Web Design as a Career

by Joe Gillespie — Mar 1, 2003

I get a lot of mail from people who say they would like to make a career in Web design and want to know the best way to go about it. Unfortunately, the question is usually along the lines of "How can I get a job as a Web designer?"

Where the concept of 'Web design' is fairly easy to define, the term 'Web designer' is a little more nebulous. This month, I'm going to look at some of the many areas encompassed by the general term 'Web designer' just to show how diverse it actually is. If the headings are a bit provocative, don't worry – just read on.

To begin with, let's examine the word 'design'. My dictionary shows that it is both a noun and a verb but it is the verb that we are interested in for now.

Desi'gn (v) – 1. Set apart for a destine or purpose. 2. Contrive, plan, purpose, intend. 3. Make preliminary sketch. 4. Be a designer.

So design is primarily about making something fit for a purpose. The purpose of a Web page is to communicate words or ideas. Sometimes the purpose of that communication is to inform, or it could be to amuse and sometimes it is to sell. The presentation of these various communications can be radically different!

Web designer – someone who doesn't design Web pages!

Let me explain. If you work on your own and create your own Web pages, well yes, you design, build and publish them but in the world of professional Web design, it doesn't work quite like that. Remember, we are talking about making a career out of creating Web sites – doing it professionally.

Let's look at another kind of site – a building site. We don't talk about 'building designers', do we? Buildings are designed by teams of people with lots of different skills – surveyors, planners, architects, structural engineers, interior designers, etc. They are built by 'builders' – teams of bricklayers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers and other specialist tradesmen who get their materials from 'suppliers' and 'builder's merchants'. Then, somewhere in the middle you have teams of managers who liase between the 'clients', 'designers', 'builders' and 'suppliers'.

Professional Web design is very similar to designing and building an office block. It takes teams of people with many different skills.

Using the general term 'Web designer' risks being likened to a 'handyman' – a Jack-of-all-trades, master of none.

The process of creating Web sites is getting more complicated by the day as new technologies emerge and old ones fester in the background, never really disappearing but causing endless legacy problems. This means that you have to have more knowledge and be more specialised in the areas of interest to you. Nobody can know it all! That's why we need teams and team players.

Software Engineer – similar to a quantum mechanic but works with bigger spanners.

The general term 'software engineer' refers to someone skilled in writing software for computers. Their nuts and bolts are noughts and ones and these are screwed into place with something called a 'compiler'.

There are many specialist areas in software engineering from artificial intelligence to robotics, astrophysics to banking. When working with Internet or Web technologies, software engineers are called 'Web developers'.

Software engineering is a fast-changing world as new technologies come and go and you have to run just to stand still!

Web Developer – like a photo-lab assistant, but doesn't get his fingers wet!

Web developers are software engineers who specialise in writing software for Web technologies. There are different levels of involvement going from relatively simple scripting using JavaScript, Perl or PHP to more complex application development using C++ or Java. Confusingly, the complicated stuff is referred to 'low-level' programming and the simpler stuff is called 'high-level' programming.

Like any kind of software development, it requires a logical mind, a good grasp of math, and for a decent job, a good university degree. It's a very competitive business.

Graphic Designer – tries to make Web pages look the same in every browser!

On the Web, a graphic designer is responsible for the visual presentation of the content.

Graphic designers manipulate visual imagery in the interests of communication. If they have learned their skills purely in the more traditional areas of 'print', they usually try to force the same doctrines on the Web – but it just doesn't work. It's like trying to do an etching with a paintbrush – it's a different medium and requires a different mind-set.

Web pages are based on HTML, and the 'T' stands for Text. Graphic imagery is secondary to words in this medium – that was the original intention anyway but that's all going to change.

Once you have accepted that it is a different medium, there are still huge possibilities in presenting the 'text' in ways that communicate at subliminal levels and greatly enhance the meaning of the words and the reader's attitude to it.

A good graphic design course concentrates on communication, not on the mechanics of how to use Photoshop or Flash. The principles behind good visual communication are 'medium agnostic' and Web design, as we understand it now, won't be around for all that long. Today's relatively low-bandwidth, text-based Web pages will give way to all-singing, all-dancing multimedia extravaganzas in the not too distant future so, think to that future, whatever it holds!

