The Employable Web Designer

June 24, 2008 (edited & republished January 2020)

Author's Note: This article was first published in 2008 and since that time the term "web designer" has fallen out of vogue. With this mild update and republication I thought perhaps to change the title to The Employable Product Designer or …App Designer, as the ideas in this article hold for those pursuits today, but decided to stay with the original title to maintain a bit of original context and also to facilitate better archival searches.

Almost daily I receive one or more emails from design students and aspiring Web designers unsure about their current education. They’re concerned that what they’re learning will not sufficiently prepare them for the real world. They fear they’re being taught outdated practices, or simply that their curriculum focuses on the wrong things.

These students are worried that they’ll emerge from school without marketable skills, unprepared for what agencies and clients will expect or demand of them. Unfortunately, I think most of them are right to be worried.

If you’re a student aspiring toward a career in Web design, I think it would be prudent to reassess your current education or degree plan to ensure that you’re actually employable by the time you leave school. From my observations, the vast majority of students emerging from university, design school, and trade school lack fundamental skills and understanding necessary for the Web design professions (in all forms: experience design, interaction design, marketing design, communication design, information design, etc…).

I hope that this list and my suggestions help aspiring designers to better craft their own preparedness and, if necessary, adjust their degree plans toward a more effective and responsible result.

Surely in large part this is the fault of our education institutions and the people who run them. These institutions are large, lumbering, and despite their liberal façade they generally have contempt for new ideas and information. So change occurs slowly in colleges and universities. There is good and bad that comes with this trait, but the result is that as professional requirements change—and they change rapidly in the constantly evolving eWorld—colleges and universities become less and less effective at preparing students for their careers.

Now more than ever, it is a student’s responsibility to craft his or her own career preparedness in addition to, even in spite of, the plans and curricula defined by schools. This fact is especially true for aspiring Web designers, for every indication is that most higher education institutions don’t have the first clue about the interactive professions or how to prepare future professionals. There are surely a few programs and institutions that are more worthy than others, but I expect most students are getting short shrift.

Traits and skills for employability

Pulling from my experience as an agency designer, creative director, freelance designer, and now agency owner, I want to offer some advice for what skills and understanding are required for employability in today’s Web design professions. I know from experience what the better agencies are looking for and I surely know what my agency looks for in a potential employee. I don’t suggest, however, that this is a comprehensive list, but it does touch on what I believe to be the minimum requirements for a competent and employable designer. I hope that this list and my suggestions help aspiring designers to better craft their own preparedness and, if necessary, adjust their degree plans toward a more effective and responsible result.

Here are some minimum requisite skills and traits for Web designers entering the workforce:

Professional Interaction Skills

Web designers are, first and foremost, professional communicators and crafters of interactions. If you have any hope of excelling in the design professions you’ve got to be highly skilled at all sorts of communication, and Web design demands that you have an unquenchable thirst for understanding of all sorts of interactions (anything from how a person interacts with a doorknob to how a cursor interacts with a form button). In order to be any good at this, you’ve got to be something of a psychologist, with a deep understanding of human behavior and contextual habits. Specific capacities must include:

  • Public Speaking – (face-to-face and phone) You must have the ability to converse and interact professionally and comfortably with clients and colleagues—including the ability to address a roomful of senior executives in a competent manner and not look nervous or behave nervously. A designer spends a lot of time communicating with clients. If you lack skill in this department you’ll never earn anyone’s trust, which means your prospects are greatly limited.
  • Vocabulary – You must possess a broad and functional vocabulary. This factor affects all other communicative efforts and almost always defines success and failure. Vocabulary is something that you should work to improve every day of your life.
  • Basic Understanding of Human Behavior – You must have knowledge of how people tend to behave in certain contexts and how various stimuli and circumstances affect individual thought processes and social, and professional situations. (This is a biggie; it drives many of your design decisions and professional interactions.)
  • Clear Understanding of Professional Ethics and Responsibilities – These are the basic rules for being a professional. Without this sort of understanding put into practice, you’re not one.
  • Idea Communication & Support – You must have the ability to know how best to communicate your design ideas and describe the reasoning behind decisions—and then defend these ideas and reasons competently, not defensively, in a compelling manner (I hope it should go without saying that these decisions must be based on the constraints and relevant context, not your own preference).
  • Written Communication – You must have the ability to compose email and other written correspondences in a professional, grammatically-correct manner, with clear and concise expression of ideas and contextually appropriate tone. A failure here can end your chances.
  • Business Etiquette – You must have a basic functional understanding of appropriate interaction and etiquette within a professional context.

