On Web Design and the Meaning of Life

John Tabita

When I was eight years old, I burst into the house from the day’s baseball practice to discover a pencil sketch propped up on the kitchen counter for me to see. I recognized it as the cover of one of my favorite Batman comic books. I knew my dad could draw, but this didn’t look like his style. When the true artist revealed herself, I exclaimed in amazement, “Wow, Mom! You can draw, too?” (She was really good.)

When I was a kid, no one ever handed me a sketchbook and told me to start drawing. I just did. A lot. I drew Disney characters, superheroes, Charlie Brown and Snoopy. As I grew older, I would draw scenes or characters from books I read.

Because I loved to draw, I ended up in the graphic design field. I graduated from design school at a time when only geeks knew how to use the Internet. But that soon began to change. Shortly after landing my first graphics job, my supervisor left to take a web designer position. I was impressed. I didn’t know what type of hocus-pocus magic it took to make websites, but I was sure it was done by people with brains the size of super-computers.

Eventually, I learned how it was done and began building websites myself. I loved everything about graphic design and web design. I loved that it involved a computer—especially a Macintosh. I loved HTML. I was amazed when I discovered CSS and found I could change styles across an entire site by modifying a few snippets of code. I had a lot of intrinsic reasons why I did what I did for a living.

So how did I go from web designer to telemarketing manager and sales trainer? Those two career paths may seem miles apart. But they’re not, really—not when you look at the extrinsic reasons behind what I do.

You see, I also found a great deal of satisfaction when I created a printed piece or website that actually helped a client grow their business or increase revenue. When I saw a client get top search rankings and heard that he got praised by his boss because of it, I felt that I had contributed a small part to their success. Now that I train sales people and telemarketers, I get the same sense of satisfaction when one of them takes what they’ve learned and becomes successful.

Why do You do What You Do?

Author and speaker Simon Sinek offers a simple yet profound explanation why leaders like Apple Computer, the Wright Brothers, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were able to inspire those around them. I’ll give it to you in a nutshell:

People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.

In other words, companies and leaders that truly inspire others “start with why.” All the rest start with “what.”

It makes sense. If you don’t know why you do what you do, then how will you ever get others to respond to you, vote for you, or buy your product?

I’ve heard that the average person changes careers 3 – 5 times in their lifetime. In a world of outsourcing and off-shoring, knowing your unique “why” keeps you both flexible and adaptable.

So what about you? Why do you do what you do? What’s your particular “why”? Listen to Simon Sinek’s presentation, How great leaders inspire action, and tell me what you think.

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  • Aaron

    “Why” I love programming… I don’t know. My mom just herself a very basic HTML book and I, instead read it and that’s how I got into HTML, CSS, PHP, MySQL, Javascript, Jquery, Visual Basic and some graphics. I still don’t know “WHY” I love it. It’s addicting I guess. I don’t get what you mean by “WHAT”, I mean I am just 14, this stuff is deep you know. Someone explain the last part, please.

    • http://www.onsman.com Ricky Onsman

      Think of it this way, Aaron.

      Q: “What do you do for a living?” A: “I’m a web developer”.

      Q: “Why do you do what you do for a living?” A: “I love programming.”

      You’re unlikely to see the 2nd answer on a business card or job application, yet it might be more likely to help you land a job, client or project.

      Keep loving what you do, Aaron, and doing what you love.

      • Aaron

        Thanks! I understand it perfectly now.

    • John Tabita

      If you’re up to it, Aaron, and you like to read, I’d suggest The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, by Thomas L. Friedman. (It’s pretty thick, but it’s an easy read and well worth it.)

      He talks about how, in the era of globalization, off-shoring and outsourcing, not only are we competing against workers in our own city and country, we’re competing against workers in emerging nations like India and China. Since left-brain activities are easily replaced by low-cost workers or computer programs, we need to excel at right-brain, creative-type things. So “loving what you do” has now become a survival strategy.

      The caveat is that “what you do” must also be marketable and in demand. If I love Medieval basket weaving, that might be a great hobby, but I might not want to count on it as a career path.

      The fact that you’re 14 and reading the business blog section tells me that you have a desire to learn. Most people your age are busy downloading iPod apps and following their favorite celeb’s Twitter drama. Keep being curious and anxious to learn, and you’ll do just fine.

      • Don

        Thomas Friedman is a person who cheerlead the Iraq invasion and occupation. He is a propagandist war criminal, public relations sloth for the war machine and everything despicable about the USA. He is an accessory to mass murder. Is this the kind of person you want to emulate and enrich?

        Get a clue or better yet get some good morals and principles.

  • TraceyLea

    I went into web/graphic design because I love creating and wanted to work in a creative and innovative industry, for me it was a natural progression from my Information Systems BA. and an Associate Degree in Graphic Design.

    However currently I find myself at a crossroads in my career because as it turns out that the current vein of salary based Web ‘design’ jobs seem to be all content management centric and only very few people in large organisations with in-house web staff who use these systems get any input into the ‘design’. From what I can tell from these organisations the rest of the web staff (myself included), end up being employed under the guise of design as gloryfied contnent managers or training unskilled web staff in the how-tos of content management which should be a job easy enough for administration assistants.

