So, You’re a Web Designer, Right?

What is the role of a web designer nowadays? An article about the changes that came with the awareness of responsive web design and the new workflow of designing in the browser.
Unicorn

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The Web of yesterday

When I started doing this we were what you’d call a petit-comitè. I called myself a developer and worked with a great graphic designer, one of a kind. Our roles were crystal clear back then.

Seasons came, seasons went and we started getting deeper and deeper into it. As our imagination kept moving forward, our websites grew more and more complicated. We soon found ourselves in a crossroads and we were forced to rethink our whole model.

My journey into design started with typography, perhaps the only field where my man Felipe was not stunningly fluid. I never called myself ‘designer’, though, until I cut off from Adobe’s Creative Suite cold-turkey. Slowly but steadily my role evolved on to designing for functionality and interactivity, copywriting, structuring content, making layouts responsive, building strange custom web applications… Then I was designing. Felipe’s role evolved too, as he started getting gradually into development, my former side of things. It was from working together that we both expanded our notions and eventually our process. We were naturally responding to a new kind of situation.

The Web, today

Andy Rutledge is bolder than me when he says: ‘A designer who does not write markup and css is not designing for the web, but drawing pictures’. He’s right.

‘Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works’ – Steve Jobs

It’s been about three years now since the Mobile-First/Responsive meteorite shook the Web community. It has been an arduous but beautiful process. Hard in rethinking the way we work but beautiful in that it opened up a wild ground for madly intense collaboration between everyone involved. We’ve seen every field of the profession coming together and sharing their wonders: techies on Progressive Enhancement, typographers on lettering, grids and layout, designers on workflow, content strategists on sensible structure, top-notch freelancers on how to handle clients… To remain on top of the situation, every kind of Web professional has had to cross enemy lines to create symbiotic partnerships, in some cases lifelong friendships. And of course, the up-and-coming generation finds itself full of strange creatures that don’t fall under any of the previous categories. They are something in and of themselves.

‘Web Design is Product Design’ – Andy Rutledge

Some time ago, thinking of a designer as just a ‘Graphic designer’ wouldn’t have made much sense. Designers were actively involved in obscure parts of the process. Carving wood, painting, modelling, sometimes building, gardening…

So who killed the product designer?

I haven’t been around long enough to have a clear view, but my guess would be compartmentalization. The sudden boom in demand might have driven companies to define enclosed cells of roles and responsibilities, or as Kim Goodwin puts it, ‘silos’; then to hire disposable professionals that would fit, silently contributing to the creation of a thick, standardized, leaden model that would stand the test of time and ensure high-level productivity.

People like Jared M. Spool are making public the interest of high-end companies in finding a new sort of profile. He calls it the Unicorn. He even went as far as creating the Unicorn Institute to groom this sort of designer. He is defining a position, a new Experience designer or UX Generalist, whose skills make them ready for this entirely new scenario.

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He makes a clear division between Specialists (experts in one field over others), Generalists (experts in more than one field) and Compartmentalists (having expertise in only one area). He argues that neglecting the possibility of expanding your boundaries and falling into the compartmentalist category is a career-limiting decision. Plus it’s no fun.

Today’s way of things calls for a new kind of Web designer. A Jack-of-All-Trades, master of none. Startups are looking for the kind of folk that can follow the process end to end. Big enterprises for a more flexible worker that can move swiftly between the many aspects of a project, without hiding behind the barriers of their specialty.

The Web of tomorrow

A designer today has to be able to dodge dangers of many kinds. Today’s Web is dynamic, fast, adaptive, mobile-optimized, ready for the modern consumer, which is pretty much everywhere and thus totally unpredictable, very intelligent and thus easily annoyed; and capable of showing an unbelievable capacity to dive blindfolded, headfirst into information overload and not only survive but make something of it.

We’ve been exposed to some groundbreaking design work recently:
The journalistic community has seen incredible new layout techniques that may get to redefine the way content will be presented. [1] [2] [3]

More and more services are going online. We are seeing smarter, faster, stronger web applications that are way closer to software than what a blog ever was. Plus many either benefit from the advantage of being an online tool. Many are based upon collaboration, and what better place than the web?
[4] [5] [6]

Experiments with 3D graphics that resemble high-end videogames, straight in the browser. And so on.

We are not in a header-nav-content-sidebar-footer scenario anymore.

The skills needed to achieve the Web of tomorrow will mutate with the scenario. So changing the way we do websites starts by revising our process.

