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design notes

Web design never existed, so it can’t die.

I often read articles that catch my eye with a catchy title and this one posted on Mashable certainly caught my eye.

I enjoyed the article… but it is pure fiction. What is the premise of the article you may ask? Web design is dying. The problem I have with the premise is web design never existed in the first place. How do I know? Because I was there in the beginning of the digital design era. I grew up on the so called “wave” of innovation-I created the new digital design era and built websites seen by millions of people. At 43 years old, I am an old man in the design industry.

Many of the points made in the article are “true,” but they apply to the design industry as a whole, not just web design. The term “web design” was coined to allow the laymen to understand what it is they are looking at-what they are buying. Web design is graphic design, it’s graphic design applied to a different medium. The screen and graphic design will never die.

When I say web design never existed, I mean this in the same way that the internet cloud doesn’t exist. There is no cloud. Yep. No magical cloud in the sky that holds all of the internet. The cloud is another marketing term that makes it sound much easier to swallow- much easier to sell. And certainly much easier to monetize.

There is no web design. There is just design.

It is the people who practice design who make the difference

There are those people who practice design well and those that practice design poorly. Most practice design poorly. Our industry is flooded with unqualified people calling themselves “designers” who have no idea what they are doing. They download templates, frameworks, read a few books about the grid and presto-They are designers!

It is not all the fault of the bad designer. Poor design is accepted by the masses. It even wins awards. I am not kidding, I have seen some terrible design win awards. How can that be you ask? Well, most design contests are judged in a sea of mediocrity. This is not to say that all awards are bad, having won a few, they can really give you an ego boost. In practice they are nothing more than self serving competitions.

The design or the graphic design industry has struggled from day one. While its theories are well founded and based in logic and math, there is no system in place to qualify those who practice the art form. Architects, for example, regulate their industry. A new practitioner of Architecture must apprentice first, take exams and only then, become accepted by their peers. After that process they can call themselves Architects. This is not to say that bad Architects don’t exist. They do. But there is a system in place to at least reduce the number of bad Architects out there. That, or more buildings would fall down.

If you have a computer, some software and the balls to call yourself a designer, well, you are a designer.

Experience Design

The author goes on to say that “Experience Design” is the future, and that web designers are far from being obsolete. Thank you so much–that’s very kind to say! But let’s not call the reaper just yet.

For the last twenty years I have struggled with being labelled a “web designer.”  When I attend a party or meet someone new I am asked what it is I do. I reply “I’m a designer” the next question is “what type?” “Well I design websites, digital experiences…” “Oh you’re a web designer!” Right then they fit me into a neat little box. They follow that with “Hey do you know how to fix my email?”

Walking away

As a designer who has designed the websites, created and improved brands beyond expectations and experiences for fortune 100, fortune 500 and some of biggest brands in the world, I consistently have to “convince” clients that I am worth the extra cost. I hear clients say all the time that they have cousin who is in design school or has a computer and they created their terrific corporate logo in a couple of hours. So why on earth would they spend money on a logo when they have one for free? Another client is using the newest trend – “crowd sourcing” and they have all of their design answers from a number of strangers.

Right then. At that moment. I walk away from that client. Why? I have been burned too many times. I have spent my time convincing them, showing them, educating them on design and what design can do for them, their brand, their company and more importantly their ROI. In the end they don’t care, they don’t appreciate design.

Everyone thinks they know what design is. They decorate their houses. The dress themselves in the morning. They like the color blue. Of course they know how to design.

See the World Differently

I am a designer. I see the world differently. I don’t see the difference between web and print design. I use applications, pencils, brushes and all nature of other things to design—they are the tools I use to design. They do not define my design. Design happens when you are telling stories. Company’s stories. People’s stories.

Over the years I watched while brilliant award winning print designers that were unable to make the leap from paper to the screen. For a twenty something designer who had won design awards around the world by the time I was 25, this fact was absurd. How do you not know how to apply the principles of design from paper to screen? By the time I was in my mid twenties I had designed touch screens, billboards, products, vehicles, magazines, ads, cd-roms… the list goes on. Many of them were “award winning” and graced the pages of books and magazines.

Our industry does not help them either.

In the early 90’s, designers turned to the phrase “above the fold” to identify the space below the screen. This is the area of the browser that the user had to scroll to get to. The most important content was to be placed “above the fold” for a user to get it. Anything below the fold was never seen. Buttons had to have dimension for users to understand they could click it or if you believed the UX “gurus,” all links had to be blue and underlined. A lot of people did that, by the way, and still do.

I mean, really? Blue links.

The color blue was selected randomly by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, perhaps serendipitously, from the 256 windows color palette that was available to him at the time. But the UX gurus latched upon this random choice of color with an underline as the only way a link should be displayed. When I questioned this ‘rule’ I was informed that “users weren’t smart enough to learn other ways to click on content.”

This kind of dumbing down of how users can interact with content, and thinking that our users weren’t capable of using what we have built, has brought our industry to where we are today. This thinking has born a sea of monotone websites that all look the same based upon the grid.

In the beginning (and still today) we observe users using our websites and digital products through one way glass. We called it user testing. We ask the user non-leading questions and record everything they do. Most of the time these user tests are exercises in self-fulfilling prophecy, wasting time, money and resources.But slowly, user testing became the norm.

You may have heard a CEO would tell everyone that his site was user tested and that he spent six figures on it. It was bullet proof. It had to be good. Right?

When user testing became unreliable, it evolved into A/B testing. Essentially user testing on a larger scale, I mean why just test 10 people and observe them behind glass, when you can test the entire user base. Then Crowd source testing. Or was it the other way around? I don’t recall. All I know is it doesn’t work. At its best this kind of testing confirms what we already know, at its worst, it wastes everyones time, money, resources and delays the launches of products by months or longer.

I recall a CEO of a startup telling me that A/B testing was the future, his recently tested video on his homepage received more views being on the right side of the screen versus the left. His crowd A/B testing showed him the results. I just smiled, knowing in a few short months that he would be touting the next future of the internet. Its all hogwash-really. Smoke and mirrors.

These are the same people that always tell me “people don’t read.” This phrase makes me cringe. I have always disliked this phrase. It makes no sense. We live in a time where we are creating more reading material, or content, than ever before in human history. Ever. People do read. They read what is relevant to them. Relevant to their world. Their hobbies new or old. They immerse themselves in it. Magazines. Books. Clubs. Friends. Websites. Blogs. Tshirts.

The secret is your content is being read, its read by those that are interested in that type of content. The problem is finding the users that are interested in your content and this is where designers come in. A designers job is to get more eyes onto your content, to help you tell your story.

In the end design, web or otherwise, is suffering, but not dying. Design suffers because of the people who are practicing it, not because an industry is dying. There are more poor practitioners of design than good practitioners. Those who choose to practice conscientiously will create good design, those who do not will create bad design.

Web design is not dead. The phrase “web designer” may have run its course and I can’t wait to see what we call design next. Experiential design? Experience design? User design Experience?

I am always up for learning how to use a new type of pencil.