Who still needs a web designer?

The title is strong and provocative, but in this article we’ll talk about  how one of the web professions mostly misunderstood is  evolving. A premise is required: I love WordPress and Drupal ( I prefer WordPress). The maturity of these CMS opensources is – with the abolition of  IE6 and the  arrival of Iphone – one of the most interesting things in these last years, even if it presents problems at different levels in some of  the professional profiles that I consider “ adjacent” like the web designer and the programmer.

A brief  view of how the web designer is used or the skills required will help us understand how much confusion there is around this figure and how from the time of web 2.0 and of the social media, this profession has changed many of its peculiarities.

The web designer in the work area: Big realities

In big companies, important communication companies and big web agencies, the web designer is used for his primary purpose: to be the link between the creative and the programmer. In effect the web designer isn’t a creative but a technician, a professional capable to create markups usable by  programmers starting from a graphic source.

His “parallel” competences are graphic but they’re also programming: in fact where the flow of work is consolidated he has to optimize the markup considering the dynamic areas managed by CMS on duty to avoid  the programmers’ re-work and check that the original templates respect the creativity approved by the client. He also has to talk with the creative to simplify the graphic in situations in which it is not possible to repeat the wanted effects (remember IE6?).                                                                                       It seems clear from this approach that the web designer doesn’t deal with the real creativity, but it’s the graphic designer that handles this part of job. The risk of this method is that, if the creative doesn’t have a wide knowledge of internet, he could present designs difficult  to handle with the CSS. Honestly these problems seem to fade away with the progress of browsers and the always more powerful CSS.

The web designer in the work area: Small realities

In small realities and in the freelance area the situation is really different. In the first case the web designer is seen as a creative, therefore as a professional that starts from the brief  and creates the graphic sources. Obviously to this they also ask him  the competence of graphic flash and (often) the action script programming (in the real world these two skills belong to other two professions).

Honestly I think that after all this request may be right, moreover in overseas countries the web designer creates the graphic in almost all the cases. The risk of this approach  (I know it well because it’s also my problem) is to be tempted to “simplify” the creative proposals presented to the client. A web designer well  knows the difficulties behind certain graphic choices and sometimes (even unintentionally) decides not to propose them. That’s why in most cases the really innovative solutions are created with team work.

The web designer in the work area: Freelance

In the freelance area things get more complicated, first of all because in this case the web designer has to deal directly with the client, proposing himself as project manager. Then to be more competitive, under terms of  budget and timeframes, he has to capable of developing independently flash solutions, handle javascript libraries (that often substitute the work that was once done in flash), know how to optimize the pages for search engines . Once the work is done he uses the programmers for the server side part.

Still now looking at the job ads it’s really impressive to see how small realties insert the request of web designer associating to him skills that are really far from his main profile: competence of languages server-side (php, net, java, c++), competence of server configuration or experience of 3D, are only a few of the many cases that I’ve  found myself reading.

The diffusion of  WordPress and Drupal

But now let’s go to the heart of the matter, that is the arrival and the worldwide success  of the  CMS opensource, WordPress and Drupal above all. With examples like the site of the White House these solutions are definitively clear to the large public of developers, sceptical ones included. For the professional web designer this new reality represents an opportunity, but mainly risks.

The opportunities

The first opportunity consists in the ability to create and personalize graphically the themes. Nothing wrong apart the fact that you need to have programming basis and understand very well the anatomy of  itself.            The other opportunity much more attractive – and  risky – is the fact to be able to create in little time dynamic sites and portals without the help of  a programmer. Obviously this is a blessing for a freelancer because he can earn more without the support of third parties, but also because he can control the excellence of his graphic work following personally the delivery of the work.

The risks

So where is the risk in this approach?  Personally I think that every profession must be specific of the field embarked and this is true for every job.
In the web designer’s case the natural professional evolution leads him to acquire seniority and then become team leader or art director. In order to evolve the web designer has to look around and well understand which solutions he can offer to his clients not only under the graphic aspect  but also the infrastructural aspect.

It’s right to understand how the vary CMS solutions work, the potentialities and differences because only in this way a good team leader can advice the client and manage in the best way his  team.                                                            What I think is completely wrong is the change of course that brings the web designer to handle not only the creative part (up to here it’s right), but also the programming and the development part.

A freelancer must look ahead and not hold for himself all the budget of a project; he has to find new creative solutions and solutions for the interface according to what concerns his profile. Only in this way he can be competitive with respect to the big web agencies  or be called by them to develop projects for big clients. The facility of implementation of WordPress is undeniable, although the web designer should limit himself only to the development of the themes of this platform, leaving the programming to who has this competence .

Who loses more?

The major risk of the whole matter isn’t for the programmers that see their job orders get reduced but most all for the web designer. In comparison with the time when the expired templates were bought at “Template Monster”, with the coming of WordPress the availability of high impact themes, very painstaking and modern is really wide now.

In this game the programmer is favoured because he can easily “bypass” the figure of the web designer, buying one of these many themes customizing it with his competence of coder.  Therefore to flatten  and converge the competences of these two figures so different is a risk for both, but  (considering the subject of the article) the major risk is for the web designer.

In fact, as said,  it’s easier for a programmer to download a template and create a complicated site than for a web designer that creates a personalized graphic but after finds himself to implement an e-commerce on Drupal.

Moreover there is a new opportunity, yet more risky,  for low budget clients: Facebook. A “fan page” on this social network is starting to be the first choice for many clients, in comparison with the development of a real web site.

I would like to complete the delicate view, with a reality like SquareSpace or LiveRestò.  These are online “all-inclusive” systems that allow the complete delivery of a web site, from the graphic  to the markup up to the dynamic part. Working a little bit with SquareSpace I realized that you don’t need great potentialities or skills to bring home an excellent result.

What to do?

So the question is: if we converge our competences distorting our profile, if we limit ourselves to work on the FanPages of Facebook, if  we work with systems like SquareSpace or download a WordPress theme, what remains of our background?  Where will this kind of choice lead us to? Will we still be competitive on the market if we aren’t really  innovative in comparison with the mass? My fear is if we continue on this road the “old”  professional figures will disappear and will be replaced by “customizers“, with low budget and creativity.

It’s yours the choice!

Master per Web Designer Freelance
In tutti questi anni abbiamo ricevuto centinaia di richieste di approfondimento sulle numerose tematiche del web design vissuto da freelance. Le abbiamo affrontate volta per volta. Ma ci siamo resi conto che era necessario fare qualcosa di più. Ecco perché è nato One Year Together, un vero e proprio master per web designer freelance che apre finalmente le porte al mondo del lavoro.
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The Author

Alexander is a web professional for over 8 years and lives and works in Rome. Has several knowledge in web design and web development. It ranges from pure creativity to development of templates and graphic design conforms to the W3C standards.

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