“And what is it that you do?”
I have my answer, but I hesitate. I’m at a wedding reception, a backyard barbecue, an airport terminal. A preface would make me sound timid; further explanation, overeager; naming clients, self-involved.
“I’m a web designer,” I say, and leave it at that. I shuffle my feet, and I feel the beginning of that awkward, apologetic, self-conscious smile. I know what’s coming.
“Oh, that’s nice,” is the flat, polite reply.
Dammit. That didn’t go the way I wanted it to. Again.
Once more, I’ve proven to be a poor representative of the industry I’m so proud to belong to. I know what comes to mind when I use the term web designer—an overenthusiastic adolescent fresh from MySpace with a pirated copy of Photoshop® and a code editor, or maybe a clipart-loving temp worker who knows how to save a Microsoft Word® document as an HTML file. I always want to follow up with, “But I’m one of the good ones. Really! Here, let me pull up this site for you on my iPhone®.” But I’ve already lost their interest.
People in our field are problem solvers, engineers, researchers, and craftspeople responsible for architecting how we all live and interact on the web. Why is it so hard for me to explain that? Why can’t I be smooth?
I have one brother-in-law in his last year of law school and another doing cancer research. They don’t have the same problem. When people hear lawyer or scientist, they generally know what that entails. They think of them as intellectuals, critical thinkers, and invaluable members of a professional community. I feel that what web designers do is just as exciting, challenging, and interesting. Regrettably, few people I encounter out there regard web design in the same way we do.
If we ever want to stop sitting at the proverbial kids’ table, we need to do more to gain respect, and one of the most important ways is to be able to clearly express who we are as a profession. How do we articulate the complexities of what we do in a way that everyone will not only understand, but respect?
Web design is just moving out of its infancy. We started with HTML and moved from table-based layouts toward CSS-based layouts and from building websites to building fully functional web applications. User experience, content strategy, and information architecture have become central to web design and have led the industry into its formative adolescence.
Remember the aforementioned youngster who’s representing us in the imaginations of people I encounter? Even though the industry has matured, there’s a reason he’s still our mascot: the low barrier of entry. The web is chock-full of free resources for anyone looking to learn HTML; this open access is one of my favorite things about the web. However, with so many people operating under the moniker of web designer the span of capability becomes incredibly broad.
Case in point: every time I drive into Austin, I pass a plywood sign propped up by two milk crates in someone’s front yard. Spray-painted on the sign is “Need a website? Call 555-555-5555 for web design services.” This person may be talented, but the absence of a url on his billboard has me thinking we’re entering GoDaddy Site Builder® territory. This guy is a web designer. He shares a job title with Josh Brewer and Naz Hamid. How can this be?
Anyone, even Mr. Spray Paint, can become a web designer. And, in some ways, that’s a good thing. Some of the best designers I know are self-taught. The problem arises, however, when there are more adolescents and spray paint guys representing our field than there are Josh Brewers and Naz Hamids.
The Evolution of Our Role
In the early 1990s, the world hadn’t yet realized the economic and social potential available to them through the web. People weren’t buying things online, updating their statuses, or checking bank accounts from their smartphones. Websites were not yet a crucial element behind the success of a business or idea. Web designers (in the sense that we know them today) did not exist.
Most of the hired talent were regarded as binary clerical workers, employed by department heads of large organizations, doomed (as I imagine/remember) to windowless, server-filled basements where, as webmasters, they sat waiting for their supervisors to storm down and bark out the next site update. Think Austin Millbarge à la Dan Aykroyd in Spies Like Us.
Then the internet exploded. Dial-up moved to DSL, and DSL moved to broadband. Everyone wanted to access everything all the time. When organizations realized that customers wanted to be served online, demand for websites and web designers grew. “Millbarge! We’re moving you out of the basement.”
One could now buy a Fender Telecaster on Amazon, turn around and sell it on eBay, then take the proceeds and reserve movie tickets at Fandango. Web designers moved from accessory to necessity by architecting the places where organizations met their users online. Businesses were built around our trade, and we evolved from the keepers of the code department to trusted consultants and decision makers.
Then Steve Jobs pulled an iPhone® out of his pocket. In a few short years, we went from building static sites for desktop browsers to dynamic web applications for any device in existence. The complex implementation of these techniques alongside the emergence of technologies like CSS(3), HTML(5), and web fonts set the stage for us to exhibit the depth of our expertise, the weight of our experience, and our growth from amateurs to multifaceted professionals. We not only build things people view like brochures, but things that people use.
These challenges have forced us to evolve over the years from those binary clerical workers to innovators, and from those challenges emerge a total that is greater than the sum of its parts—internet mojo. This intangible sense of how websites materialize to best serve an individual or organization (based on very tangible experience, skills, and knowledge) is where we, as web designers, derive our value.
Have we evolved so quickly that we don’t yet grasp the importance of our profession? If we don’t respect what we do, how can we expect others to? Like it or not, we are all ambassadors for our field, and it’s our duty as such to have a dialogue with clients about the how and why, not just the what. When we quietly deliver code and pixels with no discussion of objective or strategy, we’re asking to be treated like we belong back in that server-filled basement. But we’re worth more than that.
We know this. Our industry knows this. Most of our clients know this. But not the guy I’m sitting next to in the airport terminal.
