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British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee created the first web page in 1990. Even as the web entered its adolescence years later, few clients had any idea what went into making a website, no one was surfing the web on phones, and the phrase social-media plug-in didn’t exist. At the time, pages were essentially created from scratch, and companies proudly issued press releases whenever a new site was launched.

That’s all changed. And that means there’s an entirely new economic reality for creative professionals who make their living from sitemap to site launch.

“In the past, an author who published a book probably would’ve paid a freelancer $5,000 to create and update his site,” says Jeffrey Zeldman, one of the two web-design masterminds behind An Event Apart. “Today, if your clients are just looking for a beautiful site with a little bit of content, Wix and Squarespace will definitely cut into your market share. And if you’ve been charging $300,000 on projects, that market is narrowing too. You need to do more than spit out a boilerplate proposal that lists the client’s technical specs and create something pretty—you need to become a strategic partner.”

As clients require the skills of a construction crew less and less, they’ll be looking to agency pros who think more like city planners, architects and interior designers, with a vision that draws customers through the front door and gets them lining up at the cash register.

“When clients come to us with a budget, we’ll say, ‘We don’t want to take all of your money yet—we can’t tell you what the deliverables will be [before we’ve even started to understand your business],’” says Zeldman. “We try to think more like product designers, so we ask clients to give us a little money to do some research, talk to users and stakeholders, and look at their competitors. Then we’ll come up with a proposal to address real problems they might be having and discover some opportunities they might be missing.”

Rather than launching a site, cashing a check and moving on, Zeldman aims for a series of progressive iterations, A/B testing and fine-tuning of the user experience.

Stephen Megitt, of Toronto-based agency Filament Creative, is equally confident that clients will pay for that deeper level of engagement. “If you’re the kind of agency that’s focused on design as something that’s pretty, then, yeah, you’re going to run up against a lot of friction when you try to charge clients a premium,” he says. “But if you really focus on the end user and identifying what content strategy is going to generate more qualified in-bound leads, you don’t really need to worry about the competition. There are plenty of cars on the road—there’s room for a Tesla and a Honda Fit. Those templated sites are great tools for getting people off the ground quickly and legitimizing a business—until the point where they’re just not meeting clients’ needs. And that’s when I hope they’ll call us.”

Of course, if potential clients are facing growth spurts that propel them beyond a cheap templated site, they may balk at the cost of a custom build. In that case, Bill Colgrove, founder and chief creative officer of Washington, DC–based digital agency Threespot, spells out clear expectations from the outset.

“When we move from a six-figure build to a five-figure build, we make it really clear that the client needs to understand that the process will be different,” says Colgrove. “Lower budgets affect how many times you’ll see us, how many of our employees sit in on meetings and how many reviews you’ll get because those things all add up quickly.”

As clients have been taking on more responsibility for their own sites, Threespot is offering more services, not fewer—working with paying clients to run social-media campaigns, managing blog content until a client can hire a full-time staffer and even leading brown-bag lunch sessions on the importance of responsive design. “It’s all about understanding the needs of the client,” he says. “We’ll build the website and support it, and eventually the client may not need us anymore. But whatever we do as an agency, we’re always finding ways to continue that relationship so that it’s not just one and done.”

Because Threespot does so much work with nonprofits and government clients, agency developers are able to repurpose tools that achieve the same goals for completely different organizations.

“Although we create some sites in Drupal and WordPress, we’ve chosen to build a Ruby on Rails framework that allows us to repurpose some common features you might expect from WordPress,” says Colgrove. “Like buying a Lego set, there are plenty of bricks that are common to every set. Then you’ve got a Batman set or a Harry Potter set with custom pieces—those are the pieces that we advise our clients to invest in so we can build something to meet their needs while also looking for commonalities [that keep prices down].”

In Portland, Oregon, FINE has taken a similar approach, creating a free, open-source content management system (CMS) based on Ruby on Rails. 

