As it turns out, the profession that dare not speak its name has a lot to say for itself. Over 30,000 people have taken a few minutes to help create the first (soon-to-be) publicly available data about people who make websites. And you?
If you haven’t yet filled out The Web Design Survey, now is the time: the survey closes on 22 May. Our thanks to all who have already participated.
[tags]webdesign, survey, web design survey, ala, alistapart, design, development[/tags]
The profession that dare not speak its name
Question: If web design makes the new information age possible—if it creates new markets and new products, generates significant global cash flow, changes the way companies and non-profits interact with the public, and employs untold legions of specialists—why, until now, hasn’t anybody tried to find out more about it as an industry?
Hypothesis: No one has tried to measure web design because web design has been a hidden profession.
The hypothesis is neither far-fetched nor particularly insightful. If you think about it, it’s obvious. Web design has been hidden because its workers have, for the most part, been masked by old business and old media categories. Call it death by org chart:
A producer, designer, and developer collaborate daily on their non-profit’s rather unwieldy website. The producer’s business card claims she is an Associate Communications Coordinator. The designer’s title is Art Director. The developer is called an Assistant Director of IT. All three are really web professionals—but nobody calls them that, and nobody at the organization solicits their opinions except on small, technical matters. This, even though the website handles nearly all public communication and fund-raising, and these three are the only people in the organization who know about usability and design.
On paper, a large law firm employs only one web employee despite having a vast public website and an even bigger intranet site. Her title is webmaster, although she is really a graphic designer with HTML, CSS, PHP, and usability expertise. On the corporate org chart, she reports to one of the partners, who is charged with supervising the website in his free time. He knows nothing about websites, so she handles everything. Once a month they have lunch; once a year she gets a nice raise. Because she reports to an attorney, she is part of Legal.
On paper, a daily news magazine employs just one “web” employee. His title is webmaster, although he is really a developer, and he is slowly being squeezed out. The actual web development work—and there is a ton of it, every day—is performed by two IT staffers. A half dozen other folks work on page templates and site image production; on paper, they are graphic designers. The site is directed by a committee representing the editorial, advertising, and marketing departments. But regardless of their placement on the org chart, they are really web people, making web content and web layout decisions that are then executed by the “graphic designers” and “IT guys.” In all, nearly fifteen workers toil over the magazine’s website each day, yet the magazine’s web “staff” consists of one guy who’s about to take an early retirement.
There are many self-proclaimed freelance web designers and developers, and many staff people with those (and related) titles, but there are also hundreds of thousands of “hidden” web designers and developers, and this partly accounts for the business world’s indifference to us.
But the hidden workers are coming out of the shadows. Over 12,000 people filled out The Web Design Survey during its first 24 hours online. Average completion time was 8 minutes, 45 seconds. Not a bad start. Keep spreading the word.
[tags]webdesign, survey, web design survey, ala, alistapart, design, development[/tags]
The Web Design Survey
A few days back, we remarked on the strange absence of real data about web design and the designers, developers, IAs, writers, project managers, and other specialists and hybrids who do this work. In all the years people have been creating websites, nobody bothered to gather statistics about who does this work, using what skills, under what conditions, and for what kinds of compensation.
In the absence of statistics specific to our field, commissioning research got us only so far. It was time to take the next step.
Presenting A List Apart’s first annual web design survey. The information it collects will help us form a long overdue picture of the ways web design is really practiced around the globe. The more people who complete the survey, the richer and more detailed the picture will become.
Depending on how you answer it, the survey has up to 37 questions, nearly all of them multiple choice. A fluent English speaker should be able to complete the survey in ten minutes or less.
In structuring the sections on employment, we patterned certain questions along the lines established by previous surveys undertaken by AIGA and The Information Architecture Institute. The similarity will afford easier comparisons across the three surveys. This comparability will be useful because some “web designers” are also (or primarily) designers, and thus also fall under AIGA’s umbrella, while other “web designers” are primarily information architects.
Hosted by An Event Apart, the survey will remain open until 22 May, 2007. After we close it, we’ll slice and dice the data and present our findings in a future issue of A List Apart.
Help us increase accurate knowledge about—and deepen respect for—the profession of web design. Take the survey and spread the word. (You might even win a free ticket to An Event Apart, a 30GB video iPod, an Event Apart jump drive, or a funky A List Apart T-shirt.)
