A Letter to Web Designers.

Once upon a time, I proclaimed myself a web designer. For what else was I? I worked on slicing PSDs provided by graphic designers, and coded HTML and CSS that the programmers didn’t care to write. (Or wrote poorly, using the abhorred <table>tags.) I was proud that my HTML and CSS were sufficiently decoupled, aimed for pixel-perfection, and used Flash and the occasional Javascript snippets to insert interactivity. This is a fun job, I told myself, and I was proud of it. The graphic designers couldn’t do CSS and HTML for sh**, and the programmers knew better than to step into those murky zones. We web designers had an edge and a special niche, and we were on the way to building a more beautiful Web, despite the challenges thrown at us by IE.

Right now, ten years later, my official job title: frontend web developer. I still write HTML and CSS, but now I write a lot more JavaScript. In fact, I use Knockout.js everyday, and my job scope is less about beautifying the web and more about building functionality on the frontend. At the same time, more and more programmers are moving into this area, hastening the change on the frontend side of the web – React.js presents us with a new way of working with the DOM, by not working with it directly. Babel and Typescript offer us ways of working with better (?) versions of JavaScript, and running task runners via the command line is now a basic task we ex-web designers do daily. And you have to have been coding under a well not to have written functions in SASS or LESS to manipulate your CSS.

Times are A-Changin’.

I’d like to say that the hardcore programmers and engineers are polluting the Web with their engineering mindset, but I know better. The truth is, all these is just a phase, a natural process of programmers taking what rightly belonged to them to begin with: programming the Web, only now they use Javascript a lot more. It is us, the web designers, who invaded their turf, and with what limited training as engineers, started writing fluffy frontend JavaScript code that real programmers couldn’t bear to read. For a few years now, the boundaries were blurred by us: we could be a frontend developer without knowing how to write a recursive function, or a regular expression. (jQuery counts as Javascript, obviously.) But now the programmers are marching back into the field, and we have to decide: dive all the way down and join their camp, or stand your ground and stay faithful to your roots: web design.

Know Thyself.

I’m not saying web designers shouldn’t know JavaScript; anyone who’s working on the web needs to know Javascript, just as web programmers can’t possibly evade CSS through their careers. But if the engineers can write a brilliant recursive function that calls itself levels after levels to compose multiple levels of HTML views, and your feeble attempt to write something similar results in a “maximum call stack reached” error, then it’s time to accept the fact: let everyone focus on what she’s great at.

Of course, a title is just a title, and there’s no stopping people from crossing domains. But one needs to know his strengths and weaknesses. By having the courage to say, “I can’t write code as terse and rock-solid as the Scala programmer, but I can lay out a beautiful responsive page,” you’re also helping your team identify who to turn to when a specific problem arises. More importantly, by admitting to yourself your strengths and weaknesses, you can focus on expanding your strengths and preventing yourself, down the road, to become that “master of none” who isn’t very valuable to any team or company. And with the Web becoming more complex by the minute, there will be one day soon when it is no longer feasible to be good at everything. And if by then, you’re still confused (understandably?) about your strengths and weaknesses and writing feeble Javascript that the industry will no longer put up with, then you are in trouble.

Web Designer, Redefined.

That being said, the whole definition of a web designer is changing too. If you’re a web designer, you may or may not be a pro at Bezier curves, but you most likely know how to organize your SCSS or LESS files into manageable units. You may not be able to write unit tests for your viewmodels, but you know how to employ the correct HTML5 tags and attributes to describe a view appropriately. And, given a messy HTML template full of data bindings, you’re bound to be able to cut through the mess and manipulate the code so as to style it the way you want.

In short, you’re that unique individual smack right between an engineer and a graphic designer.

We’re a Special Breed.

In that sense, we’re not that different from who we were a decade ago. The web may have changed a lot since, but we’re still that in-between person who’s neither into hardcore data crunching nor treats a webpage like an immutable A3 paper. And the Web, ten years after, still needs us. For without us, who’s going to take the graphic designer’s visions and bring them to life? Without us, who’s going to ensure a web application is accessible to all?

Even better, when the graphic designer is off sick and the team needs a new icon now, the web designer will be able to open up Sketch (Illustrator, Photoshop, whatever) and come up with something. And when the fronted engineer has no problem rendering data into tables but can’t for his life make the tables look as pretty as the mockups envisioned, the web designer can say,”I’ll handle this”, and dive into the code to add the classes and ids needed to make the design come alive.

We’ll Strive.

If you’re like me and you’ve been feeling a little less than confident about yourself amidst this changing industry, I hope the above offers you a little assurance.

The industry may now be caught up in all their Javascript fanciness, but they won’t be able to forget how indispensable we’re. So don’t be afraid to admit that you’re less interested in the latest Javascript framework than the potential creative possibilities of CSS Filters. And don’t hesitate to show off how much of a breeze it is for you to align components on the page perfectly. Take pride in your vocation as a web designer, coz’ it is up to you to ensure a beautiful and accessible Web. You may not be wearing the web designer job title anymore, but you know who you are. You will always be the person in the team who’s most concerned over image resolution, color contrast, leading and line length, browser/device compatibility, etc. So join or stay in teams that know to appreciate your skills and passions, and march right into the future knowing you don’t have to know everything.

All the best, and Godspeed.