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Reinventing Yourself as a Designer: Will it be Necessary?

posted by Matt Ward on Aug 10, 2010.

The face of web design has been changing over the past few years, with the advent of various mobile devices. In this article, we will consider the implications of this change, and take a brief look at the concept of having to reinvent ourselves as designers in order to stay at the top of our game.

The other day, a co-worker and I were talking about a concert that she had attended, which featured a bunch of acts from the era of 80’s hair bands. You’d never catch me at such a show, and I didn’t even recognize any of the band names when she told me, but she did seem to have enjoyed herself. The one thing that amazed her, however, was how many of those in attendance (and on the stage) actually seemed to be stuck in the 80’s.

Reinventing Yourself as a Designer: Will it be Necessary? (image from ShutterStock)

Reinventing Yourself as a Designer: Will it be Necessary? (image from ShutterStock)

Apparently at this show big, bleached yellow hair was still as rocking as it was back when I was all of five years old.

As the conversation continued, I asked her to offer tell me who she considered to be “hair bands”, and she started naming of some of them, most of which I already forget. But then she named Bon Jovi, and that gave me pause. I’m no Bon Jovi fan, but I always thought of him as more of a contemporary adult rock. He might have a bit more flair than some of the others, but I still always placed him as a part of that genre.

Wanting to get to the truth of this matter myself, I looked him up on Wikipedia, where I found this really interesting passage:

In 1992, the band [Bon Jovi] returned with the album Keep the Faith. The album was released in November 1992. Produced by Bob Rock, the album signified an ending to their early metal roots in previous albums and introduced a more “rock n roll”-driven groove to the album. Much more complex, lyrically and musically, the album proved that Bon Jovi could still be a viable band in 90’s, despite the industry’s and audience’s growing affinity for Grunge.

And there it is – the precise bridge that clearly marked the transition from the Bon Jovi of the 80s to the artist/band that I am more familiar. Interestingly, this all happened just a couple of years before I really started getting interested in music through that very Grunge scene that was changing the face of the music industry.

Another artist who followed a similar path is Madonna. Back when she first came out, she was the queen of 80’s pop. She was young, scandalous and sexy, both in terms of her lyrical content and the way she dressed, and because of it her music sold. She had a bunch of hit singles and transformed the cultural understanding of the word Madonna from being the chaste, pure and ever-holy mother of Christ to an alluring, anything-but-chaste vixen.

As time marched on however, the woman who called herself Madonna didn’t rest on her laurels or try to cling desperately to the past. As the world changed, she just changed right along with it. In many ways she grew and matured along with her audience, and while I don’t think she ever left her provocative sensuality behind her, she definitely mastered the art of reinventing herself in order to stay fresh and current in the ever changing landscape of the recording industry.

From the 80's through to today, Madonna continues to reinvent herself to stay current

From the 80's through to today, Madonna continues to reinvent herself to stay current

Again, I can’t say I’m a big fan of her music (though some of the tunes are somewhat catchy), but I’ve always maintained that she is probably one of the smartest women in music today, and that the majority of what we see from her is all very carefully thought out and contrived. That’s why she, and other acts like Jon Bon Jovi, have managed to endure, while so many of their contemporaries have fallen away, and become little more than obscure footnotes of history and trivia, who occasionally play cheesy and nostalgic reunion gigs.

Let’s Talk About Design

I’m no expert on the history of music, but I think I know enough to say that the mainstream emergence of bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and the like literally transformed rock music (though it all started earlier than that), diverting the scene in a whole new direction that we are still hearing on the radio today.

And the same thing is happening in the design world today.

Just a few years ago, web designers were web designers. We designed websites that were meant to be viewed in a browser on a computer. Yes, there were variations in browser compatibility and screen size, all of which gave us headaches, but catering to users who refused (and still refuse) to abandon IE6 was just part of the territory.

Today, however, things have already changed dramatically, thanks mostly to smart phones. The iPhone, Blackberries, Android powered devices can all surf the internet with their own unique browsers, specifically designed for these relatively tiny screens, which actually have a lower number of pixels than we had back when I was cranking out pages for 800×600 displays.

