5 ‘New’ Skills that Every Web Designer Needs to Know

What does it mean to be a web designer? The chances are its a lot more than you think. As the web becomes increasingly complex so do our clients demands.

The world of web design is changing at a scary rate. Where once all we needed was Photoshop and Frontpage [joke], now we have to endure list posts like this one telling us to learn more than ever. It is kind of depressing really.

Of course one option is to specialise. You can intentionally limit your expertise to one area and turn down work outside of that specialism. Although there are a lot of advantages to this approach it is not an option for most web designers.

Many of us are not able to turn away work even if we wanted. What is more our clients tend to presume we know ‘everything about the web’.

For the majority of us we have to continue being generalists. This involves expanding our knowledge into ever more diverse areas.

From my perspective there are 5 skills you would not traditionally associated with the role of web design that are becoming increasingly important. These are…

  • Marketing
  • Copywriting
  • Contextual awareness
  • Strategy
  • Psychology

Let us look at each in turn.

1. Marketing

Increasingly website owners are grasping that their online marketing strategy has to be about more than their website. The ‘build it and they will come’ mentality has gone and they realise that their website is the hub for a broader strategy.


businessman drawing a website schema in a whiteboard

Helder Almeida, Shutterstock

Understanding SEO

At the most basic level clients expect us to have an understanding of SEO. Unfortunately their expectations in this area are often unrealistic (“I need to be number one on the term ‘Internet'”). It is our job to educate them about the reality of SEO.

Of course to do that we need to understand the area ourselves. What is best practice within SEO? What impacts does SEO have on usability, accessibility and copy?

However, SEO is not the only consideration. Increasingly clients are recognising the power of social media.

Advising on Social Media

An increasing number of website owners are looking to engage their target audience through the use of social media. They see their target audience gravitating towards services like Youtube, Facebook and Twitter so wish to reach them there.

However as with SEO their knowledge is limited. Often when they try they make horrendous mistakes. Even big brands have suffered from this problem as is apparent from the recent Skittles and Nestle incidents.

Once again they need help and so turn to us. We need to have a clear understanding of community engagement. We need an understanding of how to deal with conflict, encourage participation and spur users into action.

2. Copywriting

Probably the most important new skill we need to learn as designers is copywriting. Let’s face it, most websites have crappy copy.

The majority of that copy is down to the client and so we tend to wash our hands of it. However, not all of it is the client’s responsibility.

Who writes those little pieces of microcopy that appear across the websites we design? You know, the error messages, section headings, instructional text and button labels. Normally it is the web designer.

The problem is that the words we use can have a massive impact on usability, comprehension and conversion. Take for example 404 pages. Other than web designers who the hell knows what a 404 page is?

404 error page from Wufoo.com

It is not just us that needs to learn to write better copy. The client does as well. The question is who will teach them? Once again the burden falls to us.

Setting aside the issue of whether a designer is the best person to teach copywriting (an issue I address later), often there is nobody else. We therefore need to understand the principles of writing for the web and indeed more general copywriting techniques. In particular I think we need to help the client establish consistency and tone in their copy. After all we have worked hard to project the right tone in our design.

3. Contextual awareness

There was a time when you could make certain assumptions about how somebody was accessing a website. The chances were they used a desktop computer and sat at a desk.

However, things have changed. Now they could be using a netbook on the sofa or a mobile phone at the bus stop. This has a profound effect on how we design websites. We need to be contextually aware. We need to understand how both environment and device alters the way people interact with a website.

Child using her phone to access the web on a train

JJ pixs, Shutterstock

The impact of environment

Do you take time to consider the environment in which users are likely to be encountering your website? Do you understand how these environmental differences could impact behaviour?

For example a mother with a new born baby may be accessing the web from a home computer. However, her environment could well be far from perfect. Her child could be crying. She may be sleep deprived. These things impact how easily she can use your website.

The impact of the device

With a growing number of devices accessing the web we need to consider a greater number of factors that influence the users interaction. Screen size, functionality and input devices are just three examples.

When a user could be using a touch screen, a keyboard or a mouse to interact with your website, it makes designing the user interface much harder.

If we are to survive in this multi-device, multi-environment age we need to better understand how these contexts alter the user’s interaction. For example, when was the last time you did user testing that happened in the users normal environment or navigate a website with just a keyboard.

Of course your clients may not want to invest in supporting multiple devices or users who access the web ‘on the road’. They maybe right when they say that it doesn’t justify the investment. On the other hand they might be missing the bigger picture. In which case it is down to you to help.

