Four Constants in the Ever-changing Web Design Industry

Feb 10 2011 by Brian Casel | 16 Comments

Four Constants in the Ever-changing Web Design Industry

The web is like a living, breathing organism. It’s constantly changing and evolving. You might say this animal has a serious caffeine addiction, considering the lightning-fast pace at which things move. Cutting-edge technologies arrive then fade away into the distant 6-month history of the medium. Apps obtain mainstream success only to be overshadowed by newer, shinier apps. Just when we started getting a grip on multi-browser compatibility, a whole slew of new platforms have emerged with the widespread adoption of mobile web devices.

But despite the highly dynamic nature of the web, some things in the web design industry never change.

We as web professionals must remain acutely aware of the age-old constants that make our businesses sustainable and allow us to thrive over the long-term. The fact that we live in an age of information-overload — coupled with the fact that we happen to work right in the center of all the noise — means we must work even harder to stay focused and recognize what’s important in the grand scheme of things.

This article highlights the few aspects of being a professional web designer that remain intact, year in, year out. These constants hold true for other fields as well. They have for a very long time, and will likely be a fact of life well into the future.

1. People Skills

A lot of our communication these days happens with a keyboard rather than our vocal chords. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep our professional interpersonal skills ready and up to task.

The web designers who keep a steady stream of paying projects are not necessarily the ones with the best portfolios. They’re the ones that clients feel most comfortable with. Usually that comfort is based in a strong relationship, which likely started with an in-person conversation, phone call or Skype call.

If it’s a prospective new client, we must rely on our people skills to really listen and understand their needs and goals, then communicate how we will solve them.

If it’s an existing client, the success of a project largely depends on our ability to walk our clients through the process, helping them understand all of the technical aspects along the way.

We must communicate things like how our design decisions relate to the user experience of their customers, or exactly how we are implementing WordPress to help them manage specific areas of their website.

How do we keep our people skills sharp? Exercise! Get out to meetups and conferences and talk to people. Have regular phone conversations or in-person meetings with your client — even if they’re comfortable communicating solely via email or IM.  

Of course, written communication (like email, IM, text, snail mail) plays an important role in our people skills as well. I try and extend my authentic voice into the way I write emails, blog articles, and instant messages.

It’s important to remain clear and consistent in all forms of communication. The web can be a very impersonal place. It’s up to us to break through that barrier and reassure our clients and contacts that they’re dealing with real people.

2. Reliability

The reason clients come back for a second and third project is because of your proven reliability. What does it mean for a web designer to be reliable?

Never Miss Deadlines

It sounds easy and obvious, yet so many freelance web designers fail to meet the delivery dates that they themselves promised in the first place. Why is that? Underestimating a website’s development time, misallocation of their time, failure to plan around other projects, the list goes on. And what’s even worse than missing a deadline? Failure to communicate what caused this delay, or worse still, disappearing and avoiding the client altogether!

Be Accessible

Don’t mistake "being available" with giving your clients 24/7 access or handing out your private cell phone number. But give your clients — especially those with currently active projects — clear and consistent channels which they can use to reach you. Checking email several times throughout the day is a good idea. You might want to stay signed-in to IM during your designated business hours; that way if your client has a time-sensitive question, you can shoot back your response at your earliest convenience.

Be Consistent

Customers are loyal to a brand because it delivers the same quality experience consistently. The same is true for web design clients. They’ll stay with you because they know you deliver a quality, well-communicated project, on time, every time.  

3. Experience

Out with the old, in with the new, right? Well, not always. Experience is a powerful asset, even in a cutting-edge and constantly changing industry like web design.

Malcom Gladwell argues in his book, Outliers, TheStoryofSuccess, that the key to success in any field is 10,000 hours of practice. I happen to believe in this theory — that hard work alone is not enough. You have to put that hard work in over and over again, for a sustained period of time in order to become the best of the best.

In web design, it’s not enough to read through a couple of tutorials or attend a lecture or two. You have to be presented with a problem many times over and come up with the same or similar solution to that problem every time for it to be ingrained in your expertise. For example, it took me at least a year of working as a front-end web developer before I truly grasped the concept of clearing floated elements in CSS.

Ever find yourself in awe of the design skills of "rockstar" designers? They didn’t always turn out work of that quality. They started somewhere — a long time ago — with amateurish experiments in HTML, just like the rest of us. Over time, with constant nurturing of their skills, they came to where they are today.

Experience comes into play when dealing with clients as well. During my first year of running my own web design business, I became very stressed about my obligations to my clients. I’d think and worry about ongoing situations with clients, even when lying in bed at night or during my free time and on vacation.

But over time, and through the experience of facing such challenges, I learned how to effectively and calmly deal with all sorts of client situations like unpaid invoices, feature creep, and website malfunctions. Today, I’m much better about separating work from relaxation, while remaining confident in my abilities to handle any situation that comes up.

4. Change

And now, to bring things full circle, there is one remaining aspect of being a professional web designer that will always remain constant: Change.

What makes our skills truly unique is our innate eagerness to learn and adapt to changing technologies, trends, styles, and business models.

