I’ve always been really interested in web design. In fact, one of my first online businesses was a small web design studio that helped local clients get a basic web presence and start ranking on Google.
But a lot has changed since then, and many are wondering if we still need web designers in an age of free drag-and-drop WordPress themes, cheap A/B-testing software, heat map insights, etc.
This is a massive topic about a huge industry that employs millions of people and so I want to treat it with a bit of caution and respect. I also want to avoid the ire of designers who are thoroughly sick of the old “Do I need a web designer?” debate.
Let’s jump in anyway.
Disclosure – This post contains affiliate links. I’ll let you know which ones below. If you make a purchase through one I will earn a commission at no extra cost to you. I only recommend services I’ve used and love.
Why people used to hire web designers
Go back in time 15+ years and you’ll see a very different Internet.
Many companies, for example, didn’t have websites and as they started to realize that business was going to be done online, scrambled to hire a web designer to build a beautiful site that was on-brand and helped customers.
In those days there wasn’t much in the way of free platforms and things like WordPress themes were very limited in terms of how you could customize features and design elements without also needing to know how to write and edit code.
Just take a look at Blogger in 1999…
So, you needed help.
And so a web designer would often build something from the absolute ground up. They’d get a brief, come up with a draft design, get feedback, and then cut and splice it all up and turn it into a functional website. They might then manage it for the client, making changes and edits over time.
That involved knowing how to use things like Photoshop, Dreamweaver, and then manage hosting environments, FTP uploading and so on and so forth.
It was a big job.
And then (as always) the technology improved
Nowadays, if you want to build a website you can sign up to a self-hosting platform like Bluehost and get yourself set up on a premium WordPress theme in literally a few minutes.
Everything is a lot easier than it used to be, and so a lot of people started thinking that it was unnecessary to hire a web designer because the new technology allowed them to do much of it themselves.
This is a really positive thing in that it saved a lot of small businesses a lot of cash, and a really negative thing in that many web designers lost jobs while businesses created some pretty ugly and ineffective websites.
So what do web designers do today?
These days we’re seeing changes to almost every career in the world, and especially to those on the net.
Web designing is not immune to that and that’s meant freelancers and agencies had to expand or adapt to the technology such that, instead of just designing websites, they now do a whole host of tasks and services that expand well beyond their title might suggest.
If you hire a web designer or web design agency these day they might:
- Set you up on a template or design a fresh site
While you might get a fully original design, it’s also possible that your designer will set you up on an existing template or theme. This will usually save you a bit of money and you can choose when you hire them.
- Work on different branding elements
Your business might not just need a website but also a color scheme, logo, typography recommendations, and so on. Many agencies will encourage you to do all of this at once so you have a cohesive approach for your business.
- Helping you with SEO and promotion
Another area that many web designers have expanded into is search engine optimization which could mean installing plugins like WordPress SEO, helping you with local listings, and then even creating content for PPC campaigns and other promotional activity.
- Managing hosting, security and updates
Web designers also will often charge you an ongoing fee in order to keep your site safe, secure and up to date. That might mean just updating software, or it might mean managing things like your emails and any issues that arise with bounces and so on.
- A fully managed solution
Some web designers (and often this is done in-house) will also offer a fully managed solution where they take care of your whole online presence or a specific campaign. This might mean designing the graphics, landing pages, websites, adverts, etc. and then implementing the strategy through advertising on Facebook and other platforms. They then watch the metrics to see whether it’s converting and recommend changes.
As you can see from all of this, the job of the web design has not completely vanished into irrelevance. In fact, there are many situations where it’s important to engage one which we’re going to take a look at next.
So, do I need a web designer?
If you’ve made it this far you might be wondering whether or not you still need to bother hiring a web designer given that so much of the process is now made easy through site builders and plugins and other pieces of software that weren’t around even five years ago.
My answer? It depends on a few things:
- What level of expertise do you have?
