The death of web design

Ah, web design, good’re about to die. That’s right. Web design is on its deathbed. There are no cures or operations that can save it. Web design is dying.

If you’re a web designer and reading this then you’ve probably put down your coffee and asked yourself what the hell I’m talking about. I’m a designer, too, so let me shed some light on the grim death of web design.

Web design started pretty much around 1995 or whenever companies decided it was a good idea to get online. It was the birth of a new level of communication. It was pretty freaking exciting, too (though, at the time, I was 11 and had more pressing concerns such as the release of Independence Day).

As companies scrambled to get online, web design became a new, uncharted avenue for making money. To know HTML, DHTML and JavaScript in those days was like having a PhD, but you didn’t have to pay gazillions of dollars to acquire those skills! So some smart fool started selling these skills.

When you have one guy raking in boatloads of money for something that’s actually pretty easy to do, it catches on. The next guy opens shop and says, “I can do what that guy’s doing and I can do it better.” Now you have new people with new skills and ideas permeating the new found web design industry. It’s pretty cool, especially during the dot com bubble. Imagine gobs of money. Don’t I wish I had started web design back then? That’s a different story.

I’m not sure what era to call the dot com bubble. Was it the golden age? New ideas and ways of using the internet were spreading like hot syrup over pancakes just off the griddle. But many of those ideas failed. Perhaps it was more like the bronze age where man is just learning how to use the tools he developed. I think that’s a better approximation of those times.

Nevertheless, the internet was on fire. Web design was the kingpin industry, too. If you were a premium web design company, you were guaranteed business and you were guaranteed to make money. That must have felt great.

Obviously all bubbles must pop at some point, and this one burst with a miraculous explosion. That sucked for web design. But web design was having other problems. Complementary industries like web hosting were starting to get into the game. And, anyone involved with web hosting knows that it was and still is rife with the most childish and unprofessional businesspeople.

The web design industry was effectively being infiltrated by idiots, teenagers, people with atrocious skills and child-like businesspeople. When you put all these magnificent elements in one room, you can see the industry start to deteriorate.

First, barriers to entry? What the hell is that? There are almost no more barriers. Anyone with a computer and Microsoft FrontPage can open shop. I’ll admit I used FrontPage back in 1999 to design my first sites. Thankfully, I realized I sucked at it and didn’t try to sell it. Next, price? What the hell is price? I spent no money opening shop, so I’ll set my price ridiculously low so I can win the deal. Quality? You get what you pay for. Customer support? Go cry about it. Business planning, strategy and goals? Aren’t those for real businesses?

Now, anyone reading this clearly thinks that I’m whining and complaining like a baby that my feet are being held to the fire. Not at all. In fact, I didn’t even really get into web design until those effects were already in play. And I still succeeded.

So there is hope? Not really.

During about 2005 is when I really started to get into web design. Considering that’s 10 years after the birth of the industry, that’s pretty late to be getting in. The market is completely saturated. Everywhere  you turn someone and their kid, dog and cat are offering web design services. No problem.

While the barriers to entry for web design have been lowered significantly, differentiation has been easy. When a vast majority of web designers and web design companies suck, I can take a stand and show people why I don’t suck. When I say show, I mean real, hard evidence. Not just marketing lingo or pretty portfolio pages.

The key was getting out into the local market and talking to people. Ah ha! Talking to people. That’s the key. Very few web design companies can build the nerve to do that. Of course, you can’t just walk out into a street and start talking to people. We (my company) had to the networking routine. Here’s where the next key was discovered. We had to establish a local presence. Continual face-to-face recognition is golden. Once our presence was established we were doing quite well and we continue to do well.

All while this was happening, the big guys such as GoDaddy and Network Solutions began stepping up their game. With stupid names like “Website Tonight” or whatever, these guys started marketing instant web site type packages for pennies on the dollar. Ok, so these web sites are really cheesy and embarrassing. But people still use them because they’re cheap, and for the ones who just want to be online, they get the job done.

The big guys are easy to compete with. They’re so slow moving and just plain lame that it only takes a few hits against them to convince someone not to use them. On other other hand, a bunch of other little guys starting popping up. They offer services much like GoDaddy and Network Solutions except their templating software is much more sophisticated and easier to use.