With every passing day, more and more people are starting to think as much about their mobile presence as they are about their regular website.

Devices like the iPhone are literally changing the face of the design for the web (image from ShutterStock)

Devices like the iPhone are literally changing the face of the design for the web (image from ShutterStock)

And then, of course, there are all the apps. It seems like every smart phone has its own collection of apps, usually numbering in the thousands, if not the tens of thousands. And, of course, all of the apps are proprietary, meaning that what runs on my iPhone won’t run on my wife’s Blackberry (though there may be different versions of the same basic app). Oh and let’s not forget about all those iPad apps.

Just look at what developer Amber Weinberg writes in a recent article over on ThinkVitamin:

So with these devices come variety. No longer is a simple 5 page brochure site enough. It needs to be mobile friendly, progressively enhanced, semantic and accessible. (emphasis added by me)

Like Amber, many of the designers and developers that I typically associated with good old fashioned web design just six months ago are making the shift over to the mobile world (did I really just called web design “old fashioned”?). Either they are adding a mobile service to their standard offerings, or they’re actually jumping head first into the whole world of app development. Moreover, it seems like every time I log onto Dribbble, I see some sort of work done specifically for mobile devices.

Even I’ve feel the itch from time to time, and have even considered creating an iPhone app at some point in the future. I’m also going to be working on a mobile version of the Echo Enduring Blog (though I can’t say for certain whether that will be ready for the re-launch in September).

Will You Be Left Behind?

Another part of the other reason that I feel the need to at least familiarize myself with mobile design and development is that I don’t want to get left behind. I honestly have no idea where the industry is going, but when change comes (and it will come), I don’t want to be like one of those 80’s hair bands who failed to adapt and fell by the wayside.

Am I saying that websites are going to vanish? I don’t think so. I think HTML, CSS and other web technologies will continue to endure (though they will also change and evolve over time), and that websites will continue to play an important role in our communications, both in business and our personal lives.

What I am suggesting is that the scope of the internet will change. Indeed, it has already started. Instead of encompassing email, instant messaging and websites designed for laptop and desktop displays, the new landscape of the internet is growing to include mobile websites and proprietary apps, many of which are actually integrated with existing websites. Many people also have the internet on their televisions these days, which could also have a significant impact over time.

Once this stage of growth has completed itself (and something else has likely started to germinate), I truly think it will be the designer who is able to offer services pertaining to the entire spectrum who will be most successful, or at least who will be afforded the most opportunity.

There will still be room for specialization, but as the spectrum of the web continues to broaden, so too will the definition of a web designer. As if we don’t already wear enough hats, it seems likely that the generally accepted assumption about our roles will grow to include mobile sites and smart phone apps. In time, it’s entirely plausible that these mobile touchpoints will even being to outweigh the importance of the traditional website.

If and when this happens, it seems to me that those who are unable to change and adapt will be in danger of falling off and being left behind in the mire of irrelevance.

Concluding Thoughts

Of course, to some degree this is all just conjecture based on what I’ve already seen happening in the industry over the past six months to a year. That being said, I’m certainly no fortuneteller, and cannot foresee exactly what’s going to happen.

What I do know, however, is that the industry is going to change, one way or the other. The internet certainly isn’t new anymore, but it remains one of the most fluid any dynamic media to ever emerge in the course of human history, and it will continue to shift and evolve for years to come.

As designers and developers, we will certainly have some sort of role to play in that evolution – just as musicians and bands have a role to play in the continued evolution of the music industry. But, when this evolution starts to take the industry in a new and exciting direction, it’s up to us to recognize the winds of change and, like the Madonnas and Bon Jovis of the world, to reinvent ourselves in the face that change.

Personally, I’m excited to see where the next few years will take us. What about you? Where do you think we are going as web designers? Have you resisted the movement towards the mobile world or plunged head first into it?

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Aug 11, 2010

Amber Weinberg says:

Thanks for the mention, Matt. It seems like things are always shifting, although unlike big messy hair, I don’t think web dev is going anywhere, just changing a bit :)

Aug 11, 2010

Matt Ward says:

No problem, Amber! Yeah I agree – web development is definitely here to stay, just shifting a little. And let’s all be thankful that, for the most part, 80’s hair is gone. I do still see it from time to time, though.

