Designing in the Browser is Not the Answer | March 14, 2012

The argument for “designing in the browser” seems very seductive at first glance. The web is an interactive medium that defies the fixed canvas of traditional layout tools, so why not use the browser as your primary design environment?

The reason is simple. The browser was intended as a delivery mechanism with HTML and CSS a means of describing content rather than defining it (a subtile distinction I know, but an important one). As such the browser lacks even the most rudimentary tools like the ability to draw lines or irregular objects through direct manipulation. Instead this process is heavily abstracted through code. As the best design tools are the ones that put the smallest barrier between the creator and their creation (the pencil is a good example of this) designing in the browser adds an unnecessary level of cruft to the process.

Despite the ability to create rounded corners, drop shadows and gradients in CSS 3 (along with even more sophisticated effects using SVG and Canvas) it’s still preferable to present your richer design details as raster graphics. So designing in the browser forces you to do graphic production in one tool and then design layout in the other. Not only is this an inefficient process but it’s also the wrong way round. As such, “design in the browser” encourages a minimal design aesthetic based on the rendering capabilities of CSS. This may be acceptable for a small number of companies like 37 Signals, but I don’t believe this is desirable in most situations.

People seem to be treating “design in the browser” as a new idea, but in the early days of the web this was the norm. So it was only through the act of co-opting existing design tools like Photoshop that the quality of design on the web was pushed forward. Now I’m not saying that “design in the browser” will relegate us to 1999 style websites, as both the technology and our aesthetic abilities have moved on, but I do think it’s a step backwards rather than the great leap forwards as many people are suggesting.

This doesn’t mean that I believe that Fireworks or Photoshop are perfect tools and I’m fully aware of their inherent problems when it comes to the fluidity of the web. I just think that on balance and in most situations, these tools are the least worst options we have available. That’s not to say that all design must happen in Fireworks/Photoshop, or that no design should happen in the browser. After all I work for a company that believes in the power of HTML/CSS prototyping and does responsive design by default, so understand that a certain amount of back-and-forth is inevitable.

Until our tools evolve, traditional graphic design tools like Photoshop and Fireworks will remain the natural jumping off points for the majority of projects for many years to come. Designing in the browser isn’t the magic bullet many in the industry want (or are promoting) it to be. However I do think it’s a useful sign-post in what should be the true quest for a truly native web design tool.

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Most Web Design Agencies Suck | March 5, 2012

Over the years Iíve heard plenty of designers moan about their clients. Iíve also witnessed a recent outburst of complaints against authors and speakers on Twitter. However the group that rarely comes under fire in public, but probably should, are the mass of terrible agencies out there.

Through my travels I get to speak to lots of designers and developers, and am constantly amazed by how smart, knowledgeable and engaged these folks are. These people care passionately about doing the right thing, but are thwarted time and time again. Itís not clients getting in the way and itís definitely not the bloggers and authors building their influence. Itís the companies they work for actively preventing them from doing good work.

Cutting corners

Good design takes time, but in the desire to win work, sales people, account managers and company owners continually force their staff to do more with less. The culture of winning work at all costs forces good designers and developers to do bad things, forcing them to compromise their work and act in ways that go against their better nature. They are fed a lie that ďwe just need you to cut corners this one timeĒ but cutting corners is addictive and one youíve done it once youíll continue to do it again and again.

It is any wonder? The agency world is filled with middlemen preventing the makers from driving the projects. Itís full of sales people motivated and incentivised by winning business rather than producing quality work. Itís full of account handlers who are supposed to act as client champions but instead seem there to sell extra services while simultaneously making clients feel good about the money they are spending. And itís full of company founders who knew how things were done 10 years ago, but are now woefully out of date and motivated more by profit than good design.

Hidden charges

I constantly see clients being sold inappropriate solutions by convincing sales people so they can meet their monthly targets. Once the project has been won itís somebody elseís job to deal with the fall-out. Very often these sales people go in cheap to win projects and then make the money up through hidden charges and change requests. Recently we had a prospective client ask us to send them our charge sheet as they wanted to know how much we charged for faxes, photocopying and other sundries. It turned out that their previous agency charged one pound fifty per printout and they were left with a printing bill running into the thousands. Itís one thing to cover your costs but itís another thing to make this a hidden revenue stream.

Resulting bad morale

I also keep coming up against designers who know they are designing or building a feature that nobody wants and could actually be detrimental to the product, simply because it was in the initial spec and nobody thought to push back. Either that or they were actively told not to push back as losing that feature would mean billing less.

In order to keep profitability high, companies try to maximise billing efficiency and end up burning their staff out at a rate of knots. They will fill this churn with hoards of juniors on relatively low salaries but painfully high day rates. This is appalling value for clients, but looks good on the end of year report.

Other ways of keeping costs down include forcing staff to work on redundant equipment and restricting access to training and conferences. In recent months Iíve met designers suffering through daily crashes because of their ancient machines, and having to fight over measly conference budgets that are dished out like rewards rather than training.

These agencies will undoubtedly have a few seniors spread throughout their ranks. However they will usually be reserved for important pitches and their most high profile clients. So despite being sold on the agencies expertise, unless youíre paying big money youíll end up with a junior team, if youíre lucky.

Middle-men to freelancers

So many agencies win work first and then try to resource later. Iím constantly meeting freelancers that get brought into projects at the last minute and are forced to lie about their status as a freelancer. Many of these freelancers end up having to run the projects themselves with little or no support from their paymasters. So while clients buy into the seniority of the team, then end up getting none of the benefits. In many cases web design consultancies can be little more than employment agencies, hiring people in cheaply and simply slapping a margin on their day rate.

I was recently having a pint with a friend who informed that that out of the 200+ people in his design and development agency, just 10 were designers and 20 were developers. To that they had a 60 person sales team, 40 project managers, 20 account handlers, and then a load of admin people. People came to this NMA top 100 agency for their expertise, when the majority of their work was actually executed by freelancers, unbeknownst their clients of course. The agency was little more than an admin and sales front, being fed large amounts of money and excreting mediocre design.

I regularly receive emails from frustrated designers telling me about the appalling conditions they are forced to work in. The fact that they feel over worked, under valued and under resourced. One recent email correspondent explained that they worked for an agency with an ďenviable reputation, with clients ranging from premier league football clubs and multinational companies, to start-upsĒ but ďevery minute is billable, so there is no time for learning or development.Ē This person went on to say that ďthere is no interaction or praise for work well doneĒ and that ďIt appears that money and profit really are the most important factors.Ē I wish emails or conversations like this were unusual, but sadly they are the norm.

Donít stand for it

Iím not sure what if anything can be done about these agencies. Except for designers leaving these battery farms to set up their own more ethical firms. However before making that next snarky comment about clients on Twitter, have a think about the terrible service most of them are getting from their agencies and then question whether their comments or concerns may in some way, be justified.

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