5 Harsh Truths about Web Design firms

This entry was published on March 28, 2009 and may be out of date.

Having worked for several Web Design firms in the past few years, I have come to realize why the state of the web is so poor when it comes to design, compliance to web standards and accessibility. There are very few good looking websites (as showcased by sites such as cssbeauty, cssmania, etc) and even fewer truely standards-compliant and accessible sites.

Here are a few things that I have experienced myself and why I think most websites are, for lack of a better word, crap.

1.The Jack Of All Trade guys

As seen on most Job Search websites, the expectation from a “web designer” is far too high. Most web-design firms expect one single person to be an expert on Photoshop, HTML/CSS, Javascript, Flash and even PHP/Perl/ASP (and every other conceivable programming language in the world).

People who claim to be experts on all of the above mentioned subjects are not being truthful. The truth is that you would have to be some sort of a prodigious genius to be good in Design, Front-End and Back-End development all at the same time.

What most companies do not realize is that the web is a very complex field and somebody who designs websites is probably is an artistic person. It is very unlikely that proper designers (by proper I mean those who have been to art school) know how to write code. Same argument goes for programmers, since they are logical problem solvers not visual people.

I am in favor of designers who know the possibilities and limits of the web and possibly know how to code HTML and CSS, but if they are too technical, their designs tend to be boxy and dull.

Someone who claims to be the jack of all trades is perhaps mediocre in both design and programming. The output they produce can only be mediocre at best.

2. Print designers designing websites

The problem here is that print designers fail to differentiate between print and web media. As a result, the output they produce contain non-web fonts (which leads to an excessive use of images), design patterns that become nightmares for developers, etc.

It is really terribly easy to mock up something that looks pretty but is impractical for implementation. Something that looks cutting edge but is a nightmare to implement. Their lack of understanding of usability and implementation issues result in good looking PSD layouts which turn into awful, half-baked websites.

In my opinion, every “web designer” should be able to code HTML and CSS at least on a basic level. I am not talking about being a front-end wizard but just enough know-how on the way the web works.

3. It is a matter of Revenue vs Cost

Standards compliance and accessibility take second place in terms of priority to the cost of production. It is absolutely vital to reduce the number of days it takes to design and develop a website in order to maximize profit from a project. Which usually translates to the following things:

– No stylesheet for print or handheld
– Use of tables when floats get too complicated
– Use of CSS hacks to “make it work”
– No time to validate markup or style
– Bad browser support (As long as it works on IE, we’re fine.)

It is a sad reality that the quality of code, cross-browser support and accessibility issues are compromised for achieving cost-effectiveness.

4. Designers lack creative freedom

The Managing Director does not like green, or Chairman is not very fond of Georgia. Designers have to deal with asinine change requests from both their own managers and the client. In my experience, very few designs get approved without getting amended countless times before turning into an ugly bastard cousin of the original design.

5. Little concern for web standards

Very few Web Design Agency or Online Marketing firms employ a Front-End specialist for the HTML, CSS and Javascript. Developers usually take a “just make it work” attitude towards front-end coding. Getting it done fast is what matters, even if it means having to add non-standard attributes and ugly CSS hacks that do not validate.

I have to confess that I, myself have used ugly hacks just to “make it work” within the project deadline. I did have have time to research the actual cause of the issue and find a proper way to solve it. I knew it wouldn’t validate but I had to get it done in a short period of time.

Once again, the matter of cost-effectiveness arises here. Doing something the standards-compliant way usually takes more time and effort on the developer’s part. It is rather difficult to stick to the web-standards wagon when deadlines are tight, even for standards-conscious developers.

It is not a surprise to find table-infected, non-standard code coming out of even the biggest design firms.


The truth is that most web design firms are run by marketing professionals who diversified their product range by starting to offer web design solutions. Lacking the technical expertise, they hire the wrong guys for the job and output is often horrendous.

Got any other ideas why, despite having more web design firms than kebab shops, most web design firms produce half-baked websites?