Web design news 23/02/10

This week: Why speculative work suck, progressive enhancement explained, how to be different and should designers be able to code?

Why speculative design suck

The debate over speculative design has once again raised its head this week.

In case you are unfamiliar with the concept of speculative design, it is best described as the process of producing free work for a prospective client in the hopes of winning a project.

Many agencies (including Headscape) have long since rejected the idea of speculative design. However, it is still common practice within the web design community.

This week Andy Budd lays out his arguments against speculative work. Although Andy raises some good points I feel he misses the heart of the issue which is that speculative work is bad for the client.

A closed website

A better argument is put forward by one Belgium Agency who is currently on strike protesting against speculative work. They write on their website

Pitches use up energy. Energy an agency would normally use to provide its existing, paying customers with the best possible work. So the logical conclusion of the system as it now stands is that at some point you will become a victim of it yourself. The day will eventually come when your agency has to divert the creative and strategic energy you’re paying it for into a pitch for someone else’s business.

I put it even more bluntly in my own article on the subject

In order to remain in business every company needs to recover their cost of sale. This includes web designers. As speculative work is part of the sales process, they ultimately have to charge you for it. The web designer is forced to roll the cost of that work into the project if they win.

However, it is worse than that. The web designer also has to recover the cost of speculative design done for jobs he did not win. This means that if you choose to work with an agency that produces speculative design, you are paying for their failed sales pitches! Why should you be paying for other people’s design work?

So before you next request speculative work I would encourage you to read my post on the subject.

What is progressive enhancement?

As web designers we do love our jargon. One example is the phrase ‘progressive enhancement’. I have even been known to throw the term around casually on the show with little in the way of explanation. However, I bet that a considerable number of the website owners listening (and probably more than a few of the web professionals) do not know what the term means.

Fortunately our very own Paul Stanton has provided a great analogy that explains progressive enhancement.

He explains how progressive enhancement can be seen in video games all the time, especially the big sports titles that span all of the various consoles. Each console has different capabilities with an xbox having consider more processing power than your iPhone.

Image showing the difference between the game on the Wii (left) and the 360 (right)

The result is that although it is fundamentally the same game on all platforms it is actually subtly different in terms of game play and graphics.

Paul explains that this is very similar to progressive enhancement on the web. Each browser has different capabilities and as web designers we build to make the most of what each browser can do. It is the same website but subtly different depending on the platform.

Its a good analogy that I will be using in the future because it draws on something that the majority of people can associate with – video games.

How to be different

We walk a fine line with our websites. On one hand we want them to meet user expectations and avoid making users think too hard. On the other we want our sites to stand out from the crowd and be memorable.

In a new article on the Carsonified blog Kat Neville attempts to walk that line while challenging us to move away from Cookie Cutter websites.

A particularly narrow website

The article is a challenge both to designers who tend to get caught up in the latest trend, and websites owners who are often overly conservative in terms of design. It aims to inspire with some great examples of sites that break the mould and do things differently.

Of course the suggestions are not going to be relevant to every site. You need to carefully consider your target audience to establish how far from the norm you are able to push a design. However whatever your site, it will challenge you to ask if you are just following the crowd or really thinking about design.

Should web designers be able to code?

Ven Diagram showing an overlap between designers and developers when creating HTML and CSS

An interesting argument has exploded on twitter this week and has since spilled over into the blogosphere too. The argument was sparked by Elliot Jay Stocks who wrote:

I’m shocked that in 2010 I’m still coming across ‘web designers’ who can’t code their own designs.

It would appear this was a somewhat controversial comment and led to a massive backlash from designers who do not code.

For fear of inflaming the debate further, I have to say I am amazed anybody could disagree with this statement. Admittedly not every web designer does code, however they should at least know how.

I am not going to layout the arguments for this position here. However, I would suggest you read three excellent posts on the subject…

If you happen to be a designer who cannot code, I strongly recommend you read these posts. I honestly believe you are limiting your potential and undermining the product you provide your clients.

  • Actually the games analogy is a very good one. Although I think using the cross platform example is not so perfect. The devices are so different that the nuts and bolts mechanics of the games do vary wildly, and the code base will generally be totally different, even done by by completely different developers.

    Just focussing on PC gaming would be a better example. That has used true progressive enhancement to sniff out how much graphical detail your hardware can take for many, many years.

    From the early days where games worked out if you were rich enough to have a SVGA screen, to the modern day where you have a water cooled quad core processor, with 12 graphics cards chained together… or not.

    If you have a standard Dell desktop (IE6) you are served the jaggy low resolution version of the game. It still essentially plays exactly the same,only the graphical sheen is taken off. If you have an uber geek gaming rig (A dev build of Chrome) then you get all the alpha, css 3, rounded corner, drop shadowy gloss.

    I like that as anaology.

  • Sebastian Green

    I do think web designers should be able to code. Maybe not all in super complex AJAX or PHP but at least HTML and CSS.

    Today clients expect us to be a one stop shop for “websites”. We are expected to design, build maintain and analyse the website (google analyitics + SEO) etc. Sometimes this is impossible. There isn’t enough time to learn everything and with the industry moving so fast once you learn something its almost outdated anyway.

    My question is: Is it better to have a little bit of knowledge on everything, or specialise in one thing?

  • About the virtual strike in Belgium: there was more than one agency involved. Agencies that are members of ACC (Association of Communication Companies) put up this letter (and more pages) on their websites to express their discontent with the way pitches are held these days.

    I think it’s a strong statement to clients and agencies to stop organising and participating in these massive pitches.

    But there’ll still be agencies that’ll participate in these pitches, after all, they need clients to stay alive.

  • Should web designers be able to code?:

    This is interesting and I agree that we should do both. Still, all the supporting articles you link to are from British designers or bloggers.

    I used to live in London, UK. Now a days I live in Toronto, Canada and here in North America the business is different. I actually have a lot of trouble finding a web design job which is both a coder and a designer. Over here you’re either a Front End Developer or Web Developer, or a User Interface Designer, Web Designer, etc…

    I remember in London they needed people who could do lots of things, but over here they want more specialists.

    What’s your take on that? Anyone from North America who can comment on this? I can’t see Web Designers creating decent work without at least understanding some HTML / CSS and Javascript.