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“What is expected of a designer?” on LinkedIn

You’re probably going to hear a lot more from me about LinkedIn. I’ve been on there for several years but only recently understood how to use it effectively (expect a post soon). Part of my new set of activities on there is participating in group discussions about design, development, and business best practices. I’m definitely learning more than I’m teaching which makes the ROI for coming back quite high.

Design is More by ellywilliams on Flickr
Design is More by ellywilliams on Flickr

I recently posted in a great topic titled “what is expected of a designer,” a question I’ve pondered many times on my own. I wanted to share a few of the responses but, because it’s a closed group and you need a login to view the posts, I don’t want to include information on the poster. Just please note that anything in quotations below are not my original thoughts and were written by someone else (which, if it was you, let me know and I’ll add a link for you or take it down if you’d like).

So, first, the question:

What is expected of a designer? Over the years, my job has evolved from spec’ing type to writing branding guidelines to puzzling through code, with everything else in between. But there’s a ceiling on the perceived value of a graphic designer, or “Design Consultant”. What are your experiences juggling the many aspects of our work?

My response, verbatim, is this:

Designing without any concept of how the whole project comes together (think website or brochure or presentation) or what the limitations are (platform or budgetary or format) puts you at a total disadvantage. I’ve worked with designs from people who understand the web and from people who don’t and the difference, in both time and final product, is clear.

I think a designer should be expected to think about the whole project: the medium, the message, the format, the audience, the technology, and the client. The closer the pieces of the project are to the design, the more they should know. Should a front-end designer be fluent in SQL? It might make for an interesting combination but knowing the syntax isn’t going to make the site design better. Should the designer understand how the site is going to interact with the database? It’s not necessary but it might help them work better with the developer.

In short, a designer needs to see the big picture of what they are doing. Possessing incredible design skills is great but, without seeing how your creativity plugs into everything else, you’ll perpetually be at a disadvantage (and, potentially, be difficult to work with).

What do others have to say?

Employers recently seem to get the sense that the term “Designer” should also encompass the title of “Developer”. It’s amazing and frightening the perception of what a designer is now – especially in web. I’ve read so many posts that wanted a “Rockstar Designer” … who also did ASP.NET , PHP, and other coding skills on top of the standard (X)HTML and CSS.

Employers have to realize that we’re not a dumpster for all the cumulative skills and knowledge of communication. I do admit that the role of the “designer” has to evolve however.

“A dumpster for all the cumulative skills and knowledge of communication;” I’m certain I could not put it any better.

There’s give and take with everything. Hiring someone with both design and programming skills means that you want a jack/jill-of-all-trades. This implies that you’re not looking for a designer at the top of their field and you’re not looking for a programmer that can write applications with their eyes closed. There is nothing wrong with desiring this particular combination but the problem comes when your expecations are not in line with what you’re asking for.

I have to use myself as an example. I’m proficient in the Adobe products and really love playing with layout, typography, and colors. I have an eye for detail and, if I can toot my own horn for a second, I’ve come up with several effective, pleasing designs. I’m always improving and always learning but always humble because I’ve seen the kind of design work that’s out there and I’m very impressed. If a project requires a very polished, unique design, I might end up hiring someone else (not after trying it out, of course). I do that because I know that practice begets mastery and, because my practice is broad, my skill level is not at the same level as professional designers. Same goes for code; I can hand-code an XHTML page or email, use CSS very effectively, and add some PHP to make it dynamic and easy to use. I can build templates for WordPress blogs and make the PHP code do what I want. I can also find my way around the ASP.NET of DotNetNuke enough to make small modifications. I am not, however, capable of building a dynamic MySQL driven site (big “yet” there… in the process of learning). I’m also not able to write a Facebook app, a WordPress widget, or a Pligg module.

What I do, I do well and do often. What I can’t do, I reach out to experts to have it done right (while learning at the same time).

I heard an interesting talk by Milton Glaser a few years ago. His approach was that designers need to stay with what they are good at—the magic that makes people look; that makes people feel a certain way, etc. He seemed to feel that designers were going down the wrong path by positioning themselves as business experts (via emphasizing their marketing skills), as that’s not what makes them special.

This is from the orginal poster and adds to what I was saying above. When you hire a designer, you’re making a statement, you’re saying “what this looks like really, truly matters.” You can hire a designer for almost anything you do… home construction, documents, car modification, advertisements, web sites; the list, of course, goes on ad infinitum. You hire the right designer for the job (i.e. don’t hire me to design your kitchen), you communicate what you want and need, and you leave the project in their capable hands.

It’s all about separating roles and jobs. If you hire someone to both design and develop your website, they better be good at swtiching hats (cough). I’ve done several top-to-bottom web pages and blogs and I love the process. As a classically-trained scientist, a life-long artist (I create a lot more than I share, that’s for sure), a constant writer (see this blog, former blog, long emails, and technical documents), and an occasional programmer, I’m comfortable in both halves of my brain. Where I get into trouble, however, is when I’m not able to separate these skills and take each one on individually. If I’m given a big project with a tight deadline, it can be sure I’ll reach out to other people for help. If, however, I’m given the time I need, I take each step on individually and enjoy switching hats.

If you’re looking for someone who takes great pride in what he does, is constantly improving, and seeks help when he needs it, please get a hold of me. I’d love to get you and your business on the web!

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