The Incessant Whine of Web Designers

Posted in Rant, Web Design

I can’t be the first person to think that web designers – often, freelancers as a group – spend more time and energy telling everybody else that that their work is important. In particular, it seems like once a week, a designer will stop and write a scathing post on how their annoying their clientele are to question their expertise in design, and that their labor really is worth the money. There’s also plenty of stuff written by the community on managing clients and expectations.

Admittedly, a part of me just attributes this behavior to hubris. Maybe it’s because I’m in the silicon valley where software engineering is accepted as valuable, but I don’t see the same amount of self-important proclamations coming from my fellow programmers about how important their work is and how no one understands their profession. Personally, I think both are important to the end product, so it’s a bit curious why the design community is more vocal. Here be a few possible reasons:

Web design is in its infancy

Web development as a field is pretty new, even within the realm of software engineering and computer science; it’s only really gained traction in the last half decade or so. In particular, whereas the engineering half of web development stands on the shoulders of software development (e.g., Hiphop as a PHP -> C++ tool), web design traces its roots from print and media design, but brings along its own quirks and challenges.

In particular, though, I’m comparing the maturity of web design against that of traditional art, music and literature. I mean that as with regard to the level of cultural “respect” or awareness – everybody can draw, sing, or write to some degree – but our society recognizes and promotes greatness in the humanities, labels it culture, and praises its virtues even when most of society doesn’t really understand why great works are held in such high regard. In this context, even when web design produces something completely awesome, it’s not realized and in fact, can even look pedestrian.

Design faces the users

Fun fact: users don’t really know what they want.

Then it is an unfortunate malady of customer software that, web-based or otherwise, in the end has to interface with a user.

Engineering is well-insulated from end users by a layer of technical obfuscation. Web design, though, is in the business of explaining complex ideas in simple-to-understand terms to a user who is most likely non-technical; how well it simplifies the complex ideas of software remain subjective and varies with each user. It’s easy to be blamed when you’re at the top of the stack.

There is a wide variance in skill

One of the downsides of working in a field with a low barrier of entry is that expertise is hard to discern. Many designers are self-taught, and the process of building a website itself is a series of design decisions. I’d imagine anybody who gets involved in creating a website imbues himself with some level of design knowledge: picking a color here or there, adding drop shadows and lens flares, scrolling marquees, all the telltale signs of greatness. When said amateur is also the person paying for your design services, well, the concessions are made with a many great grumblings and gnashing of teeth.

I’d like to think most web designers and front-end developers are indeed skilled and good at what they do. Reminding others over and over again, whether it’s reaffirming the importance of your field or complaining about crappy clients, just sounds like whining after a while. Let your work speak for itself.

  • You said it yourself: designers are at the top of the stack. Not only are they an easy target, operating in a field where ability is difficult to quantify, but daily they encounter non-designers unaccountably eager to contribute their two cents on everything from palette to line height. I think a degree of defensiveness is forgivable.