Understanding Web Design, Hand Coding, and WYSIWYG

Web Design is very intimidating for quite a few people. For just over two decades it’s been the domain of the tech savvy and coding elite. Today having an online presence is essential for business, marketing, or developing a personal brand, and the ability to build a good website often holds people back. Not everyone has the budget to pay a professional web designer, and many don’t have the time to learn HTML and CSS themselves to execute on their goals.

You may have heard the following phrase:

“Real Web Designers Code!”

Unfortunately this is why many web designers also are a part of the problem. Often they discourage people from pursuing solutions that would help people achieve the goals, due to misinformation based almost entirely on their own preferences. In all fairness, this is not done out of malice but a lack of understanding the real problem that web designers are meant to solve.

I learned HTML Code over 15 years ago, and I still code by hand in situations where I want control over certain aspects of a website. But as someone who is part of the advertising and marketing world (and works daily with small business owners) I’ve come to understand something very important that many web designers still struggle with.

You have to have empathy for the client’s situation, goals, and level of technical ability, and give them a solution that fits them more than it fits you.

You have to ask some honest questions:

  • Does my method create more problems for my client?
  • Will my client be dependent on me to make a simple change?
  • Will the client have to take time away from running their business to learn something complicated?
  • Does this method directly impact the sales or marketing effort in a significant and positive way?
  • Is this the solution that is best suited to the client and their skills—or to me and mine?

People over Process

It can be very difficult to take ourselves out of the equation. I’m not saying coding doesn’t offer the most options or that is not the best option for customization and control of a website.

As I’ve said, I’ve been coding for quite a while myself. But a hand-coded site may not be what the client needs most however. Especially if they are a small business just getting started. The needs of small businesses are usually very simple when it comes to websites.

In most cases, they just need to have an online presence that provides some basic information about their services or products to their customers. You have to value people over the process.

There Are Situation Where Code Doesn’t Cut It

For example: if you are a contracted web designer working onsite with an Art Director who has been in advertising and marketing for over 30 years, and they want you to develop a squeeze page for a client that matches up with the print campaign and out-of-home advertising, they will want to make decisions with you in real time. They are used to doing this with their art department and being able to say “move that a half inch to the left.”

You may resent it, but one of the best solutions that is going to make this person comfortable and put them into a position make decisions, will be a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) program like Adobe Muse.

They may not have the patience for your process of coding when it comes to executing on a single page, and it may be too frustrating for you to try to communicate the technical process to them. But it is your job to deliver for them and communicate effectively, and they are used to visual decision making.

This is a specific example, but it is meant to give you the context that your job may require you to think more about what works best for your client or boss, which is a reality that many of you will be able to appreciate. If you can’t make it comfortable for them, often they will simply find someone else who will.

Hand Coding is Still Valued Highly

While those working with creatives and small business clients may find that there are situations where hand coding is more trouble than it is worth, it is still very highly valued in the corporate world. When being hired at company as a Web Designer the ability to code in HTML and CSS by hand and being aware of Javascript and libraries like JQuery are very important, and part of the screening criteria. You should also have awareness of Content Management Systems like WordPress.

If you want to work for an IT company, or in the Web Design or R&D department of a large corporation, you won’t get by just knowing Adobe Muse and how to setup SquareSpace. In house Web Designers will have to be familiar with the following:

  • HTML/CSS/JQuery/Javascript
  • Possibly some PHP/MySQL
  • WordPress and Other Content Management Systems
  • Responsive Web Design
  • Adaptive Web Design
  • Basic SEO (Search Engine Optimization)

At the end of the day, knowing how to code will give you more options in your arsenal when it comes to problem solving, but it won’t always be the final answer. Even at the corporate level there are situations that demand you use other solutions or have other skills, and in many cases this will simply come down to who is in charge.

Companies are tightening their budgets and demanding more and more from their employees. Knowing how to code a website is not the same as knowing how to “design” one. If you lack the ability to execute on designing a beautiful website that is also functional and has a user experience that aligns to the marketing goals and audience, all the command line wizardry in the world may not be enough to keep you gainfully employed.

You may feel that is is a lot to ask that you be both a coder, while being design and marketing savvy, and it may seem unfair, but it is a “buyers market” when it comes to hiring talent, and profit margins are bringing the age of specialist to a close.

Additional Web Design Skills You Need:

  • Understanding of Layout and Composition
  • Knowledge of Color Theory and Color Psychology
  • Basic Image Editing and Image Optimization for Web
  • Understanding of Web Typography
  • Understanding of Visual Hierarchy

Small Business Wants SquareSpace and Similar Solutions

Small Businesses or “Mom and Pop Shops” are not interested in semantic, clean code. Those business owners are not interested in learning how to use FTP when they want to upload a new page or image to the site. They are also not interested in paying every time they want to make a minor change. For small business owners, cash is oxygen, and every moment they are not focused on the running of their business or have to invest time or money in the technical upkeep of the website, is depriving them of the time, resources, and energy they need to keep their business alive and breathing.

If you can help them take a SquareSpace site from the basic template, to something that fits their needs and impresses their customers, and teach them how to use it in just a few short hours or within a week, you will be the hero and the web designer they recommend to friends and family. Delivering for your clients makes you a “real web designer.” Helping them grow their business and meet their goals legitimizes you, not your methods or toolbox.

If you’re a freelancer or you have a background in graphic design or marketing, but don’t know how to code, you can still make a great deal of revenue solving problems for these types of clients.

Final Thoughts on Web Design, Hand Coding and WYSIWIG

Context is everything. You have to apply a solution that best fits the situation to the best of your ability. In any situation, people prefer to work with the tool they are most comfortable with, even if it is not the best tool for the job.

Sometimes this is the only way they can execute on something, in other cases it hinders them from delivering on what is truly required for the task at hand. Graphic designers often overly rely on Photoshop, in situations where Illustrator or InDesign would either solve the problem more quickly or more reliably.

Learn all you can so you’re prepared to handle a variety of situations and opportunities. You should learn HTML and CSS plus other web technologies, if your situation allows for it. But you should not let a lack of that knowledge stop you from executing on something if there are other means within your current level of ability, just because someone else has convinced you that “it’s not the right way.”

Execution counts for more than you might imagine.

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Posted on: June 19, 2015

Roberto Blake

Roberto Blake is a Graphic Designer helping Entrepreneurs and Small Businesses improve their branding and presentations. Roberto also teaches Graphic Design and Adobe Tutorials through his YouTube channel and community. Roberto's Photoshop artwork has been featured in publications such as Advanced Photoshop and Photoshop Creative Magazine. See robertoblake.com

1 Comment on Understanding Web Design, Hand Coding, and WYSIWYG

  1. Roberto –

    Thank you for a well-written and complete description of the issues we face as an agency everyday. We pride ourselves on our clean-code and it’s inherent benefits – but our clients don’t always appreciate it like we do.

    You captured it. Thanks!

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