Future Job Prospects For Web Designers
There have been a couple of articles on Smashing Magazine that have generated quite a lot of interest over the last few days. Firstly there was the provocatively titled post "Does The Future Of The Internet Have Room For Web Designers?" and then the rebuttal "I Want To Be A Web Designer When I Grow Up". Both articles speculate on the future job prospects for web designers and while they both contain some interesting points and are worth taking on board, I don't think either deal with the most pressing issue that faces small web agencies and freelancers.
Client sectors: SME's or big brands?
Neither article is necessarily wrong, and my point mainly concerns the second of the two, specifically where the author says:
"…no company with any kind of budget would use a $49 packaged solution from Monster Template if it can afford to pay someone to address its particular needs and mold a website to its content."
The author uses Ford as an example of a company who would never give up their presence on a traditional website (i.e. ford.com) in favour of replacing it with a Facebook page or similar. This is true, and for the web designer, there will be always be jobs going in the in-house marketing departments of these huge companies.
The trouble is, for the vast majority web designers who work as freelancers or as part of a small team, our client base consists of small to medium sized businesses. Taking a quick look at the budget ranges of other local companies on a site like sortfolio.com confirms that most small web agencies or freelancers deal with budgets of under $10,000, and more typically much less than that. It’s these small clients paying $3-$5k that make up a lot of the “bread and butter” work for web designers, while the larger digital agencies (with a branding division) will suck up the clients with bigger budgets, where they act as an extension of the brand’s marketing department.
So while it is true that a company like Ford or another huge (or even largish) company will always have the budget for designing and building websites to meet their business objectives, smaller companies may well be tempted by template sites. And who can blame them; a lot of the templates out there do look pretty good these days, and a business leader from an SME might well be happy sacrificing a few of their online objectives to save themselves $4k or so.
End of the road for SME web design?
Well, no, I wouldn't go that far. But I would say if you’re currently pitching to the SME market, it’s going to get a whole lot tougher in the coming years as we get squeezed from both sides; digital agencies picking up the low hanging fruit and template sites and off-shore outsourcing picking up the SMEs. Not to mention the huge competition there is in our sector and possibly, as the first of the two articles speculates, that some small companies might not even bother with their own site and just use a Facebook page.
Having worked in the SME sector for the last eight years or so, I have witnessed first-hand the growing amount of work needed to win contracts. While back in 2003 a simple email and a link to our portfolio was enough to win over a client, now one must put together a full proposal, possibly attend a meeting or two and in some cases even *gasp* do speculative design work to get someone on board. All of which (apart from the spec design work) I don't grudge the client for in the slightest. Indeed it would be even better if the value of the projects had gone up with the amount of sales work involved, but that's not the case. What's more, the quality of the sites my agency and I produce now are of far higher quality than the sites I built eight years ago (experience is a wonderful thing!). So in short, we're now producing better quality work, spending more time on the projects (including sales and dev work) but without any increase in price.
"That's because you're a mug," I hear you say. ;-) Well, possibly; I don't claim to be any Richard Branson of business, but I'm certainly no slouch. I would say that all of this comes down to the reasons I mentioned above; that the client sector my agency and I have worked in for the last eight years is now experiencing huge competition; from other web design firms, from template sites, from offshoring etc.
Pass me the shotgun
No, don't do it! OK things can be tough, especially during the last recession hit year or so. But there are always new opportunities, and the key to staying in business (you are still solvent, right?) is to keep looking for new business avenues, diversify, keep up with web trends and continue battling up the client ladder to reach the low hanging fruit I mentioned earlier. It may mean you need to spend still more on sales work, but I think Yazz was right; the only way is up.
FURTHER READING: I highly recommend checking out this post by Chris LeCompte.