Celebrity culture in web design
Every industry has its heroes and celebrities — well, we web designers don’t have anything like the powerhouse that is Brangelina, and none of us are naming our kids after directional markers based on the Earth’s magnetic field — what we have are people who are just really good at their jobs. At least, we think they are, and they certainly sound like they know what they’re doing. And hey, they’re making the big bucks, so they have to be the experts, right? Yes and no. Looking back at history, it seems that success often has as much to with luck as skill. That’s how we ended up with M. Night Shyamalan. Then there are people skills to consider. Charm and negotiating skills can take people a long way. Have I mentioned outright lying? No, I’m not saying that your favorite web designers are snake-oil salesmen. Chances are that I don’t know them, and they’re probably very nice people who have actually memorized the HTML5 and CSS3 specs. I have heroes of my own who taught me a lot about web design and front-end development through tutorials, podcasts, articles, and the like. What I want is to look at the way our own little celebrity culture has affected the web design industry, for better and for worse. So let’s get our introspection on.
Knowledge is shared
Well, this is the obvious point. Designers who actually become well-known in the community usually do know what they’re talking about. They usually become well known by talking about it. Their knowledge is shared with everyone, everyone benefits. The industry moves forward. Yay!
A somewhat unintentional, but still fantastic side effect is that when someone gathers a fanbase, those fans get connected with others in the industry. Paul Boag had forums surrounding his podcast. God only knows how many people have begun interacting via A List Apart comment sections, or Jeffrey Zeldman’s Twitter feed. Finding other people who get what you do can be difficult, especially for us freelancers and one-person agencies. Common heroes give us a central meeting place whether they intend to or not, and something to talk about while we break the ice.
They can affect positive change
The more cynical people among us might roll our eyes when Miley Cyrus takes up some charitable cause or other. It’s seen as a PR move, or we just doubt how much good she’ll do. That’s unfair. Whether we like the individual or not, celebrity types can amass an impressive amount of support for any given cause. The Internet itself would not be where it is without the industry leaders calling out for better browsers, adherence to standards, professionalism, and other, very good things.
They’re good for newbies
Sometimes it’s hard to explain why some things are best practice, and why others should be avoided. Many of these things have already been clearly explained by our heroes, and we can point new designers right at those resources. And, in general, they serve as good examples. When a new designer doesn’t know what to aim for, you can say something like, “You see that stuff Ethan Marcotte is making? Yeah, aim for that.’, or, “Lea Verou’s book on CSS. Go read that, then get back to me.”
When people take everything their heroes say at face value
This is one of the big downsides of hero-worship. Everyone’s human, and makes mistakes. People who don’t account for this might pick someone to blindly follow, no matter what. That’s dangerous in any industry, or indeed, in any part of life.
Some people wait for their idols to voice an opinion instead of voicing their own
This is a similar problem to the last. The difference is that these people do have their own opinions, but might hold them back for fear of looking stupid when contradicted by someone “smarter”. Truth be told, I’m not sure that either of these issues are too much of a problem. Designers can be a very opinionated bunch. But then, maybe we’re only hearing the loud ones.
The ugly: harassment
If I could make a warning sign for the Internet, it would read, “Here be jerks. Trust no one.” People get harassed on the Internet all the time, for every conceivable reason. Political differences, racism, sexism, software preference, or the way they hang their toilet paper. The moment someone gathers an audience for any reason, this can and does happen. Then there are stalkers. I’d like to say that it doesn’t happen in our community, that we’re better than that. But I can’t, because this is the Internet. Shake it and jerks will fall out.
Everyone needs heroes. Sure, there are problems that arise when people start thinking of their heroes as superhuman (or conversely, subhuman). That’s a given, really. On the whole, it’s a good thing that these people are around, doing what they do. And with their brains and experience, there’s a lot more to admire about the likes of Boag, Zeldman, Verou, and others than many mainstream celebrities. They provide useful observations, insights, links to new resources, and rallying points for progress. When it comes down to it, celebrities and design heroes are only one person (each). They might have good stuff to share, but we make them “famous”. We follow them, share their stuff, form the fan base. Many of the good things about having heroes come from us. So do many of the bad things. It’s almost like we each have to examine ourselves and the people we admire, and then form our own opinions and make our own choices. If we keep following the people who challenge us to do better, and be better, our heroes will do us more good than harm. Featured image, heroes image via Shutterstock.