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What Is a Web Designer, Anyway?

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Web design is a marketable skill, but it is much more than that. Through this medium, you can reposition yourself from vendor to author, creating content and designing it your way. You can enrich your life; the lives of others; and make your mark on the medium - perhaps on your generation. All this and more is possible, when you take your graphic design talent to the Web.
This article is excerpted from Taking Your Talent to the Web: A Guide for the Transitioning Designer, by Jeffrey Zeldman.
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What do designers do? Designers organize information, shape identities, and create memorable experiences that entertain while communicating. Increasingly, designers are performing these tasks on the World Wide Web (the Web, to its friends). If you're reading this article, you're either doing the work already, thinking of migrating to the field, or considering adding web design to your repertoire of existing services.

Whether you design websites full-time or just occasionally, you'll be helping to shape what may be the most inherently profound medium since the printing press. The Web is vast, intrinsically democratic, and dripping with creative, personal, and business potential. Oddly enough, for something that gets used and talked about every day by hundreds of millions, it is also quite often misunderstood by practitioners as well as users.

Before you do anything drastic, such as buying "web software," changing your career, or leaving that louse who is only pretending to love you, it makes sense to find out where you are going and what you will be dealing with. So let's start by examining what is a Web designer anyway?

A Designer Is As a Designer Does, Sir: A Job Overview

We'll start with a working definition.


Web designers are professionals who solve a client's communication problems and leverage the client's brand identity in a web-specific way.

Complementing this focus on the client's needs, web designers must think like the site's anticipated audience. They foresee what visitors will want to do on the site and create navigational interfaces that facilitate those needs.

Pretty dry stuff, we'll grant you, but like marital bliss, it's better than it sounds.

How does this all this fancy talk break down in terms of daily tasks? Below is a summary of deeds you'll do during the web development project lifecycle.

Through the project lifecycle, the web designer will need to:

  • Understand and discuss the underlying technology—its possibilities and limitations as well as related issues—with clients and team members.

  • Translate client needs, content, and branding into structured website concepts.

  • Translate projected visitor needs into structured website concepts.

  • Translate website concepts into appropriate, technically executable color comps.

  • Design navigation elements.

  • Establish the look and feel of web pages, including typography, graphics, color, layout, and other factors.

  • Render design elements from Photoshop, Illustrator, and other visual development environments into usable elements of a working website.

  • Lay out web pages and sites using HTML and other web development languages.

  • Organize and present content in a readable, well-designed way.

  • Effectively participate on a web development team.

  • Modify graphics and code as needed (for instance, when technological incompatibilities arise or when clients' business models change—as they often do in this business).

  • Program HTML, JavaScript, and Style Sheets as needed. In larger agencies, this work is often performed by web developers and technicians, but the accomplished web designer must be ready to do any or all of these tasks as needed.

  • Try not to curse browser makers, clients, or team members; obstacles are encountered throughout the process. (Well, go ahead and curse browser makers if you want to.)

  • Update and maintain client sites as needed. Though this job, too, often falls to web technicians or producers, don't think you're off the hook. You're never off the hook.

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