The Shifting Paradigm of Web Work

April 15 2013

Design­ers often explain their ori­gins in con­fer­ence bios, about pages, and inter­views, and they usu­ally sound some­thing like this:

I built my first site with Geocities/​Angelfire in 1999 all in
tables then read about Jef­fery Zeld­man and web stan­dards and blah
blah blah on and on.

Although I came in on the tail-end of that Inter­net era, my expe­ri­ence is sim­i­lar, as I learned about HTML and CSS by cus­tomiz­ing Xanga and Myspace themes while JT was singing in a five man Amer­i­can phenom known as N Sync.

After Justin started his solo career, I went to col­lege where everyone’s dream job involved work­ing in a design agency. In-house design work was seen as work to pay the bills. It was the means to an end, where the end was becom­ing a cre­ative direc­tor for a design agency.

For my first job after grad­u­a­tion, I was a Web Devel­oper” for a startup with a great idea and ter­ri­ble man­age­ment. Expe­ri­enc­ing an in-house dis­as­ter first-hand fur­ther solid­i­fied my hatred of being stuck in the sub­urbs of design, and pushed me over the edge for pur­su­ing a career in design agen­cies.

I left the in-house job, and over the next two and half years I worked for two agen­cies. One wasn’t so great, one was fan­tas­tic, but both had to even­tu­ally down­size because of low levels of client work. This wasn’t exactly the glam­orous ending I expected.

The Shift

These days, middle school, high school, and col­lege kids are being exposed to a shift­ing par­a­digm. Com­pa­nies like Face­book, Google, Twit­ter, Tumblr, Pin­ter­est, Drop­box, and we at Kalkomey are hiring full design and UX teams. No longer is the agency held in such high esteem as it used to be. The power play­ers such as Pen­ta­gram, Wolff Olins, and Mark Boul­ton Design are still going strong, but the number of bou­tique agen­cies com­prised of a hand­ful of tal­ented folks are drop­ping.

The kids who learned from Geoc­i­ties or Angelfire or Myspace, who per­haps pur­sued their agency dream, are now build­ing the appli­ca­tions which allow small-busi­ness owners to build and market their busi­ness inex­pen­sively or com­pletely free.

When Brit­ney was singing about get­ting hit one more time, a busi­ness owner would call a local agency and they would work together devel­op­ing a web­site, blog, mar­ket­ing mate­ri­als, etc. Now, the same busi­ness can start a Face­book page and a Twit­ter account for mar­ket­ing, a web­site on Square­space, Virb, or Word­press, and if they want an online shop, Big Cartel, Shopify, or Etsy will do the trick. 

These ser­vices have well-designed themes avail­able, and all can be set up in a matter of min­utes. In the past, agen­cies were nec­es­sary for busi­nesses because they had no other way to do it, but now with the surge of stel­lar in-house design­ers and devel­op­ers, a new busi­ness can get going quickly, easily, and cheaply. The per­fect tri­fecta. No agency needed.

How­ever, there is still hope for agen­cies, even small ones. High-qual­ity clients of all shapes and sizes are look­ing for high-qual­ity design work. These top-shelf busi­ness owners care about their busi­ness and will con­tact pro­fes­sion­als to do awe­some things. They aren’t look­ing for code mon­keys, they want pros. Free­lancers and small agen­cies should see inher­ently une­d­u­cated clients dis­ap­pear over time, while more long-term, knowl­edge­able clients rise to the top of the pile.

For young design­ers grow­ing up in the easily acces­si­ble world of smart phones, apps, and online code edu­ca­tion, there is less pres­sure to work for an agency, where his­tor­i­cally one learned to become a work­ing pro­fes­sional designer, and there is more empha­sis on work­ing for a spe­cific com­pany making a spe­cific prod­uct.

Soon enough, bios and about pages may read some­thing like this:

I got my start down­load­ing Xcode and build­ing my first app at 15,
which Face­book bought for a bajil­lion dol­lars. After work­ing for
them for a while, I went on to team up with Justin Tim­ber­lake
on some project… and he told me he was in a boy band, lol.