It’s part of our job, and part of what our clients and bosses expect of us — to be constantly learning about new ways to improve the way we build the web. Whether that means continuously following the work of our peers, reading a healthy dose of web design blogs or attending industry conferences, our role as web professionals goes beyond the daily grind of writing code and pushing pixels. We must seek outside knowledge and inspiration then apply it to what we do on our own projects.

We are what keep this thing called the web moving forward.

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About the Author

Brian Casel is a web designer and the author of Design For Conversions, a book to help startups design a better marketing site. Check out Brian’s personal site, casjam.com and connect with him on Twitter @CasJam.

16 Comments

Vivek Parmar

February 10th, 2011

One thing i like to add you also have a perfection on your, means you know a single and every thing about your interest

Marlou

February 10th, 2011

Very nice article.
I’m glad you put people skills first. It will always be important and shouldn’t be overlooked. I think alot of young designers think going freelance means you can skip on a lot of social contact with your client, which is a shame.
We always meet the client in person before we start designing or building anything. When working with a CMS system, I give them a course as soon as the website is completed. I always love this part; it helps so much in building a long term relation with the client.

Libby Fisher

February 10th, 2011

Hey Brian,

Awesome article! Very well-written and you make great points. I am glad to see that you put people skills and reliability first (whether that was intentional or not) because I really believe that those skills are a bigger part of being a successful designer than is often realized. Yes, of course you need to have design skills too, but that is not the only thing it takes to be successful. I also like your last line that “we are what keep this thing called the web moving forward.” Talk about inspiring! :)

Brian

February 10th, 2011

@Marlou – Great ideas. In person meetings are a must, and if you clients are far away (like most of mine are), then a Skype video chat is a good option. I like the training session (as long as it’s factored into your quote).

Brian

February 10th, 2011

@Libby – Thanks! Yes, a great portfolio is only the first step. It takes years of working in the industry to build up great people skills. And for those just starting out, just get out there and talk to as many people as possible to build up that experience.

Eric Waldemar

February 11th, 2011

Extremely helpful in basic ways. As an artist-thinker-designer wrangling with web complexities on my own, I appreciated this comment: “For example, it took me at least a year of working as a front-end web developer before I truly grasped the concept of clearing floated elements in CSS.”

Funny how valuable it is to be “affirmed” in one’s own recent confusion about a CSS issue – What seemed baffling and contradictory at the time, actually IS!

Know of a good source that articulates why “clearing” floats can seem so confusing in practice? Yes, I know it’s not your issue here, but sometimes one little side comment is what pokes someone’s goat. (mine). Thanks for the rest of it, in any case. It’s bookmarked and thought about.

Sihaya

February 11th, 2011

Hi
Just wanted to react about the “reliabilty” part.

I used to be a project manager in a web agency, I now work on my own as a freelancer. This allowed me to analyze some of the reasons why a web project takes more time than planned.

The first habit I took was : when a developer gives me a time estmation for a specific task, multiply it by 3.
As freelancer, when I think a project needs 25 hours of work, bill for 25 but plan a strict minimum of 3 weeks.

The first reason why a project takes more time than planned is because the client is not available enough. Even with the most detailed specifications, there’s always something you’ve missed and you need more explanations from your client.

When it takes them a week to answer a simple question, what an you do ?

Ryan

February 11th, 2011

Communication is the key to all projects. I have learned that everything that is said in person is then put into an email, so that there is a clear track of everything. This saved me when a client said he didn’t like a complete website that his wife had already approved. It showed me that if they could not communicate amongst themselves, then I would never have a clear channel with them as well.

logolitic

February 11th, 2011

@sihaya you are right here.I had a client once that left on holiday for 1 month! Think about it how frustrating can be and after he came he said that I was too slow with the design. Somethimes I can’t believe people’s leak of shame and idiotism!

Anyhow great post!

Phil Fishbein

February 11th, 2011

Great post, very true.

BronDes

February 11th, 2011

Great articles here. Very interesting to read. Thanks for sharing. Please keep this up to date.

Hannah Hurst

February 14th, 2011

A great article to read. There are so many tips and valid points made. I completely agree with your mention of people skills. You could be the best design company in the world but if you have no people skills then clients will simply not trust you and look else where for a comfortable relationship between themselves and their designer.

Thanks for sharing.

Zach

February 14th, 2011

I have to agree with meeting deadlines being vital. That’s the number 1 reason people give me when they are switching to me from someone else. Sometimes the client causes the delay, but as long as we keep up with constant contact so they know that we’re doing everything we can, we can minimize a lot of the issues that can arise from missing a deadline. Setting aside the last hour to half hour of the day to keep in touch with ongoing project clients is a good idea.

Navya

February 17th, 2011

Hi Brian,

Awesome Article!! As you said though we use keyboard more than our vocal cord to communicate with our clients yet people skills like communication in phone or video calls is very important, and matters a lot! All the four skills are interlocked, if we are skilled enough with good amount of experience and also being up to date with the latest technologies then we will definitely be reliable!!

Thank You for this informative post!! Keep up the good work…

Daquan Wright

February 19th, 2011

@Marlou: I think that’s because a lot of people don’t want to work for someone else, they want to do their own thing. Which is focusing on the creative aspect and negating the business aspect (people and communication). But without people and communication there is nothing else, so that’s obviously most important. You just have to realize the components of a business and the different aspects within.

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