Does Web Design Have a Future?

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.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful post Matt- I don’t think we disagree at all actually.

    I am specifically talking about the great mass of people who are web designers from the HTML and CSS front end perspective, many of whom have no visual design training at all.

    There are plenty out there, and they need to think about where to go next. Where I think I do slightly disagree is in your implication that you can’t outsource “thought to balance, style, user experience, clarity, simplicity, and all the other things that make a good design”

    People in India or the Philipines are totally capable of providing that too – they have their own true designers there with much lower costs.

  2. Matt Balara says:

    If there’s any disagreement Mathew, it’s due to the vague notion of what a web designer actually is. Carpenters are not necessarily furniture designers. Building contractors are not architects.

    The existence of “true designers” in India and the Phillipines is something I’ll have to take your word on. My limited Indian outsourcing experience was with an army of frontend coders who were so cheap my client could afford for them to do everything poorly twice, before getting it almost right on the third go ’round.

    But of course there’s no reason why they can’t also provide quality design (as problem solving), but that kind of work requires a relationship I reckon. Not necessarily physical closeness, but trust and a deeper knowledge of the problems, and open and intense communication. An email briefing and a telephone call just isn’t enough.

    Have you or anyone else out there had this kind of experience working with cheap Asian contractors?

  3. Carpenters are not necessarily furniture designers. Building contractors are not architects.

    Of course, but this is an issue of how people self identify, not how other people might label them.

    The point is that there are tons of people who consider themselves web designers, and hold the title of web designer, who are purely HTML and CSS creators.

    You can call them anything you like, but they need to offer more than that if they want to maintain their value in the marketplace.

  4. Matt Balara says:

    Hrm, I don’t see it as self-identification, but rather as competence. For someone looking for a web designer, it’s certainly confusing that some are problem solvers, and others only coders, and some are both.

    I’ve been thinking more and more about exactly this subject lately. The web has exploded the idea of what a designer is. I’ve talked to tonnes of folks who say “I’m a designer” but they all do wildly different things. The only thing they have in common is that good, experienced “designers” analyse and solve problems intelligently, whether they deliver scribbles, photoshop, code or a combination of all three. That kind of work is something I don’t see ever being threatened by Asian prices.

  5. Ryan Singer says:

    Whether or not a designer also writes HTML and CSS, there’s a difference between writing HTML that merely works as a means to an end compared to HTML that reflects the thinking and structure of the visual design. Good software programmers know that their greatest challenge isn’t making the code run, it’s making the code sensible to other humans and to themselves 6 months in the future. The hardest part is naming things and choosing sensible structures that reveal intentions and enable change. The same is true for designers. Companies who know and understand this difference will always keep their HTML and CSS coders close at hand and treat them well. The rest probably treat HTML and CSS as mundane means-to-and-end work, so for them outsourcing wouldn’t change much.

  6. Matt Balara says:

    Funny. At lunch just now I started reading “The Inmates Are Running the Asylum“. Here’s a quote:

    Unfortunately, most executives have an almost irresistibe desire to reduce the time and money invested in programming. They see, incorrectly, the obsolete advantage in reducing costs. What they don’t see is that the reduction in investment in programming has strong negative effects on a product’s long-term quality, desirability, and therefore profitability.

    Yep.

  7. I agree with you Matt, and Ryan, that for many designers this is not an issue, because they offer things that a software program or cheap labour can’t replace.

    I do think though that there are people who think that they are offering this, but aren’t, and will find that out in a tough way.

    Maybe my post will trigger some people to really think about what value they are creating.

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