There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the future of web design. The emergence of platforms like Squarespace, Medium and The Grid have created the impression that design itself is no longer something anyone need pay for. It just happens, magically. Which is interesting because the real “magic” these platforms are offering is on the development side. What’s appealing about Squarespace is that you can build a website — even one with e-commerce, for goodness sake — without touching one line of code. That is brilliant. But it’s also terrifying for those who have made their living offering design and development services to those who couldn’t do it for themselves. Poof! Just went the buyer, worries the web designer. But is that really true?
The short answer is no.
Well, I suppose it depends upon a more nuanced look at who is buying and what is for sale. And you don’t get nuance without bravely sorting through a tangled, scary mess. Nuance is inside Pandora’s box.
But here’s a scary thought: Once we’ve exposed our concepts of buyer and product to questioning, we might as well ask whether we’re in the right market to begin with. That, in this case, is the most important question.
First, let’s deal with the easy part. What we’re selling. Or, perhaps better put, what we’re not selling.
We Don’t Sell Websites Anymore
A few weeks ago, a tweet from Jeffrey Zeldman caught my attention. He said:
“With @Squarespace commercials on TV, YouTube, and every taxicab in NYC, has web design become a commodity?”
I immediately felt his point. Just about every podcast I listen to is sponsored by Squarespace. I don’t go a day without hearing that name.
“I don’t think print-on-demand has commoditized books. So, I don’t think Squarespace will commoditize web design… It’s just another tool that makes a website within reach for many more people, which is probably a good thing… Meanwhile, companies like mine & yours will continue to do larger, custom work for those who need more than what Squarespace does.”
My conclusion is that what looks like the commoditization of web design is just the commoditization of websites. Let me explain the difference.
For just a moment, forget about websites. Think about hamburgers. You would probably agree if I said that fast food joints, like McDonalds, have commoditized the hamburger. But I don’t think even that is true. And neither do you. Think about it. Picture a McDonalds hamburger. I mean picture the real thing, the one you actually get. Focus on that. In your mind, that burger went from this to this — from that juicy, straight off the grill, beautiful, delicious ideal to, well, something much less appealing. In fact, you might even say that the McDonalds burger is barely a burger at all. Let’s call it a “burger.” Kind of like how Pizza Hut sells “pizza” or Budweiser sells “beer.” If you have even the slightest respect for the tastebud, you’ll acknowledge the difference. It may seem pedantic, but it’s profound. Because in commoditizing the “burger,” the fast food industry has created an enormous demand for the real thing. And the real burger can’t be offered at the same scale and the same price as the “burger.” Within walking distance of my office, I can buy a “burger” from McDonalds for $1, or a real burger starting at $4.75 from this place, $5.75 from this place or $7.50 from this place. All three of those McDonalds alternatives serve burgers made from fresh, locally sourced beef — which is why they can offer them served medium-rare, if that’s what you prefer — and other locally sourced ingredients, which, of course, is why they are between four and 10 times the price. And guess what? Walk in to any of those places at noon, and you’ll see a packed house and a line out the door. At McDonalds? Step right up.
What looks like the commoditization of web design is actually the commoditization of websites.
McDonalds may sell the most “burgers,” but by reducing the burger to a fast, cheap, and easy symbol, they’ve opened up a wide chasm in the burger industry that only the smaller, more expensive businesses can fill.
If you haven’t already figured out my perspective on things like Squarespace, let me spell it out for you. Just as McDonalds has put the “burger” within reach of anyone with a dollar, Squarespace has put the website within reach of anyone with an email account and $76 dollars. But to do that, Squarespace has had to reduce the website to something it can offer consistently at high volume. That means a baseline of functionality that will serve many people very well, but little flexibility or scalability beyond that.
For millions of people who would never have been able to afford to have a website of their own, Squarespace is there. For millions of people who would never have had the interest, time or patience to dig in to the code and turn a free WordPress install into their own website, Squarespace is there. They’ve created software (very good software, I must say) that makes customizing the basics of a website — adding pages, arranging content and changing the style of that content — as easy as clicking a button or dragging and dropping something in place. What they’re offering is beyond satisfactory to those who couldn’t have done it for themselves — or paid someone else to do it for them — five years ago. If that is your client, then I suppose you should be afraid of Squarespace.
Today, the majority of CMS-driven websites are powered by WordPress — a CMS that has also turned in to a general-purpose web development platform. Developers love it because it’s open source. They can build tools with it, tools that they can use to build other things, share to let other people build things, or sell to people who want to build things too. But five years from now, the majority of websites will be powered by Squarespace or something like it: a platform that collapses content management and web development into one, abstracted software experience. This is because the Squarespaces of the world are putting websites within reach of more people, not because no one will be paying for web design services five years from now.
