There have been a variety of articles and blog posts in the last year from heavy-weights like Smashing Magazine or Six Revisions about the state of the web design industry and the changes facing it. The perspective in most of these articles is from highly respected industry members who have seen the changes occur at the highest levels of the web.
At the other end of the spectrum, I’m examining the changes in the industry as someone searching for full-time employment. By reading dozens of job postings a week, I get a sense of what positions and skills are being advertised and I get a different perspective on the shape of the industry.
As a designer, my focus is on those jobs that are primarily focused on the visual parts of projects. With the exception of those postings seeking “web designers” that then list Objective C, ASP.NET, or other backend languages as required proficiencies (or conversely, postings for “web developers” whose primary requirement is “expert knowledge of Adobe Creative Suite”), the visual design jobs seem to fall most often into two different job titles: the classic “web designer” or the more recently popular “user interface (UI) designer.” So what’s the difference in these positions?
Frequently, as it turns out, there’s very little or nothing at all on the surface. Both positions are usually responsible for designing the visual pieces of web projects, working in Photoshop or Fireworks. Both positions are required to work closely with developers to ensure that the back-end infrastructure will support the visual and interactive pieces the end-users will see. Other requirements such as development of information architecture, familiarity with user experience principles, wireframing, and html and css populate descriptions for both job titles. Strangely enough, “print design” pops up often as well.
So are these positions the same? Often, once you get past the technical requirements for the position, the choice of job title is often reflective of how the position will function within the hiring organization and, to some degree, of the organization’s outlook as well. With the recent trending philosophies of “the web is dead,” and “sites as apps,” the classic “web site” or “web page” is becoming an antiquated idea. The idea that whenever you type a URL into a browser, whether it’s on a desktop or mobile device, the result should be interactive requires a shift in design thinking: you’re really designing an interface or interfaces, depending on your preference for responsive web design. This seems to be the reason for the increase in “user interface” titled positions. But anyone who bills themselves as a “web designer” and follows the industry knows this is the trend, and should be aware that their position inherently now means following these practices for best results.
So, often the key to the difference in position titles comes down to not the bulk of the role’s responsibilities, but where exactly the scope of their role ends. I think it’s key for all of us who are still in the earlier stages or first half of our careers to keep these kinds of things in mind when we decide what opportunities we want to explore, and what skill sets we want to maintain. For me, it’s essential to consider designs that function as interfaces to help users access the content they’re seeking as well as respond to what device they are being accessed with. But, especially because in my freelance work I deal with smaller clients, it’s also essential for me to be able build what I design and work within the latest languages and systems (which is why in the near future I’ll be dipping my toes into the Ruby on Rails pool to get a basic understanding of it).
In the end, regardless of job title, visual designers working on the web are going to be designing interfaces. Whether it’s part of the job title or not, the direction of the industry is pretty clear: mobile-ready sites, native apps, and desktop browsers are all going to be a part of every designer’s project.