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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Web Design Skill Requirements (or the lack thereof)

What Skill Set is Required Design to for the Web?
I lead and administrate a bunch of Google Groups (I'll leave a small list of links to some of these groups at the end of this post).  Because I run these groups and because I have been designing websites for over 14 years, I am often asked, "What do I need to know in order to be a web designer?"

I see the quick answer all the time, and it is wrong.  The quick answer is a small list...
  • HTML
  • CSS
  • Javascript
  • Flash
...that list is complete and utter bunk.

In order to be a professional web designer, the first and most important thing you must know is how to design. This is the basic problem, we have so many people out there that can write code or throw-up a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) based editor generated layout and yet they cannot design themselves a way out of a paper bag.

I want to give you an example of a powerhouse that doesn't know how to design... Google.  Technically, it superior in development, but the anal idiocy and lack of intuitiveness with which is obviously inherent in many of its products is mind numbing.  Phones should not act like tablets and vice-versa.  Yet Google gives swipe motion commands that throws away my web pages in Chrome on My phone because it is is treating it as if it is a tablet.  All I wanted to do is scroll around for a better view on My zoomed-in screen, Google, but you didn't even bother to take that into account.  Another example is how illogically the interface for its proprietary "Sites" editor and page management interface is non-existant and fights the user trying to accomplish something.  Furthermore, the terminologies used in Sites are inexplicably wrong from either a design or development standpoint.

Google started out with a great idea and then threw-up its hands in disgust of the project and now very few people will even take advantage of its free business site hosting because it is so illogical and confounds the design and development processes.  Due to the lack of attention to detail and its complete inattention to intuitiveness, there are many such products, such as Google's Sites, that have been a complete failure.

It's All About the Brand
Design is one thing, but branding is a whole new area of expertise.  Sometimes web designers are asked to create a Trademark, Service Mark or logo for a small business website as it moves to expand its market through online media.  This is not necessarily a bad thing as long as the web designer understands trademarking and is capable of designing a brand.  Brands are unique, that is their job, to be easily and immediately recognizable after repeated exposure.  They are designed to cast a positive light on the enterprise they become identified with using symbolism and suggestive design techniques.  Studies on positive reinforcement visual communication and Trademark history are required.

Sometimes The approach to designing logos for web media is much the same in principle, but actually requires a bit more attention to detail.  The simple reason is that there are more problems associated with web media than with print.  The resolution is comparatively bad, so there is considerably less ability to account for detail, making attention to the detail in a logo all that more significant and demanding.  The colors chosen for a logo will look different on different platforms, devices and monitors.  Logos can offer interactivity on the web, which can compound the rules of branding.

The website is an advertisement.  The website is a marketing tool.  The website is a 24 hour-a-day sales team.  The website promotes the company presence and expands its reach.  The website represents everything about that company as an extension of its brand.

If a designer does not understand professional branding, he/she has no business in the professional web design industry.  A professional designer needs to be able to design a unique brand and the job of a professional web designer is to showcase the company message, products and services under that brand. 

Understanding Layout Design for Web Media
Designing a page layout is different for web media than it is for print.  Part of the reason is that the web is commercialized.  Our clients are commercial enterprises seeking to do business.  The other part is that when you are holding a magazine you can easily flip to the cover if you forget which magazine it is you are reading.  This is not always the case with a website.  Just yesterday I logged into my bank's website and wound-up at their online security outsourcer's website on a whole different domain name.  Although this is a pathetic practice, it is actually quite common because smaller business just can't dedicate the resources that a large corporation can.  And by specializing in such services a single small company can accommodate a wide variety of small banks who need secure account and transaction management capabilities.

Again, the brand is therefore promoted on every page of the site as if a letterhead for the page.  Brand colors may section off areas for navigation, sidebars and promotional advertising.  Even brand icons and link type hint icons can be used extensively through out the website. 

When a visitor is done with the business website, even if they do not buy and are not looking to do business with this company, they are always impressed upon by the brand.  After viewing only a single page, any page of the website, the visitor should have had the brand impressed upon them enough to recognize it again for years to come.

Understanding the Current Best Practices for Standards Compliant Web Coding
It just isn't enough to know HTML, a web designer has to stay on top of the current best practices of web standards.  That means that he not only has to know the current standards (currently HTML5 & CSS3) and how to utilize them to make an original web page from scratch (without using someone else's template) custom-made for the client, he has to know how to use the code effectively so that the ratio of content to code is maximized to facilitate search, and that the site offers no stumbling blocks that a search engine's spider could trip over and get stuck, opt to abandon the task at hand leaving pages uncrawled.

