There was a time, not all that long ago, when making a professional website was not an especially complicated thing to do. The web consisted basically of images and HTML, and the differences between what could be produced by professional and amateurs weren’t all that great. There was little to no programming involved, and the web’s limitations meant that graphic designers weren’t able to create something much more aesthetically pleasing than anyone else with a copy of Dreamweaver.
That time is past. Nowadays, most serious web sites requirie a good deal of programming and there is an expectation that they be on a similar level design-wise as their counterparts in other media (such as print and desktop computer applications). But there was a mindset created in the 90s that anyone could make a web page. That line of thinking led bosses to direct secretaries and copy editors to produce corporate sites and a whole wave of self-proclaimed “designers” to start selling their services as web professionals.
And you know what? I was one of them. I have no formal design training, and back in the mid-ninties, I had no informal design training, either. As someone who always enjoyed writing, I was excited by the idea of of self-publishing, so I created a personal website. Before long, people started asking me to produce sites for their business — and who was I to turn down a buck for doing something I enjoyed?
And it was at that point that I decided to become a designer (which also meant learning CSS inside and out, since it was to be the design language of the web). I could have also chosen to become a programmer, a copy writer, a Flash guru, an accessibility and usability expert, or a few other things - but I chose designer. I read as much about design as I could get my hands on, and I continue to do so today. In my opinion, this was the point at which I became a professional.
There is a serious problem in our industry that I believe we professionals need to address. The problem is is simply that many people never made that leap from hobbyist to professional. And yet, these people are working in our industry. They’re taking our jobs out from under us, and making money doing it. I’ve worked with these people. At Washburn University, I worked behind a Manager of Web Services and senior “designer.” Each of these people had learned the basics of HTML in the mid-ninties and, insofar as I could tell, not really learned anything since (and you’ll agree that Susan Jarchow’s website indicates as much).
To be clear: I still think the low barrier of entry to self-publishing on the web is one of its killer features. I wouldn’t want it any other way. I think it’s absolutely awesome that my 11-year old daughter could make a personal website if she wants to. Where I have a problem is when these people start to sell their services or get senior-level jobs in the industry. Whereas most of us go from amateur to professional, they go from hobbyist to hack.
And yet they succeed. They continue to get jobs and they continue to roll out tag soup, tabled-based layouts with amateurish graphics full of Photoshop filters and all-Flash sites full of unnecessary and cheesy animation. They rip off well-made sites, stealing graphics and layouts and pawning them off as their own work to unsuspecting clients.
There are several reasons for their success — and we need to address them. I believe the biggest one is simply that consumers of design are uneducated. Your typical small business owner doesn’t always understand the value of design, and certainly doesn’t understand what it takes to produce a quality website. They probably know a dozen people that have websites they built themselves — so in their mind, there’s no good reason to pay a professional’s rate. They believe they could probably do it themselves, or at least pay one of the buddies a much lower price for what they perceive as the same quality of work.
I also believe most clients don’t know what they’re paying us for. Most people think web design is a technical field. And, of course, it is — to some degree. But it’s also a creative field, and I don’t think most people understand this. When I tell people I’m a web designer, their response is often, “oh great, you can help me fix my printer.” Or, “oh, I have Dreamweaver, myself.” In other words, they believe we’re geeks. And maybe some of us are. They don’t seem to understand that a huge portion of what we do is design — layout, typography, color, communication, problem solving — these are the areas where we really earn our stripes. But clients hire us in much the same way as they hire a moving company. They say, “Put this over here, and that over there. Make this bigger. Now change this color.” They don’t realize these are the decisions that they’re paying us to make.
I think at least part of this misunderstanding comes from people mistaking the tools for the job. This seems to happen in other creative industries, as well. People buy a nice digital SLR and decide they’re a photographer. The buy a guitar and call themselves a musician. And, they buy a copy of Photoshop or Dreamweaver and call themselves a web designer. This is a little baffling to me. No one thinks if they have a hammer they’ve got the skills to be a professional carpenter. No one decides they don’t need a doctor if they’ve got a stethoscope of their own. For some reason that I can’t seem to figure out, people believe that if they have the same tools as us — a computer and some software — they can do our jobs. And worse, the clients believe that, too. When a designer is charging $150/hr. and a “designer” is charging $30, they’ll usually pick the cheaper one because they just can’t comprehend what the difference could possibly be.
Mark Boulton recently wrote about the idea of a professional body for the web design industry in which memberships would be based on peer review, creating a sort of “union” of serious, quality web designers. Most of the commenters on that post seemed to be in disagreement with Mark. Christopher Fahey summed up this viewpoint when he said, “The solution is right in front of us: make your decisions based on portfolios and recommendations from people you trust. That’s all we have that we can count on, and thatâs all we need.”
And that’s a great idea — if there was some way to ensure clients would do it, and do it well. But there’s not. Many clients are not especially well-equipped to review portfolios and choose a quality designer based on them. Do we really expect clients to peruse the source of potential designer’s (X)HTML for web standards compliance? Do we expect clients to know that the beautiful all-Flash site is inaccessible by blind visitors? Do we expect clients to understand that the visual style of one designer may not be appropriate for their brand? I think these are unreasonable expectations.
I personally think I would be in favor of some kind of professional body for our industry, although figuring out exactly how it would work and what it would do is extremely difficult. We, as professional web designers, need to come together to find some way to educate clients and companies on the difference between us and the hacks that permeate our industry. I’m not sure what the best way to do this is, but something needs to happen. It’s simply not fair that Frontpage jockeys and ripoff artists continue to take our business.
So, I ask you — what are some ways we can combat the hacks and ensure that the quality design professionals in our industry get the jobs they deserve?