I recently read an article by Sergio Nouvel, titled "Why Web Design is Dead," in which he argues … well, basically the article does what it says on the tin. That is to say Sergio articulates why, in his opinion, web design is no longer something that designers should be concerned with. Here’s a quick breakdown of his argument:
- The pursuit of web design has no future, and designers need to move on to more important challenges. He goes on to explain why.
- Premade templates offer good (enough) design for most people/small businesses that it’s possible to get a decent website built for cheap/free.
- There is (little to) no further innovation possible in web design. A direct quote: “Trying to get creative at this point will probably be pointless or even harmful.”
- Automated tools and AI can make websites better than humans. Again, a direct quote: “Using cleverly chosen design basics (made by humans) as the foundation, it's hard to go wrong with it, and the result will probably be better than what an average web designer can do.”
- My personal favorite: Mobile is killing the web. Essentially, my takeaway here is that he’s saying that mobile browsing sucks and it’s more important to focus your attention on building your brand through social media and developing an app.
- Webpages are good for informational resources but things like social media, directory websites like Yelp, and a push-based content consumption model (content being delivered to you based on context) are going to overtake the current paradigm of actively going to a business’s website for information.
- Designers should shift focus to UX design: this is best explained through a direct quote: “This switch from web design to experience design is directly caused by the shift from web pages to digital products, tools, and ecosystems. Web pages are just part of something much bigger: mobile apps, API's, social media presence, search engine optimization, customer service channels, and physical locations all inform the experience a user has with a brand, product, or service. Pretending that you can run a business or deliver value just by taking care of the web channel is naïve at best and harmful at worst.”
So here’s the thing. I agree with #7. Websites are definitely part of a larger ecosystem. A solar system, really, with a company’s brand identity and consumers at the center. Yes, experience is extremely important—vitally so. And there is far more to think about than just making sure you have a nice looking website. Is the content easy to understand? Is it easy to find? Is the identity of the business something your target consumers can identify with and connect with on an emotional level? Are you excluding a large chunk of your audience by not paying attention to issues like responsive design or accessibility for the disabled? All of these questions and more should be thought about in a business’s digital strategy. However, to say that web design is dead is absolutely untrue. Here’s why:
An Industry Shift in Priority Does Not Equal Death
The Director of Technology at my agency, Suits & Sandals, said it best: “This is like saying that someone is dying because they are working out, getting fit and losing weight. There’s less of them there now, so they must be dying.” The move from handcrafting each page of a website to a template-base design is helping to shift the industry of web design toward an object oriented design approach. Design is becoming leaner, more impactful and more inclusive. And yes, free/cheap templates for content management systems like WordPress or Squarespace are getting better. However, saying you can get away with choosing a premade template, putting your content in and then shifting focus to creating better user experience through other channels is just silly.
Premade templates are a one-size-fits-all solution, and user experience, by nature, is a pursuit of a tailor-fit relationship between a brand and its consumers. To truly offer your users a great experience, you need to pay careful attention to how they interact with your brand on all levels–including your website. And by relying on pre-made templates and automated tools for web design, you will ultimately bump up against issues where you want to offer your users a better experience through something that your template just won’t allow you to do–but a custom built template made by a real, human designer will allow.
Web Design ≠ Aesthetic Design
As I’ve mentioned, I view a brand’s digital presence as a solar system. Each aspect of the brand should be integrated with each other. So it is equally important to be planning for a brand’s voice, content strategy, development needs, user experience, cross-channel marketing strategies, social presence, so on and so forth. What Sergio Nouvel gets wrong is that web design is not a singular pursuit. He’s treating “web design” as if all it means is the aesthetic design of a web page or website.
In reality, web design is a network of interrelated services that requires thought in information architecture, web development, aesthetic design, marketing strategy, and content that all work together to promote a good user experience. And, yes, that approach towards integration should be part of a larger whole through an overall brand strategy that plays well with the other channels of the brand’s digital presence.
Design is More Than What You See
Just as I explained above, web design is not simply aesthetics. Design, in general, is not simply aesthetics. Everything is designed, even things you as a user do not think about. So when Sergio says there isn’t room in web design for innovation, he’s flat out wrong. The types of innovation that are happening in web design now have to do with efficiency, speed, accessibility, theory, strategy, and code. Are these ultimately things to improve user experience? Yes. Are they web design concerns? YES!
A few examples of innovations currently being talked about in web design:
- Container Queries
- Web Components
- Responsive Images
- Going back to Sergio’s argument that a push-based content consumption model will overtake the current pull-based paradigm: Would you look at that? You can use push notifications on your website now.
Mobile is NOT Killing the Web!
Anyone who does a quick Google search for mobile browsing statistics can easily find plenty of data that supports this statement: mobile browsing is increasing in popularity. Here’s one example.
There are books on the subject, as well, such as the excellent Content Strategy for Mobile by Karen McGrane (which was published in 2012, by the way). In the first chapter of this book, Karen talks about the “mobile-only user,” a user who does not ever, or rarely, use the internet on a desktop computer. This is far more common in other countries but “… As of June 2012, thirty-one percent of Americans who access the internet from a mobile device say that’s the way they always or mostly go online … Those numbers are growing: the Pew Research Center reported in an earlier study from July 2011 that twenty-eight percent of smartphone users go online mostly using their phone” (Page 20-21 of Content Strategy for Mobile). So if mobile browsing is so important to users, then mobile browsing is basically doing the exact opposite of killing the web.
Ok, fine. Let’s assume that most people are unhappy with the way mobile browsing currently works (I don’t know of any research that backs this claim). The idea that mobile browsing sucks should not ultimately mean that web designers should stop focusing on it. Problems are opportunities; this one no different than any other. So what should designers look to do? Improve mobile browsing. And that’s exactly what the focus is for many web designers. My agency employs mobile-first design techniques to help mitigate design issues that used to arise by trying to design from desktop down. Why do we do this? Because mobile user experience is dependent on web design that is not only responsive, but takes good mobile content strategy into high priority—which in turn affects everything from information architecture to aesthetic design choices. Seeing a pattern here?
Reinforcing the Importance of UX
The tl;dr of this article is that we, as web design professionals (whether UX designers, UI designers, front end developers, content strategists, or web analysts) need to be careful about how we talk about what we do. It is absolutely critical to start recognizing that these individual pursuits are far more intertwined than a lot of us recognize. So to flatly say that web design is unimportant—or dead—is the wrong attitude to have about our industry.
It’s a trendy, provocative way to say “you should be thinking about user experience more deeply,” and I do agree that this is true. But the implications of a statement like the one Sergio Nouvel makes are dangerous in that it suggests that it’s ok to sacrifice a powerful and important element of a brand’s digital presence in favor of others. This promotes a false understanding that UX design is an isolated endeavor and not something that permeates through choices in all other aspects of a brand’s digital presence.
So while I agree that it’s important to start thinking about the world outside the website (if you aren’t already) I do not agree that web design is dead. You’re just talking about it wrong.
Image of outerspace excitement courtesy Shutterstock.