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Q: What is a Web Designer anymore? It was easier to make Web sites all by yourself, even 5 years ago, but now there is just too much technology for one person to handle. If I want to make a Web site for a very small business, don't have I to be web "developer" now?

The short answer is that everybody is a Web designer now.

The slightly longer answer is that Web designers are practitioners of a highly specialized discipline that requires years of study to truly master.

The long answer is that a good Web designer is a good designer, and this can come “naturally” or from training, but is not medium-dependent. However, a professional Web designer has to understand the medium well enough to know its strengths and limitations. Any designer can pump out something that looks brilliant when displayed in a Web browser window, but is slow to load, static when loaded, and completely unusable.

This does not mean that to be a professional Web designer you also have to be a professional Web developer. You just need to understand what a developer does and how they are doing it.

When I started my professional career back in the mid 1990s, my first job title at the (now defunct) Persimmon IT was literally “Web Designer.” This title meant that I did everything “soup to nuts,” as they say, on the front-end of the Web site. I defined the creative brief, site goal, audience personas, use cases, wire frames, story boards, mood boards, and visual comps. I developed the interface chrome, HTML code, and JavaScript code (CSS hadn't really hit the scene yet), and worked closely with back-end developers when we needed data-rich Web sites. I deployed the site, QAed it, and then finally launched it.

By the late 1990s, though, the practice of Web design had split into many different disciplines, each with its own title and sphere of influence, including Information Architect, User Experience Designer (or just Experience Designer), User Interface Designer, Web Developer, and Front-end Developer, just to mention a few. In addition, many of the traditional design titles were being used for more senior team members including Visual Designer, Art Director, Design Manager and Creative Director.

That said, the basic technology used to create Web sites has changed surprisingly little over the last 10 years and has not changed at all in the last 5 years. All Web sites still use the same core Web technologies used 10 years ago—HTML, CSS, and JavaScript—which have changed only marginally. These technologies are just as easy to use as they were then. However, two important factors have changed:

  1. The browsers. As little as 5 years ago, the browsers simply did not support the core Web technologies to the level that they do today. So, while the the standards have remained rather static, the browsers have had some time to catch up. This means that Web sites can do a lot more than they used to. AND new techniques have been developed from the existing technologies and standards. One such example is Ajax, which is based on HTTP and JavaScript.
  2. The users. Our expectations of what a “professional” Web site looks like and does have grown over the last 10 years and accelerated in the last 5. The Web is littered with poorly designed and poorly maintained business Web sites. Whereas 5 or 10 years ago, someone visiting your site might have endured the experience, users are far more Web savvy and have higher expectations, even from simple sites.

The problem is that, unlike most other media, anyone can be a Web designer. Anyone can put content on the Web. Anyone can set up a blog. anyone can set up My Space pages. But not everyone can design.

Think about it this way: Can you paint your house? Of course you can. Anyone can run down to the local DIY store, pick up a few gallons of paint, some rollers, and a drop cloth and start slapping paint on a wall. so why are there professional house painters? If you’ve actually ever painted your house, you’ll know why. A professional will make sure that the colors coordinate, that all of the edges meet precisely, and that paint doesn’t get on the trim. The overall effect is generally much cleaner and more satisfying with a professional house painter and they generally work much faster. Now, that doesn’t mean that a talented amateur can’t paint their house every bit as well as a professional, but not everyone is a talented amateur.

If you are a professional Web designer (or possibly even a talented amateur), you may feel like that in order to produce your own Web site, you also have to be a developer. While being both a developer and a designer is great and can allow you to do a lot of cool things, they are different skill sets and it is becoming increasingly difficult to be an expert (or even well versed) in both. However, that is not to say that a designer can’t put up a great Web site without a developer's input.

Here are a few suggestions for designers who want to create their own Web sites:

  1. Learn CSS and stay up to date. CSS is the language of Web design, and if you want to create Web designs, you will have to know it. HTML is also very useful, but not as critical.
  2. Use a Content Management System like WordPress or Drupal. These systems take the hard work of creating the structure (HTML) and interactivity (JavaScript) out of the development process. You can even easily apply a wide variety of design themes (CSS), but if you want to look professional (and not have to be indebted to another designer) I recommend starting with one of the basic templates and then adjust the CSS to apply your own unique design.
  3. Add plug-ins for functionality. Most Content Management Systems allow you to quickly add functionality by installing plug-ins. WordPress, for example, allows you to simply find the plug-in you like and with a single click add it to your site.
  4. Keep it simple. If you are not comfortable with design or technology, there’s no shame in growing your site and its functionality slowly.

It's ironic that although the Web is getting to be a more complex place, with more opportunities for design beyond the simply visual, at the same time the tools that allow Web designers to create compelling interactive content are still growing.

Jason Cranford Teague has been a practicing "Web Designer" since 1994 and is the author of over 13 book on digital media. His most recent book, Speaking In Styles: The Fundamentals of CSS for Web Designers, is available now. His next book, Fluid Web Typography: A Guide, will be out later this year.

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