Also in this issue of A List Apart, for people who make websites:
In the virtual conference room, no one can hear you scream. Social networking enables knowledge workers like us to build virtual companies with no office space and little overhead. But can we make them succeed? Follett dissects the skills required to create, manage, and grow the virtual firm.
Yes, Virginia, design does matter. Better web page layouts aren’t only about aesthetics. A layout with clear hierarchies can turn scanners to readers, and readers to members. Learn how visual contrast can turn lifeless web pages into sizzling calls to action.
Happy Cog Philadelphia is looking for an experienced freelance front-end (presentation layer) developer with strong design sensibilities. You must live and breathe semantic XHTML and CSS and understand how design and layout decisions manifest themselves in the world of markup. It helps if you’ve worked with Content Management Systems like EllisLab’s ExpressionEngine and can integrate templates within this environment. You must be in the Philadelphia area and be able to work with us on site. Details are available on the Job Board posting.
If you develop green technologies, you dream of selling your idea to Al Gore. If you run a design agency, you fantasize about winning AIGA as a client. Originally founded as the American Institute of Graphic Arts, AIGA sets the agenda for design as a profession, an art, and a political and cultural phenomenon. In the world of design, at least in the U.S., there is nothing higher.
When AIGA approached Happy Cog to redesign their site, we figured we had no chance at all. With nothing to lose, we spoke bluntly.
We told them they had fifteen years of great content that nobody could find. We suggested that an emerging class of designers who needed what AIGA had to offer did not know AIGA and could not connect with its web presence. The site could do more, and had to do more, to reach these users. We said AIGA’s site above all others should make brilliant use of typography. It should be a joy to read—and it was not.
I reckoned AIGA would hire a more obviously design-focused shop. “Designy design” agencies is how I think of such places, and I mean no disrespect by it. AIGA would, I figured, shrug off our fairly harsh words and choose someone more agreeable. Instead, they hired us.
Months of intense collaboration later, Happy Cog’s redesign of AIGA has launched. We junked the old structure, flattened the hierarchy, and surfaced the content. We gave the site’s years of brilliant writing by the likes of Ellen Lupton and Steven Heller an appropriately readable home—one that demonstrates what web typography can achieve.
And to make the site as inspirational as it is educational, we introduced a second narrative to the user experience: dynamically chosen selections from AIGA’s design archives visually intrude at the top of every page, inviting designers to dive into the archives whenever they seek refreshment.
AIGA’s Ric Grefé, Denise Wood, Liz Danzico, and Kelly McLaughlin guided us throughout the process. They are brilliant collaborators. Chicago’s Thirdwave created the robust and sophisticated back-end architecture required to support our detailed and unusual design requirements.
Thousands of pages of old content, none of it semantically marked up, and none of it structured to match our new requirements, have been fairly seamlessly integrated into the new design. Naturally there are still some bugs (not to mention validation hiccups) to work out. AIGA, Thirdwave, and Happy Cog will be working to patch these little bumps in the days ahead.
I creative directed the project, but its quality is purely due to the incredible team that worked on it:
Mr Mancini, my high school science teacher, grew a mustache when he began to dye his grey hair black. The dye job progressed by degrees. He was a little grey, then less grey. Nobody noticed; his mustache mesmerized us.
On the day Mr Mancini went all black, he shaved his mustache. All we noticed when he bounced into the classroom was his big, smooth-shaven face. He had to tell us that he’d changed his hair. As a man, he wanted to protect the secret of his vanity, but as a science teacher he felt morally obliged to explain the psychological trick he’d played on us.
Good redesigns work like my teacher’s hair. They are always an opportunity to fix or change a lot of things that aren’t obvious on the pretty new surface. Happy Cog has just redesigned.
It started with a sentence
The new version of Happy Cog’s website had to better convey how our agency’s business has diversified. We are first and always designers for hire. We are also publishers, whose micro-empire is expanding. And we have lately co-founded a high-profile event series.
The old site told the “design for hire” story. The redesign had to tell all three stories.
Usually this would be done by creating a navigation bar with labels like “We design,” “We publish,” and “We present.” But labels don’t connect; they separate. Navigation labels could point to three separate story-lines, but they would not make the case that ours was a holistic enterprise—that our conference, our publications, and our client services business were one.