4. Strategy

So many clients do not really know why they have a website or how to measure its success. They hire you without understanding that the website should be apart of a broader strategy. Often it falls to us to guide them through the process.


Vision Success From Goal and Idea in 3d kentoh, Shutterstock

This means we need to brush up on our business strategy skills. We need to be able to help our clients:

  • set business objectives,
  • identify target audiences,
  • establish success criteria,
  • decide on calls to action

It strikes me as insane that many organisations do not already have these things defined. However, they do not.

The question is do you feel prepared to guide users through the process? Are you confident in talking about market segmentation or business analysis? If not then it is time to broaden your horizons.

5. Psychology

My final skills may well be the most important of all (yes I know I said that about copywriting). It is certainly the skill you will use more than any of the others.

In order to be effective web designers these days, we need a good understanding of psychology.

For a long time psychology has been a part of our job. Designing usable websites requires an understanding of how users think and complete tasks. However, it is no loner enough to create websites that are merely usable. Increasingly we are looking to create sites that make users passionate and engaged. That takes a deeper understanding of what makes people tick.

Selective focus on the word psychology.Mark Poprocki, Shutterstock

A good grasp of human psychology goes further than just design and usability. If you understand how people think it can also help with building and engaging communities. It allows you to write better copy, promote your services and win more pitches.

Our role almost exclusively involves understand and engaging with people. Whether users, clients or colleagues, if we understand how they think we can motivate them into taking action. We can convince and persuade, nudging them in the direction we wish to go.

To survive in the modern world of web design we need to really understand the human condition so we can use it to our advantage.

How do I learn all this stuff?

By this point you are probably feeling somewhat overwhelmed. How the hell do you get your head around all of this new stuff on top of everything else.

It’s a fair question and I have no easy answer. However, I would suggest one thing: Do you really need to read yet another CSS article or watch another Photoshop tutorial? Do you need to attend a conference about the latest jQuery techniques or would your time be better spent broadening your horizons.

I rarely read anything about HTML, CSS or Javascript anymore. I do enough to keep up-to-date but other than that my reading is not normally web design related.

I read books on business theory, follow blogs on customer service and listen to audiobooks about marketing.

The problem is that the web design community (like any community) can become very isolated by all talking to one another and regurgitating the same old stuff. If we want to meet the needs of our clients, we must start looking further afield for our education.

Is this unreasonable?

You may suggest it is unreasonable to expect one individual to learn all of this. The answer is yes it is. However, that does not change the reality that this is what our clients want and expect.

Clients are looking for a one-stop-shop. They are not looking to deal with multiple suppliers and the associated work of managing different companies. Obviously this is a generalisation and I am not arguing against specialising.

I am however saying that we all need a broad knowledge in todays marketplace.

Does that mean we need a deep knowledge of marketing or copywriting? No it does not. However, it does mean we need to know enough to point our clients in the right direction. Sometimes that might be us suggesting solutions, sometimes it might be us recommending an expert. However, without some knowledge on our part we cannot make those judgements.

So if you want to delight your clients and deliver above and beyond what they get from the competition, it is time to broaden your knowledge.

  • Relevant post. Naomi over at Intuitive Designs posted about this very topic last week at http://intuitivedesigns.net/blog/post/im-a-web-designer-i-think, and we had a nice discussion in the comments.

    That psychology degree I earned before getting into web design is suddenly looking more and more prescient.

  • Good points. Staying on top seems difficult at first, but realistically the new techniques I use for stuff comes from my inspiration (life, design, other websites) not tutorials like a few years ago.

    I have saved a lot of time and learned more from reading other information/posts/blogs, not just copy from web design specific sites.

  • Good call on reading about subjects other than web design/programming.

  • Josh

    I completely agree, in fact it’s one of many reasons I love web design. The fact that it is not just all about one thing and there is so much more.

    It’s worth noting that it would probably be best in some cases to call ourselves Web Publishers as that is what were really doing, I mean we’re being expected to make Facebook Pages and help with our clients understanding of the web in so many ways even ways that have nothing to do with web design.

    I mean what most of us are offering is not just web design but web publishing. Of course this doesn’t really count if your a specialist freelancer or agency.

  • Great article. Thanks for sharing. This makes perfect sense, if the client has the budget and manpower to maintain “a strategy” (ie. social media, site analytics, etc).

  • This is a very good article and has some great points mentioned, thanks alot.

