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Square peg, round hole

Around about the middle of 2008 I solved for the first time in my eight-year career the dilemma of whether I was a web developer or web designer. Though this may not seem like the greatest of dilemmas to the reader, it has been eating away at my soul for a great many years not knowing where I fit.

The skim reader can skip to the end of the article to find out what I discovered. Below is the bumpy story of how.

The prospect of losing my soul

On finishing my work with Milamex in the summer of 2007 I was not only left contemplating trivial life questions such as should I stay [in Mexico] or should I go [back to England], but I was also left asking myself where to take my career next. Since beginning my web development career in 2000 I was always tripping over the fine line of whether I was a 'developer' or a 'designer'.

I have one of these personalities which is both technical and creative at the same time, so never know in which camp I belong. I have both the passion of an artist and the logicalness of a mathematician (though sadly not the brain power).

At the time, it seemed that if I chose to be a developer, it would not be long before I were a full-blown programmer/database guy, my whole life being consumed with writing stored procedures, defining class methods and never seeing a ray of interface sunlight. On the other hand, if I chose to be a designer, I would be encapsulated away from the medium of the web for which I have a passion and would not be able to have a say about issues such as accessibility, usability, how to make web applications fit for the purpose and so forth.

At Milamex, as with previous jobs, I had walked the tightrope. Being relatively small/medium-sized projects, I could exercise both sides of my personality. I knew though, that the time would come for me to make a decision, one that would surely see me lose my soul.

The fall of the guillotine

In the autumn of 2007, with this fate firmly hanging over me, I landed the position of web developer at Arena Premier. I was brought in as part of a new team to build a web-based ticket-sales system, likened somewhat to TicketMaster, but only better. Not really knowing more than that, I was thrown onto a Microsoft training course to learn youWillBeAProgrammer.NET. As I traversed the dry course materials, I comforted myself knowing that at least I was getting professional training and positioning myself for a good money-earning career in programming. Soulless but stable.

After the training course, it was decided that, as I was the one with an HTML background, I should develop the interface for the web applications whilst other members of the team focus on programming. The idea was that HTML was a quick and easy thing to do, and I could integrate myself on the programming side once that was done. The relative passing importance of the interface was an oversight of my employers at that time, but all the same, a ray of hope.

Unfortunately, I was soon told that the graphic designer of the parent company would be in charge of the visual design of the web applications as I was formally a member of the programming team and this was not in my scope. It felt like meetings of countless suffering as I had to sit down with the graphics guy (who had little appreciation of user interface design) to hear him decide colours, button roll-overs and so forth. Every graphic decision I made was subjected to his approval. Soul crushing.

Furthermore, my comments for user interface design fell also on the deaf ears of the Director responsible for marketing. He would regularly call for a designer to be present in our meetings as 'they understand how to solve creative problems', overtly looking beyond me. Very frustrating.

The decision had been made: I was a web programmer and nothing more.

Fighting back

Although disheartened, one of the good things about being a web developer is that I'm the guy who actually builds the website. As such, I can exercise my influence over the design without necessarily making it official. With timelines and resources regularly being very tight, it's not possible to pass everything by the graphic designer.

One day I was asked to present 'wireframe' diagrams to the Directors of one of the web applications. What I actually presented was wireframes set in a visual template that I had designed, a design to which many immediately showed favour. Although the graphics guy was the official designer, my interface had been approved for further development.

My work eventually began to gain reputation. I developed a new innovative web-based interface for a touch-screen cash register which cut out much of the cluttered usability of it's windows-based predecessor. When seen in action, the Directors were duly pleased.

As I began to show off my competence applying my creative mind to 'front-end' matters, I began to receive more interface and design related tasks, with the 'back-end' work firmly being distributed between the programmers. Suddenly, I was beginning to see a new role for myself emerge.

The mythical square hole

One thing which I have not perhaps separated out here to its full is the difference between graphic design and user interface design - which strictly speaking are two distinct disciplines. Graphic design in the context of web development is, as my colleagues would say, putting 'make up' on the interface. Interface design is more to do with how to organise information on the screen.

Usability experts deride some user interfaces for the graphic design obstructing how users interact with the site. However, this is just the area in which I can be a specialist. In having a good understanding of the medium (my technical side) coupled with balancing usability and graphic needs (my creative side), I find myself fitting comfortably into a role which I often now see described as 'front-end web developer'. I'm not sure this term was in popular use a few years ago, but maybe this is the square hole I've been looking for.

Although I may never be a javascript 'ninja' or a database 'guru', neither will they likely be concerned with how to make a good user interface or if the quality of information on a website meets users needs. I have come to learn that in larger projects I can't be a jack of all trades; I must specialise.

Perhaps then, I could define my specialism as this: to bring together various technologies in a creative way to develop a good user interface; to champion the content or function which the website/web application is serving and ultimately make the life of the human being sitting in front of the computer that little bit easier.

As my career progresses, I hope I may be able to abstract myself further to the level of creative director so that I can see my values better implemented. Until then, I'm happy to have discovered a specialism that doesn't require me to sacrifice one side of my personality in favour of the other.

It's hip to be square (at last).

4 Comment(s):

Anonymous Anonymous said...

just wondering are you ok out there? Am in wetherspoons having a beer and thought would look at your website as not heard from you in a while Monday, April 27, 2009 5:04:00 PM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

bet you know who sent the above ~ if want to ring then do so tomorrow Monday, April 27, 2009 5:05:00 PM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think everyone is torn between the logical ('developer') and creative ('designer') aspects to their nature, although the words may change from discipline to discipline, the best solutions come from somewhere in between, it's finding the balance between the two that excites us. (Tim Thompson - Belfast). Monday, November 02, 2009 6:54:00 AM  

Blogger Tim Thompson said...

Thanks Tim for your comment, it's good to know there are others who deal with this tension also. Saturday, May 01, 2010 9:42:00 AM  

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