The web is like a living, breathing organism. It’s constantly changing and evolving. You might say this animal has a serious caffeine addiction, considering the lightning-fast pace at which things move. Cutting-edge technologies arrive then fade away into the distant 6-month history of the medium. Apps obtain mainstream success only to be overshadowed by newer, shinier apps. Just when we started getting a grip on multi-browser compatibility, a whole slew of new platforms have emerged with the widespread adoption of mobile web devices.
But despite the highly dynamic nature of the web, some things in the web design industry never change.
We as web professionals must remain acutely aware of the age-old constants that make our businesses sustainable and allow us to thrive over the long-term. The fact that we live in an age of information-overload — coupled with the fact that we happen to work right in the center of all the noise — means we must work even harder to stay focused and recognize what’s important in the grand scheme of things.
This article highlights the few aspects of being a professional web designer that remain intact, year in, year out. These constants hold true for other fields as well. They have for a very long time, and will likely be a fact of life well into the future.
1. People Skills
A lot of our communication these days happens with a keyboard rather than our vocal chords. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep our professional interpersonal skills ready and up to task.
The web designers who keep a steady stream of paying projects are not necessarily the ones with the best portfolios. They’re the ones that clients feel most comfortable with. Usually that comfort is based in a strong relationship, which likely started with an in-person conversation, phone call or Skype call.
If it’s a prospective new client, we must rely on our people skills to really listen and understand their needs and goals, then communicate how we will solve them.
If it’s an existing client, the success of a project largely depends on our ability to walk our clients through the process, helping them understand all of the technical aspects along the way.
We must communicate things like how our design decisions relate to the user experience of their customers, or exactly how we are implementing WordPress to help them manage specific areas of their website.
How do we keep our people skills sharp? Exercise! Get out to meetups and conferences and talk to people. Have regular phone conversations or in-person meetings with your client — even if they’re comfortable communicating solely via email or IM.
Of course, written communication (like email, IM, text, snail mail) plays an important role in our people skills as well. I try and extend my authentic voice into the way I write emails, blog articles, and instant messages.
It’s important to remain clear and consistent in all forms of communication. The web can be a very impersonal place. It’s up to us to break through that barrier and reassure our clients and contacts that they’re dealing with real people.
The reason clients come back for a second and third project is because of your proven reliability. What does it mean for a web designer to be reliable?
Never Miss Deadlines
It sounds easy and obvious, yet so many freelance web designers fail to meet the delivery dates that they themselves promised in the first place. Why is that? Underestimating a website’s development time, misallocation of their time, failure to plan around other projects, the list goes on. And what’s even worse than missing a deadline? Failure to communicate what caused this delay, or worse still, disappearing and avoiding the client altogether!
Don’t mistake "being available" with giving your clients 24/7 access or handing out your private cell phone number. But give your clients — especially those with currently active projects — clear and consistent channels which they can use to reach you. Checking email several times throughout the day is a good idea. You might want to stay signed-in to IM during your designated business hours; that way if your client has a time-sensitive question, you can shoot back your response at your earliest convenience.
Customers are loyal to a brand because it delivers the same quality experience consistently. The same is true for web design clients. They’ll stay with you because they know you deliver a quality, well-communicated project, on time, every time.
Out with the old, in with the new, right? Well, not always. Experience is a powerful asset, even in a cutting-edge and constantly changing industry like web design.
Malcom Gladwell argues in his book, Outliers, TheStoryofSuccess, that the key to success in any field is 10,000 hours of practice. I happen to believe in this theory — that hard work alone is not enough. You have to put that hard work in over and over again, for a sustained period of time in order to become the best of the best.
In web design, it’s not enough to read through a couple of tutorials or attend a lecture or two. You have to be presented with a problem many times over and come up with the same or similar solution to that problem every time for it to be ingrained in your expertise. For example, it took me at least a year of working as a front-end web developer before I truly grasped the concept of clearing floated elements in CSS.
Ever find yourself in awe of the design skills of "rockstar" designers? They didn’t always turn out work of that quality. They started somewhere — a long time ago — with amateurish experiments in HTML, just like the rest of us. Over time, with constant nurturing of their skills, they came to where they are today.
Experience comes into play when dealing with clients as well. During my first year of running my own web design business, I became very stressed about my obligations to my clients. I’d think and worry about ongoing situations with clients, even when lying in bed at night or during my free time and on vacation.
But over time, and through the experience of facing such challenges, I learned how to effectively and calmly deal with all sorts of client situations like unpaid invoices, feature creep, and website malfunctions. Today, I’m much better about separating work from relaxation, while remaining confident in my abilities to handle any situation that comes up.
And now, to bring things full circle, there is one remaining aspect of being a professional web designer that will always remain constant: Change.
What makes our skills truly unique is our innate eagerness to learn and adapt to changing technologies, trends, styles, and business models.
It’s part of our job, and part of what our clients and bosses expect of us — to be constantly learning about new ways to improve the way we build the web. Whether that means continuously following the work of our peers, reading a healthy dose of web design blogs or attending industry conferences, our role as web professionals goes beyond the daily grind of writing code and pushing pixels. We must seek outside knowledge and inspiration then apply it to what we do on our own projects.
We are what keep this thing called the web moving forward.
- The Evolution of Web Design
- Five Things That Will Keep Shaping The Web in 2011
- Web Languages: Decoded