While searching for some information about a very specific profession in a completely unrelated field, I ran across a blog post defining the job along with a list of the specific skills required and tasks performed. I thought the Internet could really use a similar thing for web designers.
What is a web designer?
Web designers use their skills to create websites for their clients. The specific skills involved are general computer knowledge, programming, content management systems, image editing software, file management software, DNS and web server management.
What makes a good web designer?
Good is a relative term and web design is a very broad term. It makes more sense to mention the specific skill we’re talking about. Such as describing someone as a good Squarespace designer or a good PHP developer. In the same way a mechanic will specialize in either domestic cars or jet aircraft, different disciplines require different skills and benefit from niche experience.
While there are web designers who are skilled in front end (what happens in the browser) and back end (what happens on the web server) development, usually called Full Stack Developers, it's almost impossible to be well versed in every language and programming environment in use on the web. However, there are certain skills that are universal in web design.
What are we measuring?
While there are a number of ways to measure the quality of a website, a web designer should use their skills to create a website that meets the goals of the client. Some designers only know one way to build a website. They reassure clients that their “solution” is a perfect fit… no matter what they actually need. While occasionally, that may work out, it's more like being a con artist than a web designer.
What does this project need?
Does a client simply need something simple to establish their brand and make them appear professional? Do they have specific goals for SEO or SEM? Do they need to be able to make daily posts themselves or will they be hands off? Will they need to connect to third-party systems or APIs? Are there any legacy systems involved? What are their eCommerce needs? Do they have any security concerns?
It’s a web designer’s responsibility to help clients avoid future problems. Not cause them.
What are the skills needed to be a good web designer?
Communication is probably the biggest skill needed by a web designer. You need to be able to communicate technical concepts to your non-technical clients. You also need to be able to take your client’s ideas and business concepts and communicate these things clearly to the world. This may involve writing or rewriting copy, or creating supporting diagrams and illustrations to explain abstract ideas or complicated processes clearly.
You must have an artistic eye. You have to understand principles of design, color, proportion, and balance. Starting with templates allows a lot of web designers with minimal design skills to be successful. But there really is no substitute for being a good designer.
Photoshop (and Illustrator)
Photoshop is a complicated tool. It takes years to become skilled at using it and there are many ways to accomplish the same sort of adjustments. For example, you can adjust levels, brightness & contrast, or curves to accomplish almost the same thing. And Photoshop is a very personal tool. I think everyone who uses Photoshop has had their own journey and develops their own way of tackling problems.
Photoshop is an essential skill for web designers. From touching up client photos taken with a cell-phone to creating supporting graphic elements for a website, you have to know how Photoshop works and how to create the images you need.
In 2021, you also have to consider Illustrator. While Illustrator is a vector art program, it’s been a tool for web layouts, wireframes, and project management for web designers for decades. But since the adoption of the SVG format, we can include vector images in websites! No more blurry logos… ever!. You must be able to create, modify, and export vector graphics if you’re going to be a web designer.
We’re talking about the skills of a web designer and not a web developer. So we aren’t going to get into the million+ combinations of backend languages and data storage options.
The core of web development is HTML -- which is really really simple. So simple it really isn’t worth mentioning. There are different approaches and philosophies to HTML construction, which do have consequences, but the skills required to write HTML can be picked up pretty quickly.
Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), specifically CSS3, is deceptively simple. It is an elegant, powerful, and absolutely maddening language for defining how parts of an HTML document should appear. Since CSS governs appearance, you can argue that the majority of web design is done with CSS. CSS3 is amazing. You can accomplish so much, but a lot of it is unintuitive. I’ve been working with it for nearly two decades and I routinely discover new tricks.
Hosting and DNS
Websites have to be placed online. Understanding how domains, DNS, and web hosting works are critical skills. Some hosting companies provide GUI (graphical user interface) layers to make things easier or will assist web designers with the setup. Also closed or walled-garden systems like Squarespace, Wix, and Wordpress.com (the .com is very important) do all of the backend stuff for you. In fact, you can’t access the server at all. Knowing if this is a bad thing or a good thing is something that you learn through experience.
Search engine optimization is often thought of as a silver bullet for the success of a website. But it is a lot of work. Experience It's true for everything isn’t it? But when you run into a problem, or a unique situation that you need to solve, knowing the quirks of how things connect really helps. Also, more experienced designers tend to work faster. This is because they know more but also they’ve figured out how to waste less time.
If you’re a trusted web designer, you’re going to be asked to do other things -- help with email problems, edit a video, create a new logo. You can certainly say no to these requests or refer your client to someone else with those skills, but knowing or at least understanding other disciplines will make you a better web designer.
People can pick up the skills to make a DIY website in a weekend. But a professional web designer has to have solid skills in organization, communication (both written and verbal), design, programming, SEO and know how the plumbing of the Internet works.