Web designers

(I was thrilled to read Asana.com’s description of a web designer, which inspired this post.)

by Dreamtargets on flickr - /photos/dreamtargets/1085206378/

It’s not every industry where you can be a 30-year old and legitimately claim to have been working in the industry since it’s birth. The field of web design is one of these industries, and the nature of the job has changed significantly since the days when animated gifs were the height of sophistication. I can’t claim any knowledge of what it was like to be a web designer in the late 90’s – the closest I can come is that I had a subscription to .Net magazine. However, I do know what it’s like to be a web designer now and I know that it is a badly named job.

People in the web industry tend to be labelled either “web designers” or “web developers”, the assumption being that you either draw the pictures or write the code. This may have been a reasonable separation at one point. The truth as I see it now is that the web designer has progressed from writing HTML and CSS to taking responsibility for everything that happens within the browser. Web developers have retreated to the increasingly complex job of moving and processing data, around and between servers.

This means that web design, in practice, is a combination of typography, human-computer interface design, graphic design, rapid prototyping, JavaScript programming, HTML/CSS, agile product development, to name a selection. The modern web designer understands the significance of REST and HTTP, and why they make her job easier. She may even know regular expressions. If there is another word to replace “designer”, which captured the spirit of experimentation, creation and science that goes into modern web design, I am stuck to think of it.

Web design has flourished as a design profession – matured enough for an average project to bear the hallmarks of the kind of “design thinking” you might find amongst architects or industrial designers. This is all for the good. But web design is hard – there are barbed-wire boundaries between the work of web designers and those that surround them: the web developers, the content authors, the artists, the project managers, the business development consultants. Web design is relatively straightforward in isolation; meshed with all the other people involved in a project, it quickly becomes unstable. In my opinion, what holds the industry back from developing beyond a craft – that is, a complex and manual task – is the absence of good tools.

I overheard a conversation recently about why Flash became so popular with designers and has remained so, despite a strong feeling opposing its indiscriminate application. The problem boils down to one of tooling – Flash applications are built in beautiful, assistive development environments, which produce cross-browser and cross-platform applications. Web sites, on the other hand, are usually built in text editors and involve a significant investment of time to tweak and test for all the browsers in which they are likely to be run. Adobe produce compelling videos demonstrating how their tools simplify workflows and allow multiple professions to work together. Web designers generally have to “throw things over the wall” or duck things being chucked in their direction.

Specifically, I’m interested in seeing solutions to these sorts of problems:

  • Why isn’t it easy for content authors to decouple their stuff from the ongoing design of a website?
  • Why do I design a website in a different environment from the one it is going to be deployed to?
  • Why do I have to cut up PhotoShop comps into web pages and then cut up those into templates?
  • Why can’t I change the use of a single colour across a website by changing it once in the stylesheet?
  • Why can’t two web designers work on the same web page without it being a pain to maintain?
  • Why does everyone have to diagnose, fix and learn the same cross-browser tricks?
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