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Is Web Design (As We Know It) Dying?

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The introduction of new standards, new mediums and millions of new web designers means that the face of our humble industry has changed... dramatically. It's no longer about creating a static page with a heading, some text and a couple of images to boot. However, the biggest change to traditional web designers has arrived only in the past year, with the rising popularity of services like WordPress with their plethora of pre-designed themes, and marketplaces like ThemeForest with their one theme, many users strategy; But does that mean that web design as we know it is dying out?

Setting the Stage

In today's article, we'll take an extended look at the past, present and future of web design and answer the question "Is Web Design Dying"? We'll look at the humble beginnings of the web design industry and how they've morphed into the current state before looking at how the market for premium design will continue to evolve. This article is going to take a "long arc" view of the arguments, which means we'll be covering a bit of history as we move towards the final points.

Just to kick things off though, let's set the stage with a few general statements that form the basis for the question "Is Web Design Dying":

  • Over the last couple years, web design as a trade has been changing... a lot.
  • Fewer sites (like Facebook, Google, and AOL) are controlling larger portions of web traffic.
  • More designers are competing for the same jobs.
  • Templates and themes are becoming common tools where hand-built designs were once the status quo.

Before we dive in, a note from the editor: All provocative headlines aside, this article is going to look at the major shifts happening in our industry over the last couple years. Is web design really dying? Probably not... but the way that websites come into being is going to be dramatically different in a couple years than the way that you or I learned it. I'll let Connor take it from here...

The Origins of Web Design

To understand why someone might make the claim that web design is dying, we've gotta go back to the roots of the web... the first section of this article is going to trace a brief history of the web, how web design as a trade came into being, and how it's about to change.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee is the British physicist credited with inventing the World Wide Web in March of 1989. In order to avoid getting overly and unnecessarily technical, their were two technologies at the time: the internet (the connection of computers in a global network) and Hypertext (text displayed on an electronic device with links to other text, not necessarily online). Berners-Lee connected to two, creating what would become the web we know today. He published what is considered to be the first website in August of 1991, written in the earliest version of HTML, a variant of Hypertext.

Like graphic design and the printing press, the advent of new communication technology is essentially what drove web design to see such a staggering amount of growth.

The notion of a website at that time was pretty limited, as you might imagine. It was just a text document... that was linked up with lots of other text documents. Text was pretty much the only thing that could be handled by the hardware at the time, so in most cases, it was the only element on the page.

Naturally, as the internet progressed, so did the markup languages that run the websites. New tags were added to HTML, allowing websites to become more complex and include new styles. Yep, this was around the time that tables started to be used for layout purposes, and we all know how fantastic they are/were!

The introduction of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) meant that table-based layouts became outdated and eventually fell out of favor. The establishment of the World Wide Web Consortium (or W3C) meant that standards became defined, setting a way forward for the early web designers that were trying their hands at trying to organize information on the web into their own creations. back in late 1996.

The Development of Standards

With the establishment of the W3C, specific standards were starting to be developed for the correct use of the markup language we call HTML. The first specification of HTML was HTML Tags that was first mentioned in late 1991. It described 20 elements to the primitive iteration of HTML. As I mentioned, the first versions of HTML were mainly focused on composing and organizing text, but new refinements to the specifications meant that new elements crept in, including image and multimedia tags. The development of the web has led to a new focus on what the web is used for.

Originally, websites were purely static pages that were there to convey information through the series of pages explained before. The most simple HTML pages were very much static and remained so unless they were updated by a human, manually.

However, the potential for the web was realized and dynamic elements were introduced in order to make web pages more interactive and more like the traditional "computer programs". Dynamic HTML alongside the 1995 introduction of Javascript created interactive, dynamic web pages filled with those animated GIFs we loved so much. Aside from the random animations and dynamic HTML, new markup languages were introduced with scripts and allowing websites to store user data. PHP, originally standing for Personal Home Page, was conceived in 1995 to add some dynamic elements to the static web, creating online web applications that, alongside the introduction of databases, store data for retrieval later.

The introduction of a bunch of new markup languages meant that the web had a new meaning. Users could interact with a webpage rather than just reading and leaving. The line between the internet and native applications became a little more blurry around this time.

Right now, we're on HTML5 that followed on from HTML4 and so on. From it's humble beginnings, the web has evolved to a place presenting not only text, but also video, audio and no doubt billions of images.

The W3C was setup to control and specify standards for web design.

