Web Design Isn’t Just About Artistry

Remember when web designers used to be total nerds?

Back in the early 2000s, web design was a technical skill; just getting a site to function was considered an achievement in and of itself, and things like interface design, usability, and UX largely fell by the wayside.

But times have changed. In the past few years, something magical has happened: Web designers have stopped being just nerds, and have started becoming artisans.

We don’t talk about tech specs much anymore, we talk about "handcrafted code" and "beautiful UIs". We describe ourselves as "code poets" and "design ninjas", and it’s perfectly acceptable to many of our clients.

It’s gotten to the point where we sound a lot more like old-world craftsmen than web nerds, and let me tell you, it’s a wonderful feeling.

But sometimes I wonder: Is our newfound sense of artisanship really helping our clients?

After all, we sell products to businesses that are focused on profitability, not necessarily artistry.

In my experience, acting in this manner is bad for clients and for us web designers. When you try to sell a website as if it were a handcrafted artisanal item, a few things happen immediately.

You create a disconnect between what your clients need, and what you plan to provide

Some business owners care about design. All business owners care about profit.

We may think of our work as pieces of art, but to most business owners, their websites exist as functional tools for achieving certain goals (bring in new customers, drive up company profits, increase brand awareness, etc.).

So when we try to position our products as if they were handcrafted artworks, this creates a fundamental disconnect between what our clients need, and what we will actually provide.

This might not seem like much, but having the ability to understand your clients’ goals is the most crucial part of landing new projects. And when they’re talking about the bottom line, and you’re talking about beauty, your clients can easily start feeling confused.

You lose out on your most profitable clients

When you focus on artistry, you gain clients that appreciate artistry, but you also manage to lose out on the holy grail of clients in our industry: Medium-sized businesses. You’ve probably encountered a few of them. They’re generally mid-stage companies who are profit-focused, need quite a bit of web work done, and are more than happy to keep coming back to you with project after project over the course of several years. Why? Quite simply because they’ve found that your services are making them more money.

When you’re able to provide services centered on achieving your clients’ business objectives, they’ll naturally be compelled to keep working with you.

You limit the types of services you can provide

Artisan web designers and developers are generally pigeonholed into being design- or code-focused, which means the "big three" services: Web design, graphic design, and web development. That trifecta covers quite a bit of ground, but can be limiting.

Some of the most lucrative services in the web design business go beyond designing and coding (UX consultancy, usability research, market research, conversion rate optimization, and online marketing being just a few). These services can be the lifeblood of a web design business, yet, as an artisan, it’s incredibly difficult to get these other types of work because your clients view you strictly as a design or code person.

I’m not saying that web designers aren’t artisans. The things we make take incredible skill. Our creations are expected to be beautiful and functional. But if you’re billing yourself as an artisan, make sure that it’s not to your detriment.

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About the Author

Casey Ark is the founder of Plato Web Design, a custom web design agency located in Harrisburg, PA. He’s also a newspaper columnist. Casey has over 9 years of experience in web design, development and print design.

This was published on Aug 25, 2014


Luke Pettway Aug 25 2014

This is such an excellent post. People tend to only focus on the bits and pieces of a website instead of the overall strategy as a whole and the true intended purpose of the digital product they are creating.

I’m slowly training the team I work with as well as the company as a whole to think about the big picture and to always have some sort of goal in mind when we make changes, or when the client requests changes. This has already had a HUGE impact in our conversion rates and how customers are with clients websites.

It started with the emails we were sending for our clients. A lot of them were overloaded with content, and really text heavy, sometimes not even linking to the sites. I made it a point to focus more on the purpose of the newsletters, cutting the fight, and having goals such as event signups in mind, and now many of our campaigns have as high as 50% click through rates.

We should all make it a priority to think about the user and their goals in mind. The next web should be highly user-centric.

Sebhelyesfarku Aug 25 2014

“code poets”? “design ninjas”? Really? ‘kinhell…

There used to be a time when creating a website meant actually designing something. Now it has come to mean making something that is responsive above all else. This is unfortunate, because the majority of sites are beginning to look pretty much the same. Squares or flat color with an icon in the middle and some text.
I think that the mobile device revolution has made more work for developers at the cost of good design. Although, everyone is using starter templates like Foundation or Bootstrap or WordPress responsive WordPress templates and not really thinking about the design and marketing aspect of what should really go on a website. It actually makes me sad as a designer.

Bhavia Aug 26 2014

It is very obvious that designers will tend to showcase their artistic capabilities, but their main focus should be client satisfaction.
You are successful as a designer if you are able to meet client expectations even after including your artistry and innovative ideas.

Paul Robertson Aug 27 2014

In my mind there’s a big difference between being an artisan (“artisanship”) and “artistry” (being an artist).

Art exists and provides pleasure for its own sake; artisanship exists to improve experience (or really to improve *value*).

