SXSW Recap – My Title is Web Designer, Now What?

I just got back from Austin yesterday after my first ever SXSWi experience. It definitely lived up to all the stories and warnings I’d heard, but it was also a great time.

The highlight for me, of course, was a successful session on Monday afternoon. I’ll admit, Chris and I weren’t 100% sure what we were getting into with the discussion format, but we were really happy with the result. Thanks to our audience for being so awesome and being great discussion participants!

I used the fancypants “iPhone on the floor” trick to record our session specifically so I could summarize the discussion when I got back. Turns out I had the perfect amount of time on the flight home to do some transcribing and summarizing!

We covered a lot of ground in an hour and some really great points were brought up. The “short” version of the discussion is below. I’ve pulled out the main questions we addressed and summarized what we — meaning the two of us and our awesome audience — came up with for each.

Both Chris and I are always happy to continue the discussion anytime: @ccashdollar & @vlh.

My Title is Web Designer, Now What?

Our motivation for choosing this topic was a common thread we observed throughout a number of conversations we’d had with various colleagues and friends. Very similar concerns relating to our industry and their role as a designer kept coming up. But everyone seemed to think they were the only one with these concerns. Not true, of course! So we wanted to get a discussion going with a larger group to address some of these issues.

Despite the fact that we all call ourselves web designers, we tend to come from very different backgrounds to arrive at this career choice. Case in point: the two of us leading this discussion. Chris is very much a design specialist, while Val is definitely in the generalist category.

Our main points we wanted to address

The main points we had planned to discuss were the concept of the designer’s toolbox, and how we can future proof ourselves as designers.

If you had to pick one thing, what’s the most important thing in a web designers tool box?

We posed this question to the group. We wanted to know what everyone felt was most important. Very interesting to see that nothing software specific made it to the list, isn’t it?

  • A good eye (have it and refine it, can’t be entirely learned)
  • Communicating efficiently
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem solving skills
  • Understanding the WHY of what you’re working on/creating
  • Passion (a certain thing, that you love to do what you do. there will always be someone better, but if you love what you do, it will carry you though)
  • Ability to adapt (to your team/situation)
  • Patience (to explain details and things to clients why you did what you did…)
  • Original ideas (and yes, we all worry all the time that we’ll run out of ideas all the time!!)
  • Work ethic (a fear of becoming complacent like they’ve noticed some co-workers are)

A little bit on design process…

This got us talking a bit about process. We compared our various experiences with both successful and unsuccessful design processes:

We all agreed that having the people who are doing the work talking directly to the clients is the best way to get things done well.

Establishing a common design language and expectations were also high up on the list of what made for a good process.

Chis gave us a great summary of the questionnaires happy cog uses to help establish common terminology and finding out what everyone is thinking. More on that can be found at (thanks, Kevin!)

Another popular suggestion was to add visuals to your kick off meeting – like a photo scavenger hunt or mood bards created with the client.

Design Sherpas & How you find them…

Our discussion turned to questioning how we can improve as designers. Obviously, we all want to be better tomorrow than we are right now. Design Sherpas, or mentors, play a huge role in helping us improve. We talked a bit about how to find them.

Using the internet to find advice and to find industry leaders who will answer your questions to help with the information anxiety.

Seeking out local designer focused gatherings or user groups to find other industry folks who can answer your questions.

Humbleness is important – we should be honest about not knowing everything ourselves and keep that willingness to learn. (This includes being open about that with your clients)
Uur industry changes so much, no one knows how to do everything

Find someone who’s work you admire and reach out to them, they’ll probably actually answer, honest!

(Side note: Everyone here had at some point reached out to someone they respected in the industry and were surprised that they got a response. But we’d all do the same thing if we were the ones being asked, so why is that so surprising?)

How do we “future proof” ourselves? How do you stop from getting to comfortable and keep improving?

Project postmortems help with that and she does her own personal postmortem too. so she knows what to work on next time (to help yourself improve)

In our industry, feeling comfortable is a very scary thing.

Find a side project to challenge yourself or your team using something you’re not familiar with currently.

Break it down into smaller questions, try new things on a micro level. look at something differently every day, try one small new thing, those little things add up and makes it easier to accomplish – baby steps

Education is important for what we do…
Talking about future proofing invariably brought us to the topic of education and the next generation of designers:

If we can get involved in education earlier, we can hopefully start training future web designers to understand education earlier, we’re moving more to wards interface design than just web design. how do we get the future generation of web designer to think of what it is they’ll need to be prepared to do.

It’s important to go back and offer help to make education better
working with up and coming designers is a benefit for you too, giving back will benefit you as well . Teaching is very rewarding.

One last question – Are we okay with the title web designer? do we need a new title?

Interestingly enough, most of us said no. I know I’m not. Someone suggested the title of designer instead and it seemed like most folks were on board. Is there something even better we could be using?

In Conclusion…

Wow, we covered a whole lot of ground in just about an hour, so Chris and I did our best to summarize the main themes throughout the discussion:

We’re all coming from very different background, but we all share the same anxieties and insecurities when it comes to the future and keeping up. It seems like our solution right now, is to talk to people a lot, bribe your smart friends to share their knowledge, and give back to the community.

Have a comment or question? Find me on twitter or email me.