Published January 24, 2012

How to be a Web Designer in 2012

Web design isn't just about making pretty pictures for the Internets anymore. Innoviative industries often look for <a href="" target="_blank">T-shaped individuals</a>, but maybe we simply need to be more flexible and honest with ourselves, finding what parts of web design we're awesome at and what parts we only want to do in a pinch. Also, where the f**k's my art department?

I recently read Tom Milway's "How to Build a Modern Website in 2011" and Andy Johnson's article "Do We Really Need a New Web Design App?" back-to-back.

Both articles deal with the current state of web design: the process, tools and responsibilities of a web designer in 2012.

If you fancy yourself a web designer or front-end web developer of some sort, I encourage you to do the same.

I'm going to talk about Tom's article now, and I'll follow-up with a response to Andy's in the future.

Responsibilities of a Web Designer

Tom does an excellent job breaking down the trends and lessons from the last few years. The bulk of his message is what you expect: mobile-first, content-first, good typography, and a simple/responsive design:

I think the average folks designing for the web are starting to understand that design should never be the focus - that should (arguably) be left to art. I passionately believe that the purpose of a modern web design is purely to provide a neutral canvas to elegantly display content, allowing users to interact with it in natural, innate ways, and that it should be optimized for whatever device the user chooses to access it on.

Collectively, we need to assert this position. As web designers, our job is to design low-friction experiences accessed via web browsers on any device. That's it.

When you've got that requirement locked down tight, then and only then should the art department be brought in.

Art Department?

It was a quick little comment, but it really struck a chord with me: a good chunk of what clients typically think they want out of a web design is really more of a job for a digital artist: neato custom icons, expertly cropped and composited hero shots, "something to make the page really pop."

Any creative environment of the last century separated the concerns between design and art: newspaper layouts aren't handled by the guy who does the editorial cartoons, book covers aren't drawn by the typesetter, and National Geographic's gorgeous spreads aren't designed by the feature's photographer (even though his or her photos are main content of the story).

The fact that web designers, ever since they were webmasters, have done "a little bit of everything" defies the logical separation of disciplines that allowed the creative economy to thrive in the 20th century.

"We provide a wide range of creative services"

Most web designers I know do some combination of page layout, content strategy, information architecture, typesetting, usability, digital image manipulation, and coding. There are jobs within these jobs, too: on a single project I've written object models and controllers in Ruby, individual views with HTML, styled it all with CSS, then added additional interactivity through Javascript.

The next day I made 48x48-pixel icons in Fireworks.

Break it Down Now, Ya'll

Web designers are curious creatures who aren't afraid of the unknown. We'll fall into a new language or play with a new Javascript plugin and not come up for air for hours. And we like it like this.

The result of this unabashed curiosity is that we're mostly an industry of generalists.

That's OK. We still get the job done. But the big meaty responsive web design projects of the future will require many people with varied disciplieds to work together as efficiently as we already do on our own projects.

Become a T-Shaped Individual. Or maybe I-shaped. Or maybe an M. Or a W.

So day-to-day you can still be a web designer, so long as your focus is only on delivering access points to content manipulation via the browser. Along the way, mark those moments of specialization when you know you're delivering "just enough" to move on. When you're frustated from fumbling with a Photoshop composition to fill a 400 x 300 space on the page, take note. When a button is button-y enough and you need to move on to other tasks, journal it.

Alternatively, when you're all up on the Twitter tweeting about a sweet CSS3 widget you cooked up in less than an hour, that's a moment of specialization worth highlighting in three different colors.

Becoming more mindful of these moments will help us better examine them as disciplines that warrent their own spcial attention on future projects. As a bonus, you also learn your deficiencies and proficiencies, which you can confidently lay on the table next time your part of a team.