It’s 2014. Is Web Design Dead?

IN A RECENT article on his website, Web Standards Killed the HTML Star, designer Jeff Croft laments the passing of the “HTML and CSS ‘guru’” as a viable long-term professional position and urges his fellow web design generalists to “diversify or die.”

The reason the Web Standards Movement mattered was that the browsers sucked. The stated goal of the Movement was to get browser makers on board with web standards such that all of our jobs as developers would be easier.

What we may not have realized is that once the browsers don’t suck, being an HTML and CSS “guru” isn’t really a very marketable skillset. 80% of what made us useful was the way we knew all the quirks and intracries of the browsers. Guess what? Those are all gone. And if they’re not, they will be in the very near future. Then what?

From my perspective, the web standards struggle consisted of two phases of persuasion: first we convinced browser makers that it was in their interest to support current HTML, CSS, and JavaScript specifications completely and accurately; then we evangelized the accessibility, findability, and portability benefits of lean semantic markup and progressive enhancement to our colleagues who made websites and their clients.

Evangelizing true compliance, not mastering workarounds for compliance failures, was always the point. Evangelizing was key. Browsers weren’t going to stay standards compliant if nobody made use of that compliance; likewise, W3C specifications weren’t going to advance unless designers seized hold of technologies like CSS to push type and layout on the web as far as they could go—and then complain that they didn’t go far enough.

It took a village of passionate browser engineers, designers, front-end developers, and generalists to bring us to the web we have today. Does the movement’s success mean that many of those who led it will become jobless, like Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution?

Jeff Croft is correct when he says “the goal of the Web Standards Movement was for it to not have to exist.” But we should take this a step further. The goal of the web standards movement was to remove needless complexity and absurdity from the process of creating websites so we could focus our attention where it should be: on design, content, and experience. Evangelizing standards to browser makers and our fellow designers was not a career path, and was never intended to be—any more than aiding a wounded buddy turns a soldier into a physician.

Interestingly, once web standards made the web safe for design, content, and experience, the web’s capabilities—and, thus, the work required to create certain kinds of websites—started becoming more and more complex. To help cut down on that complexity, some front-end developers began sharing chunks of code (from Eric Meyer’s CSS Reset to Mark Otto’s Bootstrap) which paradoxically set in motion another level of complexity: as Jeff Croft points out, familiarity with these and dozens of other tools is now expected of job applicants who could once get hired on nothing more than a solid understanding of HTML and CSS plus a little JavaScript.

HTML “gurudom” was never a career path for anyone, aside, maybe, from a couple of talented authors. Same thing with CSS trickery. Doing black magic with CSS3 can get you a slot on a web design conference stage, but it’s not a career path or proper goal for most web designers.

Fascinatingly, to me, anyway, while many of us prefer to concentrate on design, content, and experience, it continues to be necessary to remind our work comrades (or inform younguns) about web standards, accessibility, and progressive enhancement. When a site like Facebook stops functioning when a script forgets to load, that is a failure of education and understanding on the part of those who created the site; all of us have a stake in reaching out to our fellow developers to make sure that, in addition to the new fancy tricks they’ve mastered, they also learn the basics of web standards, without which our whole shared system implodes.

This doesn’t mean “go be an HTML guru.” It does mean cherish the lessons of the recent past, and share them with those who missed them (or missed the point). Wisdom is not a job, but it is always an asset.

Never fear, web design generalists: many companies and organizations require your services and always will—from universities still seeking “webmasters,” to startups seeking seasoned folks with multiple areas of understanding to direct and coordinate the activities of younger specialists. But if jack-of-all web work is feeling stale, now may be the time to up your game as a graphic designer, or experience designer, or front end developer. “Diversify or die” may be overstating things a bit. But “follow the path you love” will always be good advice.