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The Job of a Web Designer Is Changing (And That’s Good News)


Here’s a quote to kick off:

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Although written in regards to Darwinian evolution, the first time I read this quote it made me think of many of my clients. The fact that they needed to adapt to the new digital world they found themselves in. That if they did not, they would not survive.

But more recently I have begun to think that the sentiment also applies to us as web designers. Over 25 years into the web and I wonder whether it is us who are failing to adapt.

I hear freelance web designers moaning how hard it is to find work. Or how things are more complex than they used to be. I believe we are seeing a fundamental shift in our sector and that if we fail to adapt we may well become obsolete.

So how do we adapt? To answer that we must first ask how things are changing.

How the Role of Web Designers is Changing

Our job as a web designer has been evolving in many different ways. But I think we are seeing a more fundamental shift in four different areas. The most significant of which is the move toward specialisms.

More Specialised

For most of our industry's history it has been possible for one individual to build an entire website alone. From creating content, to designing and building the site, one person could do it all.

In the early days of the web one web designer could do it all
In the early days of the web, one web designer could do it all.

But as websites grow to be more complex it is becoming difficult for one individual to have all the necessary skills. For example, you may be able to “get by” with a reasonable understanding of search engine optimisation. But you are never going to be able to compete with a specialist in this area. In the end you are going to be providing a second rate service.

This didn’t matter as much in the early days of the web. Not only were things simpler to build, websites just weren’t as important.

Many web designers don’t want to specialise. They find being able to build the entire experience more satisfying. Unfortunately this will limit them to working on smaller websites. Sites with limited functionality and that are not business critical to the organisation. The question is, how much longer are sites like that going to be around?

More Integrated

Websites are not just more complex from a build perspective. They are also more complex because they exist within a larger ecosystem. Once upon a time your website was your only digital channel. Now we live in a world where the website needs to work alongside social media, mobile, and digital marketing campaigns.

A website is just one part of a greater ecosystem
A website is just one part of a greater ecosystem.

This means that while on one hand we need to be specialising, we also need to be aware of a greater number of channels than ever before.

This in turn means we need to be more collaborative in the way we work.

More Collaborative

With so many people involved in the success of a company’s digital strategy, we no longer have the luxury of working alone. We need to get used to the idea of designing in the open. We can no longer wait until we have finished a design before showing it to others.

We need to be comfortable showing people designs in progress
We need to be comfortable showing people designs in progress.

This is because decisions we make in the design process will have a fundamental impact on what other people are doing. Design decisions will have an impact on the build, the content and how the site integrates with other channels.

As the industry matures we need to become better team players. And be in no doubt: our industry is growing up.

More Mature

For a long time we as web designers had a large degree of latitude. The web wasn’t that important and most sites were little more than an online brochure.

But things have changed and now most companies rightly perceive their website as business critical. Also, as the complexity of sites has grown so too has the amount they cost. As a result clients are expecting a greater return on their investment.

With the stakes higher than ever before we are under an increased level of scrutiny. Clients want to track and test the sites we build to ensure they are performing.

The websites we build will come under increased levels of scrutiny
The websites we build will come under increased levels of scrutiny.

Some believe this kind of data driven scrutiny undermines creativity and they might be right. But it is the new reality and you cannot blame clients for wanting to get their website right when it is so important to their success.

The wild west days of web design are behind us. Some choose to embrace this new reality while others resist it. But, there are dangers to not adapting.

Don’t Fear Change

At the bottom end of the market there is still room for the one-man band. The web designer who delivers the entire solution. Clients here are less savvy and the website is still largely an online brochure.

But that will not last forever. For many the web will be just as business critical as it is for larger organisations. For others they will choose to build their own websites with tools like Squarespace or just rely on a Facebook page.

Tools like Squarespace means clients can build simpler sites themselves
Tools like Squarespace mean clients can build simpler sites themselves.

Sooner or later we will have to adapt, whether we like it or not. The danger is you will find yourself unemployable because you no longer have the requisite skills.

How then do you adapt to the changing marketplace?

How to Move Forward

For a start you need to choose a specialism. Do you want to focus on design, front-end coding, development, content, SEO or something else?

But that doesn’t mean you can ignore other areas. You need a broad understanding of all aspects of digital, accompanied by a deep specialism in one area. This is because you need to be able to communicate effectively with other digital professionals.

We need to develop a T shaped understanding
We need to develop a T shaped understanding (cross-discipline knowledge vs. deep discipline knowledge).

We all need to work on our communication skills, ensuring that we can work as part of a team. In particular we need to be able to articulate the benefits of design in the language of business. We need to be able to justify our decisions with hard data.

We need to accept that clients will want to be able to measure the success of their website. This means to some extent we need to embrace a culture of tracking performance.

But most of all we need to learn to design in an open and collaborative way. We can no longer think of ourselves as having a monopoly on the design process. We need to recognise that our colleagues bring value to the table and embrace that. That even a client can have great ideas to contribute.

If you can do this you will prosper. But if you continue as a lone wolf designer you could find yourself becoming obsolete.

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