The average Briton spends around 12 hours a week on the internet. How much he or she enjoys those 12 hours depends on the number of people who've added them to Facebook, the amount of junk mail in their Hotmail account, and the skills of web designers. The difference between a well-designed site and a navigational nightmare can be crucial to the happiness of 21st-century folk.
"It's about easing the customer's journey in a pleasant way – making it a real-life experience," says Liz Citron, who is on the executive board of the industry body the British Interactive Media Association (Bima).
The task of the website designer is to marry the client with their customers: making sure that the customers find what they are looking for, while ensuring that the client's message is getting through.
Bima's members are anything from freelance web designers, through agencies, to web teams within companies. These are essentially the three ways in which one can work in the industry.
"If you go to an agency," says Citron, "you'll be much more of a specialist, while if you're part of a company you'll have to be broader. Then there are people who are very technical and have a fine sense of design."
These are the people who, like Stephen Wragg, have the ability to strike out alone as a freelancer.
"You get a satisfaction from being responsible for everything," says Wragg, who left his job as an art director at a greetings card company to set up Wragg Art House, part of which deals with web-based media. "But it's a lot of responsibility: across a broad spectrum of disciplines.
"First you need to be thinking about the concept and understanding the business needs of the client. Then you would deal with page design and the overall site structure and implement and code."
But problems lurk for young would-be freelancers. Web design is not just about making pretty websites: it is about business. "Potentially you have to act as a marketing adviser from the outset," says Wragg, "and often the principal of a company is hesitant about the ability of a young web designer to understand a company's needs."
On top of that, there is the evolving nature of the Internet. Web 2.0, the catch-all term used to describe the high functionality of modern websites, means that there are increasing demands on the technical expertise of web designers. This is beginning to threaten the ability of people to handle both aspects of a website: the creativity of the front end (page layout, design, graphics, text, audio) and the technology of the back end (code and script).
"A single person will always be able to produce a website," says Wragg. "But it depends what the expectations of websites are in the future – and the sense is that those expectations will only increase. Most would be better going into a larger company to working in a niche area and work their way up."
This is what Miles Unwin did. Having earned several diplomas in art and print-based graphic design, he did a course in interactive design and found himself at AKQA as a junior designer.
He now works as a creative lead for the company. "I'm very much involved in liaising with the client, working on the brief, and creating a concept," he explains. It's good because you can take ownership of the whole deal."
AKQA is the Gucci of web design agencies, boasting Nike, Coca-Cola and, indeed, Gucci, as clients. "The cool thing is that we have a vast amount of blue-chip brands and they often give us free rein to do 'out-there' thinking," says Unwin.
In an industry that relies on this "out-there" thinking, the jury is still out on the preferred method of training. A digital-media production qualification is useful – but it's dangerous to put all your knowledge into technical aspects that could quickly change.
As Citron says: "It's moving so fast. In 10 years web design might be more like film production."
According to Unwin, it's the ideas that matter. "When we interview we want to see what your ideas are and how you communicate them," he says.Reuse content