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The Problem with the Nephew Stereotype

posted by Matt Ward on Mar 8, 2011.

This is an article about education. It’s also an article about process, about personal evolution and even about unintentional snobbery. It’s about not just looking at where we are but remembering where we came from. There is a recurring metaphor (and sometimes not a metaphor) about your client’s nephew—you know, the kid who charges a […]

This is an article about education. It’s also an article about process, about personal evolution and even about unintentional snobbery. It’s about not just looking at where we are but remembering where we came from.

There is a recurring metaphor (and sometimes not a metaphor) about your client’s nephew—you know, the kid who charges a couple hundred bucks to put together a third rate website in their room, using a PC optimized for gaming and a suite of illegal software that they downloaded from a torrent. If you’re an experienced designer, that kid gets on your nerves doesn’t he (or she)? After all, we all occasionally see a potential project slip away to someone who falls under this metaphor, even if they may not fit all the specific details.

But how fair is this stereotype? Let’s take a closer look at this “nephew”.

Weren’t we in the same boat once? I know I was. Seriously. I think I even had a few applications that probably should not have been on my computer in the strictest legal sense. I bummed around the internet, peeking at source code and thinking to myself: “I think I could do that”. So I started putting together really basic pages. I “designed” (and I use that term very loosely) one of the first instalments of the website for my parents’ company (which I still work on today), created a few bad fan sites at the height of GeoCities-mania and in the eleventh grade even created a website for a local telecommunications company as a project for my Communications Studies class.

About the only difference between where I was and the symbolic nephew is that I never tried to get paid on a freelance basis for the work I was doing. It was all just sort learning and casual dabbling.

Fifteen Years Later, I Still Started Somewhere

As far as I can remember, I was probably about 15 years old when I started dabbling with websites. This summer, I will be turning 30, which means that it’s been almost fifteen years since I started on this journey. Today, with the years of experience that I have accumulated and the knowledge that has come with it, it would be easy for me to stand atop of my assumed ivory tower and look down at the more inexperienced people out there and scoff at their “folly”.

“Don’t they know anything about semantics and HTML?” this despicably-imagined version of myself might say. “Table-based layouts? Ha! Have they even even heard of white space? What kind of client would pay for this sorry excuse for a website!”

If I were to ever meet this version of myself, I would probably punch myself in the face.

All that version of myself would need to do is turn around and look at all the people who are so much more talented than I am to realize that, frankly, the ivory tower is little more than a stump. Or, I could look back a number of years and realize that, when I first started out, my work was horrible with a capital H. Then it would almost be like an evil, arrogant me looking down on a younger, eager but ignorant me.

That’s a lot of imagined selves, but I hope it makes my point. No matter how far we’ve come, we all started somewhere. There is not a single person on the planet who is born with complete knowledge of HTML5, CSS3, semantics, JavaScript, the principles of design, space, colour, typography and so forth pre-installed in their brains. It just doesn’t work that way.

We all need to learn it, and I’ve heard some of the brightest, most well-respected designers is the community talk about moments of significant learning, where an idea or concept just all of a sudden makes sense. I’ve certainly had my fair share of these moments myself, many of which have been key moments in my growth as a designer and developer.

Now, throughout the rest of this article, I would like to address both the experienced designer and the beginner.

To the Experienced Designer

I think that sometimes those of use who are experienced and knowledgeable can sometimes be a bit overly-harsh with the proverbial nephew. What we tend to see is work that doesn’t meet our particular standards (whatever those may be), and simply reject it in some manner. What we tend not to see is the person behind the design, who is likely a lovely, well-meaning human being who simply lacks the knowledge and experience to either be able to create and/or code an effective design or to even recognize the deficiencies in the designs that they are producing.

I mean think about it. Today, web designers are generally expected to be proficient in most if not all of the following:

  • HTML
  • CSS
  • JavaScript (and related frameworks)
  • PHP (at the very least for creating themes for popular content management systems)
  • Photoshop (and possibly Illustrator)
  • Search Engine Optimization
  • User Experience
  • Usability
  • Typography
  • Design for mobile devices

And that’s just the stuff that I pulled off the top of my head. I’m certainly not a master in all of these areas, and I’ve been doing this for a long time now. How can anyone who is just getting started be expected to have a firm grasp of even just a few of these concepts? It’s just an unrealistic expectation. Beginners need to start somewhere, whether that be mastering the basics of HTML, then adding in CSS, or perhaps starting with a fundamental understanding of the principles of graphic design and then learning to apply that knowledge to design for the web.

From there, they can move on to other related concepts, which will in turn reflect on what they have previously learned. Slowly, but surely this learning evolves into a single, cohesive body of knowledge. The beginner becomes proficient, and the proficient designer becomes more advanced. In time, maybe they even reach the point of being a master in their own craft, and a name that is recognized throughout the community as being synonymous with excellence.

