Is your designer really web ready?

For some bizarre reason, while most design specialisms are respected, everyone thinks they can be a web designer. This makes it difficult for clients to sort the wheat from the chaff. Greg Harvey explains...

Photo of Greg Harvey
Thu, 2013-06-06 14:37By greg

When I studied as an architect our tutors were clear. Architecture is a creative profession, but you’re not all going to be Zaha Hadid. Architects find their feet when they leave college - some have a flair for project management, some are great at drafting, some - the lucky few - have that visionary ability to dream up amazing spaces that will win them awards in the future, but everyone has their place and the entire profession relies on that fact. The right people in the right role make a great practice. They don’t even have to be the best people, but they need to be a really good team who know their strengths... and their weaknesses.

I’ve left architecture behind and I now live in IT, but our world is also full of creatives - and not just the coders and the themers and the creative problem solvers I see every day - I also mean designers, writers, people in the media and advertising industry who specialise in “pretty” and forge a livelihood from it. Like my colleagues in architecture, they all have their strengths and weaknesses. Some people just “get” packaging and can make mundane products spring to life with a 3D flourish. Some people have typography down and when they’ve done you are left with your chin on the floor wondering how they managed to make a document you already thought was pretty good look *amazing*. Some people have a gift for picking the right photo, they just know instinctively what will work with a campaign slogan. You get the idea.

And some people just “get” the web.

The problem is this: you don’t often find web designers professing to be brilliant typographers, but more often than not it seems anyone with a qualification in graphic design thinks they can do a good job of a website design or an iPhone app or design a brilliant new user experience for a map-based search. Well, you can’t. You have no idea what goes into a good website.

If done properly (and I’ve had the privilege to work alongside some really good web specialist design companies) the amount of thought and research and work that goes into a website is impressive, as is the amount of supporting documentation produced. If you think some wires and half-a-dozen Photoshop flats is enough to brief a web development team to successfully and efficiently build a really good website, you are plain wrong.

Sadly, too many designers *still* think that’s the case, and clients who don’t know any better buy the pictures all too easily. And all too often, when the wheels come off, the developers get branded as the nay-sayers... the stubborn introverts who can’t come to terms with the vision of loveliness emerging from the tablet of joy. In fact, usually they are the people desperately trying to shoehorn an ill-conceived concept, chopped out of a PDF file that has never seen a prototype, never mind had any user testing or been spared any thought for the future, into a CMS templating engine that is furiously resisting the bonkers menu layout. Plus they find themselves uncovering all the little practical problems as they go, all the things the inexperienced designer didn’t think of - burning hours in the process so it becomes impossible to work within the client’s budget. And yet they carry the can.

No one wants to be there, right? You don’t want to be the designer, because you’ll start to feel pretty threatened and uncomfortable when you realise you actually *have* failed to think of loads of things and the developers might be right. You don’t want to be the client on the out-of-control development budget with a dev team threatening to down tools if you don’t find more money because they’ve burned it all making your designer’s crazy ‘cutting edge’ shopping experience work. And you don’t want to be the developer either, torn between being nice and pushing through to keep your client happy - even though that means working for free - or telling it true and risking a flare-up with client, designer or worse, both!

So if you’re a client and you want a really good design for your website, we’ve formulated three questions you should ask your design agency before you appoint them. Interview questions, if you will. And if you’re a designer who wants to get into web design, you’d do well to read them and make sure you can respond in kind. Here we go:

  1. Will you produce HTML and CSS prototypes of key pages as a deliverable?
    The only answer we’d expect here is “Sure.” Anything else begins to ring alarm bells. In order to understand the medium modern web designers have immersed themselves in the technology. Our own in-house designers works as a developers in sprint when we have a design client, they actually do all of the application of the CSS and HTML themselves, they program the JavaScript, they know how to write preprocessors for Drupal in PHP, they dig into Linux terminals and set up Sass on our servers. At the moment designers like our head of design services, Matt Fielding, are quite unusual, but they need to become the norm. How can you design a decent website if you lack the ability and the skills to prototype and test your designs in real-world situations? When I was at art and design school it was unthinkable that a professional photographer didn’t know how to develop a roll of film. It should be equally unthinkably a web designer can’t (or perhaps won’t) prototype in HTML and CSS.
  2. We are using [insert CMS of choice here] for our website. Have you ever worked with developers in that CMS before?
    OK, so it’s not obligatory a designer knows the CMS. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t actually matter! However, we don’t live in an ideal world, and some working knowledge of the target CMS *is* helpful. Fact. I don’t think it’s obligatory, but it will save a lot of time. As a designer you’re probably thinking “how realistic is that??” Well, more realistic than you think. If you care, it’s just a case of devoting some time to do some research. Most of the popular CMS these days are free open source. Download them and have a go! Build a site, try out some key plugins that people are blogging about. With the advent of ‘the cloud’, even products that are not freely available and traditionally very expensive can be tested and tried for reasonable money. For example, Microsoft Sharepoint Servers can be bought from Rackspace for about £20 a day. That’s not peanuts, but if you spend £100 and have a Sharepoint Server for a week, that’s small beer if it means you can *really* tout yourself as a designer with solid Sharepoint experience, if that’s a route that interests you. There’s always a solution, it doesn’t have to be expensive, it just requires time and the want to be a real web design expert who actually knows the products they’ll likely be working with.
  3. Can you show me some examples of mobile-first, responsive websites you designed?
    I don’t mean a website that looks alright on a smaller viewport. I mean real, proper, responsive (or mobile-first) layouts. Evidence of understanding of the techniques involved to order information on the page and to make sure that order stays sane when viewport shrinks. Try the examples of a smartphone, on an iPad, whatever. If everything stays the same but the fonts get a bit bigger, if you resize your window and things jump around at specified window sizes instead of morphing fluidly, if the page header doesn’t change as the window shrinks, if the menus don’t resize and change appearance to handle smaller screens (and fat thumbs), that is *not* a mobile-first website. This is important stuff these days! A designer with nothing to show in this area is not a web designer. At best, they’re hopelessly out of date. At worst, they’re winging it.

If you want to find out more about Code Enigma’s design services and why we’re different, contact us. We’d love to hear from you.