Web design is moving beyond creating professional aesthetics with branding, imagery, colours and fonts. Increasingly the focus of web designers has moved to UX, creating interactive, fast, and engaging interactive experiences, products and services. Like everything on the web, it’s evolving.
The focus of web design has been changing for a while, I’m certainly not the first to notice this. With standard layouts emerging and lots of UI frameworks available to facilitate these, where should the focus of web design be?
To reflect on where we are today, we need to first look back to where we were.
THE OLD DAYS
Websites used to suck… really suck:
As you can see from above, to begin making websites look in any way acceptable or professional, we badly needed web designers to do lots of the UI heavy lifting. This would mainly involve using PhotoShop to create UI graphics and images due to the lack of visual options with HTML and CSS.
Until fairly recently this could be a big task for a web designer. It wasn’t too long ago that backgrounds, buttons, containers and even headings and titles (because of a lack of custom web fonts) would have been an image created by a web designer. However, as the web platform has moved on, we have established UI patterns for common types of content and gained abilities to do things with code instead of images. CSS now allows us to add custom fonts, gradients, shadows, rounded corners, draw shapes and much more. The reliance on images for UI elements has decreased further and further over time.
A web designer would also spend a lot of time designing the page/application layout. This has also become much simpler over time as common patterns and best practices have emerged. We have now fallen into some standard templates/layouts and it seems rare to see a website deviate from these. Although many websites look very similar, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It gives users a more consistent experience and should enable them to instantly feel comfortable using and navigating around a new site. Two layout patterns have become especially common, as nicely illustrated by Jon Gold:
which one of the two possible websites are you currently designing? pic.twitter.com/ZD0uRGTqqm
— kerning man (@jongold) February 2, 2016
CSS libraries/frameworks (like Bootstrap, Foundation, Material Design Lite, UIKit, and Semantic UI to name but a few) have also sprung up over time. These include default styles and many common UI components pre-built (and mobile friendly) to allow you to quickly build a responsive web site/app. For many sites there’s little that might need to be manually designed or developed after including a framework. Change some variables for your brand colours and font and you can piece together your UI very quickly – no PhotoShop required.
So if we know our brand colours and we have a CSS framework we can quickly create a decent looking website quite quickly. Job done? Unfortunately not. Creating a good looking responsive website that works on mobile and desktop is the bare minimum expected by users now. Expectations have moved on from a responsive site that gives them some information to products/services being entirely online – whether that’s e-Commerce, instant messaging, videos, music, or even banking and financial services. We’re no longer mostly designing a brochure to click through, we’re designing interactive experiences and digital products and services. Design now needs to bring together form, function, and interaction into a simple, cohesive, and optimised site/app.
Web design isn’t dead, like everything on the web, it’s transitioning and evolving as the web platform itself evolves. Web designers are moving from a purely aesthetic focus to user experience as the web transitions from brochureware to interactive experiences, products and services. More and more “websites” are becoming interactive “web apps” with increasing interactivity and complexity. The job title “Web Designer” may disappear entirely, in favour of “UX Designer”. The same may happen for “Web Developer” -> “UX Developer”.
Web designers will spend less time designing aesthetics (layouts and UI elements) and more time designing products and services with more complex UI interactions and transitions.