Web Typographer – someone who chooses the color for the page's Verdana!

Print typographers work to very exacting fractional point measurements and pride themselves on their knowledge of obscure typefaces. Thrown into the confines of the Web, all that has to go. They can choose a font face and type size, but there's no guarantee that the readers will see it. The type color is about the only attribute that stands a chance.

Making the page readable for the target audience is probably the best they can hope for but again, the principles behind good typography are just as relevant on a screen as on paper. It is an art as well as a science but ultimately, depends on an appreciation of the medium.

Web Writer – someone with the ability to send texts using complete words.

Writing for the Web is not all that different from any other kind but some writing styles are more appropriate than others.

I wouldn't want to read a whole novel on my computer screen, I still prefer an ordinary paper book. On the other hand, I prefer reading the daily news in my browser than from a traditional newspaper.

The problem here is the volume of information that is thrown at us. News on the Web is delivered in bite-size pieces and can lead you to greater depth if required. In a newspaper, you need to do more sifting to find the bits of interest – not to mention finding vast amounts of desk-space.

So, writing for the Web requires a more 'compact' style, devoid of waffle or self-indulgences. The ability to communicate concisely and precisely is the prime requisite. You also have to be aware that the Web is Worldwide, you have to tailor your vocabulary, grammar and spelling for an international audience.

Web Master– like a dungeon master, but without the prisoners!

Often, we will see the term 'Web Master' at the bottom of a Web page. The function of a Web Master is that of a manager who liases between the readership and the Web design team – a single point of contact that knows where to pass-on reports about page-functionality and rendering problems.

The job is usually just an adjunct of something else, I don't know of anyone that only does Web mastering!

Web Mistress – someone who whips Web designers into shape! 

Web Mistress is an unfortunate term that most people try to avoid but it crops up now and again. Although I've used the word 'he' in many of these definitions for convenience, there is absolutely no reason not to use the word 'she' – unless you want to conserve a byte of bandwidth!

Site Architect – someone who knows precisely were to put the empty pages.

Unlike a building architect, who is responsible for the aesthetic 'look' of a building, a site architect is more involved with the planning – how the pages fit together and relate to one another. I'm not saying that building architects don't plan their buildings, they usually do, but often the tail wags the dog and good functionality is compromised by over indulgent 'styling'. Styling without solid foundations in 'design' is like cotton candy – sweet, but insubstantial.

In computer terms, the closest thing to a site architect would probably be a 'systems analyst'. He or she is responsible for the structure and navigation of complex sites and tries to make it a good experience for the surfers.

Flash Designer – someone more concerned with their hairstyle than their HTML!

A cynical definition, but like any satire, has a modicum of truth about it. Flash is great, don't get me wrong, but it is probably the most abused technology on the Web.

For some reason, many Flash designers disassociate themselves completely from the Web, as if Flash had nothing to do with it. Well, yes, you can produce Flash titles and run them from a hard drive or put them on a CD-ROM ignoring all bandwidth restrictions but when you get a real job, you will be expected to know how to manage data flow and bandwidth and ignoring the problem isn't an answer.

Remember, a 'handyman' will use whatever tool is convenient – the craftsman will use the correct tool for the job. Flash can be the right tool for some jobs but often there are better solutions.

Usability Expert – someone who doesn't design Web pages!

Well, we've come full circle. The usability expert is the Web design policeman. He will come up behind you with lights flashing and pull you over for having racy Web pages or a broken navigational indicator. They are easily identified by their uniforms and general lack of style.

Joking aside, if you stand back a little, you might see they have some good points. Don't let their fundamentalism put you off completely.

A couple of thousand years ago when very few people could write, if you wanted to write a letter to someone, you hired a 'scribe'. The party at the other end probably had to hire someone to read the letter to them too.

Today, nearly everybody can read and write and producing a Web page is no big deal either. There's software available that will let eight-year-old kids make their own home pages.

The basic ability to write will not guarantee you a job. It's what you write and how well you do it that counts. The physical process of writing has very little to do with it and neat handwriting is just not enough.

The same goes for the Web. If you want to make a career out of it, you have to be able to add something extra to the mix. It might be technical, it might be artistic, it could be code or content. Whatever you are best at, work at it and develop those skills but never take your eye off the ball for a minute because it's rolling faster and faster!

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