There's no such thing as 'Web design' 2 January, 2007 — Stuart Brown

Unspoken secrets of web design: Part 1

Posted in Web Design, Design
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So you're a web designer, right? So what exactly does that entail? Do you cover the whole web gamut?

'Web design', as it s dubbed in popular tongue and in job advertisements across the land, is such a broad area of skills that to dub someone as a 'web designer' is not useful in the slightest. Asking a C#.NET programmer to design a visual-oriented site for a design company is like asking a plumber to rewire your house - they may have some of the right tools, but the end result may very well disappoint. The very same applies should you ask a graphic designer with copy of Dreamweaver to implement a SOAP API for your despatch warehouse.

There are, of course, exceptions, but within the vast field of web technologies everyone has a preferred language, application, or environment - it's rare indeed to find someone who excels in all areas. Near impossible, in fact.

The trouble is, with such a diverse range of skills within the marketplace, a web designer is expected to flit between different skill areas - the job itself demands it. But there are times when certain technology and skill limits are reached, and the individual web designer is faced with a familiar dilemma: do turn away the work, or do you get busy learning another skill?

In an ideal world, of course, there would be only one language, only one graphics application, and everything would be consolidated. But the web is a dynamic and fast-changing world, so we're left with a constantly evolving set of skills and languages, and an entire industry of skilled developers and designers struggling to keep up.

It's not just the programmers that have to migrate from language to language - designers have to reacquire their knowledge of keyboard shortcuts, menu positions, and other things defines by previous software UI. It was with great pains that I tore myself away from the (likely last) version of Macromedia Freehand MX to become slowly acquainted with its more modern sibling, Adobe Illustrator CS2. A painful transition indeed, but with the march of technology and the drop in support one is compelled to move forward, slowly but surely.

It is this constantly evolving and growing mass of skills and knowledge that has slowly diversified the web design job market - instead of catch-all web gurus with a little of every skill, specialist roles are becoming more and more common. Any given job will likely have its own characteristics - some jobs by definition are design-oriented, others more usability oriented, and others will focus on design - but all may be advertised as 'Web designer'.

With this diversity, calling a web designer a 'web designer' is much like calling a plumber a 'labourer'. While technically true, it hardly scratches the surface of what is involved in the scope of web development, and to a specialist, the term is mildly insulting.

So, you're an interactive element designer? A SEO specialist? Search engine spammer? Usability tester? Semantic HTML coder? AJAX Specialist? Or perhaps - although perhaps this is now a stretch for just one person - a little of all of the above.

While web design may have a certain reliance on multi-disciplinarian individuals that fall within a general scope, we will continue to see a growth in the available skills and talents out there to the point where the term 'web designer' just doesn't cut the mustard. So would you consider yourself just a 'web designer', or something more specialised?