During the design roundtable at Webmaster Jam Session last weekend, I mentioned that I think employers often value knowledge of tools too much when it comes to hiring web designers. As I think about it more, I realize that it’s not just employers; there are probably thousands of people out there that call themselves “web designers” despite having no real understanding of the basics of design.
A lot of people get into web design and development by learning HTML and CSS. That’s great. But if those people start calling themselves “designers,” just because they’ve learned a few W3 specs, then that’s a problem — it devalues what real designers do.
Forgive me if I sound harsh, but if your skill set is basically HTML and CSS, then I think you are worth maybe twelve bucks an hour. HTML and CSS are extremely simple languages anyone can learn in a weekend by picking up a good book or two. These are not particularly valuable skills. The same can be said for Photoshop, Dreamweaver, and just about any other piece of software or spec you can name. So what is valuable? Judgement. Logic. Creativity. Ability to learn quickly. Ability to work under pressure. Experience. Empathy. Design theory. Design history. Opinions. Decisions. And so on. I’d like to think that a good 80% of what my employer pays me for is for these things. Hopefully only a small percentage of my salary is because I know CSS and Photoshop.
Think about it: do you go to the doctor because of her ability to use a stethoscope? Do you go to an architect because he’s really good with pencil and paper? Do you go to an auto mechanic because he is better with a wrench than you are?
If you want to be a great web designer, then yes — you do need to know HTML and CSS. But the inverse is not also true: knowing HTML and CSS does not make you a designer. If being a great web designer is your goal, I would suggest most of your time ought not be spent on learning tools.
Update: Via e-mail, Brandy Reppy notes that a trip her local big-box bookstore for web design books basically netted her a whole bunch of HTML and Dreamweaver books. There are only a small handful of design-oriented books aimed at people working on the web. This re-emphasizes my point: web deign is thought of as HTML, CSS, and a handful of software tools — not as a traditional design art.