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.