It didn’t stop there. Don’t want to use one of those ugly, out-of-the-box templates? In steps new guys like ThemeForest. ThemeForest offers “professionally” (they look all right) designed themes for a few bucks. Just pay, download and setup the theme. You’re good to go. What’s alarming is that people who need the web site aren’t exactly going to places like ThemeForest. Rather, it’s designers themselves. That’s right. The crappy, no-talent designers who operate out of their bedroom use ThemeForest to download good-looking (that’s a matter of opinion) themes and rub it off on their clients. Granted, it’s easy to call them out on it, but their client won’t know any better. You now effectively don’t even need to know how to design in order to sell a web site.

Maybe that’s a little harsh on ThemeForest. They actually provide a lot of good stuff as long as you know how to use it correctly.

Outsourcing. Yes, good old outsourcing. Outsourcing has always been around, and man, has it really diluted the web design industry. Most of it comes from India. I get weekly calls from India asking if I want to outsource projects to them. Uhm, no thanks. These guys are all over project bidding sites like Elance where you can get work that should cost $10,000 done for $100. And you know what, that’s fine. That’s called competition. I’ve never used outsourcing myself (to India that is), so I can’t attest to the quality of output (I bet most of it sucks). What I do know is that there’s no way they can compete on communication, and thankfully, most people are smart enough to know how important communication is when it comes to a web project done right.

Here’s the thing, though. All of this stuff going on — the GoDaddys, ThemeForests, outsourcing, templates and crappy designers — doesn’t matter. I’m not complaining because they make my job harder. They really don’t since my company has managed to differentiate and localize itself. No, the problem is that all of these forces are undermining web design in general.

The words web design should invoke, at least to me, a complex mix of art and science. A carefully crafted web site can propel an organization to new heights. But, honestly, when I hear the words web design I can’t help but think cheap, template, copy and lame. Perhaps that’s just me and my seemingly negative mentality, but there’s just that feeling of bleh..web design..that sucks that surrounds my head like weeds on a flower. Web design should mean something but now it’s been gutted and all that remains is hollowness.

Ok, maybe you’re not exactly sure what the hell I’m talking about. Maybe you still think web design is the holy grail of the internet. That’s perfectly fine. Anyone who thinks that probably stopped reading long ago anyway. I’m not out to destroy this industry. Uh, I still work in this industry. But let me lend a few solutions that I’ve actively engaged in to distance myself from the mess that the words web design invoke.

The most important thing for me has been focusing on strategy. This has nothing directly to do with the look and feel of the web site. It’s all about what the web site is going to do for the client, how it’s going to contribute to bottom-line results and how it’s going to get there. Many of these high-level discussions is where the most value in what I provide is generated. It’s also the hardest part of my job, and the most rewarding.

Content has also taken on a more significant role in my decision-making. No, I’m not a copywriter. But content strategizing, placement and distribution are all playing huge roles in my projects. A new and interesting trend that has been emerging is the desire to get content out there. Whether it’s through social networks or private networks, people want easier ways to get their content consumed by their target audiences. This all ties back into strategy.

Custom application development is quickly taking on a shape of its own as well. When web sites are strategized properly, it’s usually fairly easy to see a need for some level of interactivity. With interactivity comes custom applications. Users get a much more valuable experience from a web site visit if they can do more than read content. Furthermore, custom applications act as a natural bridge to content, which I just talked about, since many of the social networks provide APIs to connect with.

In essence, my concentration has been re-branding myself and my company not as a web designer and web design company respectively, but as web architects, web thinkers and web strategizers. I try think beyond the skin of an online presence — the web design — and concentrate on making the web site truly effective.

Hell, this sounds like a marketing pitch. That really wasn’t my intent.

If you’re still wondering what exactly this post has been about then let me sum it up.

If a twelve-year-old can do what you do, you’re in trouble. If you can be outsourced for $5, better start worrying. If what you do can be templated, themed or otherwise cook-cuttered, look behind you. You are about to be squeezed out of business. Instead, focus on offering something that can’t be duplicated (at least not easily) and establish a real identity and presence for yourself.

Then watch web design die.

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