The death of web design

Ah, web design, good’re about to die. That’s right. Web design is on its deathbed. There are no cures or operations that can save it. Web design is dying.

If you’re a web designer and reading this then you’ve probably put down your coffee and asked yourself what the hell I’m talking about. I’m a designer, too, so let me shed some light on the grim death of web design.

Web design started pretty much around 1995 or whenever companies decided it was a good idea to get online. It was the birth of a new level of communication. It was pretty freaking exciting, too (though, at the time, I was 11 and had more pressing concerns such as the release of Independence Day).

As companies scrambled to get online, web design became a new, uncharted avenue for making money. To know HTML, DHTML and JavaScript in those days was like having a PhD, but you didn’t have to pay gazillions of dollars to acquire those skills! So some smart fool started selling these skills.

When you have one guy raking in boatloads of money for something that’s actually pretty easy to do, it catches on. The next guy opens shop and says, “I can do what that guy’s doing and I can do it better.” Now you have new people with new skills and ideas permeating the new found web design industry. It’s pretty cool, especially during the dot com bubble. Imagine gobs of money. Don’t I wish I had started web design back then? That’s a different story.

I’m not sure what era to call the dot com bubble. Was it the golden age? New ideas and ways of using the internet were spreading like hot syrup over pancakes just off the griddle. But many of those ideas failed. Perhaps it was more like the bronze age where man is just learning how to use the tools he developed. I think that’s a better approximation of those times.

Nevertheless, the internet was on fire. Web design was the kingpin industry, too. If you were a premium web design company, you were guaranteed business and you were guaranteed to make money. That must have felt great.

Obviously all bubbles must pop at some point, and this one burst with a miraculous explosion. That sucked for web design. But web design was having other problems. Complementary industries like web hosting were starting to get into the game. And, anyone involved with web hosting knows that it was and still is rife with the most childish and unprofessional businesspeople.

The web design industry was effectively being infiltrated by idiots, teenagers, people with atrocious skills and child-like businesspeople. When you put all these magnificent elements in one room, you can see the industry start to deteriorate.

First, barriers to entry? What the hell is that? There are almost no more barriers. Anyone with a computer and Microsoft FrontPage can open shop. I’ll admit I used FrontPage back in 1999 to design my first sites. Thankfully, I realized I sucked at it and didn’t try to sell it. Next, price? What the hell is price? I spent no money opening shop, so I’ll set my price ridiculously low so I can win the deal. Quality? You get what you pay for. Customer support? Go cry about it. Business planning, strategy and goals? Aren’t those for real businesses?

Now, anyone reading this clearly thinks that I’m whining and complaining like a baby that my feet are being held to the fire. Not at all. In fact, I didn’t even really get into web design until those effects were already in play. And I still succeeded.

So there is hope? Not really.

During about 2005 is when I really started to get into web design. Considering that’s 10 years after the birth of the industry, that’s pretty late to be getting in. The market is completely saturated. Everywhere  you turn someone and their kid, dog and cat are offering web design services. No problem.

While the barriers to entry for web design have been lowered significantly, differentiation has been easy. When a vast majority of web designers and web design companies suck, I can take a stand and show people why I don’t suck. When I say show, I mean real, hard evidence. Not just marketing lingo or pretty portfolio pages.

The key was getting out into the local market and talking to people. Ah ha! Talking to people. That’s the key. Very few web design companies can build the nerve to do that. Of course, you can’t just walk out into a street and start talking to people. We (my company) had to the networking routine. Here’s where the next key was discovered. We had to establish a local presence. Continual face-to-face recognition is golden. Once our presence was established we were doing quite well and we continue to do well.

All while this was happening, the big guys such as GoDaddy and Network Solutions began stepping up their game. With stupid names like “Website Tonight” or whatever, these guys started marketing instant web site type packages for pennies on the dollar. Ok, so these web sites are really cheesy and embarrassing. But people still use them because they’re cheap, and for the ones who just want to be online, they get the job done.

