The easy way to future-proof your web design skillset

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October 14, 2014
The easy way to future-proof your web design skillset.
thumbnailThe last century has seen a tremendous shift in the value we place on artisans. Particularly in light of the mass market style production of products, craftsmanship is still sought after for its quality and distinct style. Today, web designers are amongst the list of professionals who are working with the constant threat of being automated and replaced. Luckily for us though, despite previous technological revolutions putting thousands or millions out of work... We have no reason to fear in the short term, if we can adapt.

A brief history of a bootstrapped education

Our industry is unique in that most, if not the majority, of us have taught ourselves to some degree. Even today, there are shockingly few options in the traditional university setting that adequately teach students a solid foundation of web technologies. This isn’t their fault though, with standards constantly evolving and new practices popping up faster than most university professors earn a paycheck, it’s no surprise. As a result, many people in our industry have related background degrees in art, design, or computer science and have to additionally learn on their own or be trained in house. Being entirely self-taught isn’t uncommon either, as it’s easier than ever to get a solid education from places like Treehouse. In fact, with the majority of our industry being self-taught to varying degrees, it puts us at a distinct advantage over other industries when it comes to the threat of disruption. When faced with the idea that a typical university degree isn’t enough, that students will also have to learn on their own in their free time — and they will essentially have to train their mind to accommodate the highly logical daily work load that programming demands — many opt for an easier career path in other areas. Those that are left typically end up wanting to tinker, learn, and thrive in this industry. We end up with many passionate, flexible, highly driven individuals all working towards similar goals. So most of our workforce is already accustomed to finding their own way; learning what they can from where they can, and not relying on a traditional education to guide them safely into a career.

The looming threat of automation

It’s no surprise that products have started selling an easier, faster, and cheaper website creation experience. We’re beginning to see good solutions being marketed that allow customers to build simple websites, without ever needing to contact a designer or developer. Products like Squarespace have put control in the hands of their customers, and in effect taken a small nibble out of the profession many of us rely upon for income. While the effect has been negligible at best, it still serves as a stark reminder of inevitable things to come. While these products help customers build simple websites, they certainly aren’t going to build the next big social network sensation — at least for now…

Disruption and revolutions

There’s an entire wikipedia page dedicated to explaining what disruptive innovation is. When it comes to the web in particular, it generally means someone has developed a product to decrease the need for — or eliminate entirely — human jobs in an area. For many, this situation has already happened to them. The internet boom of the 1990’s caused a shift towards a digital medium and their career hasn’t been the same since. Many web designers who are well regarded today actually got their start by doing print and media work before the internet was even a thing. Just as they never intended to transition into a digital medium before the need for their past job was decreased, we will likely see a similar transition in our lifetime. Disruption and revolutions have made short work of entire industries before, killing off thousands of jobs with haste. But generally speaking, those positions were threatened well before the actual axing started happening and people would usually prepare to transition into new roles. What's important to note is that while we’re developing tools and products to take our place… It’s also allowing us to specialize and devote more time to a focused area. Specialization is good both for us, and for our customers as well. This doesn’t mean the jobs of today will disappear entirely, just that most of us will be focused on a niche higher up. For instance, you can still learn to set type on the movable type system, but it’s with the expectation that you’re getting a better understanding of fundamentals, not to enter into a career doing it.

Diversify your skills for security

Before the 1990’s, print was the place to be. It’s still a booming industry on it’s own, but before the internet it was the industry. Many designers who made the transition from print work into web design are a prime example of what happens when an industry is threatened. Our future as individuals is entirely dependent upon our current repertoire of skills, and our ability to learn new ones. Specialization is fantastic in that is opens up opportunities to learn much more in depth about niche areas, rather than having to broadly know a little bit of everything. The key to surviving any disruptive innovation is to have a diversified list of skills which we can rely upon professionally.

The value of hand crafted solutions

Computer generated code has been around since the Dreamweaver era of programming — and probably before. The usual holdup is that it’s restricted to only the solutions it’s been taught or it’s seen implemented already. It’s become a sort of running joke that we’re “problem solvers” in this industry, but really that’s the best way to describe it. We’re constantly iterating on previous solutions to make them even better. It’s that ingenuity that makes us valuable, and sets us apart. Hand crafted web design solutions aren’t sought after because they’re this niche industry. Generally speaking, a hand crafted solution in web design will take an immense list of variables into consideration. Who are we designing for? Why? What platforms are we designing for? Why? Web development is also similar as well, with hand crafted solutions there typically taking things like future-proofing, semantics, and next generation standards into consideration as well. These approaches are more personal, more in-depth and more unique to each situation than the computer generated counterparts can currently provide.

The future’s bright

With all the pessimistic end-of-days discussion we’ve all seen over the last few years when referring to the stability of web design as a career, you would be surprised to know it’s actually quite secure. While the low key areas like simple blogs or making a website for your weekend cookout are threatened by services like Squarespace, there will be need for professionals like you and I to make the more advanced things out there for many decades to come. Computers lack an understanding of the concept of trends, emotions, and the overall perception of work. In general, people bring a human touch to their work that computers simply cannot mimic in virtually any regard. But even when computers can fully replace us functionally, they won't. There will always be artisans in any industry. We’ll learn, we’ll adapt, and in the end we’ll always find some way to solve a problem better. Featured image/thumbnail, craft image via Shutterstock.

Dustin Cartwright

Dustin Cartwright is a UI/Web Designer & Front-End Developer from Baltimore, Maryland. He spends the majority of his time focusing on user experience research and is passionate about building things for the web.

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