9 Skills to Supplement Design


Shag Bar...okay

I was having a discussion the other day with some fellow web designer friends on the skills that you required to be stay in this field long term.

Sure we all agreed you need to at least have the core design skills, understanding of layout, colour theory, typography and the usual tricks of the trade. The platform that you used to deliver your designs was immaterial, be that Photoshop, Illustrator, Fireworks or the like it didn’t really matter, the end result was what was important. That’s a given.

To succeed really well in this field, we also agreed you really need to be able to code in HTML and CSS, and I don’t mean a little bit, but really well and understand the rendering issues with the different browsers on the market at the time, or at least be able to do this.

Something More

Now that was all very well and good for the situation where you are working in a organisation where you only have one role in the production of a web site, that being the design of the user interface visuals.

But what happens if you are working for a smaller firm or are a freelancer. Suddenly you may from time to time take on roles or be asked questions on topics that are frankly totally outside of your abilities. After all you just do the “design” right. Do you just wing it and hope for the best?

If you look at the progression of the web industry until recently it has focused on people with specialised skills. But it has also had a wave effect of supplementary skill flow on over the years.

In the old specialisation days you would be just doing the photoshop files, the design. However slowly over time you are suddenly doing the HTML and CSS. Then issues such as usability and accessibility are being brought up, and the finger is being pointing at you as it is your “design”. Now the wave is moving again, as Cameron Adams points out in his interview with Miles Burke, Designers are being asked to just add a little ajaxian type features to sites. Suddenly you need to know JavaScript as well. But you scream thats a developer thing. Sorry no, not anymore.

Things are Changing

If you haven’t noticed it’s a trend, that has been happening for while, people are saying, and rightly too, that designers with just design skills in a few years, no matter how kick arse their designs are going to be a dinosaur of the past in the web industry.

Now I’m not talking about becoming a gun with all these skills and moving away from your love of design. Far from it, but from a career view it does pay to stretch one’s self a little, especially in areas you are not familiar with such as:

  1. Information Architecture

    Sure if the site is simple you can get away with not doing this, but if there is a good deal of content, you really are going to have to consider the findability of the information. The field of Information Architecture has number of very easy to use techniques that any designer can apply. 

  2. General User Experience 

    I’m often surprised the number of designers that don’t consider a few simple things in the area of user experience. There are again a few basic skills and techniques you can learn in this area that will make your designs a little more user focused, which is a good thing.

  3. User Testing

    Now I don’t expect every designer to become a professional in this area. However even just conducting a few user tests with real users will again change the way you do things and think about design forever. Now be warned this really is a skill you need to sit down and learn. It’s really not something you can just pick up run with. 

  4. Javascript 

    We all know that we are being asked to add just a few “tricks” to the web site interfaces we build to make them easier to use, Most of the time this involves the use of Javascipt. Maybe it’s time you learn this language and the correct way to use it, or at least one of the many frameworks, like jQuery.

  5. Interactive Interface Design

    Sure I know this, you say. But do you really. Are you totally across all the best interface design methods and techniques in an ajaxian, RIA environment. Or are you just churning out the same old stuff. Be honest, we all get stuck in a rut on this one from time to time. Maybe time to have a look at this area.

  6. Accessibility

    Are your designs that accessible. Do you think about accessibility when you are designing. Are you really ready for WCAG 2 or ARIA. 

  7. Usability

    So you can design fantastic web sites, but how usable are they. Sure you and your team can use them, but can the public, can the target audience. Do you really have a handle on usability throughout the design process or is just something you kind of tack on the end of the design process or leave for the developers. 

  8. Backend Coding

    I’m not suggesting you become a guru on Ruby on Rails or Cold Fusion or even PHP, but maybe you should at least understand a little what those blocks of code in those files on the server are doing. I personally went down this road for about 5 years doing part-time coding in Cold Fusion and a little PHP. Can’t say I’m a gun at them. But at least I can read it and understand it.

  9. Mobile Device Design

    Stop ignoring it. It’s not going to go away, you have to start looking at mobile phone design today. Yes right now. If you don’t the wave of opportunity of these cheap web communication devices will be gone. And you will be the design dinosaur.

Harsh reality check, maybe. I know it would be cool to just be able to just do design forever, that would be sweet, eh; but frankly thats not going to happen. Time to refresh those skills I think.

Now once you have gained some new skills, please remember you are still not going to be as good as the specialist doing it day in day out. But hey then they aren’t going to be a gun designer like you either. So if in doubt ask a colleague who is focused on that aspect, don’t try and wing it, that’s for cowboys, you may even learn something new.

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1 comment

  1. It’s funny, I often think that people who design for web need to know more about the medium their designing for than they currently do. Yet Gary’s list to me seemed to run against the grain of so many of the wonderful designers I know. Many of the best designers, whos work I love and respect, will never learn a coding language, they won’t think about accessibility off the cuff and they don’t care about information architecture … at least not in the way I think is implied in the article.

    I think a lot of this goes back to the fundamental skill set of a designer.

    I once heard Mark Braddock say that when a client asks him to do something arbitrary like Add more blue he usually will ask them to describe what is wrong with the design. The problem for many people is that they don’t know how to communicate with designers. Add more blue is a solution, it’s the job of the designer to come up with that solution while It doesn’t feel bright enough is a problem, that’s what you need to communicate. I think he’s pretty spot on here.

    I don’t think Designers need to know the Solutions for web development problems but they do need to understand how to communicate their needs, which is where having an understanding of those skills comes in handy.

    I think probably I’d shorten Gary’s list to the fundamentals of web development that don’t rely on the Solutions but instead outline the field of play.

    For example, I think Information Architecture, Javascript and Backend Coding could all come under one simple heading: Understand how a dynamic webpage is rendered

    What you want out of that is a designer who knows that all the data in a CMS site is stored in a database, that they can use things like “date” and “title” as fields and make them repeat and all that sort of thing. A basic understanding of how a single “page” is actually made up of lots of little bits and how CSS works pretty much like Object Styles in InDesign, so they should always think in terms of those objects. And any images, movies, typefaces etc need to be accessible to everyone who views that page, again just like linking objects in InD.

    Then there’s the General User Experience, Interactive Interface Design, Accessibility and Usability. I think that fits under the simple heading: Understand how changes are made to the website in real time

    With that in mind you’re asking the designer to be familiar with how websites change on the fly. This includes an understanding of Triggers, so they know things happen based on Events like timers, mouse over and out, clicks, that sorta thing. Knowing that they’re still doing the same Object-Style tricks as in pre-render (obeying the same linking rules too) but it’s called up by special scripts now, so we can cause some changes in movement. A box that appears to scroll up is just having it’s height value changed every couple of miliseconds but, apart from that, it’s the same as a pre-rendered box.

    Finally there’s your Mobile Interface Design and the other side of General User Experience and Usability. In a way their outcomes of knowing the above two processes. If you understand how a website is displayed and how it changes then you know what you’re able to do which is the empowering that i think most designers need. With that they’re usually very capable of dealing with user feedback and pre-evaluating the user experience a lot more.

    I guess I agree with Gary in intent but I don’t think it’s so much about the skills a designer picks up as opposed to spending time learning about the Process by which their work is going to be displayed. Much like they don’t need to know how a particular type of paper is made but only what it looks like, feels like and how it responds to various colours.

    A more focused approach perhaps 😀

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