The big guys are easy to compete with. They’re so slow moving and just plain lame that it only takes a few hits against them to convince someone not to use them. On other other hand, a bunch of other little guys starting popping up. They offer services much like GoDaddy and Network Solutions except their templating software is much more sophisticated and easier to use.

It didn’t stop there. Don’t want to use one of those ugly, out-of-the-box templates? In steps new guys like ThemeForest. ThemeForest offers “professionally” (they look all right) designed themes for a few bucks. Just pay, download and setup the theme. You’re good to go. What’s alarming is that people who need the web site aren’t exactly going to places like ThemeForest. Rather, it’s designers themselves. That’s right. The crappy, no-talent designers who operate out of their bedroom use ThemeForest to download good-looking (that’s a matter of opinion) themes and rub it off on their clients. Granted, it’s easy to call them out on it, but their client won’t know any better. You now effectively don’t even need to know how to design in order to sell a web site.

Maybe that’s a little harsh on ThemeForest. They actually provide a lot of good stuff as long as you know how to use it correctly.

Outsourcing. Yes, good old outsourcing. Outsourcing has always been around, and man, has it really diluted the web design industry. Most of it comes from India. I get weekly calls from India asking if I want to outsource projects to them. Uhm, no thanks. These guys are all over project bidding sites like Elance where you can get work that should cost $10,000 done for $100. And you know what, that’s fine. That’s called competition. I’ve never used outsourcing myself (to India that is), so I can’t attest to the quality of output (I bet most of it sucks). What I do know is that there’s no way they can compete on communication, and thankfully, most people are smart enough to know how important communication is when it comes to a web project done right.

Here’s the thing, though. All of this stuff going on — the GoDaddys, ThemeForests, outsourcing, templates and crappy designers — doesn’t matter. I’m not complaining because they make my job harder. They really don’t since my company has managed to differentiate and localize itself. No, the problem is that all of these forces are undermining web design in general.

The words web design should invoke, at least to me, a complex mix of art and science. A carefully crafted web site can propel an organization to new heights. But, honestly, when I hear the words web design I can’t help but think cheap, template, copy and lame. Perhaps that’s just me and my seemingly negative mentality, but there’s just that feeling of bleh..web design..that sucks that surrounds my head like weeds on a flower. Web design should mean something but now it’s been gutted and all that remains is hollowness.

Ok, maybe you’re not exactly sure what the hell I’m talking about. Maybe you still think web design is the holy grail of the internet. That’s perfectly fine. Anyone who thinks that probably stopped reading long ago anyway. I’m not out to destroy this industry. Uh, I still work in this industry. But let me lend a few solutions that I’ve actively engaged in to distance myself from the mess that the words web design invoke.

The most important thing for me has been focusing on strategy. This has nothing directly to do with the look and feel of the web site. It’s all about what the web site is going to do for the client, how it’s going to contribute to bottom-line results and how it’s going to get there. Many of these high-level discussions is where the most value in what I provide is generated. It’s also the hardest part of my job, and the most rewarding.

Content has also taken on a more significant role in my decision-making. No, I’m not a copywriter. But content strategizing, placement and distribution are all playing huge roles in my projects. A new and interesting trend that has been emerging is the desire to get content out there. Whether it’s through social networks or private networks, people want easier ways to get their content consumed by their target audiences. This all ties back into strategy.

Custom application development is quickly taking on a shape of its own as well. When web sites are strategized properly, it’s usually fairly easy to see a need for some level of interactivity. With interactivity comes custom applications. Users get a much more valuable experience from a web site visit if they can do more than read content. Furthermore, custom applications act as a natural bridge to content, which I just talked about, since many of the social networks provide APIs to connect with.

In essence, my concentration has been re-branding myself and my company not as a web designer and web design company respectively, but as web architects, web thinkers and web strategizers. I try think beyond the skin of an online presence — the web design — and concentrate on making the web site truly effective.

Hell, this sounds like a marketing pitch. That really wasn’t my intent.

If you’re still wondering what exactly this post has been about then let me sum it up.

