Jack of All Trades

Jack of All Trades When I started working on the web in 1995, my toolbox was small. A Unix command line editor called vi, a telnet account into the university servers I worked on – and occasionally, for those very complex sites that had a few images on them, Photoshop 3.0. Add to that, knowledge of HTML and a bit of perl and I was set to build pretty much whatever I needed. I didn’t have to worry about CSS, javascript libraries, SEO and browser compatibility. .Net or PHP? Rails, Python, Django? Not an issue.

It was a simple time and one person could easily master most of the facets required to build websites. This put one in the position of a master designer, seeing to all aspects of a project. Fast forward 16 years and that landscape has shifted dramatically. The technologies and choices a website designer faces are numerous. HTML 5? CSS3? Flash? SEO? SEM? Social Media? jQuery? MooTools? Which language, which db, which CMS? Even which host? These are just some of the myriad choices to be considered.

It is an interesting and fundamental shift that many industries/professions face. Take, for example, the practice of architecture. Not even a century ago, one of the great American architects, Frank Lloyd Wright, designed buildings and in doing so, dealt with many aspects surrounding them: how to site the building, it’s interior finishes and designing it’s furniture and other interior infrastructure like lights. He even laid out and oversaw much of the structural aspects of the projects. And in many cases, he even drafted his own plans. In today’s world, new materials, new ways of building and new systems to facilitate that process have necessitated the need for an architect to rely on other professionals. Now, an architect more often than not would rely on an interior designer to handle much of the building’s interior finishing, HVAC consultants and structural engineers to oversee many of the building’s technical systems and assistants to produce project drawings on computer systems he likely doesn’t know how to use.

The same thing has been happening in the web world as the profession matures and grows. New technologies and ways of building websites have ramped up the complexity many-fold since those simpler times in 1995.

As a professional who takes great interest in being hands on wherever possible and maintaining an in-depth knowledge of the web, I have slowly learned new skills as those years progressed, allowing myself to still understand and work with the nuts and bolts of web projects. Yet, as in the architectural analogy, I have had to hand off responsibilities to other professionals who, due to their specialization in one area, have exceeded what the master designer is capable of. Programmers, SEO experts and usability experts all play a role in our projects.

So, the question for me has always been: is this a good thing or a bad thing?

The answer is perhaps both and neither. The systems we build and use have to evolve and with that comes greater complexity. In order to deal with increased complexity, one must look to more specialized roles and teams who can work together to build a greater whole amongst themselves.

This means the role of the master designer who can see to every detail and create a completely integrated and holistic product is now somewhat diminished. Yet, in turn, it is an opportunity for each partner to bring a unique vision to a project – the classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

As such, in the end, it is a balance between all the parts. As a designer – and like an architect, I believe it is still our role to set the overarching vision of a project and to manage the various components brought to the table by others to ensure the successful fruition of that vision. But with those other contributions comes new possibilities of exceeding the things we’ve built before.

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