It’s never been easy to find a web designer with good visual design skills. Why? Because the majority of web designers are actually programmers. And why is that? Because you need to know how to code to make images and words appear exactly how and where you want them to on the internet.
Coding requires abstract thinking and logic (left brain) whereas visual design requires concrete thinking and creativity (right brain). Since designers are not exactly enthralled with the idea of learning to code, the field has come to be dominated by programmers. Unfortunately, while they may know how to use Photoshop to produce images, this does not automatically transform them into talented designers, any more than knowing how to use Microsoft Word makes you a great writer.
The Grim Reality
If you’ve ever done a search for “custom web design” you know that most web designer portfolios reflect a heavy bias towards function, rather than visual design. All the written testimonials and metrics in the world cannot make up for what your eyes are clearly telling you: yikes. What’s going on?
Most of us use both left and right brain skills on a regular basis. However, programmers use their left brain skills all day, every day, while designers favor right brain skills. This can lead to bias and extreme patterns of thinking.
Quantitative (Left Brain) Thinkers
Most programmers have cultivated a deep understanding of quantitative, linear thinking. They love numbers and logic and graphs—anything that can be measured or proven. Their strength lies in communicating to machines to get them to do amazing things. Usually in several programming languages. They are, in fact, in love with their PCs, and are quite content to stare at a no-frills interface for months on end. They are not terribly comfortable relying on intuition or subjective feelings to guide their decisions. They much prefer the absolute certainty of black-and-white logic that can be broken down into discrete parts, over multiple-shades-of-grey design that is open to interpretation and must be worked on as a whole. Consequently, they have very little interest in visual design or aesthetics. Their eyes glaze over if you start talking about the nuances between turquoise, sky and periwinkle: to them, it’s all blue so what’s the big deal? They generally view graphic design as purely decorative and ultimately unnecessary: the icing on the cake, but definitely not the cake. They suspect most designers are just not smart enough to understand code.
Qualitative (Right Brain) Thinkers
Visual designers are the polar opposite. Their strength lies in communicating ideas to humans via creative expression (art, music, literature). They usually have a background in a design discipline (graphic design, fine arts, art history). When handed a hot mess of content, they use their acquired instincts to bring order and hierarchy using colors, fonts and layouts. Having spent years studying images and visual composition, they can rely on their “eye” or gut feeling to quickly diagnose what is wrong with a composition and fix it. They are often surprised at the number of people who cannot draw more than a stick figure, or see the difference between two sans serif fonts. They are baffled by people who cannot imagine a finished result from a rough pencil sketch. They love their Mac laptops almost as much as their iPhones. They suspect most programmers are emotionally stunted and color-blind: they would not trust them to read a traffic light, let alone select a font color. They deeply resent programmers who refer to themselves as designers, and roll their eyes when anyone defines design strictly in terms of engineering. They secretly wish that coding was easier, but take comfort in the sure knowledge that without the allure of icing, a cake is not a cake; it’s just another loaf of bread on the shelf.
A successful website requires both logic (so it can function properly across a variety of screens) and an attractive interface with quality content (so that users will choose it over a competitor’s site, and want to stick around). When given a choice, most humans prefer to gaze at beauty and variety rather than monotony or a visual mess. However, they also prefer things that work reliably and consistently, rather than in unpredictable new ways. So we need both sets of skills: we need the cake and the icing.
The Traditional Solution
Large companies hire an ad agency with a team made up of designers and developers. And a project manager to keep them on track. And an account exec to be the buffer between the client and the web team. And another manager to conceive a marketing strategy and to keep the peace. And all of that is rather expensive. Fees start at around $25,000.
Smaller companies hire a graphic designer to create their brand identity (colors, type, graphics, logo) and printed materials (business cards, packaging, brochures). The client then hires a web developer to create a website that uses the brand identity. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, the client becomes the de facto project manager and go-between, so when something falls through the cracks, it’s the client’s fault, and they end up paying dearly for it. Moreover, the website, while technically flawless, tends to have a clunky, boxy feel to it, and often lacks the punch of the original brand identity. The impact seems to get lost in the translation from print to web.
The Hybrid Solution
The lucky few stumble upon a graphic designer who can also code (or a developer who can illustrate) who happens to run their own web design business. This combination results in a more evenly balanced approach to web design. While these exotic birds are rare and can be difficult to spot, there are tell-tale signs:
- a portfolio that reveals quality art and a variety of layouts
- services that include mobile design and custom coding
- several years experience spread across graphic design and coding
- a list of clients from a variety of industries, which indicates flexible thinking
- a liberal arts degree, which develops both sides of the brain
Running an independent web design studio requires using both sides of the brain on a daily basis. It also instills a deep respect for the realities of business. In short, they offer the whole cake with a cherry on top. Why settle for less?