If a twelve-year-old can do what you do, you’re in trouble. If you can be outsourced for $5, better start worrying. If what you do can be templated, themed or otherwise cook-cuttered, look behind you. You are about to be squeezed out of business. Instead, focus on offering something that can’t be duplicated (at least not easily) and establish a real identity and presence for yourself.

Then watch web design die.

22 Responses to “The death of web design” (Leave a Comment)

  1. Mike says:

    At first I was surprised no one has commented on this article yet. Though it should be no surprise. The web developer community is pretty small really.

    I agree with every reason you gave. But you left a big one out. Blogs. Particularly WordPress. And, to go a step further, Google’s love for WordPress.

    So many people who have consistently ran blogs for the last few years are doing extremely well without knowing one thing about any kind of code at all.

    So, basically, I would say outsourcing and blogs are the culprits that have you asking “how did this happen”?

  2. Oskar Smith says:

    Looks like I’m a latecomer to your blog post, but I stumbled across it while reading some articles on this subject; a subject that I tend to wake up thinking about and go to sleep thinking about! Our industry has changed beyond recognition over the last 10 years or so and it makes one’s head hurt sometimes trying to keep up! Anyway, just wanted to say great post and your last paragraph sums up my thinking exactly.

  3. Dmitry says:

    There are still plenty of money in web design but it won’t make you reach I guess just enough to get by.
    Also I can agree with some points mentioned in this article but have to say there are always plenty of work if you look hard enough.
    New sites appear and disappear every day so saying there is not enough work around for every web designer out there it over statement. Typical design cycle for existing website between 2-4 years then usually you have to redesign it.
    Outsourcing is actually slowly dying off more and more businesses prefer to deal with a local companies when need something done. Saying that most 12 years old can create a website for you it’s absurd it’s the same as this dummy series books you can became programmer in two weeks but you can’t. The reallity it take 6 -10 years to learn programming and probabably 50-60% of people would failed any way.
    Is website design is died as source of revenue NO.
    Is website design died in general YES – it’s seems in past couple years everyone just stuck with the same web 2 design concept and simply copy each other stuff over and over there is no more excitement on a web it became boring.
    WEB 2 + Web Design * Boring = died web design.

  4. Kent says:

    For freelancers, I cannot agree more with the author. There are still decent opportunities for the very skilled to work for hired labor building websites like government contracts.

    I built my first 200-page web 1.0 site in 2001. After years of doing it as a hobby, I decided to start a business. When the economy was rolling before the end of the ‘Bush admin’ I got calls for price checking all of the time. When the man on the news said “The economy was in shatters”, the calls have been significantly less ever since.

    To upgrade, I became certified in PHP/SQL, HTML/CSS, Javascript and Ajax and have very sound knowledge of many CMS Fremeworks. This…has not helped in getting the phone to ring more often. Yet, I cannot believe how many people will pay the $199 FOR CRAP when they can have a web 2.0 site for a couple hundred more.

    I have always loved learning and the rush of building stuff I had always imagined. So, I accept doing this is best at part-time to avoid the headaches of over-saturation.

    Thank goodness I made a good real estate move and bought 4 acres when prices were down and that I have 50K in the bank from book royalties so that I can start a ‘FEET ON THE GROUND BUSINESS’ like a hair salon or bed and breakfast and use the web to acquire real traffic…not some other person who can point and click at a Joomla installation and ask how to modify my extensions in the Joomla JED.


  5. Bodasactra says:

    Seems true enough on face but lets look deeper. Along with the lower level designers there are many lower level clients willing to hire them. I don’t want a client that would pay so little for sub par work. On the better side. real web design has evolved beyond the personal page designers that have always been online. The CS5 workflow, Jquery, HTML 5, the need for development and interactivity, SEO (oh the SEO) and actually making websites that earn a keep as you have outlined are the separators. Yes a child can make a website and most can drive a car if the opportunity presented, but that does not meant it is to be done. The serious client knows enough and the serious designer has the right feathers in cap to keep to a higher ground. In that regard real pro web design is safe and sound. I manage to do quite well with very little effort. It depends on your skills to make a website that produces results as not many actually do that.