In Search of the Holy Grail

The First step is the hardest

There’s always a phase to devise how to build a product. It is critical that designers and their teams are aware of the technology at their disposal and show little fear in trying something new. Most of the time all this new tech is out there to make our lives easier, and yet you see so many people reject it every day.

Then there’s a time for envisioning the application.
Jacey Gulden smartly states: ‘Hanging on to older processes that include creating static wireframes and pixel-perfect mockups for design is counter-productive […]. Instead of spending time designing for […] device widths […], designers now have to focus on designing for content’.

The static mockup has seen its time in the spotlight. We are designing for dynamic scenarios now, so we need dynamic prototypes.

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In her talk ‘Designing in the browser’, the awesome Divya Manian said: ‘Print tools give you an illusion of control that doesn’t exist on the Web’. She goes on to point out a number of things a Photoshop mockup will never be able to account for:

  • Pixel perfection: never happened
  • Feature uncertainty: browsers differ when handling effects, even the syntax is different
  • Things never designed to interact together will end up interacting
  • No control over content: take Google+ as a modern dynamic application. Never will anyone be able to mockup something such as this on Photoshop without a million problems.

So what better way to achieve this than diving straight into HTML? Here are some of her reasons. Out of the box, it makes you able to:

  • Design around content and user interaction
  • Design for complexity and uncertainty
  • Find where design breaks the user experience
  • Find where data breaks design
  • The outcome is a template ready for any use
  • Use print tools later on to optimize prototypes

There are tools out there to prototype in HTML in a very visual and easy way, like Easel, Divshot or JetStrap.

Good ol’ Photoshop and the Designer’s panacea

Fireworks and Photoshop can’t cut it for responsive design — they’re bringing a knife to a gun fight – Andy Clarke

Yeah. Andy Clarke also came up with one of the best reasons why Photoshop is no longer the best friend of the designer. Create a new document and it will ask you for its dimensions. Damn.

In a great short article -with a title pretty much straight to the point-, Kill Photoshop, Josh Long provides a very intelligent number of reasons why Photoshop should be murdered:

  1. It’s Double the Work
  2. Clients Can’t Use It
  3. You Can’t Make Changes Live
  4. CSS is Ready
  5. Photoshop is Expensive
  6. Photoshop is Static
  7. Photoshop Has No Prototype Value
  8. You Start with Content, Not Style

Some people are already looking for a strong contender.
To Jason Santa Maria, ‘How something behaves is interdependent on how it looks, sounds, reads, moves, and responds.’. We’d need a tool that can account for all this pieces of the puzzle.

The famous Project Meteor launched as a ‘campaign to demonstrate the demand for a modern web design app’. Some tools out there today do pretty good at handling the whole process, like Macaw, Webflow, or Adobe’s much expected Brackets.
Devin Halladay considers tools like this ‘Are making the web designer lazy’.

To me all of them are good choices. There is space for everything, and I actually find it very amusing to find new tools while thinking of new projects. It’s the exciting bit.

We shouldn’t be focusing on finding the perfect tool though, the panacea for the new designer. How about building a set of tools instead?

Take it apart, steal the parts that you like, and adapt them to your own way of work­ing. — Joni Korpi

Luckily enough, there are great applications out there that handle specific parts of the process like no clairvoyant tool can do. There is Typecast, that lets you experiment with Web typography so easily that it makes you feel like an orchestra conductor. Then there’s Gridset, that can handle incredibly complex to downright simple responsive grids. And the Modular Scale, that started being really helpful for typography scaling and ended up visually teaching me to arrange layouts like I’d never done before. And so on. A designer can go crazy with all these shiny toys.

If you agree with Oliver Reichenstein in that ‘Web Design is 95% Typography’, what is best than ditching Photoshop’s weird type rendering and using a browser based tool, so you can build and test straight where the magic happens? This is invaluable stuff.

But not only typography can be worked in the browser. Ready to dive in?

Designing in the browser

I’ve seen way too many comments on blog posts saying something like ‘But that’s not designing in the browser, you’re using an editor!’. So let’s clear some assumptions first. Designing in the browser is not about using the browser as the one and only tool for designing.

Let’s change the phrase “designing in the browser” to “deciding in the browser.” – Dan Mall

It is all about having direct communication between design, code AND the browser. Start designing, see it in the browser. Change stuff, see it in the browser. And if you get to do it in mobile at the same time, all the better.

