We Are Architects

We all have a vision of what architects do, right? They sit in front of CAD all day drawing walls, doors and toilets on floor plans, right? But after realizing the duties of architects, the similarities are compelling and it leads to one conclusion: web designers are architects.

We are Architects

I like to compare web design and front-end development to architecture. I would argue that we are all truly just architects at heart — re-purposed to build “structures” on the web instead of real physical structures. Architects design buildings for people to use, to live in, to work in, to play in. We do the exact same thing,  just in digital fashion.

Being curious about this ‘web designer equals architect‘ comparison that I’ve come to embrace in my head, I decided to investigate what architects actually do. We all have a vision of what architects do, right? They sit in front of CAD all day drawing walls, doors and toilets on floor plans, right? Some of us (mostly me) just view an architect as Mike Brady sitting at his slanted desk with a pencil and eraser brush, quietly fine tuning a blueprint while Alice chases Bobbie through the house. But after doing some quick online research and reading plenty of articles written by architects on their job duties, I’ve decided that we are in fact architects of the web.

Web Designers are Architects

Finding a little article on About.com that clearly outlines the job duties of an architect, I came across a list titled “A Day in an Architect’s Life” that I found pretty interesting, here it is:

  • Discuss the objectives, requirements, and budget of a project
  • Provide various pre-design services which may include conducting feasibility and environmental impact studies, selecting a site, or specifying the requirement the design must meet
  • Prepare drawings and present ideas for the client to review
  • Develop final construction plans that show the building’s appearance as well as details for its construction
  • Follow building codes, zoning laws, fire regulations, and other ordinances
  • Make necessary changes throughout the planning process

This list could easily be adapted to web design whether you are a freelancer or work for a design firm or corporation. I’ve modified the list and each of these items are really duties we as web designers do on at least a weekly basis. Here is my list:

  • Discuss the objectives, requirements, and budget of a web or mobile project
  • Provide various pre-design services which may include conducting browser feasibility and device analysis or specifying the requirement the design must meet
  • Prepare mockups and present ideas for the client to review
  • Develop final development mockups that show the site’s appearance and interactions as well as details for its development
  • Follow code specs, web standards, validity regulations, and other web oriented best practices
  • Make necessary changes throughout the planning and designing process

Really, web designers and front-end developers are the web’s version of an architect, where as in previous years the web designer was mostly compared to a graphic designer. Today websites are more than advertisements or a place where a person can go to get more information about a commercial they saw.

Sites and apps are really giant media outlets where people now go to watch movies, read a book, play a game, work on a project and interact with others. Just like buildings.

Not Just Graphic Designers

I know what you are thinking right now, “Really? This is an article on a rad web design and development magazine? This isn’t that important.” But if you are a web designer or web developer this is an important piece of your daily job. Assuming you want to create cool, high quality stuff for the web, of course. Web site architecture is a big part of the overall success of your project and understanding the importance of it is kind of a big deal.

We are more than just graphic designers. Graphic design is just one piece of the pie. Just like a building we have to consider larger design elements beyond just the decoration. We have to consider bigger elements if we want the site to withstand the test of time and actually be useful to the client and the user. These larger questions are really what great web architects will ask themselves when designing and developing a site:

  • How will the user use the site?
  • How will the user interact with each element of the design?
  • Will the elements be easy to interact with each other?
  • How will the site scale?
  • Is the site able to be remodeled or re-skinned?
  • Can the site be easily customized?
  • Is the design structurally sound?
  • What devices will users be using the site on?
  • What will users do on and with the site? Read it, watch it, work with it, play with it, etc.

We’ve all either worked on a site that hasn’t been properly architected or we’ve all work with designers and developers who don’t know how to properly architect a site. When designers and developers don’t take these questions seriously or just need to get the job done quickly and dirty, it makes things hard to improve, modify or even update in the future.

The reason this is truly important is that the web is a fluid place; it’s constantly growing, constantly changing, constantly improving itself just as building technologies do. It’s very important to make sure the site structure is solid so that you can continue to build on top of it as well as change it when needed.

Be Better

First, start by asking yourself the questions above when you are working on your next project. Beyond that, I think there are a bunch of other things you can do to start being a better web architect. But in most cases it might just be as simple as adopting a new attitude or philosophy of web design and development.

  1. Look at each web project from the project’s best interest, leave your own best interest behind.
  2. Be open to learn new tech and new design trends – don’t get left in the dust.
  3. Work with really creative and innovative people.
  4. Plan ahead and give yourself realistic project time lines.
  5. Visualize the finished product and how real people will be using it.
  6. Be more patient with the project, your coworkers and even yourself.
  7. Fall in love with what you do and work on projects you can be proud of. If you can’t find the passion in your current project, pick out at least one small thing your can improve and make better so that you can get that pride back.
  8. Own your work whether it’s good or bad.
  9. Be hungry to improve the project and yourself.
  10. Try new things all the time even if they aren’t proven techniques yet.

These may sound like something taught at a cheesy self mastery seminar at your local Marriott Hotel convention center. But a great architect is not only concerned with designing a beautiful and pleasing building that will stand the test of time, they are also interested in pushing the boundaries of architecture, designing a great structure for people and leaving a legacy behind.

For web designers, we should try to strive for the same things. We should strive not only to build a site that may have a long and memorable life span on the web (no pun intended). We should strive to innovate where we can and try cutting-edge technologies, fresh design ideas and new usability patterns. We should also want to leave behind a good legacy, even if the only other people that will see or understand it will be the others you work with or for — give them something better to work with.

