5 Harsh Truths about Web Design firms

This entry was published on 28 March 2009 and may be out of date.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

Comments are closed.

44 responses to “5 Harsh Truths about Web Design firms

  1. Excellent article and sums up my feelings from the past few years of working within the web development industry.

    Fortunately I’m in a position now working for a development company who are aware of accessibility and web standards and who expect websites that are built to follow all guidelines which I’m sad to say isn’t the case for the majority of development companies.

    I definitely think there can be a cross over in skills to some extent though (I come from an art background but am now an expert in HTML/CSS and have a decent understanding of programming languages for example), but I do agree that there are plenty of cases where programmers fail to grasp the concept of design or CSS and result to bad practices but there are some exceptions to the rule.

  2. Just like with restaurants – I am always suspicious when they offer sushi, pasta, burgers and thai at the same time – I am very wary of people who claim they can code well and design just as well (and by coding I mean programming, php, javascript… even actionscript can be a lot tricky to excellent designers).

    But all I see around these firms is “wanted, web ninja who can design, xhtml, css, php, jquery and actionscript. and you have to do it… blindfolded.” It gets on my nerves!

    Excellent article.

  3. Great article, very valid points. I feel trapped in the middle between design and development – if I do one thing all the time, I get bored, so I enjoy the diversity of sometimes designing and sometimes writing SQL stored procedures and server-side functions. I certainly don’t claim to be a genius, but I genuinely want to master as many of the different aspects of web design and development as possible. I’ve found that this puts in me a predicament for prospective employers – they want either a designer or a developer, but they ignore what I feel am I best at – front-end development.

  4. As a web application programmer myself, I have a really difficult time trying to explain to clients that I’m not a designer, that I don’t have an artistic background outside of music, and my designs tend to be boxy and dull. I’m going to have to steal your menu analogy, Vivianne; maybe that’ll help me get the message across.

  5. @Gabe: I felt the same way for years. Started off with PHP and but drifted more and more towards design. Years later, I dropped PHP altogether and decided I’ll focus on UI design design because I feel I’m a visual person.

    Front-End Developers are the most underappreciated people in the industry.

    @David: They just want you to do everything don’t they? Why would anyone need more than one person to “make a website”?

  6. I agree with you on all the points except for 5. This isn’t to say that I don’t try to make sure my code validates, cause I do, but there are cases where standards don’t matter. This could ALL be fixed if browsers would be designed to handle standards in the SAME way. Microsoft is a huge culprit of this. You have to use hacks to get your pages to work on IE6, and you have to worry about IE6 because Windows 2000 derived OS’s don’t allow for IE7.

    Validation and standards are great for trouble shooting, but if you want to throw in some CSS3 to make your page more aesthetically pleasing to those of us that have a CSS3 capable browser, why not? CSS3 won’t validate!

    1. Brett, true that CSS3 won’t validate (because the Jigsaw Validator uses CSS Spec 2.1) but my point was that most developers use ugly hacks to fix things rather than taking precautionary measures to avoid hacks and doing things the right way.

      I just checked out the validator. Even advanced Attribute Selectors in CSS3 validates!

  7. Great article. I’ve been doing this since 1996 and I’ve never had a single boss who has really cared about the quality of the front-end code. In my experience, the only people who have really cared about that is other front-enders – and even then, not all of them.

    Also, most places don’t even do code reviews.

    In regards to design, I’ve also never worked anywhere where:

    1) There was enough time for design.
    2) There was NO time to consider a design (to think about alternate solutions which may be better).
    3) There was not enough time to refine a design.

    Also, most employers, IMO are not empathetic to their end-users, even those who claim to be user-centered design shops.

  8. Very good summary of some definite “harsh truths”. I especially liked #3. I often spend extra time on web standards and validation, often going over budget.

    But regarding #2, I don’t think it’s necessary for the graphic designer to have any HTML coding abilities at all. I work for one of the top web development companies in Canada, and our lead designer doesn’t know a single piece of HTML code. Because of 12 of years of experience designing for the web, he’s learned what can and can’t be done, and what is too complicated to reproduce. I think a print designer needs to just be willing to make progress in his thinking and not insist on living in the past. And I honestly don’t think that basic knowledge of HTML will help him understand about complexities in layouts and graphical possibilities.

