What do you do?

What do you do? This question kick-started this year’s New Adventures conference in Dan Mall’s opening talk and is one that has stuck with me. On the day I turned to the person sitting behind me and introduced myself as a web designer. It is a term that seems to have pretty widespread currency and provides a wide enough label that has meaning to both those within our industry and those outside it. But increasingly I’ve found that this label never quite describes what I do.

What do I do?

In 2006, my first web job was building bespoke Content Management Systems in a government agency and executing Photoshop comps into HTML and CSS. My job title was Web Development Manager so you could say I was a web developer. But as a self-taught geek with my back-end knowledge limited to dirty PHP this never felt particulary comfortable (I got a D in GCSE Computing and object-oriented programming gives me a headache). I have always been happier in the client-side of the web so web developer just doesn’t fit.

My next job was as Web Design Manager for a small digital agency which involved designing websites and increasingly preparing these into front-end code. Due to workflow problems in the agency and the increasing demands of a boss who couldn’t say no to clients, I rapidly went straight into designing in HTML and CSS to speed up our process. You could say I was a web designer but to be honest (guilty secret time) I struggled executing designs in tools like Photoshop and Fireworks, I don’t have the best eye for colour and was utlimately always happiest in code.

In the last year I have been a true jack-of-all trades freelancer carrying out a range of jobs from visual design to interface design to usability consultancy to front-end development to CMS builds. So how now do I describe what do I do? I neither feel like a web designer or a web developer, and find these terms are limiting primarily because of what I can’t do, as much as by what I can. So I am stuck in this liminal space between two definitions, struggling to explain to people what I do within the terminology available.

Designer or Craftsman?

I’m trying to get into words some musings on the relationships between archaeology – a subject I studied for my doctorate – and web design – what I now do for a living. The two fields seem disparate but there are a number of connections that keep arising between my experiences of these two and it is something I have talked about before. One of these connections is the role of the craftsman.

I studied the anthropology of pottery manufacture and decoration. What I found interesting was that very rarely was pottery decoration executed to a preconcieved design. There was a visual grammar to their work – a ‘style’ – but the designs ultimately produced were invariably a response to the medium they were using. Potters were the first responsive designers.

I’ve been excited by recent discussion in web design about the role of craftsmanship. Recently, Simon Collison’s excellent talk at Build and Ben Bodien’s brilliant 24 ways article have encapsulated some of the frustrations I’ve been experiencing lately in describing what I do.

A craftsman for me rarely has a preconceived route – they have an object they want to arrive at, a set of tools, a set of raw materials and a vocabulary to execute their work but that execution is a process of discovery: a journey. They work with their hands rather than their eyes, they test, they push and respond. This is not to say that designers do not have similar voyages of discovery – but with design the product is the deliverable, with craftsmen it is the process.

I’m not a designer. I’m not a developer. I am a craftsman of code. I roll my sleeves up, I get a feel for the medium, I push against the constraints of new technologies, new devices and new processes. I respond.


It’s a tricky one – “web designer” is a term which folks understand so you can be forgiven for falling back on it.

I avoid it like the plague as, apart from anything else, I don’t design any more (thank gawd, my talent for it is not great!). And on many sites I won’t build or do back end work (even though I have made a living in it). This is why I’ve started saying “Internet Startegy” as it more relates to my role of informing folks of what they can be doing online (and this goes beyond websites).

Yes I do roll up my sleeves and: – create graphics – create some RWD code – write PHP DB stuff – server config

…but I also work with freelancers much better at all of the these than me.

I think the term “web designer” is in danger of becoming outdated as it masks too many skills and perhaps will go the way of the “webmaster” (remember them?!)

Nice post Cole, and even though I missed out on New Adventures this year, I’e had similar thoughts.

I tend to refer to myself as a web engineer. Purely because I don’t like the term web designer, and I feel like I do more than just design.