There are a number of concerns in Web design that can be cleared straight away with this method. For instance, your site’s readability. It is a great way to gain time too: when you’re deep into designing for different states and screen sizes you tend to focus and lose that habit of moving stuff one pixel up or down. The perfectionist inside of you will be too busy checking relationships between elements, fine-tuning interaction details, etc. The big picture will benefit from this as well, as you are producing something that works, as opposed to a picture of it. It feels like moving from a flight simulator onto the real deal… kinda.

In the browser I learned the value of letting content drive my way of developing. For example, I stopped using device media queries altogether. I started relying on visual cues when deciding where to insert a breakpoint. There was another time when suddenly it made no sense to make complex calculations anymore to account for margins, paddings, positioning… I started trusting my gut and experimenting with Developer Tools and learning to accept what was happening before my eyes. I grew so used to inspecting elements, rearranging them, playing with measurements, content and interactions that the habit ended up trickling down onto my everyday Internet activity. Now, whenever I stumble upon something that catches my eye – some layout detail, typography or anything interesting -, I find it very difficult to stop my urge to inspect it and play around with it. Questions start arising, like ‘What would happen to this thing if it had more text in it?’, ‘How does this guy float that there?’, ‘How in hell are the inline comments on Medium laid out?’. That last one I just had to include.

In the end, it’s all about learning how the browser handles the Web. It is not only possible but easy to learn to speak its language.

The first website I ever did I did in Chrome. I had no idea that by simply switching to Firefox it would look completely screwed. And my troubles got worse because I started testing it when I felt I’d finished it. It was a terrible week. But I’ll never stumble two times over that same stone. From that moment on I integrated visual testing in the development phase. And later on it became a crucial part of the design process. I ask myself how could I be OK with something if I never knew it would work?

Today I design and develop with my devices connected to the computer and I kind of catch problems before they even appear, this way. It’s become essential to me. I don’t trust my beautiful Apple stuff to fully represent the Wild, Wild Web, though. I never do 480, 768 or 1024px media queries anymore. And it feels liberating. If you haven’t yet, try Brad Frost’s awesome testing tool, Ish.. That’s a favorite of mine. It doesn’t rely on standard device resolutions. Instead, it chooses random values each time (Small-ish. Medium-ish. Large-ish). Your site should look great in all of those. For the mad ones, it includes a ‘Disco’ mode, like those old Casio keyboards, ‘to watch the viewport bounce around like a maniac’. Is your site up to this?

The Leap of Faith

In Spain, a lot of us speak English. Most of us don’t, really. It’s more like this: we think of something in Spanish, in our heads we translate it into English and then we verbalize it, with an accent. And we look like morons. That’s not really speaking languages. It’s more like half-assed interpreting. The day you start thinking in English you start speaking in English. The more confident you grow, the better you speak.
But the key lies in the method. What makes the fluent speakers different from those who plainly interpret languages? It’s the lack of fear when challenged with a conversation. You learn to speak by speaking.

As I see it, this is very related to a designer learning to code. After all, it’s language we’re talking about. It’s not until you make that leap of faith that you’re starting to truly learn how an application works. It might look scary but there’s many people that have already done it and loved it.

The time you spend in learning to design for the Web comes back full circle.

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Back in the day it was an odd feeling for us. On one hand we felt like we were somehow breaking out a proven way of working. On the other hand it felt like we were gradually let in on a big secret. We were making up our own rules as we went along. We were making our journey more interesting and as we grew more confident, the result was becoming stronger.

We were redefining ourselves as designers.

Reference

[1] Christian Cantrell – Adobe Explores the Future of Responsive Digital Layout with National Geographic Content

[2] The New York Times – Reshaping New York

[3] Teehan+Lax – A Place for Sharing Ideas and Stories

[4] Storify

[5] Spotify

[6] Editorially

The Thinking

Oliver ReichensteinDesign is How it Works

Andy RutledgeWeb Design is Product Design

Jared M. SpoolWhy the Valley Wants Designers that Can Code

Julie ZhuoHow to Survive in Design (and in a Zombie Apocalypse)

Notes from Kim Goodwin’s‘Silo-Busting with Scenarios’ by Luke Wroblewski

The Unicorn

Braden KowitzHiring a designer: hunting the unicorn

Jeffrey Dalton – The Hybrid Designer

Jolie O’DellHOW TO: Be a Hybrid Designer/Developer

Tristan DenierRedefining Web Designers, Web Developers, and Web Hybrids for the modern market

Andy BuddDesigning in the Browser is Not the Answer

The Workflow

Stephen HayResponsive Design Workflow @Mobilism 2012

Miranda MulliganYour Survival is Designed

Andy ClarkeEncouraging Better Client Participation In Responsive Design Projects (Article)

Harry RobertsNormalising designs for better quality CSS

Jacey GuldenGreat Responsive Web Design is a Matter of Process

Simon FosterThe Responsive Designer (Video)

Josh LongI Have No Idea What I’m Doing with Responsive Web Design

The Tools

Brad FrostThe Post-PSD Era

Jason Santa MariaA Real Web Design Application

Tim BrownUniversal Typography @ Ready To Inspire

Jeffrey ZeldmanAn InDesign For HTML and CSS?

