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  1. #1
    SitePoint Guru mattymcg's Avatar
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    The evolution of a web designer

    Notice: This is a discussion thread for comments about the article, The Evolution Of The Web Designer, first published in Issue 238 of Desktop Magazine.
    __________

    All designers follow a process of evolution and learning as they progress through their career and evolve their own unique style. For us web designers, this process is all the more complex, because we must navigate additional challenges. The web comes with a constantly moving set of goalposts – new browsers, new devices, new technologies and new techniques.

    Some people are enthusiastic, life-long learners, who strive to improve their knowledge by regularly reading books, articles, blogs and other online resources.

    Others, however, hit a ceiling with their learning, either because they are not proactive in updating their skills, or because they choose to stick with “what they know”, but continue to do their job. When building a web site, this second group of designers ignores certain browsers, devices, or technologies (consciously or otherwise). As a result, they also ignore the groups of people who use those browsers, devices or technologies.

    The effect of ignorance in a constantly changing landscape is potentially dangerous – every day, clients are delivered web sites that, while visually stunning, isolate certain groups of people unnecessarily because of how they are coded under the hood.

    Seeking World Wide Wisdom

    The path to enlightenment (creating modern, best practice web sites) is a path that is well worn. It’s also one that is usually self-taught – getting up and running with a basic web site is a task that most computer literate people can tackle without trouble. Unfortunately, even the web design techniques taught in most courses, whether at private colleges or universities, are usually out-dated.

    This article details the stages through which most web designers travel. Hopefully, you’ll be able to identify where along the path you lay. Once you’ve orientated yourself, you’ll know what your next steps should be in order to truly hone your craft.

    The Path To Web Design Nirvana

    1. The Novice

    As with all steps, the novice web designer is not defined by age, or even by design skills, but by the tool she uses to create a web site. Novices typically use an application that generates a page’s HTML for them, such as iWeb, FrontPage, GoLive or Dreamweaver (via the design view).

    Novices find looking at raw HTML intimidating and confusing, and avoid it whenever possible. They’ve heard of CSS and JavaScript, but are not really sure of the purpose of each.

    The design principles that a novice applies to a web site are those that have served her well in the print world – inspiration for interface design and graphics comes from magazines, print material, and the conventions that the designer has observed based on her own experiences with using the web.

    The web browser of choice for the novice is Internet Explorer. This reflects her philosophy of ”If a site works in Internet Explorer, it’s good enough.”

    2. The Traveller

    Once a designer has reached the traveller stage, he has clicked View Source on enough web pages to understand basic HTML. The traveller feels comfortable editing the raw HTML of a page, and is beginning to favour Dreamweaver’s code view over its design view.

    The traveller designer is also aware of a movement known as “web standards”, and has begun experimenting with CSS. The arguments for laying out pages using CSS to control a page’s presentation – improved load time, easier maintainability, improved accessibility and improved search engine visibility - are compelling enough that he begins experimenting with CSS positioning as a page layout tool.

    However, he becomes easily frustrated by cross-browser inconsistencies, and eventually falls back on HTML tables. He does, however, use CSS for styling text, changing backgrounds, and adding borders, margins, and padding. He has checked a few of his sites for validity at the W3C’s online validation tool, but is not able to eliminate every error.

    The traveller designer has discovered that sites like AustralianINFront.com.au and K10K.net provide boundless inspiration for visual and interface possibilities, but has also begun frequenting online resources like the SitePoint Forums for help with CSS problems.

    The web browser of choice for traveller is Firefox, although the designer has yet to take advantage of any plugins that are available for this browser. However, they ensure that their sites work on Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari before announcing them to the world.

    3. The Master

    The master web designer understands the important differences between the print world and the online world as mediums for communication.

    The master was able to successfully unlearn the HTML table foundations upon which their career was built, and now adheres strictly to the separation of concerns, diligently keeping all of her site’s HTML, CSS and JavaScript code in separate files. Every site she builds contains not only valid HTML, but is built with a structure and heading hierarchy that makes semantic sense as well as visual sense.

    The master is able to use CSS to implement any design, no matter how complex, although the resulting code is often full of (ugly, but necessary) hacks. She has an equally impressive grasp of even the most obscure HTML tags, such as those used to create accessible forms, and is comfortable writing simple JavaScript to add interactivity to her otherwise static sites.

    Additionally, the master can make intelligent decisions about complex design issues, such as whether a page should be fixed-width or fluid, or whether a page’s font size should be set using em units or pixels.

    For inspiration, the master turns to many of the popular CSS galleries, such as cssZenGarden.com, and has amassed a large collection of favourite blogs that she checks daily.

    The master’s browser of choice is still Firefox, primarily because of her reliance upon plugins like Firebug and the Web Developer’s Toolbar for solving tricky CSS problems. However, she also tests her sites in Safari, Opera, Lynx, and multiple versions of Internet Explorer. She also makes the effort to use screenreader software to listen to how blind visitors would hear her site being read to them.

    4. The Standardista

    The standardista is a web designer who is considered a guru in the field, and has used this notoriety to become an enthusiastic evangelist, preaching to colleagues, friends and family members the benefits of web standards and accessibility (a topic covered in Desktop issue 235). Standardistas are often found presenting at conferences, liaising with browser vendors, poring over W3C specifications or writing about web design on their own blog.

    The advantage of reaching web enlightenment is that the standardista knows when it is acceptable to break the rules in order to achieve the perfect balance of form and function.