The Current State of Web Design

As mentioned before, web design is an evolving industry. From the times of text-only HTML to now, new software, new ideas and new philosophies have been introduced into the web, most of them coming from the print industry. The web design industry has followed the evolution of the web with new uses being discovered by education, journalism and enterprise to forge customer, reader or student relationships.

The Use of the Web Today

What is the web used for today? Why do people go online? What's the aim of the internet in the modern world?

If we take a look at the top sites on Alexa, you'll find few static websites of purely static content. Instead, there'll be sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google that change their content upon the user's input and preferences. Our browsing habits are not at all what they're called; they aren't habits. They're very different and happen across a number of different types of sites. Let's take a look at what the primitive text-only site has evolved into.

  • Static Web Pages - These still exist in some form, but normally come from single webmasters who have learnt that basics of HTML. Generally, most sites are powered by a CMS of some sort, meaning they are script-powered and not static in the same sense.
  • Blogs and Forums - Blogging literally dominates the world. WordPress - just one of the many blogging solutions available - powers literally tens of millions of blogs including high profile ones and this very site your reading from. In fact, most of the Envato network is powered by WordPress. Blogs are very similar to static sites, but their content is updated through a CMS that runs scripts and includes in the webpage to show data. However, most blogs are actually like mini web applications as most have some sort of contextual page, be it for searching, comments or even posting publicly. The majority of web design comes into building themes for these blogs, something that we'll get onto a bit later.
  • Social Networking - A stem of blogging is the activities you conduct on social networking sites. Social networking sites, like Facebook, are far from static web pages. They're contextual pages that's content is dictated by the user's input or preferences and require a much more complex backend in order to operate.
  • Web Applications - Now, applications (or the preverbial "programs") are not localised to an operating system. Instead, they've spread their wings onto the World Wide web and became part of a community of apps that run entirely in the cloud with no need for any local storage, except the few megabytes your browser takes up. Google is a big promoter of web apps, with their Chrome Web Store and their soon-to-be-publicly-available cloud-based Chromebooks - notebooks running Chrome OS.
  • Multimedia Hosting - Unlike the computers of yester-decade with dial-up connections, modern browsers regularly travel to multimedia hosting sites at their owner's request. These sites include the likes of YouTube, BBC iPlayer and Vimeo where the main focus is on video content, not necessarily text.

A panel of The Oatmeal's State of the Web for Winter 2010 - a hilarious comic that you should check out in full!

The variety of uses for the web mean that the industry covers a much wider spectrum of sites than just a single, traditional static page. The range of skills needed to fulfill every requirement is massive and few can be a jack of all trades. This has certainly been one of the biggest changes to the web design industry to date.

If anything, this is a point against the argument that web design industry is, in fact, dying. The industry has become one with a sparse set of skills to cover the wide variety of requirements that customers have. As I mentioned before, there are few contractors that are both design aficionados and developers that are proficient in every markup language out there. It seems like the incredible growth of web technologies has made it so that it's almost impossible to be widely specialized, leading to the need for subcontractors and lots of collaboration.

The steeper learning curve of all these new languages has also influenced the needs for sites like these. It's no longer about learning how to write 20 tags and then launching your website. Instead, you'll have to learn from somewhere, whether it be online or in real life.

Standards Development: From HTML to HTML5

As the web has progressed, so has the standards of the markup languages that power them. All of the web development languages have been revised over time, but the developments of HTML will have had the most profound effect on the web. Each revision of HTML has brought important new features to the markup language and deprecated older ones. When this happens, the standards of a good web design change.

Let's review just a few of the major changes that new standards have brought:

HTML 2 brought some major additions over it's lifespan, including form-based file uploads and client-side image maps. It also introduced tables which defined how designers layed out web pages for quite a long time before tableless design became the norm. Obviously tables were not necessarily introduced for layout purposes, but they were a great way of laying content in multiple columns before CSS became as developed as it is today.

HTML 5 is the latest revision of the HTML specification and has become the subject of much debate regarding it's usage in replacement of Adobe's Flash. This is not the focus of this article, but it's clear that the clock is ticking for Flash and that whole area of web design to head to the grave. Flash-based websites are becoming less common and web designers working primarily in flash are dying out (not literally of course!). The HTML 5 specification that includes a heavy interest in multimedia (due to it's increasing prominence in our browsing habits) and animation.

As the standards develop, so does the possibilities that web designers can utilize. As Flash starts to move out and be replaced with HTML 5 alongside CSS 3, developers are able to introduce some amazing new effects into designs without necessarily needing to know how to develop with Flash. From a designer's perspective, what can be achieved with HTML 5 is pretty amazing!