Foundational Craft Understanding

These skills don’t make you a professional, but they do define your competence as one. Designers must be, among other things, skilled craftsmen. Furthermore, as a designer you must understand the challenges inherent to your medium and know how to address those challenges contextually. Specific capacities must include:

  • Artistic Fundamentals – You must have a solid understanding of line, form, texture, contrast, balance, harmony, color theory, etc… and knowledge of how these elements affect the human psyche, and why. This one is a deal-breaker; a designer is incompetent without this foundation.
  • Typography – You must have a functional knowledge of typographic fundamentals and be practiced at using type as a workhorse for idea and theme communication. You must also have a basic knowledge of various legibility issues; both generally and as it relates specifically to the Web medium.
  • Drawing – You must have the ability to sketch out any idea in a clear and communicative way (using artistic fundamentals as necessary), for both personal and demonstrative use. The fact that it’s Web design you’re after doesn’t negate your need for this fundamental skill.
  • Usability & Affordance – You must have an understanding of common Web usability issues and the characteristics of contextual affordance—and possess the ability to create, enhance, and exploit these things in design efforts.

Business Understanding

For both your own practice and your responsibilities to business clients, you must understand the fundamentals of running a business and how economic pressures and market factors affect different sorts of business models. Specific capacities must include:

  • Business Fundamentals – You must have a fundamental understanding of capitalist economics and how various business models work (It also helps to understand how capitalism differs from the economics of socialism and communism).
  • Marketing Fundamentals – You must have a fundamental understanding of the basic forms of marketing (push, pull, etc…) and how they match with various business models and branding characteristics.
  • Branding Fundamentals – You must have a basic understanding of how brands are built, how their characteristics affect success, how to extrapolate design choices from brand characteristics, and an understanding of brand/consumer relationships in the marketplace.
  • Project Management – You must have a basic understanding of the life and timeline for design/development projects—and an understanding of the typical intervals for each phase and how to arrange them.

Technology and Web Craft Skills

Design craft isn’t just about line, form, and contrast. Web designers must also possess the ability to bring most of what they design to life. You cannot design for what you do not understand, so these factors are mandatory for responsible Web design professionals. Specific capacities must include:

  • Browsers and OS – You must have a basic understanding of differences between the various operating systems and modern and older browsers—and how web experiences differ on these different browsers and operating systems. OS fetish is common among designers—as a fault.
  • Form Interactions – You must have an understanding of how forms (contact forms, signup forms, etc…) factor into branding and user experience. You must also possess a familiarity with modern best practices for form design and form interaction theory.
  • HTML & CSS – You must have a thorough understanding of modern HTML and CSS, along with the ability to craft functional Web pages using quality (standards-compliant) markup and CSS—written without the aid of a “design view” or visual editing tool. A Web designer who cannot craft quality, functional Web pages is a liability and unprepared for the profession.
  • Scripting & Rich Media – You must have a basic understanding of how JavaScript, Flash, and other dynamic media impact user experience and how they work and play with HTML, and CSS. Not that you must be able to craft these technologies, but you must understand how they fit into and work with your own work.
  • Semantics and Cross-Browser Issues – You must have a basic understanding of the theory and benefits of markup semantics and an ability to effectively address cross-browser issues when writing markup and CSS.
  • Accessibility – You must have a basic understanding of common accessibility issues and challenges for website visitors. It is best if you also know how to design for and mitigate these issues—for both humans and various accessing technologies.
  • The Current State of the World – You must have a working knowledge of what’s going on in the world that touches your profession—updated daily. You must keep up with technological trends and innovations, popular websites and applications, business and communication news, people and happenings in your profession …and more. If you’re not interested in what’s going on and what’s new or different in your world every day, you’re aiming for the wrong profession.
Become employable

There you go; what I believe to be the minimum required skill set and grok-list for employable designers. Note that where it says “a basic understanding of…” it means that these are things that you’ll then be working to gain a comprehensive understanding of as you mature in the profession.

Note also that nowhere in this list do the words "Photoshop," "Sketch," "Illustrator," or "Dreamweaver" appear. As I and others have observed plenty of times before, tools do not make a designer. Anyone can learn to use Fireworks or Dreamweaver in an hour or less, but nobody can be a competent Web designer unless they possess a foundation in the things listed above. Choose your own tools and learn to use them, but don’t let the tools define your abilities; tools won’t create a place for you in the profession.

As an aside, you may find that there are plenty of job listings where the job requirements are described as, “must be expert with Photoshop and Sketch…” or something long those lines. Ignore those job listings; they’re placed by inept and sick companies looking for decorators, not designers. Take a job with a company asking for a Sketch expert and I promise you’ll never be allowed to engage in design.

But in order to avoid the necessity of accepting a job as a Photoshop jockey, take steps now to prepare yourself for a career in design. Aim to be a designer, not a mockup generator. Go to work for a healthy, consequential agency, not a clueless sweatshop. And don’t leave school unprepared or mis-prepared for the real design world.

In short, take responsibility for your own education. If you’re not being taught or you’re not seeking an education that includes all of the items above, all is not lost—but change what you’re doing. Now. The choices you make now will determine your quality of life and work satisfaction for years to come.

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The hero image courtesy of Maryland Gov Pics