Web design, a relatively new discipline within the design field, is concerned with designing Web pages and sites. While Web designers usually need to possess general design skills, such as an understanding of drawing and a knack for creating aesthetically pleasing combinations of color and form, they also need to have an understanding of Web-specific design factors-screen resolution, image compression, usability, accessibility, and website architecture. Web designers are responsible for everything from designing a website’s “look and feel” to incorporating features such as e-commerce, online community, search engine optimization, animations, interactive applications, and advertising hosting into the site-all while ensuring that the site’s design is optimized for the specific technologies supporting it.
These careers require a combination of skill in visual design and proficiency with technology. Most Web designers are salaried employees (sometimes at advertising, marketing, or design agencies, or at Web consulting firms, which build and manage websites for client organizations), but there’s a sizeable army of freelance Web designers out there.
While the boom-boom years of the dotcom era are a thing of the past, the Internet is growing by leaps and bounds every year; indeed, the number of folks online in 2005 was nearly triple the number online in 2000. This translates to job growth for Web designers.
A final note for people considering this field: As the Internet evolves-as new technologies come into play and the needs of Internet users change-there will be a need for new skills among Web designers. So you’d better be okay with learning new skills on a fairly ongoing basis if you want to develop a career in Web design.
WHAT YOU’LL DO
The work that Web designers do determines whether people stay on a site or leave, and whether they do what the site wants them to do while they’re there.
If the website’s goal is to generate e-commerce, sales results ultimately provide the measure of the success of the Web designer’s work.
If the website depends on advertising or subscriptions for its revenue, then metrics like online ad click-throughs and new subscribers will provide the measure of success.
If the website’s primary goal is to increase brand value… well, that’s a little harder to measure, but the site’s perceived success in doing so will be the measure of the Web designer’s work.
Web design is a specialized function within information technology, and a key role in Web development. Web designers create the look, feel, and navigation for websites using HTML programming, which is the basic computer language for creating Web pages, as well as a number of computer graphics programs.
Their work includes defining the user interface (UI-what people see and interact with when they come to a site and the navigation by which they move through the site), creating catchy graphics or animated images, and choosing the style, fonts, and other visual elements to make a site appealing and help a company advance its business goals.
Because Web surfers are increasingly accessing the Internet via wireless devices, be they Wi-Fi- or Bluetooth-enabled computers, cell phones, or personal digital assistants, Web designers are increasingly facing the need to optimize the pages they design for wireless devices.
WHAT IT’S LIKE
If you’re a Web designer, you’ll need to stay abreast of the rapidly changing technology in the field. New technologies, techniques, and design standards are constantly being developed in an effort to meet the ever-increasing demand for more exciting Web designs and functionality.
If you’re a prospective Web designer, you should realize that designing pages is not just a creative role, it also supports a business end, whether that’s driving e-commerce or building your company’s brand. A good website can be many times more effective than a brochure, delivering the exact type and amount of information that a user desires-and allowing clients to order without filling out a form or dialing a phone number. Along with orders, a site captures relevant user data: pages viewed, time spent at the site, and other information that can allow for targeted marketing, thereby improving a company’s business.
As with design in general, a Web designer’s job is to make a product (the website) functional and pleasurable for the user. At the same time, a corporate website should help sell or market whatever the business that sponsors it is selling or marketing. A Web designer working on a corporate intranet site, for instance, will want to ensure easy access to relevant information. A Web designer working at an e-commerce site will want to make sure users recognize what the company is selling and help make the process of buying it as easy as possible.
WHO DOES WELL
Whether you work as part of a Web development team for a consulting firm, within a company, or as an independent contractor, you’ll need good people skills, imagination, and mastery of the design tools. You will interact with clients or other departments; take other forms of information, such as brochures, slide presentations, print advertisements, or other documents, and turn them into multimedia experiences; and incorporate user data to help define and shape a website that people enjoy visiting, and which helps the sponsoring company achieve its goals.
The interactive and highly integrated nature of a website means that there is a constant cycle of creating, troubleshooting, and publishing involved. Other people may give you raw information or documents to publish, and you may attend organizational or departmental meetings on a regular basis, but the vast majority of your time is spent in front of your computer-creating new graphics, experimenting with animation, writing new scripts, implementing new navigational techniques, or hunting down broken or expired hyperlinks.