Blogging and The Templatization of the Web

Blogging is an interesting segment to consider becuase it's the site where we're seeing the most "templatization" of the web. For the purpose of this article, we'll define blogging as any pre-built site where content is normally edited through a private backend as opposed to editing the raw source files. Digital communities were mainly situated on email lists and bulletin boards prior to the advent of blogging, and the name "blogging" didn't even arrive until the late 1990s.

In 1994, the modern blog became popular with users launching online diaries detailing their lives. The idea of having a public diary to let off steam or sing a praise was an attractive prospect, adopted by many users. They came to the medium slowly, until a surge in popularity around 1998, when Open Diary launched. Open Diary spearheaded the modern blog, with the ability for users to interact and update web pages thanks to the comments section on each blog entry. LiveJournal and Blogger joined Open Diary in 1999, with similar features. This was the beginning of the change from the static site, to the dynamic, updating site and the introduction of new requirements for a web designer or developer.

As blogging rose in popularity, users wanted to be able to define their blog from each others by styling and organizing it in a specific way. This was effectively the birth of the modern demand for web design services. The attraction of blogging brought many potential customers to the industry, creating a great target market.

Hello WordPress!

WordPress was initially released in May 2003, some five years following the initial surge in blogging popularity. It quickly became the popular choice for bloggers with it's wide customizability through plugins, in 2004, and themes and templates, in 2005.

The introduction of a theme and template system meant that websites were being designed and then integrated with the WordPress system. The market for unique, one-time WordPress themes lives on into the present day but repeat uses of a single theme across multiple blogs also has it's popularity. In fact, this was pretty much the idea upon WordPress's inception; the theme repository - still available today - maintained a directory of downloadable themes that a user can use.

You can probably guess why this didn't advantage web design. Users could visit the theme repository and browse through a selection of styles for free without ever paying a designer for their advice or work. For the blogger, this is a great resource that would mean they wouldn't generally have to pay for their blogging: adding to the attraction, but it was not just individuals who were interested in the blogosphere. Businesses saw the potential, but they had a different spin on things.

WordPress, and the rise in blogging, had already contributed to the move to blogging platforms with free themes available. However, there was still a group of people who appreciated the need for unique custom themes, and so the industry obliged.

To this day, there is still those two distinct categories of themes. There's the group of templates that are free and readily available to use, but for some, the advantages of a custom theme are important and they are therefore willing to pay a designer to create one for them. Therefore, there's the free market and the premium one. In recent years, a third category has emerged, the mass-market premium theme, but we'll get onto that in a moment.

WordPress is one of the, if not the, biggest blogging software.

In conclusion, blogging has changed web design both technically and in terms of business. As the market demand for blogging templates grows, so does the variety of skills needed by a web designer. Designing for WordPress, for example, requires at least a basic understanding of PHP if you're creating anything more complex than the generic minimums. In terms of the business of web designer, we are now competing with an influx of free themes and being pushed towards a design once, sell many model thanks to the traction generated by theme marketplaces.

A blog is a pretty generic type site in a design perspective. Few sites deviate from the standard layout of a post column and a sidebar under the header. However, as the standards for the web developed, so did it's uses. As I touched on before, new sites like media hosting and social networking shifted the variety of a site's content so new layouts became common.

Free Themes

It turns out that not everyone wanted to pay a designer to design their website, nor did they want to learn all the necessary skills. That led to the birth of free themes where designers created publicly-available themes without any fee to themselves. Whether they were themes for blogging software, or just ones for static sites, it opened up new options to potential webmasters instead of simply paying a designer to create one for you.

A simple Google search for "free website template" brings up an astonishing 15,000,000+ results. If you browse around the free templates search results, there's nothing too special there. Most templates work fine as a starting base, but they can be full of license-required attributions and you can't guarantee that it's going to be suited to your website. Luckily, on the WordPress front, this is a different story.

Most free WordPress designs aren't amazing, but they do provide a little more depth into the realms of customization. Luckily, should you decide to use a free theme, the Admin Dashboard plays host to some theme options so it can be somewhat tweaked. For a consumer, great! For a web designer, you've just lost some potential business.

Searching for free website templates on Google brings up a ton of results.

