Didja hear about that 16 year-old kid who designs web pages and makes over $6000 per month!?!
The hardest part of being a professional web designer is telling people what I do for a living. The range of comments I get runs from dismissal of the web as a fad, to the ever popular, “My fifth-grade son has his own website.” The main reason that job titles like Web GUI Designer or Web Creative get bandied about in the media and professional circles is that the term web designer carries about as much respect as paper boy in today’s society.
Who’s to blame?
It is not the fault of today’s web designers that their profession is something that most people who have the ability to get on the Internet can profess to know. It is the fault of today’s designer that people do not know the difference between a professional, and a 16 year-old with a knack for self promotion. That difference is design skill, Internet knowledge, experience and professional commitment to the field.
HTML is an easy language to understand, and it doesn’t take much skill to go to a store and buy one of the many WYSIWYG web editing software packages. But there is more to web design than coding a page that will show up in a browser. The limitations that are placed on web designers make constructing pages a game of concessions and tricks to fool the browser. We have appropriated the TABLE feature of HTML as a sort of on-line Postscript, defining cells to hold our data or images in the same way that we used paths and text boxes to design for the page. But with every new trick, with every new advance, the nature of the Internet passes our ideas along to every other self proclaimed “web designer” out there.
As professionals we are presented with the same situation that the Desktop Publishing revolution presented to graphic design in the late ‘80s. Software companies are all proclaiming that their product will make your web pages as good as that of a professional designer. Local community colleges offer web page design classes taught by computer science teachers that focus on the lexicon of HTML and not the goal of providing effective design. Books are available in most stores with titles like The Idiot’s guide to Web Design and Web Page Design for Dummies. Our profession is being treated like a high-tech arts and crafts class at the local seniors home.
So what do we do about it?
What we can do
First, we need to widen the gap between the self-proclaimed web designer and the true professional. Professional web designers do not “do” web page design, we practice it. Web design is not a merit badge to be added to your uniform in scouts (but the way things are going it is probably not far off), it is a career choice that demands continual growth and serious dedication. We continually work at improving our skills and techniques, learning how to use new tools and mastering the old ones. To elevate our profession from the perception it has now to the esteem that it deserves, the gap between the professional and the amateur should be evident to the casual viewer.
Second, as professionals we need to understand that a visitor’s reasons for clicking a button are equally important to that button’s appearance in various browsers. We should be able to look at the information to be included on a website and organize it in an easy to understand manner. Part psychologist and part magazine editor, a web designer needs to be the digital equivalent of a Renaissance person. Just as a good magician can force the queen of hearts to be picked from a deck of cards, we need to be able to channel visitors of a website to the information that will answer their questions.
Third, we must be able to set goals for the sites we design. Working with a client to develop their Internet strategy is as important to the website’s success as how it looks. A company that wants a website to just be on-line is going to miss out on the communications impact that an effective website can have. As professional web designers we must be able to work with a company to outline what they want to get back from their website, and what it will take to achieve this return. We then need to use this information to develop a site that will meet the client’s needs.
Fourth, an understanding of marketing and PR should be part of every professional web designer’s resume. We should know how to use the Internet’s gift-based economy to gain an increased customer mind-share for the client. Professionals should have no trouble planning an effective banner campaign or writing meta-tags that work to promote the site. As professionals we will need this type of background to compete with the “after school” web designers angling for our business.
Fifth, professional web designers need to be proud of our profession. It is time for web designers to embrace our title, and take it back from the 16 year-olds. The next time you run out of business cards, take pride in your profession and use the title, Web Designer. Get together with other web designers in your area and start a professional group. Stop hiding behind the fancy wording and creative name games; by doing so you are only adding to the perception that web design is a suitable trade for idiots and dummies.
It is not going to be an easy road to rehabilitate the image of the professional web designer, but it is one that we should all embark on. The future of our profession is being written by our deeds in the present. So the next time that someone tells you that their fifth-grade son has his own website, reply that he should keep up the hard work, and when he graduates from college he might be able to be a professional web designer, just like you.