The Evolution of a Designer

As I progress in my advocacy of web accessibility, I’m noticing a sea change in what I consider myself professionally.

For the majority of my career, I’ve considered myself a “web designer”. While I’ve never felt my designs to be the most eye-popping, stunning masterpieces, I inherently put together visuals that are straightforward, clean and effective. Still, web design was my wheelhouse, and the subject of my strongest advocacy. Beautiful designs equalled great web sites.

Though it’s been out there for a few years now, I recently heard the quote from web design and standards luminary Jeffrey Zeldman:
“Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”

That sentiment is really sticking with me. Decoration.

I’ve been in the web/e-commerce industry for twelve years now. Now more than ever, I’m seeing that design is but a piece to the puzzle of an effective web site. A finished jigsaw puzzle reveals the whole picture; one solitary piece doesn’t.

Content is a key piece.
User experience is a key piece.
Accessibility (or more broadly, well-constructed, semantic markup) is a key piece.

I’ve too often watched content writing, user experience and accessibility get kicked to the curb. This isn’t always intentional — sometimes they get skipped to meet rushed deadlines. Sometimes it’s just ignorance to their value. “Make it beautiful and people will come!”

And so, I’ve seen designs that look absolutely phenomenal…but do not effectively tell me what the site is about. I’ve seen designs with brilliant visuals and sizzle…that are hard to navigate. I’ve listened to marketing folks harp that their site needs to be beautiful and “sexy” (a nauseating word to describe web sites)…but don’t take a single moment to actually listen to their users.

If a site has the greatest aesthetics in the world, but it doesn’t take into account its users, it’s a failure. At the end of the day, people — whether they are disabled or not — want to get where they need to go.

Design will always be part of who I am. But I’m no longer swayed simply by shiny objects and pretty pictures. Something beautiful constructed in Photoshop is great….but it better clearly show what the site is about, have clear-cut navigation, and elements that are important and logical to visitors. And it sure better not throw up obstacles to those with disabilities simply trying to get what they need.

Over the past year, I’ve found myself cutting down on the web design RSS feeds and replacing them with user experience ones. I’m not interested in the latest PhotoShop tips and tutorials. I’ll leave those for others — the most important thing to me now is advocating the union of design, user experience, content and accessibility, not focusing on simply decoration.

One thought on “The Evolution of a Designer

  1. Deb Pang Davis

    Steve,

    Just wanted to let you know that I stumbled upon your blog and find it very helpful. Thanks for putting accessibility in plain English or at least in digestible chunks!

    Your blog has made me think about how I can design better websites even when practicing Web Standards.

    Count me in as a subscriber.

    Deb

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