November 28, 2012

Is it worth it?

Like any good human being, I’m prone to random fits of doubt and paranoia. These doubts can surface about nearly any topic, but usually it has something to do with job security and career choice. Being a web designer, a few things have got me thinking more and more about web design as a viable long-term career choice and whether or not it is worth it to try to become an all-star web designer.

First, Some Definitions

When I say web designer - I mean web designer proper. Learning about web design during the 2000s - there was a pretty clear (at least to me) idea of what that meant. Someone who focused almost primarily on HTML/CSS and the structure, organization, and visual aesthetic of a website. At times, a web designer might be required to handle some basic JavaScript for interaction or effects, but there was a clear split between the designer’s role and the developer’s. Their time was spent in Photoshop and Illustrator thinking through ideas and making gorgeous graphics and then implementing those ideas into (most often) static sites using HTML and CSS. I know this is a fairly archaic way to define the role, but reading the books and following the websites I did, it was how it was portrayed to me. Even the first few job interviews I went on had these defined roles. Hell, even a few places wouldn’t let the web designers touch code - it was all implemented by the dev team.

The Question

I realize that things are changing rapidly and celebrate that they are. Designers are increasingly being tasked with duties that used to be handled solely by developers and the lines are rapidly blurring between the two. I’m down with that. While I don’t know a lot about programming yet, I am always learning more and don’t plan on stopping. But what I am asking is: is it possible or even worth it to learn as much as you can about HTML/CSS and devote a ton of time to designing the visuals of a site?

My Fears

My main fear is that it is not worth it. Over the past few years, we have all seen a rise in frameworks and tools that ease the pain of frontend design and development. Frameworks like Foundation by Zurb and the omnipresent Bootstrap make it absolutely effortless to get a good looking, functional site up and running in virtually no time. Sure, it still requires coding it up, but it pretty much removes the need for anyone to actually think about what they are coding and styling. What is really scary are tools like Jetstrap and Divshot that make using Bootstrap absolutely effortless. Simply drag and drop and you have a working site. The same idea applies to Wordpress or Tumblr - sign up, get a theme, and you have a website.

My fear is that this is enough for the vast majority of people that are inclined to have a web presence. A good-looking, functional site that they can add content to without having to consider the design or implementation of the actual site. The small-to-medium businesses and individuals looking to get their ideas out there. They no longer have any barriers to creating and posting whatever they want and they will be satisfied with whatever works easily and looks decent - even if it looks like every other site out there.

With tools and frameworks like these becoming more and more pervasive - the job security fears I mentioned earlier come into play. How long will it be before the role of traditional web designer is made pretty much irrelevant? I know that there will always be good designers working for bigger brands that get to do some awesome stuff, but on the smaller or more local stages, can web designers survive? Is it worth it to try and make it as a traditional web designer?

My Answer

Increasingly, I think that the answer is no. Focusing solely on HTML, CSS, and design will turn out to be less and less a viable, long-term career option. The days of the traditional web designer are coming to a close. Let me qualify that statement a bit: At least for most of us.

I think that on some scale there will always be people making money as traditional web designers. But the salaries they command are either remaining the same as they have been for awhile now, or in some cases, shrinking. Businesses are realizing that other tools and options are available and that getting a site or app up online is cheaper than ever. This is decreasing the value of a traditional web designer. Yet, some institutions and organizations will keep their web designers around. Some of those interviews I mentioned before were at places that will be around for a long, long time - and a lot of these places are stuck in their ways. The traditional roles won’t see sunset anytime soon, but for those of us not already there - or those of us that don’t want to fill those roles - then the profession of a traditional web designer is declining and evolving.

This evolution will continue and designers will be called on more and more to understand and contribute to the development process. We are already seeing this in a lot of job postings and stories. Designers are now required to be fluent in JavaScript, know at least jQuery or some other library, and be familiar with (if not an expert in) backend stuff like Rails or Django. They will also be expected to have knowledge of content strategy, marketing, social media, and writing.

I think this is an awesome evolution. Being stuck in one set of skills without growing or learning is a recipe for death and mediocrity. The more web designers are forced to expand their skills and learn more about the entire process of building sites and applications, the better it will be for everyone. The more you know about a system as a whole, the better you can develop the parts you are responsible for to integrate and flourish within that system. And knowing more about content strategy and writing allows designers (and everyone else, for that matter) to communicate better not just with clients, but also with users and colleagues. It’s absolutely a win-win situation.

I know a few people that have been doing web design for a lot longer than I have and they have expressed the same fears - that their roles will stagnate or decrease in value. There have been alot of fears about technologies changing too rapidly and them not being able to keep up. It’s true - technology changes fast - but what can you do? You can’t stop that progress, and why would you want to? Are you going to stand still and allow your value to decrease or are you going to learn, grow, fight, and add more value to your team? Even learning a teeny, tiny bit about other technologies, strategies, and skills outside of your wheelhouse could potentially provide you with insights into the process that will allow you to do your job better and add great value to your team.

So yeah, the traditional role of web designer is dying out (at least in my opinion), but it is being supplanted by a better version of that role. There will always be a place for the Jason Santa Marias, Dan Cederholms, and Jon Hickses of the world to continue to influence and shape the web. These are some of the people I most associate with that traditional role. But they are smart - they are branching out and learning new skills, starting new businesses, and adding value for not only their clients, but the community as a whole.

So when those fears about job security or decreased value bubble up to the surface - I remind myself that it’s OK to worry about it - so long as you don’t let yourself stagnate and die. Adapt, evolve, learn some new shit and grow. It will only do you good.