When asked what I do and answering “I’m a web designer”, people usually understand by that that I make websites. Which is true. But that would be over-simplifying it a bit too. So what exactly does a web designer do? What does “creating websites” imply? And what differentiates a good from a bad web designer?
Designing a website: The conceptualization
Every major website you visit was first imagined by a web designer. Someone sat down and thought about what the site should look like. And while methods differ from a designer to the other (some do wireframes and mock-ups while others just start coding right away), there are some aspects of a website all designers have to take into consideration: the user interface, the client and the latest design trends. If you’re new to this and looking to learn, you can search for degree programs that teach these basics and more at webdesigncareers.org.
A good designer will pay special attention to each element of the website in order to create a pleasant and easy navigational experience for the users. Nothing is left at random and every detail counts: “Where should the menu go?”, “Is the text big enough for people to read?”, “Does the website look good on smaller resolutions and smartphones?” and “How will the colors impact the visual hierarchy for the user?” Those are all questions a designer considers while he’s preparing a mock-up.
The web designer also has to study his client well before producing a website. Who the client is and what kind of product, service or message they want to promote through their website will play a big role in the final look of the page. For instance, you would not produce a flowery pink website for a sports brand that targets men. Similarly, you do not necessarily want to copy the other websites of the same industry; so you need to find what makes your client different from the competition and highlight it in your design.
Design trends and conventions are also important. Our discipline is one that changes every year, a bit like fashion, only based on usability and efficiency more than pure aesthetics (although aesthetics definitely are part of it). For example, while big typography and using images as background seem to be in vogue right now, narrow Flash-based websites with tiny text are so… 2005.
Of course, a web designer is free to ignore user interface conventions and design trends. Only, if he decides to do so, he needs to be able to justify his choices. The further he goes from what people is used to, the more questions and feedback (positive or negative) he’ll get from his peers and the users. It’s not always a bad thing though; breaking the conventions and rules can produce amazing results. Just make sure you know what you’re doing.
Designing a website: Graphics
Creating the design itself (the graphics and images) is usually done with software like Photoshop, Illustrator and/or Fireworks. And while some designers take time to create a mock-up of the whole website and its content, then cutting it into pieces that will later be assembled thanks to HTML and CSS, others jump to the coding right away, using Photoshop to create the graphics as they are needed. There is nothing wrong with either method; each designer has its own routine. The important is that the job gets done and that the website looks good in the browser.
As for myself, I’m part of the first group: I like to prepare wireframes on paper to get a good grasp of the elements of the site in advance. Then I create a full mock-up that I cut after having it approved by the client.
HTML & CSS
Must a designer know HTML and CSS? While there is an argument about this question, I strongly believe designers should master HTML and at least know the basics of CSS, especially if they work alone. How else can a designer pretend to put together a website if he doesn’t know how to use the languages to do so? A very poor grasp of HTML and CSS can result in non-functional websites, errors in validation and even inconsistencies from a browser to another (i.e. a website works beautifully in Chrome but looks deformed in Internet Explorer).
If you work in pair with a programmer, understanding markup and style sheet languages will create a better synchrony between your partner and yourself; you will take into consideration the structure of the page while creating and cutting your web design, thus easing the job of the programmer and speeding the work. But no matter how you work, it all boils down to this: Knowing HTML and CSS will make you a better more efficient designer.
Being a web designer is doing all of this and more. It’s creating a web design and turning it into an experience. Designing for web isn’t only coming up with a good idea of what a website should look like and make an image of it in Photoshop; it’s imagining how the user will navigate the website and acting consequently. Because a website is so much more than just text and images on a colorful background; it’s a visit, an experience, its own tiny museum. And we, web designers, are the curators.