Consultant Rant | April 13, 2006

One thing that annoys me about this industry is the flagrant misuse of the term “Consultant”. A consultant is generally somebody who provides professional advice to a client for a fee. So as an accessibility and user experience consultancy, clients will come to us for our advice on improving the accessibility and user experience of their products, and we’ll respond with some form of report or documentation, often backed up with a formal presentation.

One of the benefits of hiring a consultant is that their advice is independent of the internal and external political factors surrounding a project, so is generally seen as more reliable. It’s sad, but clients will often take more notice of an external consultant than their own internal team, who may have been recommending exactly the same solutions for some time. In fact, one of the benefits of employing an independent consultant to back up what your in-house team has been saying all along.

We are often brought in at the start of a project to give companies an overview of the problems and issues they face. We can also be bought in during a project to give unbiased feedback on the performance of other agencies. More often than not we start by providing consultancy services and then get asked to implement our recommendations. The key defining factor is the provision of professional advice, hence the use of the term consultancy.

Unfortunately I see a lot of companies using the term consultancy because it sounds impressive, rather than because they offer a true consultation service. This is even more true of the freelance market where the term “consultant” has simply come to mean “short-term” or “temporary” contract work. It may sound cooler than freelance web designer, but unless you’re offering professional advice rather than design and implementation, I’d avoid calling yourself a “Web Design Consultant”.

It is sort of like calling yourself “President and CEO” of a one man company. It may sound good on paper, but looks less impressive to clients when they find out that you’re also the secretary and office cleaner.

Posted at April 13, 2006 5:31 PM


Nick Fitzsimons said on April 13, 2006 4:54 PM

…unless you’re offering professional advice rather than design and implementation, I’d avoid calling yourself a “Web Design Consultant?

I often find myself in the position of wearing both hats: for example my most recent client wanted my coding skills in HTML, CSS, XSLT and JavaScript, but simultaneously needed my advice on accessibility and standards compliance. Both the advisory and the development skills were seen as of equal weight when they hired me.

Their paperwork described me as a “Consultant”, but if people ask me what I do I tend to say “Web Developer” (I’m just a coder, not a designer).

So nowadays I’m unsure what to call myself: as far as I’m concerned the consultancy and development aspects of my work go hand-in-hand, and “what I do/am” includes both.

Can one be a “Consultant Web Developer”? Sounds quite cool, with medical overtones…

trovster said on April 13, 2006 5:02 PM

A consultant - someone who consults - to give advice. It’s true that short-term freeroaming developers often call themselves consultants. But part of that freelance job is giving advice on the product you’re going to be given them.

I give myself the term ‘Web Developer’, like Nick, as I code and don’t design. However, I have recently been appointed as a consultant!

Paul Annett said on April 13, 2006 5:14 PM

I advise, but only in what I will eventually implement. In that respect I’m less consultant and more… front-end web developer? I do visual design (more than the hobbyist “web designer” every client happens to know) and I code CSS/XHTML (but not any true “development” language), so I find role titles are always diffucult to define. “more than a web designer, not a backend developer”

jdanylko said on April 13, 2006 5:19 PM

I definitely agree.

But it seems that most companies want that “second opinion” from a consultant to confirm what their internal team has been saying all along.

You can imagine what goes through the minds of the internal team when management says they’re bringing in a consultant to help. :-)

Josh Delsman said on April 13, 2006 5:35 PM

I like to think of myself as “President” of my company. I also have the label as “Lead Designer”. This is just basically because I have two other “designers” who assist me when I have large projects.

If the project is small enough, I’ll do it myself.

Andy Budd said on April 13, 2006 5:43 PM

Obviously if you are designing or building something, part of your job is to provide advice, be that advice on colour and form, or advice on the best standards to use. However unless that’s the primary reason why you’ve been hired, I wouldn’t say you were a consultant. To qualify as a consultancy I’d argue that you need to offer a purely advisory service, divorced of any implementation.

It is a bit like calling a car mechanic a consultant because they tell you that your engine needs fixing, before they actually fix it.

Dane said on April 13, 2006 5:45 PM

I agree that nothing’s more ostentatious than calling yourself the CEO of your tiny operation.

That’s why I call myself the “Master of the Universe.”