Theme Marketplaces

I mentioned before a third business strategy for web designers. Instead of doing individual, client work or just giving your work up for free, a designer can sell his assets on a theme marketplace, such as our own ThemeForest. The theme marketplace consists of a community of designers who develop themes and then publish them for mass-market. Instead of providing a single theme for a single client, multiple buyers can purchase the same design for use on their site. For a consumer, the price is generally cheaper as they are licensed use of the theme on different tiers.

Traditional web designers still have a place, however, in this new market. Naturally, they can create their own themes and sell them through the marketplaces - be it ThemeForest or elsewhere - but they can also take up the customization game. Many authors make money in after sales as clients want to customize and tweak a purchased design to match their specific site's needs, which can still be a sustainable business practice.

The growth in theme marketplaces can't be hitting web designers, who are not selling on one, hard. I know of several users who run businesses setting up websites, but using templates bought from ThemeForest as a simple solution. They buy your theme and get it setup for you. Because of the less pricy nature of these themes, the overall proposition of getting your website setup in this way seems a lot more attractive, especially to individuals and smaller businesses.

I recently spoke to one of ThemeForest's reviewers and author with sales between $10,000 and $50,000 on the marketplace, Ivor Padilla. When proposed with the question of "Is Web Design Dying?", he responded with some of the following.

The market is not dying, the themes market is getting another direction.

ThemeForest is one of the biggest premium theme markets with some individual authors expected to sell over a million dollars worth of themes.

That is exactly what's happening with the web design industry right now. A lot of the smaller customers are opting for the cheaper, but less unique, option of buying from a theme marketplace. As Padilla says, the theming market is getting a new direction. This does generate a little risk (what happens if you spend months developing a theme and it doesn't sell/get accepted), but it's worth it if you get a nice, big payout at the end.

It seems true that web design is not dying, but instead, evolving into new territory.

For example, ThemeForest has set the bar really high, also there are so many great premium themes marketplaces out there and is hard to sell at this time. But web design is not dying.

Web Design is Evolving

The days of designing a website in a single language that runs every site with no fancy scripting or anything similar are history. Now, websites have different interests and different backend languages. However, they are now also influenced by new principles and theories, with focuses on elements like usability and accessibility, meaning that web design is much more of a complex and deep process. Web pages can be filled with video, audio, images, dynamic content and scripts.

The business behind web design is also changing and being given a new direction. Web designers are starting to join designs in other fields, like fashion. You can walk into a store and buy a suit that is readily available to anyone willing to purchase it, but you can also pay for a pricier, tailored design that's unique to you. You can't imagine a major corporation using the same design as some opinionated individual who runs a blog. But that blogger might share his design with someone else with a similar audience.

Web design is no longer the process of linking documents on the web. Instead, it's an immersive experience that's more like the traditional piece of software. Like an application's development, most designers do involve multiple people, especially on the wider scales. The software used to design and develop websites has evolved alongside the industry, meaning that there's a lot more to learn and it's almost impossible for one person to be a complete guru across every possibility for a website's roadmap.

So, Is Web Design Dying? (Nope)

No, or at least I don't think so. I agree very much with Ivor Padilla's point that web design is getting a new direction. The web has grown significantly and, with the developments in connectivity, has helped developed a world where our entertainment, information and business is online. As the human race found new uses for the web, markup languages, principles and general creativity became apparent to suit the new uses.

When we began researching this question for the article, there were a lot of reasons to doubt the strength of the web designer's job market... but when you look at the numbers, there's a lot more hope for our industry than there is doubt. In a recent study posted by Wired Magazine it was revealed that if there is growth anywhere in the economy nowadays, it's online. Most online job sectors have seen growth of around 30% over the last year, and even graphic design as a trade has grown by almost 8%... which is a huge number relative to the fact that most job areas are declining.

Infographic from Wired Magazine

Web design continues to evolve, but that's doesn't necessarily mean a decline is happening. As the web develops, new trends come up and designers obviously have to follow that in order to keep their business up. It seems like the web design industry continuously developers, but the shift to more mass-market themes has changed the business end of things. There's pros and cons to this but that's a whole different article!

Naturally, web design will never die out as long as the internet is there. Businesses, marketers and individuals all realize the importance of the web and that it is vital to have an online presence. For the time being, large corporations will still hire freelancers or studios to create themselves a unique website, but for smaller enterprises or individuals, there's new options available that designers can still profit nicely from.

The profession is not dying, but simply being redirected in the business sense. Trends continue to be set, and the boom in social media is bringing new user-oriented design with a great potential for developers to innovate.

Do you reckon web design is dying? Do you give themes or web templates away for free? Do you sell themes on marketplaces? Share your experiences in the comments below!

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