There was always much confusion about what web design is, especially in circles where self-educated designers work. Today this term is rarely used because few other, more focused professions sprung out of it. That is quite understandable, because processes are much more complex than they used to be, but you can be certain that this profession still exists.
So, what does web design represent today?
There are two different (amateurish) views on what should web designers do. First group will tell you that web designers are professionals that are focused only on design and nothing else, that they should not have programming skills. Second group will tell you that web designers must know how to code as well.
They are both wrong, because this list is far from complete.
As a graduated graphic designer and as a web designer and front-end developer with almost 20 years of professional experience, I will try to expand definition on what web design really is. It is much more than people may think.
In short — web design is another branch of applied arts, besides famous graphic design and industrial design. Wherever you see those words tied in together, “applied” and “art”, it means that profession involves a lot of engineering skills as well.
For example, industrial designers must know materials and technological processes for creating their shiny new appliances, while graphic designers must know a lot about prepress, colors and materials used in print if they want to create beautiful designs for books, posters etc.
Same as those two mentioned professions, web designers must know how design, to code and to deliver what they have imagined.
All applied designers have some common traits in their professions. Those traits are divided into 4 main groups, which when combined make up a specialized design profession. They are as follows:
This is what most people consider design to be — typography, color theory, composition, illustration, visualization. Esthetics must be visually appealing to intended audience. Based on your preference, you will develop your own style given enough time. It is very important that you develop unique styles for each new product you create, because you want it to stand out from the sea of similar products.
Don’t think for a second that using finished styles from another designers will make you a good designer. Here I think especially about using finished styles like the ones used in Twitter’s Bootstrap, Google’s Material design, Microsoft’s Fluent design system etc. Those are all extremely well done design systems made for those companies. They improve visibility of their own brands, but not your own. Remember that when you get tempted to use some pre-made frameworks. Create your own if you have budget for it.
This is a whole science in itself and the area is truly vast. Some designers may, for example, find that typography is very appealing to them so that they may choose to specialize in that specific topic, while others may find that specializing in design systems is better for them.
Good designer should posses balanced knowledge of all topics that are important in this area of specialization. Web designer’s job is to focus on fields that are important for creation of user interfaces and best ways of transferring intended message to end users.
Most designers do this part of their creative process in programs like Photoshop and Illustrator, but depending on profession, industrial designers may use 3D programs like CAD or 3D MAX, while web designers may use Affinity Designer, Sketch or something similar. Of course, no one is stopping them from using a mix of these programs in their creative process or to even use more traditional methods like pen and paper.
This part is also very important and it makes designers true professionals in their chosen fields. As I have mentioned, each of these design fields is different in regards to end product and technologies used to create it. Since this article is about web design, I will focus on that field only.
It is important for a web designer to know technology for which he is creating a new product. In this case that is knowledge of medium where design is presented and technology that is used to power our products — web or mobile applications. More specifically, web designers are creating their products in web technologies that are using different screens and devices as medium to transfer information to and from end users.
How will design look and adapt to different screen sizes, pixel densities and in rare cases for limited color palettes and screen refresh rates? How will web designer prepare his creation for that medium? How will that creation perform over different networks, on slower or older devices?
It is important for a web designer to know enough to create at least a static web site with functional, responsive and performant interface. Everything beyond that is a job for dedicated front-end and back-end developers.
Don’t assume that your job ends here, we have two more important areas ;)
Definition of ergonomy: Design factors intended to maximize productivity by minimizing operator fatigue and discomfort.
When you are designing your application, it must be intuitive and easy to use. Users should be able to find information they need in the least amount of time, with least effort.
This may sound easy, but it really isn’t, because web designer must take into account different design and technological factors and then overlap them with user psychology, learned user behavior, data extracted from analytics, A/B tests and limiting factors like disabilities. End result must be application that most users can use without any fatigue.
You may also find this area of design appealing so that you may specialize in UX (user experience) design, but as a web designer you must have general knowledge of this area.
If esthetics and technology are used to design outlook of your application, ergonomy would be designing of your application’s soul.
Don’t mistake value for price. While the ultimate goal for our product is to be profitable, it must provide some benefits to end-users. It may provide pure knowledge, it may be used for entertainment or as a tool, but benefit must exist. Otherwise, we have created just pure art, which is not something that we as web designers should focus on.
Creating value is the hardest thing to achieve for any product, because you must have a good idea and a plan to achieve it. If you are creating web design for your customers, they will already provide their idea, but it is up to you to create a plan on how to make new application beneficial and attractive for users.
All of the three mentioned factors — esthetics, technology and ergonomy also increase the value of product. This is why it is important to be good in all four areas in order to create a complete and desirable product.
There is a reason why web design isn’t as mentioned today compared to few years ago: with ever-growing complexity of technologies we are working with, as well as with their shorter life-cycle, it has become increasingly difficult to retain this professional title. Just the sheer amount of topics one must master in order to become web designer is pretty scary to most people.
Today, I can easily state that amount of knowledge needed for this profession is equal to 5 year university education. This is the reason why we have many relatively smaller professions that have sprung out of web design: UI design, UX design and front-end development.
When I compare these professions to common design traits I wrote about in this article, it looks something like this:
Front-end development is marked differently because it is much wider development area compared to what is needed for web design or UI development.
For more clarity, I will make one more comparison between web development professions.
When it comes to front-end development, situation is pretty complex and confusing for most people. We have three main professions involved in front-end development:
- UI developers
- Web designers
Main difference is the area of their work.
As the last “profession” we have unicorns. :)
I am certain that there are such people out there today, ones that can create everything on their own, but as the time passes by and complexity of each profession increases, IQ and time requirements needed to become unicorn are much higher with each passing year. It is increasingly more difficult to remain a web designer or full-stack developer, let alone a unicorn developer. This is the main reason why these professions are rare today and no wonder — those who have tried to do it are struck more and more with Developaralysis ;)
Do we, web designers still exist? Of course we do, but I fear that this profession will very soon become mystical as full-stack or unicorn developers are. Unless, of course, we create universities with 5 year programs where we will teach new kids on how to become applied web artists.
Now, that would be a goal worth pursuing ;)
Web designer and front-end developer since 1998.