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?1,” 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 blog2, 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 After the contract is sorted, we become researchers, combing through the client’s outdated website, looking at analytics and identifying breakdowns and room for improvement.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 Drawar3 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 Garden4.

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.

Kristina Halvorson, habitual content supporter, giving one of her famous content workshops. (Photo: Warren Parsons)Image credit6

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 predicts7 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 Websites8, 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.



  1. 1 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/09/24/does-the-future-of-the-internet-have-room-for-web-designers/
  2. 2 http://michaelaleo.com/2010/09/sensationalist-magazine/
  3. 3 http://www.drawar.com/posts/Web-Designers-Won-t-Die-Out--They-Will-Transition
  4. 4 http://www.csszengarden.com/
  5. 5 http://www.flickr.com/photos/60581615@N00/3502122037
  6. 6 http://www.flickr.com/photos/60581615@N00/3502122037
  7. 7 http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos090.htm
  8. 8 http://aneventapart.com/alasurvey2008/11.html

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Michael is a designer working in Washington DC to create beautiful and useful web experiences for an array of organizations and their users.

  1. 1

    the most boring and exaggerated article ever.

    Just because social media is popular you must not have existential fear. If you´re talented you will always have enough work…today web designer, tomorrow app designer and then maybe something else.

    Use your time to get clients if you have not enough to do and stop writing this boring cant.

    • 102

      “Use your time to get clients if you have not enough to do and stop writing this boring cant.”

      Just because you’re too lazy or selfish to help and/or inform others doesn’t mean everybody else should be.

  2. 203

    wow web designing today is like a business :( they lost it

    i grow up with the love on art, drawings and colors.
    when i got to high school i tried to apply my talent to computers.

    web designing is more like an expression to me, as a form of modern day art.

  3. 304

    “One of the biggest misconceptions about designers (and usually Print designers) is that we’re just Print designers — that the scope of our skills begins with Lorem ipsum and ends with HTML emails. This is ridiculous.”
    Does this sound familiar?

  4. 405

    loosing the face with facebook

    October 14, 2010 8:21 pm

    the article is bullshit, like the article befor about webdesign will be simply replaced by content.

    sorry guys with this attitude all patent office in the world are for nothing, developing a logo is useless since you can use a avatar and just use the name as brand……

    bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.

    look at the fashion industry. everybody is fighting to make the brand remakable, new, unique, fresh etc.

    do you think, this would be possible if you are limited by facebook rules, raster and content stealing….? i dont think so.

    i promise you guys. not the designer is replaceabele. it will be the developer. when i started with web design i couldn imagine to create and code websites. now since all this becomes easy with plug ins, templates and thousand tutrorials. the web developer for me becomes useless and i just hire some for special jobs or big jobs. because its nice to have a web 2 aproved raster but the customers dont want to have the same crap like the competitor maybe.

    design is inspiration – facebook and social media is for people who want to have a number tattooed and a barcode on the arm with a facebook logo, no – better. the wish a future with implemented chips in the ass so facebook can strike them with a thunderstorm when they pass a umbrella shop.

    if this is the future. i am out..

  5. 506

    It may be true that most of the users are after the content of a website. Web Designers likewise elevates the user experience not just by fancy buttons etc. They conceptualize how content will be presented on users. Its more likely how big products got successful without considering how their product will be presented in market from packaging to extensive advertisement. That is no more different when we talk about web designs.

  6. 607

    So if Cameron is a “professional Web and graphic designer with over 6 years of experience” writing about web design, why do I not see a portfolio that contains something other than blogging and writing?

    Credibility, get some.

  7. 708

    Web designing is really cool profession. I know a little bit about but don’t know complete work.

  8. 809

    Our profession was always one of flexibility and constant learning and upgrading. Web design has grown to such a state that now it is a collection of professions and skills. It’s sales, customer service, relationship management, marketing, branding, design, user experience, copy editing/writing, architecture, info systems, admin, programmer/developer, reasearcher, consultant; and the list goes on and on.

    I’ve been doing this well past a decade now and every year, more and more professions get folded into the role. In 2011, we will see social media experience and marketing as an essential role addition many must learn to stay relevant. More companies are looking for designers who have this experience and thus far, there’s more demand than supply.

    That will only elevate the web designer so long as the designer knows that the social media sphere is *just* a communications platform. Even if much of our work shifts from pure web design, it is supplemented by campaign work; something we should all have experience and skill in.

    In the end, companies will need their own home to operate from. It is never smart to submit control of a company’s destiny to a 3rd party unless that company was built specifically to leverage on that 3rd party platform. Facebook is just a tool. It is one of many, many tools. Smart companies will not/should not surrender their company in this way; And one of our jobs is to let our client’s know that. It simply is not a smart online strategy.

    As long as we designers continue to learn and adapt, the profession will thrive. Even the hoohaa over apps is just another area of expertise we must learn to survive. And in the end, we already have a strong base for this in usability/UI. It’s just one more thing. If anything, our profession is now at a state where many of us can choose to be generalists or find a perfectly servicable niche in any of those combination of roles. Previously, those niches were few. The profession has grown and looks likely to continue to grow as quickly as anything the web has to offer in the future.

  9. 910

    can you post me the list of software one’ can use in designing a web site

  10. 1011

    Without reading all the comments of different opionions and getting caught up in arguing others, this comment will relate directly to the article.

    I like this article and relate to it a lot. I do relate to the title even more so. I was 13 (12 years ago) when I started dabbling into building websites on geocities (brings back some fun memories), I actually was horrible at the design aspect, and it wasn’t until highschool that I started designing.

    I like how you say we are not just web designers, and on some level I knew that, but I never really broke it down to salesman, researchers, etc. but that makes sense. How do you let the client know that, or see that?

    Clients that care about their business will invest in a good designer/developer and provide excellent content. Some clients will buy into the templates, but I’ve had clients come to me, with their template and ask me to set it up and add content, and that is unfortunate for me, because my skill as a designer is bypassed to do all the dirty work.

    Website Design is not obsolete, I do not believe websites will get ran over by social media, and I believe Content is King, and design and content work together.

  11. 1112

    hey..! how to be a web designer..nd which subject i’ll chose for it..!! ??


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