John Nack“CSS is the new Photoshop” (?)

Project Meteor Manifesto
Josh LongResponsive Web Design in the Browser Part 2: The Tools

Photoshop

Javier GhaemiIs Photoshop Dead?

Josh BrewerPhotoshop you are a liar

Josh LongResponsive Web Design in the Browser Part 1: Kill Photoshop

Mockups

Meagan FisherMake Your Mockup in Markup

Dan RubinHands-on Prototyping with HTML & CSS

Designing in the Browser

Divya ManianDesigning in the Browser @Front-Trends 2012

Max LuzuriagaDesigning In-Browser: A Manifesto

David KizlerDeep dives into the browser

Sarah ParmenterI can’t design in the browser

Tagged with:

Gorka Molero is a self-taught Web designer, musician and sound engineer and heavy Internet enthusiast. He believes in the universality of the web and the free-flow of information, regardless of platform or situation. He is moved by innovation and originality, despite time or field, tries his best to keep up with cutting-edge technology and always stay tuned to artistic and technical vanguards.

http://gorkamolero.com/

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  1. As a web design student, I should be prepared to take on new changes and challenges to my thought process and how I work. I’m coming to realize more and more that it’s not about being a web design student, which I won’t be for much longer, but it’s about being a web designer, focus on the WEB. It’s incredible how much things have changed in the long term, but so much more in just the short term– look how far we’ve come since the initial spur of CSS3. I remember the first time I saw this and how excited I was. How it all just hit me, how much potential the web has and all the great places we’re all going to go as designers, developers, and just.. as people. It’s incredible. Reading this article gives me that feeling all over again. I’m just.. so excited for my future in my career.

    I really appreciate the resources and information you’ve given me in this article. I’m currently working on my portfolio site, and just in this is taking on many new things for me: designing responsively, starting from a basic photoshop mock up for only the desktop version just to have my concept, using technologies such as Foundation 4 & LESS, using new editors besides Dreamweaver such as Aptana Studio and Sublime Text, watching tutorials on Lynda and reading many articles from my favorite sites such as Codrops, tracking my project time using applications such as Harvest, utilizing sites like Stack Overflow for help and resources, etc. Even though all of these things themselves are new to me, I know I’ve got a lot more to learn. I kind of feel though, with reading this article, that I’m on the right track at least!

    Whew! I need to hurry up and make my blog so I can blog about your blog while I blog…. Haha. Sorry for the long post, but I’m really glad I read this today. Thank you so much! I look forward to reading more from you.

    • Hahaha I loved your comment, Jacquelyn! I think you’re on the right track too. That’s the attitude! Tweet your blog to me when you’re done with it

  2. You’ve written a real thought provoking article. As a beginner in the field you’ve given me a lot to think about and a lot of tools and ideas to investigate. Still in my degree program, though lip-speak is given on how the site appears cross-browser, we’ve certainly not designed that way in classes yet. Thanks for the eye opener.

  3. This is excellent articles by far I have read so far. Fustrated web designer now can fully understand and the tools that are available time to be the Photoshop (well after couple of weeks). Many thanks for sharing your thoughts and it has been very useful.

  4. Wow this is a fantastic article and has given me much to ponder and investigate. It is very a liberating article and fantastic to read of your process and the different emphases you place on creating “complete” mockups first in PS, FW etc.

    I never really liked making full-blown mockups in PS anyway—But then again, I was never really that great at that anyway. I usually opted for a couple of rough sketches of concepts then moved straight to the browser not because I am a revolutionary but because for me making complete mockups first blows. That and the lack of talent thing hahaha. I’m more of a developer guy than graphic designer. And this brings me to my next point:

    Today’s way of things calls for a new kind of Web designer. A Jack-of-All-Trades, master of none.

    Wow, this is definitely food for thought right here.

    Many thanks for a brilliant piece. And the imagery you’ve used here STUNNING! Also I’m guessing the reference to the unicorn is that of a mythical creature that doesn’t exist, as in folks/businesses/clients have unrealistic expectations of designers and developers right? Clever :-]

    A great piece, fantastic read.

