around for years, and no company with any kind of budget would use a $49 packaged solution from Monster Template if it can afford to pay someone to address its particular needs and mold a website to its content. A template doesn't take needs or goals into account when content is pasted in. A good designer makes choices that a $49 template won't make for you.

Cameron talks about how businesses will gravitate to standard templates and away from hiring designers:

Companies won't see the point in hiring someone to create an entirely bespoke website when they can just use a template and then feed all their content to Google and Facebook and Twitter.

Web designers don't just add borders to buttons and colors to headlines. Web design is as much about problem-solving as anything else. And part of the puzzle is figuring out how best to deliver and promote content. Not everyone has the same issues.

JulesLt lays out this argument in the comments:

[…] But I don't think any business that would previously have actually employed a designer to create their web presence, brand, will shift over to a standard template. For most businesses, Facebook, YouTube or Twitter may be alternative channels to reach their customers, but they don't want their brand subsumed into someone else's. […] The right way to do this is to build a re-usable core, but understand the differences between platforms — and make sure your clients understand any trade-offs.

Nick adds to this argument about templates:

Templates have no business in a world where personalization trumps everything else. Prospective clients are going to a website not just for content, but for the experience that the brand is willing to offer. Not to mention that if you're in the business of selling yourself, a high profile custom website speaks volumes about your dedication to your chosen niche market.

Andrei Gonzales eloquently sums up the difference between Web design and decoration:

Design isn't about eye-candy. It's about problem-solving. If your Web "design" isn't solving quantifiable issues, then it isn't design: it's "decoration."

And moreover, we're already in Cameron's bleak future scenario where web designers should be a thing of the past. Companies today can buy a template and feed their content to whoever they so please. And yet, they aren't. When the designer created that template eight months ago, he didn't know that their business was having trouble marketing to middle-aged women. That designer didn't know they're a family-owned business in a market where that kind of thing leads to improved revenue and sales. How could he? He's Andrei's decorator, solving the issues between lorem upsum and dolor sit.

In Conclusion

Web design has changed drastically during its brief existence. The changes in the medium year after year are actually quite amazing. The industry looks vastly different than it did in 2005, and we've changed with it. Change is inevitable, and it is the reason you visit websites like this one: to stay current. That hunger is the key to ensuring the survival of our industry.

The bottom line? Web design is a secure and growing job market. Two sources that are something of authorities on jobs and Web design agree on this point. The United States Department of Labor predicts that positions for graphic designers will increase 13% from 2008 to 2018, with over 36,000 new jobs being added. It also states that "individuals with Web site design […] will have the best opportunities."

And in the 2008 A List Apart Survey For People Who Make Websites, 93.5% of respondents said they were at least fairly confident about their job security.

I'll sleep well tonight knowing that the industry I love isn't going the way of the dodo… and that I didn't lie to a class full of eager young designers in Colorado.

(al)
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© Michael Aleo for Smashing Magazine, 2010. | Permalink | Post a comment | Add to del.icio.us | Digg this | Stumble on StumbleUpon! | Tweet it! | Submit to Reddit | Forum Smashing Magazine
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