Nick Fitzsimons said on April 13, 2006 7:39 PM

@Andy: agreed that saying “This is the best way to do x” and then doing it that way is hardly consultancy. But what if one spends the morning writing a paper for presentation to the board specifying some aspect of a corporate strategy for web accessibility, and then spends the afternoon writing accessible code. I would argue that one is then a consultant in the morning, and a developer (or mechanic, in your analogy) in the afternoon.

In other words, the distinction between consultant and developer isn’t necessarily split between different individuals, projects or organisations: they are different hats worn in different contexts.

You mention in TFA that you (plural) may be brought in in a consultancy role, and later be asked to get involved in implementation. Your consultancy work doesn’t cease to be such once your involvement in the implementation phase begins. Similarly, for several clients, I have split my time between a consultancy and a development role.

I do remain unsure as to precisely what I’m supposed to call myself, but I don’t think it’s valid to say that the consultancy I do in the morning stops being consultancy because of the code I write in the afternoon.

Josef Dunne said on April 13, 2006 8:51 PM

My job title is “Web Developer and Accessiblity Consultant” (Slightly long, but needed) because I can offer advice in the area of accessibilty, but at the same time I’m a professional web developer.

Of course, people who just use the word Consultant because it “sounds good” would be a misuse. However I feel that I can use the word consultant in my job title, since I do want to offer my expertise and skills in that area. I dont think there is anything wrong with that.

Gordon said on April 13, 2006 8:51 PM

I like this approach of eschewing titles altogether. The presumption being that they know what the COMPANY does, and trust the company to provide the right type of people.

Funnily enough it’s inspired by this post.

Nathan Smith said on April 13, 2006 9:13 PM

I agree wholeheartedly. It is for this reason that I peddle my wares as a “designer / developer” and not a consultant, because most of the time that’s not the role I want to be playing anyway. I have the utmost respect for people with that kind of patience.

Rida Al Barazi said on April 13, 2006 10:42 PM

I simply want to thank you for bringing this up, it’s really became very strange, every new web designer or developer that hardly designed two three websites, is trying to become the Director or CEO of his solitary company, even if he is really giving consultancy, I think such service requires a minimum of few years in the field, to have the enough experience to advice people.

Thanks again Andy and I hope this post will make a difference. :)

howie said on April 13, 2006 11:45 PM

Well, I call myself an internet consultant, and will continue to do so, though I do not provide a purely consultative role - I code too.

As a freelancer, I generally get involved in a project very early on, working with the business stake holders (doing business analysis), not with the developers, and from here formulate a design. This inevitably evolves into a technical team leading role as the project matures. From experience you split your time working with the business, the project manager and the developers. And throughout the project, I’ll be asked for advice. But at the end of the day, I’ll get my hands dirty.. because none of the developers are any good at CSS or Javascript or know what a doctype is or why you should redirect a request after post.

I don’t see how this differs too much from clear:left implementing a set of proposals. If KPMG, PWC et al can call themselves consultants, so can I. At least I know how to code!

That’s not to say there aren’t a load of web designers out there wrongly calling themselves consultants. But it’s not black and white.

Andy Budd said on April 14, 2006 12:33 PM

Exactly my point. If you offer pure consultancy as part of your services, then by all means call yourself a consultant. However if the advice you give is a necessary part of the implementation process and can’t stand on its own, then your not a consultant.

For instance, if you are paid to assess a companies brand strategy as part of a larger project, and produce a written report or presentation, this is definitely consultancy. However if you are hired to create a design, and in the process are asked for your opinion on colour and typography, this is simply part of your job as a designer.

The situation obviously isn’t black and white, and I’m not suggesting that any of you aren’t doing consultancy work. If you think you’re doing consultancy work, then you probably are. However there are a surprising number of companies or freelancers calling them selves consultant simply because it sounds good, rather than because they offer consultancy as a service.

Jim Callender said on April 14, 2006 2:26 PM

I’d agree with this, sometimes I have done work for a client where I start as a SEO consultant for example, then become the developer for implementing my recommendations into the code.

If you are a one man band, you do all the work, does it really matter where the boundary lay? As long as you put colleagues and clients right when the term is misused.

The term ‘consultant’ is just one of the titles that reconfirms the flexible and nature of a freelance web type person.

Olav said on April 15, 2006 1:23 AM

I think you give the word too much credit. As long as you can give sound advice in a professional manner, you’re a possible consultant.