    Excellent article though, thank you.

    1. @Louis. You’re lucky you have such a designer. I have worked with designers who just jumped the ship from Print design to web. I had to continuously tell them what can and can’t be done.

  9. I agree with your post. In our little Mom ‘n Pop firm, my wife is the designer and I’m the front end guy. She knows the basics of coding so can follow me when I talk about why something won’t work when translated to code. I know the basics of design so that I quickly get why she does the things she does. Neither of us would be very effective doing it all – just as you’ve so aptly pointed out here. [smile]

  10. @Harmony. Well said. People are indeed after making money rather than creating good looking, usable, accessible websites.

    The industry has matured a lot since I started off. Some people have realized that it is a vastly complex field but we still have a long way to go.

    @everyone. Thanks for all the feedback. Much appreciated.

  11. Wow, you read my mind! I plan to refer potential clients to this blog post when they start asking why my firm can’t build their site for $500.

    Excellent post, thank you!

  12. Well said, completely agree and experience these things in my office. Although with point no.3 we dont normally compromise on the things you listed but cuts are made in other areas – particularly in the testing area!


    Thanks for your write up, you really tell it like it is.

  13. Great article, design firms are precisely why I got a job in Government! They really are just awful and driven 100% by the bottom line cost.

    Like you I remember implementing hacks just to get the job out the door on time and not have to put in yet *another* 9pm finish time.

    The trouble is many young designers just starting out have to work for these places until they’re experienced enough to get a job with a (rare!) good design firm, big company, or start out on their own. It seems to be a painful and unavoidable initiation ritual in our field.

    “Got any other ideas why, despite having more web design firms than kebab shops, the state of the web is so poor?”

    – The web has been driven for far too long by people far more interested in making money than making information accessible

    – It’s still such a young industry, only now really coming into it’s own and being recognised as a complex field requiring multiple disciplines (web designer, web developer, web content writer, information architect, accessibility consultant, project manager, etc)

    – I think there’s still a mentality among old-school management from the days of yore that web design is akin to desktop publishing and anyone can do it… you just need Microsoft Publisher right?? (*joke*)

    – Harmony

  14. I’m a little guilty of being #1 but that’s because I’m self employed and it’s just me here.

    That said if I need a specialist I’ll get one. Rght tool, for right job.

    Not that I’m calling specialists tools 🙂

    The worst of the 5 is #2, print designers in web.

    Not only do they make crap heavy sites they actually think they are better than you because “hey I dont even do web an I managed it”

    No you didnt, you made a pretty picture then left some poor sod to “manage it”.

  15. @Steve Firth – that’s a great point. I love when they get that air about them – “Oh, anyone can do it, I did it and I’ve never even been trained in web design. Why do they even pay you?” And good luck having the “fonts on the web” discussion with that guy…

  16. Great post! I’m only a #1 because my employer makes me so… but I try to avoid being a total #1. I often find myself the consultant for things as diverse as modifying server configurations, managing databases, etc., even though I mostly work on design and UI (although some of my own websites would make it seem otherwise!).

  17. At least you get to design. I feel more like a web EMT. At my job I get passed these $100,000 flash websites that barely work or suck to manage. Its is then my job to either “de-flash” them with jQuery or at least dust bust the code.
    Even though I was hired to design, I just end up pollishing html & css turds all day. I wish I knew how to develop iPhone apps. Then I could be found chilling on an island thanks to a $1M Fart app.

  18. Several of those are applicable to the public service web design teams as well… particularly the revenue vs cost and the lack of freedom parts of the article.

    But I’d add this one: having generic project managers that don’t understand the web is a nightmare, too. The public service here usually has these generic managers, so five experts enter a room and in 2 minutes the non-expert says this and that goes ahead, and x and y don’t. So particularly bad decisions are often made…. that team produced 30,000 dollar set of five wireframes for a public sector small historic tourist site and not a line of code written yet… and projects run years over budget and time.

