November 21, 2020, 11:05 a.m. No time at the moment?
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Are web designers dying out or never been there? Or maybe they were just an interim phenomenon on the way to the fourth industrial revolution. At least her time is over now, if she was ever there.
Those of you who have been in web design for a while may still remember the good old nineties. We started by optimizing websites for screen sizes of 640 x 480 pixels (VGA), where optimizing meant our designs would look good on that screen width and terrible on smaller ones.
The beginnings of web design
Towards the end of the nineties, SVGA monitors slowly but surely gained acceptance and we changed the “optimization” to 800 x 600 pixels. At the beginning of the noughties there was some discussion about the spread of the XGA standard. Nobody really wanted to go to 1,024 x 768 pixels because the number of SVGA users was still high. The tradeoff was to keep the design on SVGA and center it on the screen. So it looked at least halfway okay. This “optimization” to SVGA lasted a long time and was only reluctantly replaced by XGA, ie 1,024 x 768 pixels.
All of these screen limits had one thing in common: They formed the fixed framework for our design ideas. They were our canvas. That was a metaphor we could do something with.
Web design grew out of print design
Most of us came from print design back then. Which was logical, because where could web designers suddenly come from, where the medium itself had only just emerged? And as such, we were of course used to designing with given – or at least defined – dimensions.
It is from this very environment that all the design tools I know were created. Regardless of the software involved, a new file always had to be defined by specifying certain dimensions, whether in centimeters, inches or later in pixels.
That was not only logical, but also extremely practical. Because in this way we could work directly with reference to the end product and didn’t have to abstract too much. Nobody questioned the fixed size reference.
Mobile web usage destroys the idyll
At the end of the noughties we got to do with smartphones. These small devices could also use the network of the networks and should also be able to do so sensibly. The mobile web design was born.
First, we agreed to add a separate mobile page to the actual desktop page. This mobile page was typically set up as a subdomain and only took over the content from the main page that we considered mobile-relevant. Nobody talked about design. These pages just had to work, but had the design charm of a shopping list.
How quickly mobile use then developed surprised us all. In a few years we were dealing with dozens and dozen different screen resolutions. In addition, neither site operators nor users wanted to be satisfied with slimmed-down mobile sites any longer. In fact, technology was advancing so fast that it wasn’t even necessary. The idyll was clearly gone.
Persistent anachronisms, or: the design tools didn’t follow suit
However, things get tight when we talk about fully fluid design, i.e. fully responsive websites. How do we design with Photoshop, Illustrator, Sketch and other tools when we run out of file sizes?
This is the point where the separation between web designer and web developer finally breaks. Anyone who cannot develop as a designer in the future or who cannot design as a developer will have a very difficult time. Even PSD-to-HTML service providers no longer use this. I guess these will disappear from the market in the short term.
The canvas of the future is infinitely large
With this change, common design tools and their common uses are becoming less important than before. We will no longer stick mockups on rigid foam boards and present them to the customer. (Well, I haven’t done that for about ten years anyway, but the principle survived.) We need design approaches that work equally well from small to large.
We can no longer use tools that force us to define a pixel size before we are shown a canvas. This does not mean that these tools become useless – but their use is shifted to the small-scale, development-related area.
In the future we will design components, not pages
Instead of a complete homepage, in the future we will design individual components, such as the header or the registration form or whatever else needs to be designed, individually in compliance with the conventions from the increasingly important style guides.
In the future, design will increasingly be understood as microdesign, for example in the design of the essential micro-interactions, which, however, are not pure design, but primarily development because of the functionality involved.
Despite all the misleading imagery, there are no more pages. “Page” as a term for an accessible web document has had its day.
Of course there are individual components, such as the header or illustrations somewhere in between, which still represent typical design tasks. The vast majority of a website, however, will be created from development activities that have little to do with “fine arts”.
Instead of static mockups, we create dynamic prototypes that are built as quickly as possible (keyword: rapid prototyping) and that function at least rudimentary.
In this process, the tool category of frameworks is far more important than that of classic design tools. On the one hand, Bootstrap or Zurbs Foundation provide a framework for the required features and, on the other hand, come with a well thought-out collection of prefabricated elements for quick installation. These frameworks are not only suitable as a substructure for modern websites, but especially for the quick creation of first prototypes for user interfaces.
The catch is that none of the frameworks can be used without code knowledge, so it is not suitable for the classic designer type. Nevertheless, the use of frameworks requires the skills of a designer, because tasks that are not purely optical, such as creating a sensible information architecture, still have to be carried out.
It is time for the developing designer or the creative developer
In large agencies, pure designers may still have a future, even if the interface to the developer is becoming more and more widened, i.e. it is becoming more unclear what the reverse is also true. In small agencies, it will be easiest for applicants who combine both skill sets. The freelancer has no alternative anyway.
It is therefore no wonder that service providers such as Webydo, Wix, Jimdo or Squarespace are enjoying significant growth in these times of change. The large website construction kits have recently started to include the professional designer as a new target group. This is supposed to be achieved through heaps of ready-made code modules (as a developer replacement) and an infrastructure that even allows invoices to be sent to customers. These systems want to form the business foundation for pure designers.
This approach may work for a few years, but it will ultimately fail because the demands on websites will continue to shift towards development in the future.
(The article was last extensively revised on November 21, 2020.)