Aug 11, 2010

Francisco says:

Some good thoughts here Matt. Considering the type of interaction with our designs is really important right now. We need to now account for the site being navigated with a cursor, and in other instances gestures. All this affects the interface we build. I think it’s not a future thing but a today thing.

Also, I would appreciate if you and Amber stopped talking about my hair. I have feelings too.

Aug 12, 2010

Matt Ward says:

I absolutely agree that it’s a today thing, Francisco. I just think that everyday it becomes even more of a today thing. Right now, designers can probably survive without thinking beyond the cursor – whether they should or not. Six months, a year or two years down the road, they won’t be able to any more, or at least not to the same degree.

Oh, and nothing personal about the hair dude ;)

Aug 11, 2010

Stephen Tiano says:

Interesting piece, Matt. I’m a big believer in the ability to reinvent oneself. When I first began training myself as a book designer, I was already in my 30s. I’ve written more than once that I invented my experience by creating typographic samples to demonstrate my skills. I think I learned about such reinvention thru music, too, back in–ack!–the ’60s. Back then you’d await each new Beatles album wondering what their sound would be. And I think that sense may be one of the best guides to keeping any artist or designer relevant and new.

Aug 11, 2010

Jeremy Carlson says:

Good article. I don’t think its a matter of reinventing oneself, but that you just continually learn new things. That is part of what being in web development means.

Aug 12, 2010

Craig Scott says:

Interesting thoughts. If anything, I think the idea of specialising will become more important, as mobile web for example, will become more advanced and have more features it will require someone with more specialist knowledge to produce better results.

Aug 12, 2010

Greg Babula says:

Great read. I think we are all fortunate to be developers in the golden era of web design

Aug 12, 2010

Joseph Malleck says:

Great article. I personally love being in an industry that is constantly expanding and providing new opportunities. The difficult part is staying ahead, or at least alongside, the curve, while still maintaining and building your business. I had my first inquiry on creating a mobile version of a client site the other day. This is probably the first of more to come.

Aug 12, 2010

Todd says:

Not that it really has any relevance to the real topic, but… 80’s hair bands look like they’re stuck in the 80s because it’s expected. In most cases, the look of a hair band was more important than the sound. The look was an important aspect of the performance. If you’re going to see a nostalgia act and only got half of the nostalgic experience, you’re getting ripped off.

Aug 13, 2010

Puneet says:

Matt, nice one :)

Thanks Everybody, its really nice to read the article and all expert comments.

one thing i understand is, we should ready for the change in advance

Aug 14, 2010

Nathan says:

Interesting thoughts. That said, there’s more than one direction to move from desktop browser. How about larger touchscreen design like Microsoft Surface, Perceptive Pixel, and more? After spending a morning reading those interaction and visual guidelines, I am both awed and inspired by the design challenge which in many ways harder. While mobile design forces you to really simplify due to tighter constraints, these gestural, social/shared, massive screensblow away constraints you never perceived you had…

Aug 14, 2010

Alex Freitas says:

Everything is changing so fast, we experience it daily. Great article, need to be agreed upon not to lose the drive to lead us together to NEW.

Aug 15, 2010

Marc van der Veen says:

Interesting article. Websites will always stay and some here say you only learn new things, skills amongst other things. Although I agree, I think it’s not actually what you learn but how you look at it, as Matt states as well.

Websites used to be about displaying some static information about the author or the company owning it. Eventually everything changed into something more interactive and even visitors are now contributing content to websites and apps.

While indeed no one knows what’s going to happen, more and more devices will be used to display the web and our flexibility and our will to learn will be put to the test.

Aug 15, 2010

Kanwaljit Singh Nagra says:

Hi Matt,

A very profound and insightful post. I completely agree with you, either you adapt and move forward or stay as you are and die a slow death :D (a bit harsh I know, but its the truth!)

People who are willing to change and try new things move forward and are usually happier. People who can’t deal with change usually complain a lot and a very nostalgic! I am most definitely NOT the latter.

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