    Nice article, good points.

  19. @Steve, @Gabe: Very true. It is hard to tell a designer that he only use a handful of fonts for body copy. They would use fancy fonts everywhere if they could.

    @Steven: I see project managers as those who are not smart enough to be in real-world business and not creative enough to go to art school.

    I have seen to much time wasted on functional specs and wireframes. Everybody in the industry needs to read the book from 37signal: Getting Real.

  20. Good article – I feel the pain too ;~)
    Where I work, it’s like – “dude – why is that header 1400 wide make it 980 etc…” or “man… this psd is off center and at 300dpi”. ughhhh

    As a guy that chops the PSD and makes the site, you gotta look over people’s (designer’s) shoulders from time to time, or ask them to send screenshots no matter what stage it’s in – so you can point out the glaring issues at least, before it’s turned over to me entirely, then it’s MY problem. Also I have the luxury of being able to overhear functional requirements as the site is being wireframed on paper. Some of it (what I call unneeded fluff) I can head off, some of it is cool and useful/functional, some of it is dumped for a better way or just dumped altogether as a bad idea or adding little value. I do the SEO too, and regardless of what you may hear, the design (structural design) matters a lot.
    ~ Jim

  21. Overall a good article and some valid points. I’d have to go with Steve Firth – I am definitely #1 and bring in experts as and when needed as I am constantly tring to improve my skills. However…

    …I have targeted (rightly or wrongly) the lower end of the market as there appear to be a lot of agencies out there starting at £2,000+ for a site.

    Now whilst I completely agree they are probably worth it, there are a lot of small start up businesses that simply cannot afford it. Are we then saying they should not have a site because they cannot afford a “proper” design company?

    The advantage of being a “jack-of-all-trades” is that the client has 1 person to speak to as having a website built can often be daunting for them – and yes it also means being able to keep the cost down.

    This means they often get a good ROI on their site which then gives them more money to spend on expanding the site – or even moving to an agency, when finances allow.

    I have to say I do disagree your following comment:

    “@Harmony. Well said. People are indeed after making money rather than creating good looking, usable, accessible websites”

    If you mean web agencies cutting corners to make more money then fair enough, however for the small shop that is struggling to stay afloat at the moment, making money and staying in business has got to be their main priority.

  22. As an asides, I was involved with a project with an agency (I was with the client side) and they produced a site that looked awful in IE.

    On questioning them about it we got told matter of factly “well it works okay in Firefox”.

  23. Stumbled & Dugg! Great article!

    You have hit the nail on the head about Print firms offering web design, I come across many businesses who in there own words ‘now offer web design!!’ unfortunately they have no idea of the mechanics behind the web and churn out PSD to HTML website that are not standard compliant and not cross browser compatible.

    As to design by committee – dont get me started!
    the hassle and the stress of re-designing a good design because they have it in their head that light grey text on white back ground IS a good idea or that black backgrounds with white text is legible.

    As to your idea of ‘jack of all trades’ I partly agree, I personally am more of a designer than out an out coder. However Im proficient in HTML & CSS and have a good general knowledge of PHP which is enough for simple applications but for anything more complex I get my PHP developer to do it.
    I think that in order to be a good web designer you need to be aware of the main programming languages and have a general understanding of what they do, that way you can make sure you use the most appropriate language for the website & not limit its intended functions.
    And if you dont have the skills on site – get a good freelancer to do that part for you.

  24. Interesting points, especially about not just code quality but of specializing.

    I’m a developer who’s also a product photographer, I went to art school but I’m loathe to do design work that has to get past lots of committees, that burned me out years ago and made me into a developer. Once upon a time I was a CS major before art school, so that came in handy.

    The PSD to HTML issue is a good way to start speaking about how the waterfall methodology should drown a painful death. Why? The marketing driven process that’s inherited from the print world is a major problem even if nobody thinks it is.