Basically, that kid sitting in his bedroom hacking around with sloppy code and ineffective design could very well go on to become the next [insert the name of your favourite web designer here]. All they need is the time to learn and grow, and perhaps a little bit of support and encouragement along the way. Isn’t it up to us to be giving that encouragement?

Recently, I had the occasion to communicate with a student who was using a jQuery resource that I had done some work on. The student was having some trouble implementing the resource and asked if I could take a look at the page. I said sure and, after just a quick analysis, realized that what they were trying to do was something that could have been executed much more easily with some basic CSS. They were also using a CSS framework that I was familiar with, and noticed that there was some unnecessary redundancy in their HTML.

So, I tweaked the code a bit and sent through a simple explanation of the changes that I recommended and why they would work better than what they had been trying to do. The student was grateful for the assistance, and hopefully now has a better understanding of HTML, CSS and (indirectly) jQuery.

Are we able to do this for every single inquiry that comes our way? Probably not. You could make a career out of answering questions, especially if you develop a reputation for doing so, but I do still thank that it’s important for experienced designers to be willing to take the nephew under our wing to some degree and help develop them into valuable members of our community!

To the Beginner

If you’re just starting out in this field of web design, understand that growth and education are are processes. If I’m telling people who have been in the field for a long time (relatively speaking) not to expect newcomers to know everything right out of the gate, then those newcomers have to come to grips with the same reality.

You don’t know everything there is to know about the web (very few people do). In fact, you probably don’t know all that much at all, and that’s okay. Start with the basics and move out from there. Get to know HTML and the importance of semantics. Then move on to the CSS to add in elements of design or JavaScript to start down the road of interaction. Just keep moving down the list, adding to your knowledge as you go.

I also firmly believe that you should expose yourself to a little bit of everything—though not all at the same time. That way, you’ll at least have a basic understanding of most of the key elements of web design. You may chose not to pursue that avenue—for instance, some young designers may decide that they don’t want to work with interaction, or perhaps back-end development—but having a basic understanding of key areas of the field is always beneficial.

Secondly, try to be understanding and gracious if more experienced designers are, from time to time, a little bit snarky. In the majority of cases, it’s more a matter of frustration that of being a genuine jerk. Most of these people take a lot of pride in their experience and knowledge, and it can be a real hit to that pride when a client job goes to someone who may be perceived as some sort of young upstart. Don’t sweat it. It’s generally nothing personal, and you can be reasonably confident that the offended designer won’t hunt you down to fulfill their vengeful vendetta.

Thirdly, be mindful of what you are charging clients. While I certainly understand that you cannot really charge high rates without the experience and track record to back it up, there is such thing as under-valuing yourself. Even a beginner brings a certain level of value, especially when you’re constantly striving to learn and improve.

Perhaps more importantly, also be wary of under-valuing the industry as a whole. By and large, I think that the reason that experienced designers are irritated by a lot of “cheap” design is the simple fact that it tends reinforce an already erroneous belief that web design is this simple-to-produce commodity, where the designer is just fitting a bunch of parts together. This preconception tends to lead to unrealistic expectations in terms of cost, which in turn frustrates the experienced designer who sees true value in the excellence of their work.

Charging ridiculously low prices as a beginner only adds to this problematic myth, and can establish precedent and expectations that you will come to regret later in your career. So, when you’re just getting started, take the time to do a bit of research to establish a cost that is both fair to yourself as well as the industry at large.

Most importantly though, never stop learning. Devour books, articles, blogs, videos and podcasts on the subject, though always with discernment and a critical eye—just because someone publishes something doesn’t necessarily make them an authority (and that includes me). When you read or hear something, weight it carefully against what you know, what other people that you trust and respect are saying. If something seems to come out of left field (in other words, doesn’t seem to jive with what you already know), chances are it is. Occasionally, a may be a matter of truly innovative genius, but this tends to be the exception.

No matter what, though, always be open to growing in knowledge and experience. When you commit to that, it won’t take long for your to pass out of that beginner stage and slowly begin earning the respect of your peers.

Conclusion, or When the Shoe Fits

In writing this article, I am simply trying to address what I see to be a somewhat problematic stereotype that tends to prevail within the community, and suggest that we at least need to be wary of making sweeping generalities and labeling some well-meaning beginners as being the proverbial “nephew”. I’ve also tried to offer a bit of friendly advice to beginners about how to try avoid this unfortunate labeling.

That being said, however, I am still a firm believer in the idea that in every stereotype there is a grain of truth. There are people out there who are only interested in making a quick buck by offering a poor, shoddy product to uneducated and unsuspecting clients. Those are the type of people that I have absolutely no use for, and who should be the true target of our scorn (both experienced designers and beginners).

As the saying goes, if the shoe fits wear it.

For everyone else, though, let’s try to avoid the misunderstandings that accompany broad generalities and work towards supporting each other, regardless of experience levels!