For some time, I’ve been thinking about the primacy of words in the user interface. A sentence, I felt, could present our three businesses, and by its very nature, connect them in the reader’s mind.
The primary navigation interface had to be a sentence. And so it is.
The drawing board
One sentence led to another. I found it easy to write the new Happy Cog and easy to spin an organic architecture out of the opening sentence. But hell if I could design the thing.
I’d always designed Happy Cog; it was my baby; but every time I opened Photoshop or took crayon to paper, the results were a muddle. Maybe it was because my brain was barreling along on architecture and copy. Or maybe there are only so many times a single designer can take a new look at the same site.
I tapped Jason Santa Maria (or maybe he tapped me). Jason has one of the keenest minds and two of the freshest eyes in the business. He makes legibility beautiful. What the Ramones did with three chords, he does with two system fonts. His designs always spring from the user and the brand proposition.
His first effort sucked. (I was secretly relieved.)
A month later, Jason came back with pretty much the design you now see at happycog.com. (I rejoiced.) The painting at the top, which makes the design, is by A List Apart illustrator Kevin Cornell.
Dan is as good as anyone I’ve worked with. He is super-fast yet also deeply thoughtful. We spent many a mini-session debating such things as whether the About page and its subsidiaries should include microformats. We decided not.
Mark Huot migrated the new site, a job that involved considerable strategy as well as expertise. Rob Weychert contributed additional art direction and Jon Aldinger offered additional programming.
The redesign tells our story and gives us room to breathe and grow. It is also (I think) quite pretty and thoroughly appropriate. We hope you like it, and we invite you to subscribe to Happy Cog’s RSS feed to stay abreast of all matters Coggish.
Jason Santa Maria and Daniel Mall have written their perspectives on the Happy Cog redesign. They’re swell! Jason’s writeup includes information about the Happy Cog Philadelphia Open House, featuring the live music of Comhaltas. If you’re around, please visit.
Black’s back! Black blogs! Site design by Rob Hunter. Love the “simplify” button. Red-and-black visual joke works, but shade of red needs fine-tuning. Having to employ drop-shadows on every character of body text (only Safari supports this) should be clue, if one were needed, that the background color doesn’t work.
Every ten years, whether I need it or not, I take a couple weeks’ vacation. Here I go again. I’m going to a place where there is no high-speed internet access. Indeed, there is no low-speed internet access. There is not even Wi-fi in the local Starbucks. Perhaps because there is no local Starbucks. No man is an island but a man can go to one, and that is what I am doing. Will I survive two weeks without constant intravenous-drip email and RSS? Come back in two weeks and find out.
P.S. As this site’s comments are moderated, and as moderation requires my presence, if you haven’t posted a comment here before, you won’t be able to do so now. I will brood about this while lolling on the sand.
And boy are my arms tired
An Event Apart NYC is over. It lasted twice as long as previous events. Featured three times as many speakers. Took at least four times as much effort to prepare. And was ten tons of fun.
We couldn’t have done it without you
Thanks first and foremost to all who attended. You made the show.
Jason Santa Maria, in addition to speaking eloquently, designed the identity system for the conference, right down to the lanyards.
Eric Meyer is a genius. You could put a mic in front of him anywhere and a crowd of CSS-hungry devotees would soon gather. You could even put him on after Ze Frank.
Baltimore filmmaker Ian Corey videotaped the event, supplied and maintained additional equipment, and ran the sound system.
Daniel Mall and Jon Aldinger, web designers and event assistants extraordinaire, lugged heavy boxes of collateral from Happy Cog to Scandinavia House. They also (with brilliant Rob Weychert) manned the doors, cleaned the auditorium after attendees filed out each day, and assisted Ian with the sound.
A space this elegant and food this good are hard to come by in the world of conferences. Perfectly tuned service is equally rare. Victoria and Bo of Scandinavia House and Peter and Angellique of Restaurant Aquavit, along with their discreet yet ever-present staff, provided almost unheard-of levels of service. We thank them, and I recommend them to anyone hosting an intimate or mid-sized design conference in New York City. (The theater seats 168 but we cut off registration at 120 to maintain intimacy.)