    OLD WAY:
    1. marketing people talk
    2. needs are decided
    3. photoshop comps designed (maybe some feedback, but not much)
    4. client signs off on photoshop comps, expecting site to look exactly like that.
    5. PSD files given to developer who gasps and says “wait, this won’t work here” or “AJAX won’t get you from here to there” or whatever
    6. Designer and developer go over things, account people wonder what’s taking so damn long, everyone tries to paper over things without calling the client.
    7. client wonders what’s taking so long, calls
    8. UH OH! meeting called, client, developer, account people all sit around and prove how they live on different planets

  25. You blame this all mostly on the employers (the companies) but that’s not completely fair. Web development and design is, like everything else, a matter of supply and demand. There simply isn’t much demand for the kind of quality that us web developers / designers CAN provide. It’s like offering a computer that is guaranteed to work for a 100 years by using top notch components. Cool? Yep. Does anyone ask for it? Nope. Throw-away products are good enough for everyone. Same thing goes for websites.

    Even though I’m a standards advocate myself I think what we’re trying to sell isn’t deemed relevant by 99% of the clients. And it’s getting worse. I blogged about these issues a while ago in my article The Death of Web Development and Design, and what to do next.

    Finally, I see myself as kind of a Jack of all Trades guy and I like to think my stuff doesn’t suck in any department…

  26. I disagree with #1, though slightly.

    You are correct that students won’t be up to the task, but I’ve worked with amazing designers who eventually master CSS and PHP. It’s really not that hard – code is poetry, after all.

    If you look at a population of seasoned professionals who have been working in our field for more than a decade, you are likely to find the exception to your statement that people can’t be great at both. They can. And I’ve met some great hybrid designer/developers. They are smart, savvy, motivated and talented.

  27. @Marco: It is true that standards compliant and accessible code is not relevant to 99% of the clients. But I don’t think that developers should write bad code because the client doesn’t care. That is exactly the kind of attitude that made the web such a mess.

    @spazticus: Off course there are exceptions. There are some exceptional people who are extraordinary designers as well as developers. Take Shaun Inman for example. They are a rare breed.

  28. @Azad: I never said developers should write bad code. I AM saying that crappy coders get by just fine because 99% of the clients are perfectly happy with what they produce. This means that ‘Our company produces excellent semantic and valid markup and CSS’ is hardly a selling point these days.

    ‘We’ll get your site done in 48 hours and for only $300’ works a lot better.

    Hope my point comes across more clear now 🙂

  29. Amazing.
    This is absolutely nothing like the web firm I work for.
    What kind of craptastic companies are you talking about?

    Maybe my firm is different because we are considered “Premium”, but never has anyone ever written a site in tables, without a stylesheet or ignored webstandards with their code. SEO and W3C is part of the package.

    We’ve never hired a print designer for the creative team. We have fired a lot of creative for being terrible. Oh and we have a creative team, which is a bunch of designers who for the love of all things, are not allowed to touch code. 2 times a month we meet with them and explain new web conventions, of what we can now do with javascript that they can think about when they make their design, but they don’t have to actually learn anything other than what a grid system is. (& I’ve noticed when we outsource to design only firms.. most of them don’t know what a grid is)

    IDevs are the ones who code everything and are the jack of all trades. We also do user testing, information architecture, and sometimes creative on smaller projects only if the iDev has a creative background.

    For anyone who is thinking about working for a design firm, don’t be discouraged by this article. Do your research on the firm you’re applying to first. If their portfolio is full of boring crap and ugly code, don’t apply there.

  30. A network of developers is important for delivering good work because as this article states, many companies lack the technical expertise to deliver a good product.

    Whenever I spec out a project, I factor in the need to include people who are strong in HTML/CSS and other good with databases and programming. Even with programming, some people are better at debugging than creative development.

    If I cannot get people to work on the specific areas of their expertise I will either delay the project or cancel it. There is nothing worse than delivering substandard work for which the client will hound you and from which your own reputation will go down the drain.

  31. Excellent article. Design and development are two separate skillsets and individuals who claim to be a jack-of-all-trades are guaranteed to fall short. Even if they have considerable skills in each area, with how fast the industry is evolving, it’s just a matter of time before their skills continue to depreciate in a job where specialized skillsets in each area will always deliver better results.