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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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Mar 8, 2011

rafael says:

Very nice, well thought-out piece, Matt. I especially like the fact that you looked at it from both sides of the equation– vets and rookies,while not being judgmental on either group’s position on the whole “nephew” situation.

Mar 8, 2011

John B. says:

As a nephew who was hired by his uncle to code a design for a billion dollar French game company, I can honestly say that this article spoke to me. That really, really isn’t a joke.

Mar 9, 2011

Bruno R. says:

I’m in between those two…the nephew and the experienced designer….I’ve started this trip in design like 5 years ago…learning by myself to code html and css….reading blogs and searching the internet….my very first websites were bloggspot templates for my blogs and mine friends blogs…3 years ago I started to do some real work….and now I’m going fulltime freelancer….I’ve got a lot to learn…but I know where I came from…..

Thanks for this post….is good to know that theres people who cares…

ps: Sorry for my english….

Mar 9, 2011

Tom says:

Great article! As a young developer myself I have done cheap websites (sometimes free) for people in the past. The reasoning for this was to a) Start to build a portfolio and B) The best way to gain knowledge and experience is on real life projects.

On many occasions a client would approach me and asked me if I could build them a website that was outside my capabilities at the time. Did I turn down that client? No because engaging in that project was the best was to learn and aslong as you’re honest with the client and you give them an accurate timescale you should be fine.

To all young developers out there keep on plugging away as there is no better feeling than that ‘eureka’ moment when the code you have been trying to learn and implement works.

Mar 9, 2011

Philippe Alves says:

If it can become a term or an adjective, I am myself an “old nephew”. And I thank God you brought up this subject. I have been thinking about a lot of times that the most experienced should sometimes give out some of their knowledge (as they do today, no doubt about it) and the less experienced learn as much as possible with respect and wisdom in order to educate others as well. Just like a chain. Thanks for this thoughtful article.

Mar 9, 2011

Yvonne says:

Very well-written article!

Oh I remember those days when I had 10 Geocities sites with animated GIFs and funky backgrounds :). The world of web design has changed a lot since then.

Yes, we all started somewhere, and I sure hope that these beginners are taking advantage of the huge amount of resources online and are constantly looking to improve their skills (they probably are, or at least trying, if they’re reading these design blogs).

Clients on the other hand need to understand that there is a difference between hiring an experienced designer and the “nephew” (in the stereotyped sense).

Mar 9, 2011

Daquan Wright says:

Absolutely, beginners have to start from scratch. I don’t know many 15 year olds that could afford $700 software….lol. I also don’t know any 15 year old that would magically know the inner-workings of the web, as pointed out in the article.

I started with HTML and moved on to CSS….from there it was love! I’ve been working in these technologies for six years and now I’m majoring in computer science to make programming my specialty.

Mar 9, 2011

Sean says:

We all have that cringe moment after you tell someone what you do for a living and they say “oh my 12 year old son makes websites”. You’re right there is definitely value in growing that interest and enthusiasm, i’ll have to keep an eye on my slowly creeping in elitism.

Mar 9, 2011

Leonardo Graterol says:

Indeed you’re right. Us web developer can be assholes sometimes. Like my dad (A M.D.) would say, we suffer the neurosurgeon syndrome: We feel like we are the greatest thing in the world and look down on everyone with a skills set inferior than ours.

Maybe its time to leave aside this snobby “I’m better than you, idior” attitude and start mentoring less savvy developers. This way they will learn something and we will help to create a better web.

Mar 9, 2011

Jenna says:

I try not to scoff, but it kinda hurts to hear that when I first tell someone what I do and they dismiss it as something any kid with a computer does. Maybe that’s a different story though.

What really irritates me is companies that are basically the nephew you describe: “simply lacks the knowledge and experience… to even recognize the deficiencies in the designs that they are producing” I find it hard to see them as well-meaning, because they are adults claiming to be legitimate businesses, shouldn’t they know better? They must be ripping people off, I think, but how can you know that’s their intention? A year or so ago I redid a lot of sites originally made by other local companies that clients were unhappy with. I looked into those companies and they seem to really believe in what they’re selling, but they just don’t get it and that’s kinda sad.

Mar 10, 2011

Grace Oris says:

Although I am not a web designer, your point and this discussion can be aimed at other design professions too. You are so right, we all started somewhere and I am all for support and mentoring the “nephew”. As a matter of fact I do have a 12-year old nephew who is starting to dabble in web design and I am so proud of him. May the nephews/nieces get more encouragement from the professionals. Experience and some gentle prodding will teach them. Leave the scorn for those who actually deserve it.

Mar 16, 2011

Brad says:

Nice post…I’m pretty sure flash splash pages and animated gifs arranged in tables are making a comeback. At least that’s what my nephew told me.

Signed – Not even close to being the best or the worst web designer/developer. I just love making the web go.

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