The first thing you need to consider is that learning a lot of these, no matter how simple they are, will take you a lot of time if it is all brand new to you (here’s the story from my last re-design). This is tempting to a lot of small business owners because it saves you money, but it also takes time away from building your actual business. Choose wisely.
- What are you goals?
Are you trying to build a web company that you then sell for $120m (like Moonpig) or just something to keep you occupied as a hobby? If you want to build a serious company then you might want the expertise of someone who has studied it and worked in it for years.
- What is your budget?
Your budget has to feature in this decision, of course, and it will be a clincher for many smaller businesses or individuals. If you’ve just launched a business, however, please don’t choose the marketing and web presence as the place where you save cents. That is how you grow.
- What can’t you achieve without a designer?
It’s also important to look at the things you can’t achieve without a designer. For example, do you need custom graphics or logos or animations that you can’t do yourself? Importantly, if you were to download Photoshop and start to do these things yourself, would you be able to achieve anywhere near the quality that a professional could? Often the answer is no.
- What could you be missing out on?
The last thing I wanted to mention is that idea that, by doing it yourself, you could be missing out on some pretty serious conversions, subscribers, and sales. The expertise that a professional web designer can bring to a project is often underestimated, so it’s good to try and figure out whether or not you’re making big mistakes by going solo.
I’d just like to add here that not all web designers are created equal and just because you hire one doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily get a good outcome for your blog or website. Often this is a case of “you get what you pay for” and it can take a long time to find the right person.
The experts weigh in on the future of web design
I really wanted to get some outside points of view before publishing this article as it’s such a huge scope and I knew there would be aspects that I hadn’t considered.
I jumped over to Inbound.org and posted the question which is currently on the front page and has had over 40 responses.
This one from Sherry at JV Media Design really stood out for me:
I’ve been in web design since close to the beginning of it (1995). This is not a new question as I can think of at least a few times over the last 20 years that it’s been asked.
To me, a web designer is skilled in not only modern website design as well as fundamentals of both UX and UI (not necessarily programming, but the visual aspect, as well as understanding flow, and functionality), but also how design isn’t just something that looks good – it HAS TO have a purpose. This is why I feel that web designers should also understand marketing.
Where I see most of these aspects (especially the marketing) seriously lacking is in DIY and pre-made themes/template options. I see most builders such as Wix targeted to small businesses. And that’s fine, because many small business owners do not set aside budgets for marketing. Many also seem to be okay with spending hours and hours of their own time fiddling with these builders, reading blog articles on marketing, taking online seminars, etc. Occasionally, some realize that their time is also money and that it might actually be better to pull in a pro to handle all of this for them.
Someone here mentioned using the Divi theme for building their own WordPress website. I challenge any small business owner who has no previous programming experience, no previous experience with WordPress themes, and no real experience with marketing (and how to reach their target audience through design and layout) to use that or any other complex (and popular) WordPress theme and build their own website with it. Basically, good luck. I believe many WordPress themes are built to perpetuate the need for WordPress developers. Then there’s also custom WordPress themes where you definitely have to have skills in order to pull off. This is all more development than design though.
So what you’re really talking about here are different audiences with different budgets and preconceived notions of the value of design. Companies like Wix and Weebly place a very low value on design. They basically tell their audience that a professional web designer has no value because you don’t need one to build your own “stunning” website. Their target audience is people with zero to very low budget who are easily convinced that design isn’t worth it and they can do it themselves. Larger companies are more apt to understand the value and experience a professional web designer can bring to the table.
This is such a fantastic summary of the issue from a professional web designer’s point of view, and really gives some good insight in to some of the aspects that are facing both web designers and their clients (and non-clients).
My only reservation is that, despite it being a potentially bad idea, I do feel like the market is moving away from needing web designers in favor of more independent solutions. I think the web design industry will need to be mindful of this constant change.
What do you think?
Have you ever used a web designer or are you the kind of person who prefers to go in by yourself and build, tinker and track all the results? I’d love to hear your points of view so please add to the discussion below or over on the Inbound thread. I’d really appreciate it.
Top photo © Daniel Villeneuve at Dreamstime