The way we build websites and apps is constantly changing to accommodate new ideas. Some stick, and some get chewed up and spat out.

But change is constant.

Wind the clock back 17 years and the way that we approached web development was very different to how it is now. Technologies have emerged which have fundamentally altered the way we work, but we have also changed our collective mindset around what it is to create things for the web.

In this article, we take a look at the changing role of the graphic designer and its relationship to web development.

The pre-internet era

In the 1980s and 90s advertising agencies were the go-to resource for businesses wanting to expand their brand and pick up new customers. We’ve all heard tales from the studios of well renowned ad agencies; of staff working through the night, desperately refining that killer idea which will smash the pitch the following morning. Hours, days and weeks of prep that went into generating truly original ideas which subsequently got sold for thousands of dollars, and generated millions in revenue for clients.

It’s easy to look back, or if you weren’t around then, to imagine what this might have been like. It’s romantic, in a way, to fantasise about hitting a deadline; coffee-fuelled but loaded with good ideas.

But then came an entirely new challenge that would disrupt the way creatives operated – the internet.

The early 2000s

The idea of the internet was lauded so highly that it produced an economic bubble which eventually burst around the turn of the century. In 1995, around 11% of the developed world had internet access. By 2000, this had leapt to over 32%.

For marketing agencies, this swift uptake produced a myriad of opportunities. For creative designers who had matured in or before the 90s, the arrival of the internet rumbled the very foundation of their careers.

The slow death of a process

A traditional designer’s remit was wide and diverse but it had edges. A designer would possess a great deal of knowledge about various disciplines, from typography to photography to printing, and would make use of a variety of physical materials to experiment and tease out new ideas. In the 90s, the life of a designer was much more tactile than it is today.

The way that creative design met with technical implementation was logical, but flawed. It followed a production line-style process which we refer to as “waterfall”.

The nature of working this way meant that ideas needed to be tested carefully and materials used more sparingly. As we will see, this methodology was to be fundamentally challenged when transitioning design thinking to the web.

Enter the web designer

At the turn of the century, nobody really knew how to do web design. It was technically difficult to make anything look good; we had limited access speeds, limited browser capabilities, were restricted on font usage and had very little to learn from that came before.

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It is also probably fair to say that web design has historically been a young person’s game. Many millennial web developers have gone on to have fantastic careers, but at the time they would have been green. Inexperienced in marketing, and clueless about business.

But their technical skills would have been alien to many of the professional graphic designers of the era, and because of this an unusual relationship was born.

The production line method

Traditionally – and still in some cases – lots of web page designs are produced up-front and then passed to a developer to build.

In a move to exploit new markets that the web was delivering, agencies bought in skills to offer web design services to their clients who were desperate to get a piece of the action.

Experienced creative designers were working with web developers – a relatively new discipline – to deliver cross-platform design solutions. At this time, social media did not exist, but email marketing was taking off and of course, direct marketing and print media were still heavily exploited channels.

For marketing agencies, this swift uptake produced a myriad of opportunities. For creative designers who had matured during the 90s, the arrival of the internet rumbled the very foundation of their careers.

The way that creative design met with technical implementation was logical, but flawed. It followed a production line-style process which we refer to as “waterfall”.

In short, lots of design work is produced up-front and web developers were tasked with turning it into a functioning experience. It’s important to point out that many web design agencies still employ this method for a number of reasons (some valid, others not-so-valid, but it is beyond the scope of this article to examine these reasons).

The maturation of the design process

As designing for the web has become more sophisticated, as have our processes. In fact, the idea of waterfall as a project management solution was being challenged by the software development community in the 90s. This resulted in the creation of the agile manifesto, a loose doctrine which stipulates the following:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

The “line of uncertainty” describes a process where design requirements are clarified through iteration

This methodology jarred with the waterfall process which naturally developed when traditional designers met software developers. Their shared goals of creating things for the web were challenged as their processes diverged. Suddenly, creative designers had to be “build aware”, and developers gained a new appreciation, and language set, for the intricacies of typography and color usage. Under closely-managed agile delivery, the whole team gets a say on the way something looks and works.

Culture shift

The internet has brought countless challenges to how we present information, and importantly, how we interact with it. Not just because of the world wide web, but because the introduction of tablet devices and smartphones and social media has meant that the challenge to be heard; to stand out, has made marketing and advertising head’s spin trying to keep up with it all.

Suddenly, creative designers had to be “build aware”, and developers gained a new appreciation for the intricacies of typography and color usage.

Responding successfully to these massive changes has resulted in a culture shift in the creative industries, particularly in the field of web design. We now see many more designer-developer (or “T shaped”) professionals with expertise across the board and a wealth of business knowledge to boot. We see far fewer “traditional” designers, who’s remit doesn’t extend into at least a rudimentary knowledge of HTML and CSS.

Massive up-front web designs have been replace by smaller design steps (often called iterations), which enable teams to respond to changes without committing too much up-front (as pointed out in the excellent book Agile Experience Design, “we know least about a project at the start”), and marketing efforts have shifted into sleepless 24/7 campaigns servicing customers across the world online.

It’s been a turbulent couple of decades, but the skill sets and shared goals of designers and developers are joining, and best practice processes are emerging as standards. The next big leap is likely to come as interaction, user experience designers and programmers are tasked with moving beyond the screen into augmented and virtual reality environments.

Perhaps today’s web designers are the “traditional” designers of tomorrow.

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