  6. Web developer says:

    As more people brainlessly install a template for themselves, the differentiation between them and the experienced (real) developers is becoming greater.

  7. Travis says:

    I agree completely. I’ve been a developer for about 10 years now and the biggest problem I encounter is trying to ease over potential clients. Many of the “web design” underlings have taken payment for projects and either never completed or did a horrible job. This has made many businesses leery of hiring anyone else for the job. Which in turn means I have a hell of a time trying to obtain payments for completed projects.

  8. cnh says:

    Great post. sadly also very true. i have been doing web development since 95 and i was in IT before that. one problem is that web development is not a clear identity. it is clear what an electrician is. not so much when it comes to web developer. every business or client has a different idea as to who you are and what you do.12 year old, high school whiz kid, ad copy writer, IT guy, office worker , cheap overseas worker, lofty artsy guy all in one. and it keeps changing and morphing in another direction. Maybe this is a temporary profession.

    • Robert says:

      Your absolutely right. For example and person in medical field has to go to college and get a degree. Then they have to pass a test. Then they might have to get a license. So it weeds out all the flakes, dumb asses, fakes or wannabees.

      Web design has no requirements. No college, No License. No examinations. You can become a wannabee web designer in weeks training with word press. Run some adds on Craigslist and woola your a web designer.

  9. Rob Stathem says:

    Hi Chris,

    It’s about time someone like yourself stood up and informed all of us about the design industry (especially web design) and how it’s fading!

    However, let’s not forget that while there are companies that sell crap templates, there are going to be clients that want homemade websites! So, I don’t think it’s going to die completely. Things are changing as technology is, but the need for a website won’t.

    Its my hope (and I’m a web designer too) that as the economy improves, businesses will have some funds for a website or redesign.

    Many businesses seem to be putting their websites on the back burner and they are losing customers. If you’re in business you need a website.

    • Robert says:

      not true at all. I deal with clients all of the time and they could care less about custom design when they find out the custom price. So 99% of my customers opt for a template or WordPress because of the cost savings. If your a decent designer templates can be modified easily. Do I like it… Well not really

  10. Joe Hirst says:

    I have to agree largely with most of this post content.

    Web design has become populated by ametures, template users and “know it alls”. The try fact is that you gat what you pay for. If you hire some teenager that builds your site of a template, down the road tell most likely not be able to provide you customizations that you’ll most likely need. Then you’ll find yourself searching for an actual web designer/developer to provide you a solution and they will cost you 3 times what it did to get your site up and running in the first place.

    The moral here is to find an actual designer that knows and can build you a website from scratch. This way you’ll benefit financially and professionally.

    • Luis says:

      You are rationalizing. It is natural you would, but that does not make it true.

      When this article was written, your reasoning could have held up. But today such claims are simply silly.

      I have been dealing with CMS most of my professional career. From the good old Cold Fusion to the latest snapshot of Drupal 7. Background in design AND programming. I did it all. And one thing I have seeing coming for the last two years was how all the APIs, libraries, open source projects, widgets and components are becoming “smarter”, more robust and consolidated. Three years ago you had to be “good a Jquery” to get stuff done. Now? Now my 12 year old son can write Jquery javascript in about ten minutes and implement a widget.

      It is over. Anyone sticking around who is NOT an employee of a major company or a firm needs to plan for an alternative.

      Look, I hate as much as the next guy, but at the end of the day…..They won the small client market…and for 80% of most web developers, that is all there was as far as jobs. Google will be coming in next and so on and so forth.

      Best alternative is to start building your own product-a-la-wix and pile up that sucker with as many recurring paying clients as you can.