“We want to spend our time involved in the parts of web design where we can really add value,” says Josh Kelly, principal and chief strategist. “That means thinking, visualizing and storytelling—coming up with what you should say and how you should say it, rather than spending all of our time simply figuring out the technical solutions.” To help get the right balance, the agency’s new CMS, dubbed Fae, was designed to hit the middle ground between an off-the-shelf template that’s easy to use, but inflexible, and a more complicated proprietary tool that’s expensive and only accessible to master developers.

More than in any other industry, creative pros have been forced to adapt with every technological innovation, from pasteup layouts to desktop publishing to code that’s constantly evolving (see sidebar). But history has shown that technology won’t replace talented professionals who are schooled in design and communications.

“It takes tremendous skill to do what we do, and even though there are great tools that help, they don’t replace ability,” says Zeldman. “Just because Photoshop exists, that doesn’t mean that we don’t need professional photographers to take good photos anymore—you can’t just use an old camera phone and clean it up afterward. Our work requires a lot of talent, skill and passion to constantly improve what we produce, and those things will never go out of demand.” ca

It’s true. Every website looks identical: The juicy hero graphic with a few words of copy. A row of three items with Dribbble-inspired icons. A series of testimonials centered on a single panel. And then back to two columns just to spice things up a little—very little.

“If you look at the web from a graphic design perspective, it’s almost as if everyone is using the same WordPress theme,” says Jen Simmons, a Mozilla employee who spends half her time at web conferences, speaking alongside Zeldman and others. “Some of it is because everyone wants a quick, easy way to make their project look ‘official’ or ‘polished’; it’s also because people are relying on some of the same programming tools, like Bootstrap and Foundation, and they lack the skills, time or resources to really push the design and customize the final product.”

CSS Grid is about to change all of that.

For those less versed in the intricacies of the web, a primer: visual expression on the web is achieved through Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), which handle fonts, sizes, colors, spacing, borders and more. Representatives from all the major browser makers comprise the CSS Working Group, which standardizes instructions so that developers can write consistent code for Chrome, Firefox, Safari and anything from an e-book to a Samsung watch. After issuing revisions to the logic in CSS2 and CSS3, the Working Group decided future versions would be launched as distinct packages rather than as one comprehensive system. Enter CSS Grid, released back in March.

Although clever developers have always been able to create drop caps, tilt text vertically and wrap copy around unique shapes, CSS Grid simplifies many of these functions and enables 2-D layouts (both columns and rows) without requiring customization, making way for a wide variety of layouts not possible until now.

“Early on, the people who knew how to code websites were constantly telling designers, ‘The web is not print—you can’t use drop caps, you can’t think about the fourth edge [the bottom of the page] because it moves depending on the user’s screen.’ So idea after idea just got beaten down until we all stopped having those ideas. Well, those limitations aren’t necessarily true anymore. Now we really need new ideas because the web is a whole new medium once again.”

Simmons is quick to point out that designers and developers need to understand that a website might be different, depending on the user’s device—and that’s OK.

“We’re not designing for 1024-by-768 as if it’s a PDF—it’s almost like we’re designing a 3-D sculpture, which means you really want to walk around it and understand what it’s going to look like from every side,” she says. “When you make a decision to move something or ‘carve’ something in a certain way, it will have an impact no matter where you’re standing. So that no matter the size of the screen in front of you, you’re seeing something that is beautiful and functional and that conveys the brand. I’m hoping that we’ve gotten far enough along that the shock of having to think about phones as well as computers has worn off and that we can start to really design for this medium and do some beautiful work.”

Want to try out some of the new features of CSS Grid? Simmons created a playground of sorts at labs.jensimmons.com, where you can post demos and see what others have created.

Scott Kirkwood is a freelance copywriter and creative director focused on nonprofits and “do-gooder” brands. Based in Denver, Colorado, he is a frequent contributor to AIGA and Adobe Create and HOW magazines.


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