    • really fantastic article to read, sometimes i make my design from sketch and implement it to the web directly using html and css.

  5. What a great article. Very insightful with many great resources you have posted.
    I have been in the web industry for about 8 years now, and I am starting to take on board some of these new tools and ways of building.
    I do agree that building in the browser is a much better approach, but sadly, a lot of clients don’t like that, as they want to see a design mockup first off. It is faster than building it (sometimes).

    I hope that over time, this changes and the clients appreciate us building straight in the browser so they can easily visualise how everything works and moves together.

    Thank you for the resources. I have lots to think about and learn now!

  6. This article is directed to frustrated web designers. Now they can understand key design factors within no time. Thanks for an elegant share!

  7. Hello,

    You should read more about Left Brain People vs Right Brain People. I had such a big laught whith your “Questions start arising” because while you need to see it to believe it a experienced UX/Designer/Creative/Artist does that exact same process in is mind while thinking about it.

    Cheers mate,

  8. Thanks for this article!

    I’ve done a few responsive websites for clients. I’ve done them with static mockups (done in Fireworks) and without static mockups (in the browser)

    I have to say that as much as I wanted to embrace the latter and make it work, based on all the evangelizing I had read online, I ended up spending SO MUCH TIME explaining stuff to clients.

    I find that with static mockups, it’s much easier to manage clients’ expectations and to make them respect the process.

    Without mockups, it’s really hard to manage their expectations because they then know how quick it is to make CSS changes. Maybe I did a bad job of it.

    At the end, designing in the browser ironically doubled the amount of work that I did! For all the time I spent not mocking up in Fireworks, I ended up spending explaining stuff to the client and making changes that I found to be really frustrating.

    Now when I do responsive sites I provide clients with static mockups for mobile, tablet, and desktop views, and make sure that everything is properly signed off before going into coding. Otherwise it’s a free-for-all and the number of revisions is endless.

    Does anyone have tips on how to manage people’s expectations when designing in browser?? I would love to hear them! I am willing to give it a shot again 😀

    • Hey Jessica!

      This is a very edge case you’re talking about here. It’s true that by designing in the browser with a client you can end up making a hell of a lot of changes, but these changes are almost seamless and I think they would naturally find their way onto the final design. But that’s just me talking without seeing any examples.

      The point about ‘designing’ mockups in the browser is to see them organizing and flowing without any interim stages, see them working right away. Imagine stripping your design of any shapes or colors and just seeing the information -the content- flow (‘responsively’) across different screens. You sign this off and then you go into designing in more detail, in Fireworks or Photoshop or whatever you choose. Then you sign that off and you implement it. This would just be a way of letting HTML and CSS (and a little JS, probably) into every stage of the process.

      If you were building a more complex app, say a flight search engine or something, you need dynamic data coming in and out to actually provide a real mockup scenario. It’s not enough with a static one. Only when you see the data coming in and out you’ll have a true picture of how the app can look. And then you go and polish it up or give it a look.

      I’m also trying to separate and give a space to two different design tasks. One is the application design and another is the branding or the visual detailing. We’re a bit in a loss of words still on how to name each one.

      Hope this is of any help. Keep trying it out!

  9. Great article. Nice break-down of a very complicated subject, one that is hard to articulate even while you are living it! I especially appreciated the great resources and sources that you linked to in the reference section.

  10. Poem. You’ve wrapped my thoughts (and probably 1000’s other designers’ too) in words and gave to me as an answer to the hardest questions. Thank you.

  11. I’ve been a graphic designer for over 25 years. In that time I have seen my profession decimated by the internet. Programmers are now making asthetic decisions, all websites are converging into one ‘user-friendly’ design. Technology is restricting creativity for the first time.
    Personally I think a lot of what you have written here is misguided or just wrong. Design is about creativity, not usability.

    • Hi Niall. Feel sorry, but it seems to me that you’ve been wrong for 25 years, which is a looooong time for having been wrong… Design is about creativity within usuability. Form and function. Both. Joined. Married and melt.
      But if you read this (great) article, you may on the path to move along.
      Print designers who stay far from printers workshops are wrong. They can’t understand what they’re doing if they don’t master (at least understand) the tools that are used to print its stuff : inks, screens, plates…
      It’s simply the same with web design. Understanding the tools, the goals, the endeavours is not only useful but purely necessary. Mastering them is the only way to move from good to great.

  12. Can we see some examples of sites created on the fly? The one in Divya Manian’s video isn’t particularly great..