I’ve been doing some research into where the generalized web design services industry is heading, and I wanted to share where I am. It’s far from perfect, but I think I’m starting to see some patterns and data that correlates.
About a year ago I first noticed that my clients across the board seem less excited about design. There’s a trend for them to be far more interested in how design works than how it looks — displaying an interest in less perfect and more broad effort.
It’s hard for these potential clients to find contractors or studios to work with because the majority of us still have old processes and archetypes baked into our approaches. I know this is terrible stereotyping but: Designers generally resist generating multiple stand-alone concepts -AND- Developers generally resist the idea of being “creative”. They tend to think there’s one answer to a specific set of problems.
That’s why it’s so hard to work on or sell a project that consists of multiple designs and prototypes without a final perfect design — or with very little effort put into refinement. Heck, I know people who would say you shouldn’t sell a project like that. The concept of “we’ll find the right answer” but then not materializing it for a client is weird. Once we find that answer we want to bring it to fruition. The problem is that we have to do a lot of the work all over again one last time, perfectly, in order to complete a project like that. Then we hand off the work and tell our client to continue engaging with us to move it forward or don’t touch the perfect design. This flies in the face of how we’re training clients to think of themselves on the internet.
There’s always been a type of client who wants to experience the answer, not see it, but with increasingly fluid design and amorphous platforms their number is growing.
Clients who want to know answers, and can afford it, hire teams that are design centric in body but development centric in soul. Our industry first attempted this thinking when IA became a thing and then morphed to involve UX. That loosely progressed into Development is Design where we realized that the process of finding the right design is inseparable from “code” roles. Now we’ve seen the emergence of performance budgeting and we’re seeing the increased importance of testing everything from content, to animations, to devices from the perspective of the server up. There’s a transformation in how the general public is starting to feel about design. To the people outside our industry, design is not an opinion anymore. It’s a provable (or disprovable) hypothesis, and there can be multiple correct answers.
This isn’t new, but it’s wider acceptance is. The limiting factor of a company’s digital success isn’t how visually appealing their website is. It’s how functional it is to a specific purpose. That includes both design and development. There’s increased demand for developers across the board and the elite of those developers is the creative coder.
Let’s dig into data for a minute. There are a few interesting reports out from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and IBIS World that when paired show actual and projected paths for design as compared to development. I put together a couple graphs to illustrate some comparisons (please pardon the terribleness of these visuals):
Normalized BLS Projected Employment Growth Rate
Actual Normalized IBIS World Industry Growth Rate
Some really cool things show up here that correlate with my observations. The role of the web developer is projected to far outperform (in employability) any design role that the BLS tracks. Not only that, but developers’ average pay is over $17k USD higher than their designer counterparts. And on top of that, developers average an associates degree while designers average a bachelors.
Graphic design services far underperforms the US economy as a whole let alone web design services (which overlaps graphic design). So you can’t attribute the designer-to-developer disparity to an overall market trend. This also points out a hole in the data and projections though: graphic designer employment rates are torn between an apparent bull web design market and bear non-web graphic design market.
Being an Art Director (AD) still isn’t a thing. Every other role the BLS measures that relates to ADs will out-perform the AD role. If you compare the number of designers to ADs and developers currently, that will be the most directors compared to designers ratio that we’ll have for the foreseeable future.
Web Tech Directors (especially available ones) are damnably hard to find, and they don’t exist on BLS measures. I realize that’s unfair to say compared to real data, but it correlates with the findings: Demand for developers increases while demand for design roles flounders. Even now excellent senior developers are snatched up incredibly fast. This all coordinates with what I’m seeing — a shift from design to development when looking at web talent.
I’m seeing design careers appear to stagnate in typography and photoshop, or run into “functional” walls. It’s hard to sell design divorced of developers, and even then the development seems to increasingly bear the majority of the client’s attention — again given the increasing awareness of the fluidity of design across screen sizes among other factors.
In Design Services no single player holds more than 5% market share (as measured by revenue) and the majority of industry players are non-employers — sole proprietors or freelance. Price competition is coming, and it’s already very visible for design services if you’ve watched the market from 2012 to today. Who didn’t hear tons of complaining about the 2014 web design industry?
I know my perception of the larger world of web design is highly flavored by the small sample of inquiries I personally handle, but a lot of data is pointing at a shift toward development centric, less perfect design that receives iterative treatment from broad teams of contractors and employees. Design for the web is a team game, and it’s not just for designers anymore. Freelancers who are succeeding most in our industry are the ones who are realizing web design is a business —not a role , and the ones who are on the bleeding edge doing some of the most exciting and valuable work are development centric even though design does the selling. The small teams who are seeing some of the best successes are treating development with the same hypothesis mind-set that designers have adopted for years.