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Website design is dead. To a degree.

Feb 22nd, 2015 by Max Tokman

A colleague recently brought to my attention an article which stated in rather axiomatic fashion that website design is dead, period.  As this would obviously concern many a practicing web designer with existentialist questions - if website design has indeed expired, well then, have I? Are my current projects being shaped by forces beyond the grave? - I figured it might be beneficial to explore the question in depth and offer constructive criticism instead of outright dismissal (spoiler alert: you’re not dead).

The article in question is a mix of very valid arguments, half truths and outright misstatements.  The main points can be summed up as follows:

1. Electronic marketplaces like Elance has turned design and programming talent into commodities, with price point determining who gets the job

2. Proliferation of website building tools like Wix, Squarespace and the like has made the job of designers and developers irrelevant, as sites can be build with little technical or creative expertise

3. To survive, digital firms need to offer more than just good creative and development - they need to constantly innovate and reinvent themselves, expanding into related fields and forging deeper vertical relations with their clients

4. Don’t despair, just keep continuously reinventing your firm and you’ll be all set

It is true that sites like Elance have democratized talent pool and made contracting small scale projects a breeze.  It also made most of us into jaded cosmopolitans knowing that behind every smooth online sales pitch is a back office room in Bangalore or Lviv stuffed (not necessarily staffed) with a bunch of code kiddies.  There certainly are legitimate firms and skilled individuals listed on Elance, but the amount of sifting required to separate them from the chaff makes it almost not worthwhile.  It also speaks to monumentally poor planning if first you land a project and then scramble for talent to get it done - I cannot think of anything beyond personal or pro bono work that can fit that approach, where budgets are tight or nonexistent and timelines are completely flexible.  You certainly cannot approach a project of any importance with intention of outsourcing specialty work on Elance, and if the job comes with a contract requiring a legal review - well, good luck mentioning those online marketplaces as your talent pool.  

The same criteria applies to website building tools, some of which we have previously reviewed.  At this point those website building kits are essentially inbound marketing tools used by hosting companies to bring in new clients and locks them into a proprietary platform.  These website tools are not intended to create fully cross browser, cross platform sites of any complexity, let alone with high fidelity to client approved designs.  Again, you can certainly build personal, pro bono or prototype sites using tools like Wix or Muse, but never a commercial product that represents your work.  And you can only minimally leverage those tools toward a final website build because the sheer amount of work required to work with their auto-generated code makes it pretty useless for professionals aiming at a high-end result; the only code that can realistically migrate to high-end work is some text styling CSS.

As I kept trekking along past the doom and gloom predictions about web design field being overrun by hordes of Elancers wielding Squarespace, past the gasps of “possibly the best book cover design of all time” (seriously, this was not written by a 13 year old girl), I came across one valid point, namely that the current state of technology offers opportunities for exploring customer relations past traditional design and development.  That certainly is very true, and as you build complex sites integrated with 3rd party systems there is an excellent opportunity to learn more about other aspects of a client’s business and have your firm’s offering comprehensively embedded throughout client’s organization in sales, customer relations, operations and billing.  As we’ve been saying for years, complex websites are not just interactive layouts; they are web-based software products and their true potential is realized in data collection and integration with other software systems.  The real challenge would come to design firms traditionally aiming at selling website project based on beautiful visuals rather than information architecture and infrastructure review, but that can be overcome with either building up internal resources or partnering with specialists in UX, UI and web development fields.

And finally, a personal perspective on the subject of continuous rebirth and reinvention - at our firm, we prefer to focus instead on perfecting our work, following the approach espoused by people who’ve clearly mastered their craft.  That is why “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”, a documentary on acclaimed sushi chef Jiro Ono is a required viewing for all of our new staff as part of their training.  “You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill”, not “reinvent your firm every two years”.  Do good work and you’ll stay alive.  And so will web design.

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