Gone are the days of table based web design.  Tables were never supposed to be used to create designs.  They were meant for structuring tabular data and allow the easy extraction of data.  At one time this is what pros were paid to do, work around the absence of any decent layout formatting and structure tools by hacking the page using tables to produce layouts.  But now we have most of the layout tools, structure tags, and the positioning ability to work with the code to design stunning layouts without having to resort to bastardizing the tables tags. And the bastardization of tables has actually hampered search engines since they can't rely on data found within tables as tabular data.

Professionals understand that we have to stop using tables and the web will eventually right itself.  Unfortunately, the search engines aren't promoting web standards, yet.  This is the larger issue, if a website uses a table for layout it should be penalized for it.  Or at least web standards compliant code should be rewarded.  So in reality, now the search engines (yes, Google especially) are keeping us down by not rewarding the effort put into designing sites well according to standards.

However, it will happen.  It has to, it's simply the natural progession of things.  Bing is already dropping poorly coded websites, but more has to be done.  Well coded, standards compliant websites need to be rewarded.  Now.  Perhaps the search engines are taking vengeance on the professional web designer for hacking the design layout by using tables in the first place long ago?  And now we, as web designers, await the search engines to clean-up their algorithm mess?

Whatever the case is, it will be straightened-out.  You will not have to have a professionally designed website in order to produce a standards compliant online presence, but standards compliant code really does need to be a priority that factors into in the search results.   

There is good reason, as well.  If you actually look at the code produced by those one-page and extremely long-paged affiliate, spammer, scammer and malicious software websites you will see tables.  In my experience this has been the one theme shared by poor sites and web spam.  To not acknowledge this is pretty stupid on the behalf of search engines.

The reason these guys are using tables to produce these crappy websites is because it's so easy to put-up such a site with any WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) web editor.  I could easily put up 3 crappy sites a day, this way.  And that is exactly why these guys use tables, they are quick and dirty and extremely effortless to produce.  But crafting a website with care using CSS does still have its rewards.  Namely, optimization, easier (quicker) page loading and taking up less memory to display. 

Web designers need to understand the code required to build web pages, HTML & CSS.  Once they do, they can build better coded websites that are standards compliant and with a little more research can utilize the best practices required for more efficient websites.

As far as Javascript goes, I can now do literally anything that I need to in CSS3 that I would need Javascript for interactivity, excepting form validation (which actually relies more on logic coding than the effects I used to use Javascript for).  Since there are many publicly available customizable Javascript scripts that accomplish this, and since there are all sorts of Javascript frameworks to utilize Javascript more easily, having Javascript knowledge or experience can be a bonus, but is more incidental since this is not where our industry is headed.  Furthermore, there are tons of other server-side languages that can be much more useful in the long run since Javascript requires the user to have it activated in the browser for it to even work.

Flash is much similar, though it is actually a third party proprietary package provided by Adobe.  Again, it needs to be activated in order for the client to view any sort of Flash.  Yet because it requires a plug-in, that has to be downloaded and installed as well.  On top of that, the plug-in has to be updated periodically, and so even if a user has Flash capabilities activated, he might not be able to see Flash media that was programmed in the very latest version until he updates his plug-in.  The thing is, using HTML5's canvas tag along with CSS3 capabilities will already allow us to accomplish a great deal that Flash does.  And there is no plug-in required, all you need is a modern browser (and browsers should be kept up-to-date anyway just to prevent security issues).

The whole problem is that we have relied on technicians to design the web and now it is becoming less and less intuitive and a whole lot more complicated.  This was the problem from the onset, but people ignored it because money was tight.  Unfortunately, now-a-days everything has to be redone because it fights the user and sends out a cry for help.  Unless this is addressed the brand becomes quagmired in illogical, unintuitive, unfreindly interfaces for presentations that actually alienate rather than invite and guide the user in and along an easy to follow path.

Everyone wants to be leaders but refuse to invest in the education required to be a good one.  The simple plain truth of it is that most web design today absolutely sucks.  That's the long and short of it.  And it sucks because design was not even an afterthought in most any case.

So the brand continues to die a slow death in the name of economics, but it never had to, and the investment required to undo all that was done is actually quite staggering.  Or just let the brand die by not even considering design.  But if you do choose the alternative... let the designer lead the project,  ALWAYS.

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