We Don’t Even Sell Web Design Anymore… Which is a Good Thing Because No One Thinks They’re Buying It
Just a few days after my Twitter exchange with Jeffrey Zeldman, I finally got around to reading a post on Medium by Greg Storey, one of his former partners at Happy Cog. Greg spends a good bit of his article, titled, The Future of the Web Design Agency in the United States, wrangling with what the “web design” industry even is. I think that wrangling is pretty appropriate, given the condition of the industry and some of the factors that he explains in his piece. He refers to some interesting data on where growth is being reported, though what remains are more questions about what types of services actually represent that growth, and what that means for the “web design” industry — if there even is an industry that goes by that name anymore. It’s here that one of Greg’s conclusions is spot on: “It’s clear that the design agency, client services, (whatever you want to call it), is far from dead or dying, but it is evolving quickly.” But what disappointed me was Greg’s ultimate conclusion. He lists out several types of services that were ranked by respondents of a 2014 survey on digital spending — including things like content marketing, social media, mobile optimization and the like — and rather than identifying that these requirements are facets of a meaningful shift in the marketplace (and the blending of design and marketing in general, but that’s another article), he concludes that these are simply new jargon for the same old thing. He writes:
“Market demands are always evolving, but sometimes in title alone. Unfortunately our industry has a social popularity driven desire to come up with new names for the old things. I’m not an advocate for chasing the new, but if clients are looking for UX and you’re insistent upon selling IA, then be prepared to lose opportunities.”
Unfortunately, I think that’s simply incorrect. There are several trends which have profoundly changed the direction of our business, some of which have introduced entirely new disciplines and services to our repertoire which are not at all just new names for old things. They are absolutely new things which we hadn’t done before, nor had we been asked to do. We decided to do them because we believed that without doing them, we couldn’t lead our clients to the outcomes we’d always promised. About that, Greg ends his piece with this thought:
“Clients may not always seek design services specifically, but what they are looking for still requires good design to succeed. Businesses don’t have to continually re-invent themselves, but, perhaps change the semantics of what they offer.”
About the first thing, I absolutely agree. That design is a central component of so much more than is traditionally considered under the umbrella of “Design” has always been frustrating to designers. But that its centrality is being recognized more and more is something we can all celebrate. Even when it introduces competition. But the second thing seems like the exact opposite conclusion to make in light of this realization. Re-invention is the engine of business. It’s the thing that keeps it going. Reinvention puts the compete in competition. Therefore, it is necessary. And let’s be honest, reinvention is a form of design.
When I finished reading Greg’s article, I finally realized why I’ve never understood a couple of subjects that continually fill my inbox, Twitter feed and to-read list: The hand-wringing about design commoditization and the excitement over responsive design. It’s because the former is a manifestation of thinking about design business wrong, and the latter is a distraction that only makes people more prone to thinking about design business wrong. Too many design businesses went belly-up after redefining themselves around social media. It was new, then it wasn’t anymore. People figured it out. I think the same thing is going to happen with responsive design. Is happening, in fact.
Five years from now, a whole lot of web people are going to feel like fools for spending so much time fussing over how pages look on phones and no time thinking about how the data got on the page.
Look, I know that sounds harsh, but I’ve been saying that front-end web design is becoming commoditized for so long — and pointing to things like Macaw or Squarespace or whatever — but meanwhile, an entire web design industry has sprung up around making designers feel bad about themselves because they don’t know how to write a media query in CSS. But so what? There are already tools out there that make it so they don’t have to. So that they can go back to what they really want to do and leave the translating to the machines. Or, better yet, use the time they would have spent painstakingly learning markup — in order to translate how things look to machine language — to learn the bigger picture of how things work instead. Of how information gets from there to here. Because it’s that information which makes up the pages we’re so worried about looking nice on our phones. I feel like I’ve been watching my industry run around offering better buckets in a leaky house. Forget the buckets. Where is the water coming from? This is why the future of the web is information logistics. Is solving that a job for design? Absolutely, even if no one uses that word enough for your liking.
A Recipe for Future Business
There are only two things that matter to the success of a design business:
- Technological leadership
- Customer service
You cannot have one without the other. Responsive design, for example, is not technological leadership. It is technological management. Management is dealing with complexity. Leadership is dealing with change. Management is the solution to the problems before you. Leadership is the solution to future problems. Management is expected. Leadership is desired. And that’s where customer service comes in. Squarespace, The Grid, et al are technological management without real customer service. And since they all offer “customer service” in some form or another, I’d better define what I mean by customer service. Customer service is not the line you call when you have a problem. Customer service that matters — the kind that will save your business — is the person you call to help define the problem. Customer service is the leader at the other end of the line.
If you prioritize technological leadership, then many of your services — your forms of technological management — will change over the lifetime of your business. They must. Because if you are providing leadership, then you are helping your client navigate change. If you prioritize customer service, then your client will continue to depend upon your leadership because they will have experienced your brilliance and insight and business acumen, yes, but more importantly, your care. You can earn trust by being right enough times in a row and you can earn it by being empathetic. But one is more powerful and lasting than the other. Can you guess which? A business that lasts keeps them in proper balance.
A brief endnote: I wrote this over the weekend after taking some time to finally sort through the many signals in the noise of this current conversation. And just this morning, I was excited to receive an email from Blair Enns, whom I respect abundantly, on this same subject. He’s got his own opinion on these matters, which I encourage you to read, but I’m glad to once again see it’s not far from my own.