    Depending on how technically minded he is, the standardista may have begun to experiment with writing advanced JavaScript code, thus enhancing his user’s experience with interactivity, subtle animation and Ajax-powered page updates that rival Flash.

    For inspiration, standardistas return to the offline world, finding new and innovative ways to bring textures, colour palettes and interface elements from the real world and into the virtual.

    The standardista has moved to Safari as his browser of choice, because he’s realised that all of the plugins he installed in Firefox have slowed it to a crawl.

    Breaking Bread With A Pinch Of Salt

    At this stage, you’re probably doing one of two things: you’re either nodding fervently in agreement, and starting to think about which stage you’re currently at; or else you’re shaking your head in disbelief, and opening up your email client to write me an email with the title “Your article is nonsense!”

    Of course, we all carve out our own path in this world, and the above “path to nirvana” should be taken with a pinch of salt. Some web designers are lucky enough to be put on the “right” path from the very beginning, and never had to “unlearn” HTML tables. Others choose to deviate from the path entirely, opting to build every site in Flash instead (as an aside, ActionScript is very similar to that of JavaScript, so someone who already knows Flash could also learn JavaScript relatively easily).

    What should not be taken lightly here is the message that, as a web designer, constantly keeping your knowledge and skills up to date is crucial for delivering high quality web sites to your clients. The right tool should be chosen for the right job; if you choose a technology or an approach without educating yourself about all of the issues involved in building for the web, then you’re doing your client a disservice.

    The Future Of CSS Layouts

    In a world of changing browsers and complex CSS hacks, enlightenment is achievable, but all web designers must continue their learning regardless.

    For example, in the coming years even the standardistas of the world will need to re-learn their CSS skills. Internet Explorer 8 is due out later this year (a beta release is available already), and with this browser will come support for an entirely new suite of CSS rules – rules that are already supported by every other major browser.

    What this means is that the days of using CSS hacks to shoehorn a page into your desired layout are numbered. This means that, while it is likely to be a few years before every Windows user has upgrade from Internet Explorer 6, there is indeed a light upon the horizon.

    Now is as good a time as any to start your journey towards it.

    Useful Links
    Last edited by mattymcg; May 3, 2008 at 20:01. Reason: Removed some weird character that snuck in somehow.
    I design beautiful, usable interfaces. Oh, and I wrote a kids' book.
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    Buy my book, Charlie Weatherburn and the Flying Machine.

  2. #2
    SitePoint Author silver trophybronze trophy

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    Looks like I'm at step 3½, and that I'll never proceed to step 4 (if it means having to abandon Opera).
    Birnam wood is come to Dunsinane

  3. #3
    SitePoint Guru mattymcg's Avatar
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    Ha ha. Yes the mention of Safari was very much tongue-in-cheek! In fact the whole thing is of course debatable, but hopefully somewhat useful for Desktop readers who are largely print- and Flash-designers.
    I design beautiful, usable interfaces. Oh, and I wrote a kids' book.
    Follow me on Twitter.
    Read my blog.
    Buy my book, Charlie Weatherburn and the Flying Machine.

  4. #4
    In memoriam gold trophysilver trophybronze trophy Dan Schulz's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by AutisticCuckoo View Post
    Looks like I'm at step 3, and that I'll never proceed to step 4 (if it means having to abandon Opera).
    Same here (regarding Opera) - except that I hate JavaScript with a passion. Then again, I was never much of a designer - I was always too busy playing with code and learning how to to make sites easy to find, access, and use.

  5. #5
    SitePoint Zealot beejereeno's Avatar
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    Great article, although I'm sure it's mostly entertaining and thought-provoking rather than being fully factual and accurate, I find myself a Traveler with quite a bit of some of the Master points thrown in.
    -Bobbi Jo
    -----------------------------------------------
    www.bwoodsdesign.com

    Your Website Solutions Start Here

  6. #6
    whagwan? silver trophybronze trophy akritic's Avatar
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    Not sure where I read this before..wasn't at desktop magazine i'm sure.

    Anyway, it was still a fun read.

  7. #7
    SitePoint Guru mattymcg's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by armchaircritic View Post
    Not sure where I read this before..wasn't at desktop magazine i'm sure.
    Hmm, I had a similar comment about a previous article of mine that I posted here. Damn it, these are original pieces of writing and I'm quite proud of them. My own blood, sweat and tears, I promise!
    I design beautiful, usable interfaces. Oh, and I wrote a kids' book.
    Follow me on Twitter.
    Read my blog.
    Buy my book, Charlie Weatherburn and the Flying Machine.

  8. #8
    whagwan? silver trophybronze trophy akritic's Avatar
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    They must be so good they appear familiar

  9. #9
    SitePoint Member
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    Sorry I know this post is dated, however upon stumbling upon a road block to acheive web development status, I decided to register for the forum and see if anyone is/has the same problem.

    I find myself categorized in the Traveler and Master stage. I'm trying to raise my JavaScript skills to almost Ajax level and my job is "forcing" me to learn Java as well mainly .jsp and .jsf programming. Oh did I mention that I have to search for "free training"? Nevertheless, I will try.

  10. #10
    SitePoint Zealot Rexibit's Avatar
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    That is an interesting article. I am glad it was bumped.

    Twalters, there are some good books on Sitepoint that can help you in your venture. There are even sample chapters of the books so you can see if it is worth buying.
    Rexibit Web Services
    Don't just build it - CSS it


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