I like to take the time and effort to write clean, well-structured code, and follow proven patterns in my work — whether I’m wearing my “interaction designer” hat or my “developer” hat. (I also like my work to be beautiful, but I collaborate with others for that — I don’t get a “pretty graphic design” hat =)

Does that impact the client’s business? Probably not in terms of customer conversions. But it impacts *my* work — the time I have to spend finding weird edge case bugs, tracking down problems, and remembering how something works after not looking at it for six months. So if I don’t have to spend as many hours fixing things or rearchitecting for future enhancements, that’s a win for the person paying me.

– I’m also pragmatic, and take shortcuts when necessary
– I’ve gotten past the “architect for every possible function or variation that may show up someday” phase, so I stick with “optimize for what we know we’re doing _now_”
– probably because I like to work this way, I strongly prefer working on projects where I know there will be a version 2+ so I know there will be benefit to me from my artisanship. That’s why I work on in-house projects for a large company, rather than for an agency or as a consultant

Jason Aug 30 2014

Luke what does your comment have to do with be artistic in web development? I agree with Jay that web development is turning out look very consistant with each site created and most companies probably think that if you cannot find a good theme you should just steal someone else’s design because good artist borrow great artists steal. Thanks for the post, it is really remarkable that website development has evolved with more opportunity for creativity with design.

RusseWeb Sep 01 2014

Actually, I think, a good web designer should know a bit about every digital field in order to create something not only beautiful but PROFITABLE for a client.
For sure he should have at least basic knowledge about UX design, SEO basics and better know front-end developement basics.

Thanks for a nice article !

sunil vashist Sep 01 2014

This is a great article. People actually limit the type of services that they can provide and hardly explore anything beyond designing and coding . Web designers are the artisans and therefore must look towards the overall strategy of any website .

FinleyC Sep 02 2014

I couldn’t agree more, the issue is now and has always being balancing style with substance. You find people who make technically impressive but totally unusable. Now with the growth of responsive design, they are becoming highly usable but sparse and unimpressive!

Corbin Sep 03 2014

Say what you will about the safe corporate sites being a bit boring or “templatey”. They work for a reason. Corporations and business professionals don’t need all the bells and whistles. Just a clean, useable site. There’s a time and place to get artsy, but not all clients are cut from the same clothe. Audience and client personality determine that. Great post!

Meganeil Sep 07 2014

Design and Programming are two different things. But if you’re a web designer, you should know about both. A plain site without the visual impact effect is just like: ill navigate at other site. But the whole combo php,mysql,html, jquery, css, for example, requires a lot of study and investigation. And what about Photoshop, Illustrator, Fireworks, Audio edition, Video edition? (ill not make a list of all the software tools you can use XD) Design ninja is so far from all this knowledge, i think we are Web Gods, and we still need to learn a lot. p.d.: sorry about my poor english (another thing you need to learn XD)

AJ Mellor Sep 09 2014

What a great article. Can’t ever take the eye off what the customer needs. Design can’t come at the expense of the client’s requirements. Thanks for the great post and keep up the good work.

Harry Jansen Sep 10 2014

A well-written blog. Web design is not just about artistry; other parameters such as marketing content, info graphics and the latest trends in digital marketing need to be considered. Keep posting such information.

David Visser Sep 10 2014

Focusing excessively on artistry will not provide the desired results to the web designer. As rightly explained in the article, the web designer may lose out on some profitable clients. The designer should possess knowledge on the latest trends in the industry, such as, digital marketing and usability research.

James Sep 16 2014

The pendulum has swung too far the other direction from tech skill to “artistry”. Web-pages used to be ugly, sure, but they were usually unique. Now because of templates in the hands of users that don’t modify them, many webpages look/feel the same. And others that actually do try to be different usually go overboard with the artsy fartsy.

Emily Earhart Sep 17 2014

A nice post indeed! However, I belong to the group on the other side of this debate. And my opinions tend to differ. I believe artistry is important to stand out from the crowd. Of course, excess of everything is bad and you have to refrain yourself from getting too creative if the project doesn’t need it. But, an artistic website is a pleasure for every eye. As Keats says, ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’- and for every body- if I may add.

Yasin Atagun Sep 25 2014

What a great post! Web design is not just about artistry. For me, the sixrevisions is the best but not have an artistry.

James Sep 29 2014

This is a very interesting approach and so valuable considering that today you need both a nice designed website but also a fully functional and responsive one. Web designers should focus on maintaining the perfect balance between what your client wants and what your client needs.

Hamid Sep 29 2014

Who understand it ! As a tutor i said this word many times, but at last they choose web developer from artists !

This is not all about art !

Michelle Sep 30 2014

Good post! I would have to agree that being web designer you should be well rounded. Whether it has to do with design,coding or interacting with people. These three things are very important.

maria Oct 01 2014

Interesting post- I understand that the design has to look good and the skill to crate a visually engaging website is essential if you want businesses to come to you however it is important to consider the funciton- at the end of the day it is a marketing tool and needs to functional well and sell products and services well. Its a catch 22

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