Web Design Roles

As the Web evolves, it’s inevitable that the job of creating websites evolves too. As those out there in the industry will already know, the roles of the “Web Designer” can be diverse, especially on larger projects, making it more of an umbrella job description.

Anyway, I’ve decided to write about some of my thoughts about the job of a Web Designer. I also thought it might be interesting to ask people what role (or roles) they see themselves as playing in the world of Web Design.

What is Web Design?

It’s probably not a great idea to start out with what is really an aside, but bear with me on this one.

Jakob Nielsen recently wrote that “Web Design” is a misnomer. It got me thinking and I’d have to agree to some extent, but my view is slightly different to Nielsen’s. People don’t design the Web itself, but the sites reached via the Web – “Website Design” would be more accurate, but I’m just pedantic. I guess it doesn’t really matter what is the accepted phrase for referring to people who build websites – I know that I will call it “Web Design” anyway.

What I don’t like is how Web Design is often misconstrued to mean putting something pretty up online. We have known for a long time that the Web is an information medium at heart and not a visual one. This is an important concept that I feel many designers and design agencies forget on a regular basis. On an ideal Web, all designers would take information gathered by the client (or help them collate information) and allow that content to drive design. The classic maxim applies: Web Design is not Print Design. Neither is it just about Graphic Design, so simply slicing up a Photoshop comp and putting it online is not enough.

So what was the point of my aside? I wanted to raise a couple of questions. If so many designers don’t know their job and how to do it properly, how do people really know what to expect from them? How are prospective clients to know whether their website is going to fit with their purpose? Does it matter?

Roles of the Web Designer

What is perhaps a little more difficult to define is the role of the Web Designer. Recently, I’ve been thinking about all the different “modes” I have when building a website. Being self-employed, these modes can be wide and varied, and I am increasingly appreciating the need for collaboration on projects to make them stronger and generally just better.

Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and it can be important to develop a specialism or a style which sets you apart from the crowd. A problem here is that I like to explore and to learn. Hence, I will often try to vary my roles so that I can develop my skills in different areas and keep what I do interesting. I’ll have to admit now that this can cause some areas to be weaker than others between projects. This is a compromise I do not want to make if I can help it. It’s near impossible to fulfil all the roles required by Web Design today, so collaboration is an important aspect, whether it be with other agencies or freelancers.

A common distinction in roles seems to be between Web Designers and Web Developers, but even these roles can overlap. As I see it (and I could be wrong) designers are responsible for structure, layout, visual wonders, etc while developers are more geared towards developing server-side magic, applications and interaction. But there’s a lot more going on than that.

Here are some of the roles I can think of which I perform, and others that I have seen in use:

  • Project Manager
  • Website Designer
  • Website Architect (implying working with information architecture / structure?)
  • Website Developer/Engineer
  • Internet Developer (another misnomer?)
  • Graphic Designer or Web Graphic Designer (I’ve seen this role described as a person who “tries to make Web pages look the same in every browser”. I’m not totally agreed on that one. Anyone for “CSS Engineer”?)
  • Multimedia Designer
  • Web Typographer
  • Flash Designer
  • User Interface / Interaction Designer
  • Web Usability Specialist
  • Web Accessibility Specialist
  • Web Marketing Specialist
  • Search Engine Optimisation Specialist
  • Copy Writer, Web Editor or Web Writer
  • Web Writer
  • Web Hosting Technician
  • Webmaster
  • Software Engineer

This probably isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s what came to mind while thinking about what I do, or have done in the past.

What Roles Do You Play?

So what do you do? Are you a multi-tasking stress monkey like me? Are you a jargon-loving, Planetarian-playing techie? Are you the arty, expressive graphic designer? I want to know, damn it!