Don’t Just Write Until it Works

Recently one of my co-workers chatted me a funny comment about how some designers and developers approach their jobs: “Just keep writing until is works“. Needless to say, this type of mentality is not a good practice for web architects. Planning ahead, being patient and thinking about scalability are import keys to being a great architect — but only if you want a great product, I guess.

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Patrick Cox

Patrick is a UX Designer and Researcher at Instructure (Canvas LMS).. He also enjoys family, snowboarding, sports, bacon and is jealous of your beard.

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  1. As an architect and web developer myself I believe what you wrote is quite true. I”ll share it amongst my colleagues, maybe next time i”ll suffer less risen eyebrows when i tell them i turned my back on architecture for web design.

  2. I loved this article, thank you! I’ve always wanted to be an architect and ended up in Computer Sciences currently working as a web developer, don’t get me wrong I love web development, but now that I read this article, I feel even more excited about it 😀 thank you, Patrick. 🙂

  3. Fantastic and inspiring article Patrick. Particularly the last paragraph “Dont’ just write until it works” which reminded me of this image which our “technical architect” printed and stuck on the office wall; much to my dismay.

    • Ha, love that pic… exactly what is meant by “Dont’ just write until it works”. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I’ve always looked at designing a website as creating a painting.
    It takes time to get every detail in there, but finally when it gets completed, it’s one of the most beautiful thing in the world.

  5. I’m an architect by profession and a graphic designer by heart. I just love design in every way it can be expressed and I mostly agree with the article. I think that what makes both professions so close is creativity. We must imagine things before they can come to life. I love architecture as it takes longer processes of design. Web designing have shorter time terms but that the beauty of it, you can make a lot more projects in the same period of time. I wont choose one over the other. I like to develop both architecture and graphic/web design, it just keep me fresh and have opened my mind to wide open creativity.

  6. No, I’m sorry, we are not architects; we’re designers/developers . I work as both, and while they both involve design but an architect is a licensed professional. You do not need a license or go to 6+ years of school to be a web designer. Web standards are optional, building codes are not. A negligently-designed website isn’t going to kill someone. A website does not affect the general public, does not need to be energy efficient and do not cost millions of dollars.

    I think the emphasis should be that both are services to clients, both are critical to the success of a business and both benefit from upfront planning.

    I wish my day was more like the “Day in an Architect’s Life.”

    • Great points and valid criticism. Ya, web designers truly aren’t actually architects. I know and work with others that have come from the architectural world – both professionals and sort of “hobbyists” (for the lack of a better word), and we’ve often kicked around the similarities of the ‘GoogleEarth view’ of the two careers. It’s fun to think about, but yes, you are very correct there are some big differences. Thanks for the info!

    • I agree with alex, “A day in an Architect’s Life” would be a walk in the park and is a good reference but at the same time extremely incomplete. Architects are licensed professionals and are responsible for designing a structure to meet and exceed a plethora of code requirements, client needs and he/she will be held liable for the health, safety and welfare of the building’s occupants.

      This is a lot different than what the web or graphic designer/developer is responsible for. We are all in the business of designing, and I’m not diminishing your work its just that real “Architects” are responsible for so much more and I don’t think it’s reasonable to make that comparison.

    • How pragmatic of you. I think you guys missed the point (and value) of the post.

      Great article, Patrick.

  7. Dude!!! this is brilliant!!

    recently I’ve been watching a BBC show called “Grand Designs” and find it funny how all the projects who ditch their architects either fail are massively delayed or just don’t turn out right! same goes when a web designer ditches his/her architect skills!!

    Keep up the articles!! love reading them and sharing them!!

  8. You made a point in the section about becoming a better web architect that really hits home: “Plan ahead and give yourself realistic project timelines.” Realistic project timelines might mean a little extra time. But why should super-speedy delivery be an asset? When the pressure’s on for tight-deadline deals, comprises in integrity and planning are often made. I think more web designers need to let themselves breath a bit.

    Thanks for the awesome article!

    Sarah Bauer
    Navigator Multimedia

    • Great point about giving ourselves some breathing room. I’m really trying to get over the fear of not meeting the clients expectations or taking to long to do a project. But ya, I’m getting better at quoting more realistic deadlines. Thanks!

  9. Well.. im not a webdesigner.. but love cool webdesigns.. love cool webdesigners and.. love to cutomize my amateur persoal blog 😀

  10. Oh, damn it. I just read this article’s headline, and I must say: It’s a real SHAME that you didn’t write it earlier.

    I wrote my MA thesis about conceptual blending (a theory in cognitive linguistics) on the WWW, and I argued that websites are linguistically treated as locations, mostly buildings.

    As I said, this article is a little late. However, I absolutely agree. We *are* architects, building environments with text and images.

  11. Wow, I’am an architects.
    Yeah, this article is quite true. And you know what, every time we build some website, we don’t need physical material for the building we create off.
    And more eco friendly.

    But still, the price between web designers/developers is so different.

  12. I almost always use the imagery of architecture as a means to describe to people unfamiliar with web development what my job entails. This was a great read, and thank you for writing it!

  13. You forgot to mention that, unlike architecture and its related fields, you don’t need a master’s degree and a professional license to be a web designer. In fact, if you’ve got an awesome portfolio you don’t really even need any college education to be a web designer.

    And, y’know, if there’s a bug or something that doesn’t work when I publish a website it’s not going to cause the ceiling to collapse and kill people. Which might happen if you build a house that isn’t up to code.

  14. sorry patrick,
    but i can´t follow your opinion. i am an licensed proffesional architect.
    without electricity your work is ….. nothing!! welcome back to real life.
    remember sun, rain, light and shadow.