Web design is a high-profile role. Your work and job performance are viewed and judged by thousands of people every day. While that can be extremely satisfying and even exhilarating, it is a two-edged sword: If you make a mistake, the entire company can be affected. Still, if you’re an artist at heart, have a perfectionist streak, and thrill at the thought of having your work viewed around the world, then you may love this profession.
Many job descriptions for Web designers require a bachelor’s degree in graphic design, visual arts, fine arts, or similar fields. Increasingly, however, universities are offering-and employers are demanding-specialized degrees in such fields as user interface design and information design. Moreover, many master’s degree programs in computer science now offer concentrations in site architecture and other specific Web design-related fields.
However, the Web is evolving so quickly that traditional university programs may still be too cumbersome for potential Web designers. If you are looking to get into the field as quickly as possible, then consider taking some specialized courses in the areas that are of interest to you-either from a college, nonprofit, or private computer-training school.
The multimedia design field has many companies that are developing new and better design tools all the time, but the industry is dominated by applications from Adobe, including Director, Shockwave, and Flash.
Remember: A career in Web design means that you never stop preparing. New products, new standards, and new conventions emerge every day, and the only real requirement is that you be handy with the latest and coolest design tools and concepts available.
The Internet is here to stay. More businesses-and customers-are going online every day. And advances in technology will make Web skills an ongoing corporate need.
Two industries worth singling out for opportunities are Internet service providers (ISPs) and Internet consulting firms. In addition, there are many small Web-design shops, each specializing in a different industry. Traditional advertising, marketing, and PR companies are also heavily involved in Internet work. In addition, graphic design studios have combined website design with their traditional creative services offerings.
Many large companies keep their website activities in-house. The advent of intranets, or company-specific HTML-based networks, means that Web-savvy individuals are needed in every department to create and maintain each division’s information site within the overall corporate ‘Net. Most relatively large companies, and certainly all companies involved in high tech or the media, have full-blown teams to handle their websites. Determining where you might fit into such a team will help focus your career preparation and narrow your job search.
Finally, many Web designers work as independent contractors, serving smaller companies that don’t want to hire a full-time Web staff, but still want to have ongoing control of their sites’ content, and sometimes providing consulting services to larger companies. Independent Web designers generally telecommute from home, where all they need is a computer, a scanner, and a good connection to the Internet.
Many Web designers come to the position with some formal training in the arts or design, and a degree in graphic design or visual arts is often desired. Still, the underlying artistic nature of the job means that if you have a portfolio of work and can demonstrate proficiency with the necessary design software, then you will be viewed as a qualified candidate, even without a diploma in design. The titles that people use to describe positions in Web design are not standard by any means, and sometimes the words “Web designer” and “Web developer” are used interchangeably.
The ensuing job titles and brief descriptions outline the major careers available in Web design, from entry level to senior management.
WEB GRAPHIC DESIGNER
Web graphic designer is an entry-level position that requires as much knowledge of design-tool software as it does creative energy. Web graphic designers create graphic elements for websites, including banner ads, buttons, and other navigational elements. You’ll need to know Adobe Photoshop and other design programs, and be able to create graphics that can be sized and compressed to work well in a Web environment.
A bachelor’s degree is not usually necessary, but an associate’s is certainly a plus. Of course, you must have a portfolio of work (digital and/or traditional) to show what you can do.
Multimedia Web designers are often found in large Web development team environments. Multimedia designers are responsible for creating sophisticated, content-rich presentations using applications such as Shockwave, Director, or Flash. Traditional degrees are not usually required, but demonstrated proficiency with the programs, and a good portfolio, are necessary.
USER INTERFACE DESIGNER
The UI designer is responsible for the overall experience that visitors to a site will have, including layout, presentation, and navigation. Being a UI designer involves a great deal of interaction with marketing and other departments as you work to present the right corporate image and make sure your site is “on message.” UI designers also need skills and knowledge in the areas of aesthetics and human factors such as usability and accessibility-they make sure a site is clear, concise, and easy to use. A BS or MS in some sort of design field is usually required.