Lockhart: The Undisputed BBQ Capital of Texas
People drive from every corner of the state to eat barbecue at Kreuz Market (est. 1900) in Lockhart, Texas. I’ve made the pilgrimage numerous times to enjoy their unique brand of barbecue: “smoked meats straight from the pits on pieces of butcher paper, [served] with no forks, no sauces, and no side dishes.”1
In 1990, the owner, Edgar “Smitty” Schmidt, sold the business to his pit-master sons Rick and Don, but bequeathed the property—building and all—to his daughter, Nina. A family dispute forced Rick and Don to move a half mile down the road to a new location, taking the business and the Kreuz name with them. Nina reopened in the same building under the new name Smitty’s. The feud climaxed when, on the night before his grand opening, Rick Schmidt dragged the coals from his father’s pit fires (though everyone who tells this story swears that he lit a torch) and paraded them down the street through a crowd of onlookers to the new location.
Why was Schmidt inclined to do this when he had the necessary tools and materials at his new place? He knew that what makes Kreuz Market barbecue worth a hundred-mile drive isn’t just a recipe or a smoker, but his own pit-master mojo—all the experience and technique gained from years of nursing brisket and sausage. He knew that for Kreuz to retain its value, he had to publicly substantiate this.
I eat barbecue just like people use the internet—mass consumption with no idea how to produce it myself—but the legend now associated with Kreuz Market serves as a testimony to the power of asserting what it is that makes us valuable. As web designers we would do well to follow Rick Schmidt’s example.
Talk About It
We must articulate what we do through our own successful results. It’s as simple as this: Do your best work, then talk about it. Take jobs that provide opportunities to solve unique problems or ones that require technical innovation, and grind it out. Half the jobs I get into start with no clear way from point A to B. It’s a struggle, but it pays off when I get to contribute to the work of my peers and help shape the future of the web.
Similarly, the evolution of the medical profession shows us that this collaborative attitude is the best way forward. People have been practicing medicine since antiquity, and thanks to the efforts of those who shared their experiences, those who followed were able to build on their knowledge and ultimately develop more effectual practices.
The ancient Egyptians recorded medical procedures, such as wound treatment and surgery, on papyrus. The Greek physician, Hippocrates, left posterity a host of recorded medical insight, among which is the Hippocratic Oath, still taken by doctors today. Thanks to the writing of Galen, the Romans were able to improve surgical procedures and create better surgical instruments.
It wasn’t until after the first European university, a school of medicine attached to a monastery, was created in the Italian city of Salerno, that the term doctor—from the Latin word for teacher—was used to describe medical practitioners. This was a turning point for medicine because establishment of a curriculum meant that professionals within the field had to come to a consensus on best practices. (I see us headed the same way, toward establishing our own informal curriculum when we debate things such as progressive enhancement or how best to build for mobile devices.) The Renaissance saw scientists improve those practices through medical research, and the printing press allowed for more efficient and economical documentation and information sharing. The following centuries built upon these advances, adding to them vaccinations, X-rays, sanitation, better surgical tools, and, God bless them, anesthetics.
Documentation and discussion have helped advance the industry, bringing with them numerous medical breakthroughs as exciting for the doctors as they are for the patients who benefit from them.
Those of us who build for the web know how exciting it is to contribute to advancement. I can easily recall the sense of wonder I felt working with web fonts for the first time or seeing a site I built reshape effortlessly into an iPhone screen. We become impassioned, bursting at the seams with new ideas to share with our peers and clients. Of course, our peers will understand what we are saying; our clients may not. People are unlikely to respect what they don’t understand. This is why we need to develop an entirely new craft: explaining the complexities of what we do in ways people can understand.
I’m always tempted to overexplain web design, pulling terms from our quickly evolving lexicon like information architect, content strategist, or user experience designer. These terms may be helpful, but it’s usually only a matter of time before they’re buried in tech speak. I might as well tell people my job is to go to Toshi Station and pick up some power converters. Detailed description and full comprehension aren’t necessary for people to understand our worth. A little bit of clarity goes a long way. Good results go even further. I don’t know the best way to smoke brisket or how to stitch an open wound, but I do know what great brisket tastes like, and I really appreciate the retained use of my hand after being attacked by that damn window.
One of the best ways I’ve found to provide digestible examples for nonindustry folk is how I approach my portfolio. If our strength lies in our comprehensive knowledge of the web and problem-solving skills, but our portfolio is limited to screenshots, we’re selling ourselves short. A web designer’s portfolio should be a set of case studies rather than just a gallery of images.
Explaining how people use and interact with my creations goes over much better than only listing the nuts and bolts behind the deliverables. After all, these wonderfully intricate things we build have become part of people’s lives, things they use every day.
Write about your process, your unique way of addressing each client’s needs. If you’re like me and spend more time typing than speaking out loud, this can be a valuable exercise. This sort of debriefing helps me when I need to verbalize the intricacies of my work in person to actual human beings.
“And what is it that you do?”
I have my answers locked and loaded. I’m ready to pounce on any question he may have or shred of interest he may exhibit in any particular area. I’ve got stories to tell and examples from other fields to tie in. Bring it on.
“I’m a web designer. I run a small web shop out of Austin, and we’re currently building a site that sells vintage car parts from computers and smartphones.”
Perfect! This guy can take the conversation anywhere. We can talk about small business, Texas, or vintage cars.
“Oh, that’s nice,” he says as he looks back at his Kindle.
Joe Nick Patoski, “Pit Split,” (Texas Monthly, February 1999). ↩