Web Designers (and perhaps digital designers in general) must ask themselves this question from time to time. Yes, there are tons of restaurant sites to redesign. Yes, there are designers out there charging 4–5 figures per project. Yes, you can basically do the same template site (don’t tell the client that) and cut down on your time, upping your $/hr. Yes, your technical skills are valuable and no the stakeholders/business owners couldn’t do it themselves — at least you don’t think they could.
That’s all true, but perhaps that’s all beside the point. What the internet has done since its explosive growth in the mid-90’s is disrupt and disintermediate.
1.to cause disorder or turmoil in:
2.to destroy, usually temporarily, the normal continuance or unity of;interrupt:
3.to break apart:
4.Business. to radically change (an industry, business strategy, etc.) by introducing a new product or service that creates a new market.
to attempt to do away with intermediary entities between two primary market forces; to eliminate the middleman
In the same way that Amazon.com slaughtered retailers, there are some amazing online tools that seek to do away with you, the designer. But you probably already knew that, since you use them all the time.
“But why?” you must be thinking, “What have I ever done? I’m sensitive. I listen. I rock at round rects and drop shadows. I follow all the latest Digital Design trends. I’m even on the iOS 9 Beta program and I contribute to Git monthly!”
I know, I know. You’re an angel with an Illustrator fetish. But you’re also the new middleman.
Do you think stakeholders want to deal with you? It’s hard enough to talk about design (as a layman). It’s frustrating for business owners to wait for your mockups and sift through the ‘creative process’ when they’d rather just do it themselves.
Oh you don’t think they can? Don’t be so sure. Anyone born after 1990 is pretty much Web native. If you client is in this age range, trust me, they get online design patterns. They get Facebook. They get flat design. What they don’t get is why you’re still charging $10,000 for something he could do on Tumblr in an afternoon.
Argue all you want about your design sense. Most likely, as a designer, it won’t be appreciated. Maybe you should be a digital artist, instead?
There are a few main things working against you as a digital designer / UI designer / UX designer / experience architect / pixel crafter:
1. Pretty doesn’t matter.
Businesses don’t hire you to make their site look cool or pretty. If thats what you do, you’re overcharging. Businesses exist to serve customers, not their owners’ egos. Looking cool is mostly bullshit if you’re copying Facebook’s latest design, or Google’s latest design. Admit it, you want your site to ‘match’ something from some Silicon Valley giant and look familiar. What matters is conversions. Part of the reason ‘simple and clean’ web design took over is because it converted. Less crap on the screen and fewer buttons, meant more visitors clicked the call to action buttons. That’s it.
Sadly, all the groovy graphics on your Dribbble account don’t mean much because they don’t convert. If they don’t make the stakeholders money, why the hell are they paying you?
2. Design patterns are getting ubiquitous.
Here’s the next problem. Most of what you claim to be ‘great design’ is already ubiquitous. It’s ubiquitous because Facebook has 1.4 billion users and we are 20 years into the Internet Age. What web users are doing when they load a new website is look for familiar structures called ‘design patterns’. Is there a company logo at the top left? Is there a navigation bar with a sign up button somewhere at the top right? Is the contact info somewhere at the bottom of the page? If there’s no hover effects, how do I know what’s a button and what isn’t?
Experienced web users (I’ll wait while you update your Linkedin Profile) already know this stuff, even if they’re not geeky enough to verbalize it. So why are you charging for a ‘design sense’ when literally everyone in the Western Hemisphere knows this stuff?
What if you want to get creative and start having horizontally scrolling pages (groovy!) and buttons that only appear after a 20 second opacity transition effect? What if you want the page to load in Russian because it looks “cool” and force North American users to click the language tab, just to show how metropolitan you are? All of that crap is funny (for a few minutes) until you realize it’s actually terrible design because your users are expecting something familiar. What you think of as ‘creative design ideation’ is mostly just a set of established design patterns. In fact, some of the patterns are so ubiquitous that your CMS will not let you mess them up.
Are you still sure your clients can't do this themselves?
3. The tools are getting better.
Finally, the techical reason you might be overcharging clients. The tools at your (and their) disposal are amazing. Years ago Adobe Creative Suite was considered the vital tools of the trade (whether it was digital or print design). The tools were so incredible obtuse, so bafflingly complex to use that no client would dare undertake a web, print, or logo design. Every pixel of that interface seemed intentionally designed to frustrate users, and insulate the prestigious few who could understand it, in much the same way that lawyers and doctors use language (vernacular, if you will) so opaque, no patient would dare question his or her counsel. Again, whether it’s conscious or subconscious, it’s a great business model.