    The result is I’ll be taking my design/web skills into creative media technology and a more exciting design creativity-based career.

  • Damian

    I love what I do, too…the problem getting clients seems to be I do too many things–seo copywriter, web and WordPress developer (more CMS than design), and social media consultant.

    How do I make all those roles into a good title for a freelancer?? From what I’ve read and observed, it seems much better to specialize in one skill as a freelancer. But I love ALL the things I do…

    Anyway, that was a great article that sparked my little outburst. I’d love anyone’s ideas on the ol’ freelance title.

    • John Tabita

      And it’s only going to get worse.

      It sounds like you’re at the freelancer vs. consultant crossroads. At some point, you’re not going to be able to do it all. You can still offer all of those services to clients, but you may have to focus on doing 2 or 3 you like best and let someone else fulfill the rest. You can partner with people who have the right expertise and figure out how to split revenue. You could also look for a business parter whose skillset compliments yours.

      When we started off in business, I was the front-end designer, my other partner was the back-end developer, our third partner was responsible for finding clients, and we outsourced SEO to an outside firm. That arrangement worked out just fine.

  • Frank

    I’ve been doing web design and development for 15 years. At the company I currently work for I do everything from front end design (xhtml, css, jquery, graphics, some flash) as well as some custom back end (php, coldfusion) and also manage 3 installs of drupal, then comes managing over 400 domains and doing seo (there are close to 300 sites). It’s just me and a part time intern running the whole show. I’m getting tired of it. I know I should feel lucky to have a job in this economy, but it seems like web design and development just isn’t as valued as it once was. Then there is the thing I can’t quite put my finger on. When I started the web was new, there was something about being out on the edge doing something that only a few years ago didn’t exist. Now everyone and their dog is an SEO expert. SEO just may be ruining the web, Google search results are littered with junk, keyword packed pages with a kajillion back links to even more worthless pages.

    I’m good at what I do, I enjoy keeping my skills up to date but it just seems like the web design/development field has become more like working in a factory, with the exception that you have to use your brain. Right now the pay is fine, but I don’t think that is going to last, just like the factory jobs.

    Maybe I just need a vacation but lately I’ve been pondering a different career path, not sure what that will be yet but it will be something completely different.

    • John Tabita

      That’s the beauty of getting in touch with “why” – because once you know that, it’s easier to re-invent yourself.

      “When I started the web was new, there was something about being out on the edge doing something that only a few years ago didn’t exist.”

      There’s a good place to start. That’s what drew you to your current career. What you end up doing may have nothing to do with the web, but if it has all of these elements, you’ll most likely find it just as rewarding.

      And a vacation never hurts, either.

      • Frank

        The why was definitely because it was new and hardly anyone was doing it, plus it tied skills together that I already possessed, graphic arts, programming and music to some extent. When Mosaic first arrived it was Wow, then back end programming with perl, then php, then css layouts, then jquery, then Drupal modules, then html5 and css3, yes it will always be challenging but somehow the web just doesn’t have that out on the edge feeling anymore. It’s like radio or tv, everyone has it. I never thought I’d think the Internet was just a little “uncool” for lack of a better term. I have a facebook account I abandoned months ago, I’d rather go down to the coffee shop or local bar to talk to friends. Something about your article struck a chord. Yeah a vacation would be good, but I don’t think it can fix this. When you think about it, hunkered down in front of a computer screen all day long isn’t a healthy way to spend your life, no matter how you spin it.

  • Sphamandla

    I Think its a good question to ask similar the A saying i use that reads “Do what you love, love what you do” in that order. First do what you love and then love what you are doing to better yourself at it

  • Seth Etter

    You know, I run these ideas over in my head on quite a regular basis. I’m always wondering what about what I do I actually enjoy, and I know that part of it is the process of creating something that I get some sort of recognition for. Whether that be from a client or a community or someone close.

    I often find myself feeling like I would enjoy writing full-time more than having web design as my career. I enjoy writing a lot and always have, but career opportunities and previous interests have driven me to where I am now. I do write quite a bit currently, always on my personal web design blog though.

    I enjoy web design and I have no intentions of letting it drop out of my life or anything, but perhaps this realization of my writing interests should spur some new change in direction. The hard thing is figuring out how to do so painlessly. ;)

    • John Tabita

      “I often find myself feeling like I would enjoy writing full-time more than having web design as my career. I enjoy writing a lot and always have, but career opportunities and previous interests have driven me to where I am now.”

      I can relate. I discovered that I liked writing when I needed to write content for my clients’ sites. I sometimes think that a full-time writing gig would be fun. But when I think about how I’d have to market myself to get clients in the same way I did for my web businesses … it begins to look less attractive.

      What I’d really enjoy is to recognized as having a level of expertise in something, then write/blog about that as a means of promoting my expertise and getting clients. I guess that’s the definition of a consultant. That’s how I’ve always tried to position myself to clients, rather than as a freelancer.