  • Paul – fantastic presentation, thank you for posting that for all of us who couldn’t make it to FOWD!

    As someone who is a web designer with a marketing degree, looking for full-time positions, I’ve been trying to accentuate this unique skill set in my cover letters and resume(CV). So far, it hasn’t been too successful. I guess I’m just ahead of my time.

  • Just to add to the end of this. I like to listen to Mitch Joel’s podcast “six pixels of separation” to gain incite on marketing.

    I find gathering information for places outside design to be really helpful.

    Really love the way you rapped things up.

  • Great article! Do you have a list of books, blogs, etc. that you would recommend to get us going on the right track?

  • Great to read a spot on article that puts web design to a wider context. Why do we design web sites in the first place? To make an impact and suck in potential clients, right? Not to show off your HTLM, CSS etc. skills. I’m especially glad, you’d mention psychology. In the end it comes down to two things 1)psychology 2)mathematics. First for knowing how the mind works for creating an appeal, second to cash in on that.

  • As usual, excellent advice that puts the role of the web designer/developer into proper context. Our Web Design & Development degree course has just been updated and it reflects the need for the industry to be aware of ‘soft skills’ such as these. On psychology, for example, one of the guys who will graduate this summer has been working with our psychologists on how people decide whether a web is genuine or a spoof … but the underlying principles of the research can apply to a wide range of questions about user interaction.

    Keep up the good work Paul and crew.

  • Alex Drobyshev

    Great article, Paul. I just noticed a small typo under 5. Psychology… “However, it is no loner enough”… should have “longer” instead of “loner”… :)

    • Also, since we are pointing out copy errors :) …
      At the end, you thank “Shuttstock.com” for images. It should read “Shutterstock.com”.

      Otherwise, excellent points.

  • Great article! Web designers seem to be fast becoming the jack of all trades! I think that the added leverage against competitors and revenue that even a little knowledge in these areas results in by far justifies the personal development in these areas. I’m loving the audio book idea as well!

  • Paul,

    You mentioned reading and listening to books about business theory and marketing. I have heard you mention Nudge and Made to Stick. What are some other books that you have consumed in these 2 areas that you have found helpful in developing this deeper knowledge that you believe we need to possess.


  • Very nice post. Really got me thinking and I actually headed straight out to get the audiobook version of Made to Stick. I have had the book sitting on my desk for a month, and I haven’t cracked it. I think I might actually get to it if it is an audiobook. Thanks!

  • ana

    I’ve been at the conference and found your presentation great. I’m not sooooooooo old :P (i’m 35) but I identify myself with a lot of what you said.

  • Hi Paul, really liking the bitesize format! Good post content too

  • India Green

    I am definitely what you would call a generalist because I’m interested in a lot of areas (history, visual art, business). I thought this was going to hurt me because I was told so many times that you must be specialize in a particular skill. I have to say after reading this post I’ve become inspired to continue being a “human vacuum”. I also would like to say I love the presentation and post combo. Thanks for the post Paul.

  • JE Santos

    Greetings from Spain! I listen to your podcast almost every week, and have your opinions often mentioned to my pupils (I train in professional web design). Paul, I couldn’t agree more on the importance of business or marketing knowledge for designers. Even if a lot of them nearly despise or overlook that need, our world has evolved towards that direction, and denying that is not going to help. You tweeted some time ago an article defending the role of being a “jack of all trades”. I think there’s a place for those kind of people: and I consider myself one of them…

    In the Web Design field, if you’re not in a very big team where you can opt to specialize, and leave the rest for your teammates —and most of the web design companies here in Spain I’d say are usually composed of just 2-3 people, so…— you have to get used to “generalize” yourself, not to specialize. In countries with a difficult employment situation as is Spain, this is now a fact: many enterprises don’t even hire anymore those ultra-specialists, and they have to go abroad for a job. And I think is a starting to be a tendency now in many countries.

    On the other hand, I find that having to learn and exert different roles is both challenging and somewhat refreshing. I can’t see myself having to do the same type of tasks everyday, again and again, the rest of my career. It can get kind of boring. That’s why I don’t see me fit to work for a large company, they tend to “box” you in a role and deny you the possibility to contribute in other areas. I firmly believe in the capacity of the human being (I always put Leonardo Da Vinci as the paradigm of this), and have come to the conclusion that is absolutely false that we have only one talent or special skill, and have to focus only on it: we can develop many abilities (in different levels of course) through time, it’s just a matter of training them…

  • Im glad that Psychology is included. I took the general course in college so at least Im not too far behind from the “Boagworld” of web development. Studying the users’ behaviour towards a website is one good way of evaluating if a site is usable enough for them to get what they want.

