Your Web Design is Dead

There’s a lot going on in web design. Ours is a transitional industry. The collective we who make things on the internet have known that, but we’re still somehow surprised when our favorite things die off. We seem to live in a perpetual cycle of inevitable surprises.

Our world is ever more digital. Ad spending for digital may surpass TV in 2016, but we feel like work to be done on the web is drying up. What’s going on? It’s a really complex situation, but I think it’s a classic case of solving the wrong problems. Succinctly, our web design is dead because it no longer meets today’s needs.

A death blow was dealt to web design agencies in 2008. It took 2014 to convince a lot of us that it really happened. By 2012 almost all of the biggest and brightest stars of the web design agency world were freelance or starting their own studio, agency, or collective. It was a renaissance of the champion designer. Web 2.0 was dead, responsive was new, and the best brands in the world needed something compelling and shiny that met users in a post-digital age that was reinventing itself after the Great Recession. The opportunity for the individual design director had never been greater. Dropping an $80k/year job for a $200k+ fledgeling studio was a no-brainer.

Enter: context.

Design for web is now burdened by an ever-expanding context. Location, platform, device, content, language, performance, the list could go on. Some of these are new, but most are not. Web design is just no longer satisficing based on the need for a Fortune 500 company to simply have a microsite for a product. Today web design is the first step in a brand’s need to meet users and customers in an ever-more-faceted world of internet-connected context. Responsive web design was the dawning of an age. It’s the same age in which the internet of things, 3D touch, wearable tech, and VR are all contending whether they deserve to exist. We’re seeing a war for whether it’s worth the investment for a brand to have a presence on ________. The funny thing is, winners like email are emerging.

Web design work isn’t drying up, it’s relocating. We’re seeing a shift in power back to the team and away from the individual personality. Ironically, agencies are still dying because they’re simply unable to reinvent a billing model. Even more ironically, individual design directors who struggle to sell a value-based project seem to have the same death throes. It’s the design director hero who contextualizes himself with the developer, the content strategist, the information architect, the creative coder, etc. who still wins the day. Make no mistake, design still sells the client; the problem is that you can’t sell design in a vacuum and you can’t sell a specialized skill divorced of it’s conclusion or implementation.

I wish I had the answer for designers who feel their world dissolving in front of them, but I don’t. Instead I have the conviction that the way the internet is approached is vastly different than it used to be, and expensive designer personalities aren’t the center of the conversation anymore. If I were to highlight value I’ve had success selling to clients in the past few months it would be:

  • A system of design that spans platforms for a specific brand
  • Designs which are provable or disprovable hypotheses — with testing
  • The team who empathetically understands the context of the user

If I were to highlight the values I’ve failed to sell in the past few months it would be:

  • The all-star team of experts (too expensive)
  • The design direction -or- concept creation for an MVP (too one-dimensional)
  • The best unique concept (not provable)

I think Joshua Taylor hit it on the head when he said designers should learn business (although I think they should also learn the code context of their work). I also think people like Christopher Taylor were clairvoyant when they talked about ways web design is shifting for specific contexts. If you find inquiries drying up for your web design, there are many potential things to blame, but maybe you’re just not making your value clear. Maybe you’re selling a value nobody needs.

Matt Cook Feb 24, 2016