      Anything else….it is like trying to empty the ocean with a spoon. And all those Flash developers (I was one as well.) that insisted that Flash was here to stay should be a fair warning to all who chose to ignore
      what is coming,

  11. Robert says:

    Take a look at Craigslist listing. People are offering 5 pages sites for 150.00. They use wordpress and, rapidweaver just to name a few. I guess I’m a sucker because i went to college for web design back in 2000. I still get work, but I’m underpaid for sure. No one appreciates or cares, so the Death of Web Design is here and knocking very hard. The only hope for the truly professional designers is get a job a a decent company or start your you own biz and refuse to work for cheap. By the way I only made 15000 last year as a freelancer and I worked pretty hard for it. So I made min wage as college trained web designer

  12. greg says:

    well guys i had to give up my little web design business last year and believe me or not it was the most reasonable decision i have made for years. People will always choose a bargain, they won’t pay a lot of money for a website unless it is e commerce but fortunately there is a lot of free packages for e commerce websites and the only thing they will need is someone to help them to set it all up. There is always a brother in law or cousin that will help to set it all up. For me there is no reason to keep going as a web designer, big mistake of my life but its over now. My advice is do something else if you can, don’t waste your time unless you run 1&1 website.

    • Robert says:

      I considering becoming a plumber because web design has become a joke of a career. Earn peanuts for hours and days of eye straining, wrist inflaming, client demanding cheap ass!@#!. I’m on my way out. I have built some websites for people that made allot of money with them, and did they offer me anything extra or future work? No… they just hire some other designer who will do the work for cheap when I ask for more money or ask for hire fees for my work.

    • Luis says:

      I just posted that I also quit after 12 years about a month ago, and as scary as that was,……and like you, I am glad I did. It was killing me both financially and mentally.

  13. Paul says:

    Have to agree with the general sentiments.

    I’ve been doing part-time “web” work for 5 years and just decided
    it’s time to pack it in an use my skills for something actually
    profitable. This industry pays peanuts compared to the actual time,
    stress and headaches of dealing with douche bag clients from hell.

    I plan to start my own business (not a web design business) selling
    real products/services and use my skills to run my own site.

  14. Paul says:

    I am in the web development field for 7 years in the middle east, seen two different type of market for web design one is very low and cheap not paid well, like above said, but there is another level where website development is paid very high, website for good companies or banks. They will give the jobs to a web designing company not to freelancers for a higher price. Actually web design needs to be wrapped with branding package for a company to get a higher price.

  15. Luis says:

    I quit one month ago after 12 years. It was killing me. Literary,

    It is VERY interesting to read this now in 2013. So many of the counterarguments have been obliterated to pieces. Most of them. And so many new issues have risen since then: Flash is gone. Smart phones and responsive web was not needed. Screen resolutions were a few (as compared to now) and almost every major open source, library and API has become so robust automation is slowly taking over.

    While the time frame of his prediction came out wrong, the fact is he was right all along. It is NOT only happening with web development, it is also happening with apps.

    I see people dropping out of the business daily. My Drupal group in Facebook is almost empty.

    • Rob says:

      It is very interesting to me as well. Don’t clients understand that if they go with a website builder like Wix that they’re limited on what they can do with their website? They’ll soon find out those limitations!

      So, at some point they are going to go somewhere else or hire a web developer to build them a website with all the bells and whistles. You get what you pay for and so, at some point, businesses will learn their lessons!

      • Robert says:

        No they don’t get it or care. They always want the cheap way out. Even when they realize that they were wrong previously. They will just jump from one freelancer to another until they get what they need at a cheap price. There is always one person who will do it for cheap. So, it ruins it for everyone else. Something about web design is not appreciated, no one wants to pay for web design. I run into clients from all walks of life. Some have money and some do not. But one thing that they all have in common, they do not want to pay a decent wage for web design. They’re might be a few banks or larger corporations that do pay, but for most designer that never happens.

        I was hired by a major law firm in Las Vegas. They make millions a year. I go there and pitch them a full 50 page custom php sire with all bells and whistle. for 6000.00. They haggle me down to 75 a page. They take a year to pay me, so I just asked for 2000 to get paid. Then when it comes to updates they want them for free. So, when I asked to get paid 40:00 a hour for updates, they just hired a new designer.

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