Web designer's skills

Recently I read some articles about web designers. This got me thinking about the qualities I think you need to be a good designer and about the different ways a design can be made.

Skills

First of all a designer needs to be creative. After all, he is the person that needs to capture the ideas of the client and visualize them. However, it is also very important for the designer to understand the web. Something that works in print, may completely fail in a browser. One of the reasons is that print media is meant to be seen/read, while websites need to be interacted with. Closely related is anticipating user generated content. This means that a design should also look great with less (or more) text than the lorem ipsum in the design.

I think these skills are not disputed. But what about the ability to code? I agree with Lukas Mathis that there are risks when designers are also involved in implementation. In his essay Designers are not Programmers he more or less says that designing and coding are two separate worlds. To be able to be good at designing, you’ll have to ignore everything you know about coding. Otherwise the design is restricted by technical limitations: you know what you can implement and you’ll design within those boundaries. Even worse: by already thinking ahead about the way it’s going to be coded, the focus will be on the code instead of the user experience.

Photoshop or HTML?

A related discussion is what the deliverable of a design should be. In most of the projects I’m involved in, the design results in a Photoshop file. This file is then cut to extract the needed graphics and the HTML/CSS is coded. I guess you know the drill.

However, quite often the role of designer is combined with the role of front-end developer, especially in smaller shops. In these cases it can be easier to do the design in HTML directly, as described by Meagan Fisher in Make Your Mockup in Markup. (The Django package django.contrib.webdesign even helps by generating sample text.) One advantage is that some design changes are easier to make in CSS than in Photoshop. Depending on your skills, the whole design process may even be faster. Meagan also demonstrates that CSS3 gives you the ability to create a lot of effects without having to resort to images, which means you’ll have to spend even less time in the graphics editor.

Another advantage of designing in HTML is that the client can see how the design works in the browser. You have to be careful though: since it’s only a design, it’s very likely that the code is not cross browser compatible yet. If the client uses a wrong browser, the design may not come across as intended. (To prevent this, you could export the page as an image e.g. by using the Firefox add-on Screengrab.)

You’ll also carefully have to manage client expectations. If the design is done in HTML, the client may incorrectly assume the front-end work is done. He may not appreciate the time that is still required to make the site look good in all targeted browsers. Or the time needed to make the static HTML more dynamic by integrating the application or adding AJAX effects.

However…

Perhaps the most important skill of a good designer is being able to communicate. Not just because the design should communicate the right things, but also because communication with the client and development team is, in my opinion, the key to success.