Mathew (with one “t”) Patterson wrote a thoughtful post called “A new mind for web designers?“. In it he poses and tries to answer these questions:
How do web designers fit into this new world? When the html and CSS can be done for a miniscule price in the Philippines, India or China, what will web designers be doing?
But I’ve got to say all of his answers get under my skin slightly. If it’s true that Indians will soon be hacking out beautiful standards compliant, accessible and semantic code, and tweaking CSS with flair, and all for 20% of the price, then yes, that should make a number of people I know nervous. But none of them are designers.
Design is problem solving. Design is visual thinking. Design is an understanding of communication, and how to use colour, form, typography, etc. to get across a message. In the web, design is also understanding usability learnings, guiding users effectively, thinking about flow from page to page and more. Design is not writing HTML or CSS, any more than operating a printing press is design.
But I can’t say Mathew’s wrong exactly. Before computers, “design” was a pretty clear term. There were industrial designers, packaging designers, furniture designers and many more categories, but they all strove to do basically the same things with different tools and materials: solve problems in beautiful and elegant ways. Even when computers made the mechanical side of design accessible to everyone, there was still a clear distinction between desktop-publishing and design. Desktop-publishing was cheap and looked crap, and design was expensive and looked great.
Not long after HTML came along, and visionary businesses realised they were going to need a web site, the word “web designer” popped up. Most people calling themselves web designers at the time were nerds who had learned something about HTML and could put a page together, but they didn’t know the first thing about design. The great thing was that HTML was super-easy and anyone could learn it. The big drawback–for the label “designer”–was that having quickly learned HTML from some tutorials gave you the title “web designer.” Although in most cases “frontend programmer” would’ve been a better fit, “web designer” stuck.
Nowadays those nerds are still hacking code and calling themselves web designers, but at the same time there are plenty of masters out there who definitely know the difference between Helvetica and Univers, and handcraft their own HTML and CSS. What’s the difference between the “web designers” and the designers? Mathew answers that himself, sort of…
You’ll need to be offering demonstrably more value for your work than the other alternatives. That might be achieved by case studies showing improvements in site sales after website changes, or a proven ability to work with complex backend systems and produce great results.
Insight. Thought. Ideas. Experience. Solutions. Quality. That’s the value of design.
So if you’re out there throwing together code, without much thought to balance, style, user experience, clarity, simplicity, and all the other things that make a good design, you might want to take Mathew’s advice, and think about what to do when the Indians put you out of business. But if you actually are a designer, keep delivering quality. It won’t go out of style.