Role Semantics

posted on February 9th, 2012 by Anthony

Ronseal - It does exactly what it says on the tin.

I have to admit that I started this post in September last year and it has been in my drafts ever since. However the esteemed Cole Henley has given me a kick up the backside to get it finished by posting a wonderful piece tackling his Web Designer issues. Then there was James Young’s response to Cole’s musings that are an equally good read about his acceptance of the title.

If the following is a bit disjointed – it’s their fault OK?

Human Nature

Over the past 18 months, or so, there has been a definite change in the attitude of our industry. One of the major shifts being to finally realise that we are an industry, and a pretty important industry at that.

There has been a move to more deep, theoretical thinking. Keeping an eye on the future, thinking about how we can approach things better. There have been calls for craftsmanship, for better defining our lexicon, and for making our work more platform agnostic. All wonderful mind filing stuff.

However, one of the most frequent topics of discussion – as stupid and as pointless as it sounds – is that of job titles.

And it does sound stupid. And petty… and it is.

But it does matter.

Jon Tan’s recent post is one example of why it matters. Your job title says a lot about you. It’s often one of the first things someone will find out about you, and with that piece of information a myriad of pictures are drawn in their mind. Stereotypical personalities are conjured up and your face is copy and pasted on to the body like a cut out paper doll from an old children’s magazine.

It’s human nature.

We should all be able to deal with people making snap decisions like that and chalk it up to them being dicks. We should just be able to get on with the job we love. We should just be out ‘doing it’. But it does matter, we all like to accepted, and when someone looks down on what you do – especially when you love it – it hurts.

It’s human nature.

I am a Web Designer

Web designer. A job title that says everything, and nothing at the same time. It can often pose more questions than it actually answers.

I started fiddling about with the internet back in 1997 and I’ve been doing it ever since. I haven’t trained as something else and moved professions, I have been a Web Designer for all of my adult life. I love doing it, and I feel truly privileged to be able to do it professionally.

I’ve just had a quick look on Authentic Jobs, here are a few examples of the roles being advertised that cover skills I believe you would expect a Web Designer to have (excluding stupid titles that have words like Ninja, Rock Star or Guru):

For this industry I am relatively old, I’m practically a veteran – it feels very weird to be typing that at the age of 32. Seeing roles being so sharply focussed like that leaves me in two minds.

Specific job titles like those fill me with a feeling of mildly unnerving inadequacy. I’ve been a Web Designer all my life. I’ve not been to UX school. I haven’t had any specific UI training. Am I becoming a luddite stuck in my Jack-of-all-trades role? Am I old fashioned?

But then I can look at that list and think, yeah I do all of that, I’ve been doing them all of my career. UI is the crux of web design. Surely? Certainly a website without a user interface of some kind is certainly going to be… interesting. Is it really a separate skill? Visual web designer? How how do you do that without some semblance of UI?

Then there is UX, undoubtably a massively important discipline, but one that is as hard to pin down as it is to achieve good examples. It’s a term bandied about by people all over the industry often, I suspect, without knowing what it really entails. It’s a term that’s almost scary to traditional web designers like me. It’s taken on an almost mythical aura. A factor that must contribute to the fact that an attractive employer such as Clearleft have seemingly struggled to fill a UX post for months.

Job Title Markup Language 2 (Release Candidate)

I’ve gone round in circles here, so I’ve come up with a contrived, silly, but effective analogy to stop my head spinning quite so much.

We loves a bit of semantics in our line of work. Stuff that does what it says on the tin. So let’s imagine job titles as HTML5 elements.

Front-end Developer = <footer>.

Fairly straight forward in usage. Focussed in scope without much ambiguity as to their skills. They make things work.

UI/Interaction = <aside>

You kind of know what it means, and a you’ve got a gist of when to use it. But there are always a few questions of whether it should be used so often and if it was really the right choice. Often using <div> could be a better choice.

UX Designer = <canvas>

Capable of many wonderful things. A role so big it’s essentially a separate language of it’s own. Plugs into various other disciplines that overlap with traditional means. If you haven’t been coding for canvas for 10 years you’re seemingly not allowed to use it…

Web Designer = <div>

A wonderful coverall tag that is flexible, experienced, well supported and understood. It can even be augmented by extra attributes to provide semantic clarity. It may be lacking in pure semantic goodness but it is still perfectly valid to use, especially when scratching your head and trying to fit yourself into one of the new elements.

So… Web Designer?

I am used to being a Jack-of-all-trades Web Designer. I am used to doing bits of everything. I enjoy doing bits of everything. I feel I’m pretty good at it.

I will always be hesitant to apply for a job as a Front-end Developer because that implies I lose the ability to use the design, UI and UX skills I have spent my career honing. Similarly other roles suggest I will miss out on crafting high quality HTML and CSS, and other areas of development. I’d miss that too.

Despite all it’s flaws it’s hard to think of a better job title than Web Designer to describe the job I have done all my life. I haven’t had any choice but to get all of these skills firmly under my belt. That is how people who have been in the industry for more than 5 years learned to do what they do. There wasn’t any other way.

Greater specialisation, however, is not only inevitable – it’s happening now. People who enter the industry today are not going to be expected to do everything. They are going to be slotted into roles as part of larger teams, they will become specialists in a certain part of the larger Web Design field.

There will always be a place for a one man band, but for the bulk of the industry I do worry that it seems the Web Designer is becoming an endangered species.