When I first got into the web – back in the mid 90s – website design was like a brave new art form. It was exciting, it was modern and to me it was kind of mysterious. Even though I was never much of a designer, I was eager to be around that world. It was the best gig in town.
Then after the dot com bubble burst, around the year 2000, nobody cared about website design any more. On a personal note, I took a four year break from the web and pretty much slept for four years. By the time I got out of bed, four years later, the IT landscape had changed dramatically. Website design, alone, wasn’t really enough to bring in any sort of high standard of living. If you wanted a good standard of living from the IT world then you needed to do more than just design. That was the reason why I decided to focus on web development and I taught myself how to build shopping carts, invoice systems and things of that nature. Technical stuff. So, web development (building applications for the web, using a scripting language like PHP) was where the action was. The pace was fast and the pay was good.
Meanwhile, all those talented designers were kicked to the curb. The wages for web designers have typically been low to average and the supply of web designers far outweighs the demand. Of course, sites like Template Monster, Dream Template and 99 Designs didn’t do many favours for the website design community. For more than a few years it has seemed like website designers are sort of pointless. I mean, why hire a designer when you can buy a template for about thirty quid?
However, I think change is in the air. Website designers are no longer the lost, hopeless refugees of the IT world. Now it’s the web development community – once so proud and confident – who are getting sand kicked in their face. Designers, on the other hand, are bouncing back.
CMS systems like WordPress and Joomla are enabling people with little or no coding experience to build very sophisticated, database driven sites. On those platforms modules can be downloaded for free and bolted on in just a few clicks of the mouse. On top of that sites like Elance, oDesk and Fiverr have driven the cost of development down to insanely low levels. Sure, there is still a market for premium web development services – for example, using frameworks like Zend. However, that premium market is certainly being challenged by the plug n play community.
So, where does this leave website design? Well, that’s the funny thing. As time marches on I’m seeing more and more people becoming sick of template websites. Personally speaking, I can usually spot if a design was created from a downloaded template instantly. As far as I can tell, people are sick of seeing the same old stock pictures and they’re sick of the same old boring page layouts. If I see another template with two shaking hands and a Flash animation banner along the top of the page then I think I’ll scream! Those templates all seem to have the same bland look and feel don’t they? And of course, creating an original, striking, revenue generating design isn’t something that can be done in a few clicks (unlike web development!).
Website design is a slow process. I’m not a designer but I can appreciate that it takes time and effort to do the job right. So, day to day, I’m seeing the price of design going up and up. We may live in an age where we can automate lots of things – but design isn’t one of them. You’ll never be able to automate a great design process. Software can’t do it and neither can grossly underpaid freelancers.
I’m beginning to think that maybe this isn’t a bad time to be a website designer.