    Excellent post, Paul!

  • @FOWD everyone was speaking about trends and the future of webdesign and new stuff new things and new new new which is of course cool! Your speech was to me very different from that and therefore pretty much an eye-opener, I oftenly see myself surfing to trends here and there coming back with no output at all. I’ve always been interested in psychology & have done marketing and seo so I guess along the path I did pick up a few of these things though checking more into these subjects would be very useful so thank you.

  • Paul,
    Great video presentation. I actually learned something. You rock.

  • like a refreshing drink :) great!! Thank You… though it seemed that I was in the Sunday sermon in the church of web lords :)

    +1 about spending our time

    :/ have to expand my horizonts for 1000%


  • Brian

    Great vid. Thanks for posting!

  • I don’t have a question, either a suggestion, I am commenting to tell you how much I admire your presentation, it’s incredibly useful to web designers!

    I am a web designer myself, and I have went far a way from that to the business/blogging/marketing world, I found myself in your presentation Paul!

    Almost all web designers that I know they don’t have any idea what is SEO, even blogs and site I am visiting.. all those who are doing the huge lists or lists that you have talked about, they actually repeating themselves and there is no place for creativity!

    Thank you a lot for the great advice, I hope this presentation reached the world, I will recommend it in my coming design post.

  • More and more I find that “knowing web design” is just an assumption at the professional level. What differentiates a designer to potential clients (in my experience, but I’d imagine this is true for employers of in-house designers as well) is their mastery of such tangental skills as reading people (face-to-face presentation), anticipating and accounting for human behavior (on-site), and all manner of communication (written copy, visual, email exchanges, etc.).

    These are things the client has a chance of understanding themselves (as opposed to, for example, code that validates), so they’re more likely to weight their assessment of the designer based on the criterion they’re comfortable with… i.e. the designer’s ability to “interface” with real live humans.

  • Fantastic article. Great work. I intend to share this with my web students in class today as a lead in to wider discussion.

  • John S

    I love your video and have learned quite a lot from it.

    However, are you saying that we should stop checking out tutorial sites? I am an amateur web designer myself and I bet most of the people interested in tutorial sites are newbies in the design world. As much as I would like to learn about blogging, social media, marketing, etc., I also would also like to learn more about design. I find tutorial sites very helpful (EXCEPT for round-up sites) in improving my skills since I learn a lot of tips and techniques from them. Of course for people like you who already have a lot of experience, you can ultimately say “I don’t need these tutorial sites”, but HAVE YOU EVER considered PEOPLE LIKE ME?

    I understand what you’re trying to say but you could at least acknowledge the efforts of people who write good, quality tutorials online. I’m sure it takes a lot time putting them together and their efforts absolutely CANNOT be discounted. These people have been very helpful to amateur designers like myself.

  • rpr

    For a ‘generalist’. this is all fairly obvious really, it’s part of a natural progression, or at least it should be?

    As we mature as Web Designers we realise these skills are fundamental to what we do. Usability, User Experience (UX), Interaction Design, Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) all carry aspects of Psychology, Marketing, Context, Strategy, etc …

    Anyone is going to struggle as a Web Designer, if they don’t have at least some understanding of these things.

  • Linards

    I am at the beginning of my web designer career and I found this video wonderful and very inspirational. Thank you.

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  • This article is spot on. I studied professional writing as well as web design, am currently studying marketing and mastered the art of becoming #1 in Google a few years ago. Psychology and marketing skills are very very important, followed by seo content writing (and an ability to make it sound interesting). If you don’t have these things, you can kiss being a professional web designer goodbye in the future as everyone wants it and is prepared to pay for it these days ; )

  • I agree with your points.I am currently doing some marketing and link building. This will definitely come in handy. Will follow this thread!

  • mehrad

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  • radfarrokh

    I think it is important for web designers and SEO skills should know. لامپ کم مصرف

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  • shabnam

    Totally agree. You mentioned a good Tips. I think for every web designer needs to know these things..
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  • sayeh

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  • bidghol

    Hi. This point is excellent. And is useful for web designers. Thank. درب ضد سرقتتور چینپارتیشنپارتیشن

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  • amir

    I’ve been posting in this section. You mentioned a good point. I thank
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  • Soheil farhadi

    Tnx for this….
    Its so impressive..