Now, about how good a consultant you can be - that’s where many web designers fail miserably.

Mohodin Rageh said on April 15, 2006 4:08 PM

Your point is valid Mr Budd. However, abuse is rampant in almost every industry and web design is no exception. Web designers are doing what many well-established tradesmen and craftmen did in the past: to put some spin on what they do. I am not excusing it but just pointing out the obvious. It simply happens. In the end though, it comes down to what you are most comfortable calling yourself.

President and CEO said on April 15, 2006 4:32 PM

Rants are best kept for pub table conversation. Cowboys are present in any and all industries but to concern yourself with it can seem a little insecure. The proof as we all know is in the pudding.

ps- Does anybody know where I can find a garage that’ll tell me what’s wrong with my car but won’t fix it? I really need one of those. Teehee.

Rick Hurst said on April 15, 2006 8:34 PM

what’s in a name?

none of our team call ourselves consultants, but we are frequently hired to provide “consultancy” on web projects. This is rarely in the form of a presentation or paper, but usually working with an in-house team or agency directly on a project - they aren’t sure about something, they ask us to come in and show them the way - they consult us before moving on…

Andy Budd said on April 16, 2006 12:14 PM

There are a lot of extremely talented car mechanics who will give you advice on the best parts to use when you take your car in for a service. However despite offering professional advice, they are not consultants. They are simply offering their advice as part of the job of servicing a car.

I wouldn’t choose a car mechanic because they called themselves a car engineering consultant. Conversely, I wouldn’t value the mechanics knowledge and professionalism any less just because they weren’t called a consultant. The term has a specific meaning regarding the services you sell. Nothing more.

And yes, despite how strange it may sound, there are indeed automotive consultants, providing professional advice to car manufacturers and the motor racing industry.

If you are a professional web designer or developer, you should feel proud about your level of professional knowledge without trying to dress things up in meaningless titles. You’re clients won’t value you nay more just because you cal yourself a consultant. However they may value you less when they ask you for consultancy on a particular subject and you can’t perform.

As I’ve said, I’m not adverse to people who offer consultancy as an aspect of their work calling themselves a consultant. I’m simply against people using the term as a catchall to mean “agency” or “freelancer”.

Kitsimons said on April 16, 2006 7:54 PM

I agree. There’s a clear distinction between someone hired purely as a consultant and someone hired as a web designer who consults (to some degree) during a project.

If you listed all that you do as part of a web design job you could also call yourself a copywriter, account manager, systems analyst and so on.

It may be that someone performs all of these tasks to a certain extent, but the service rendered remains “web design”.

There are many other examples of people making huge stretches in their job titles and/or services rendered that really irk me…

erm… I’m sure one will come to me…

Chris Neale said on April 17, 2006 11:42 PM

If I expected people to understand what it meant, I’d call myself a Cyberneticist.

My CWF1 deems me an IT Consultant, only so I can be many things : )

Chris Neale said on April 18, 2006 9:43 AM

How many freelancers do you know who (according to the etymology) are mercenary knights ?

: )

Mathew Patterson said on April 19, 2006 1:32 AM

I tend to agree that consultant as a title for web workers has been used to mean many different things. I’ve just refocused my business website to make it clear that when you hire Signal 7 you get me, and my skills. There seems to be no point pretending to be a big company if you are not.

As for this: “In fact, one of the benefits of employing an independent consultant to back up what your in-house team has been saying all along.”

Absolutely - one of the key skills for Designers Inhouse is to use whatever leverage you have to get things done right. Often that means allowing an outside consultant (or research group etc) to be your voice.

mark s said on April 19, 2006 2:16 PM

wow, there’s another ten minutes of my life gone.

Andy Budd said on April 20, 2006 7:21 PM

Hey, I said it was a rant!


Sharaf said on April 21, 2006 1:33 PM

Call your self a ‘Web Producer’ that way you cover both web designer and web developer titles all in one.

“Consultant” is bit like “Webmaster” - whatever that means…

David Wall said on April 25, 2006 12:17 PM

Going back twenty years, the firm I worked for had a whole floor of Contractors who pushed out code, until no longer required.
Now we have consultants who still just push out code, the only difference I can find is the latter are paid even more than there predecessors, and the former would always stand there round.