Then the infighting began. Design-on-design crime, if you will. Designers outside of Adobe started throwing Molotov cocktails at Designers inside Adobe. They started burning burning and sharing CD’s. They starting downloading pirated copies (“after all”, they thought, “what design student can justify spending $500 just to learn how to use the thing?”). They started sharing ID codes to and cracks to get around Adobe’s digital protection layers. All of it worked. All of it.
As bandwidth increased (early 2000’s) enough that downloading a 3GB file was a piece of cake, Adobe was forced into a corner: sooner or later this business model would have to break, and they’d be forced into some kind of subscription service. Too many users were paying nothing for years of unrestricted use of Adobe software. By the late 2000’s development was well underway, and in 2014 the first version of Adobe Creative Cloud was released. Pricing started around $10/mo and went all the way up to $80/mo indefinitely for legal use of the software. In fact, Adobe Creative Cloud is technically brilliant, but many designers were appalled that they were now being asked to pay for something on an ongoing basis (which they would be using on an ongoing basis, ahem).
Around that same time, some wonderful Adobe alternatives were released for dirt-cheap, that are not only affordable, but eschew the wretched Adobe Interface that made it so difficult for business owners do ‘do it themselves’.
Sketch ($50) is a beautiful and dirt-cheap alternative to Illustrator/Photoshop for Digital Designers. For any Mockup or App/Web Design work, this app is gorgeous, has a modern UI, includes all the layers and built in effects of Photoshop. Oh yeah, and it exports PSD files.
Pixelmator ($35) is a beautiful photo-editing application. It just oozes OS X goodness, and of course does everything you’d ever want Photoshop to do.
Affinity Designer and Photo (both $60) are beautiful modern alternatives to Illustrator and Photoshop. Are you noticing a pattern here?
Adobe Xd is similar to Sketch but of course, with a subscription price. It seems much more stable and better at handling bigger files without chugging.
WordPress remains a stable dirt cheap CMS for web designers. It has a bajillion themes (the free ones mostly stink, but the paid ones can be more than sufficient for a basic small business site). Your boss and client have also heard of WordPress and could pay someone on Elance 250 bucks to make a WP site without touching PHP.
SquareSpace (you’ve heard of them if you’ve listened to a podcast in the last five years) is very big and very liquid. They provide service and turnkey design sense, and all the backend stuff your clients will ever need for a few bucks a month. Starving Graphic Design majors may not be able to afford that but your clients sure can.
Webflow not only makes WordPress look like Mario Paint (Google it, kids), it does responsive and fluid design beautifully. It is web native. It exports all the HTML/CSS/JS you’ll ever need to make a downright sexy website without touching any of the aforementioned Desktop tools.
It’s gorgeous, and it’s about to launch a CMS module, meaning it’s about to go up against premium WordPress functionality. It may not be mainstream, but the technology is right there. Throwing gorgeous websites together in a couple hours.
I’m not suggesting you quit your job or lower your rates. Let’s go back to basics. A designer’s job is to solve problems under technological, financial and time constraints.Anyone who doesn’t have those three isn’t really a designer, he/she is an artist. Design is valuable because it solves problems. As I’ve pointed out here, the technical tools are becoming less and less of a problem. The design side is still very hard for the average small business owner, but design patterns (read: copying) tend to cover this, barring any ghastly color combinations or font choices. Things like Squarespace won’t even let you make disgusting typography choices.
So what’s left? Plenty. Amazon.com didn’t destroy the retail market, it disrupted it. It killed bad retailers and pushed good ones to be even better. What’s easy to disrupt is the technical stuff. What’s hard to disrupt is the soft stuff. People skills. User research. Emotion. Underpromising and overdelivering. Personal networks.
Design is still a job, but it’s not you hunched over a Macbook playing with color combinations all night. That stuff doesn’t actually matter as much as how you can use this ‘web design’ or ‘identity design’ contract to help the client make money. Prove to them that you have done the homework, UX research, which has led to your design choices. Take advantage of the aforementioned tools to finish projects ahead of that pesky deadline. Offer a discounted rate if your clients can refer you to others. Play up the emotional side of business in the same way that your client uses emotions to close his/her customers. If you can’t do that, you may as well be disrupted.
Recommended Reading: “Design is a Job” by Mike Monteiro.