The dot com crash doesn’t mean the end of Web design prospects, writes Natasha Skrivankova.
A few years ago, if you had even a slightly creative bent, and knew what HTML stood for, you were on the autobahn of Web design the cyber expressway to big bikkies and online cred. Web design outfits with huge budgets and IT-savvy staff produced flashy sites for companies keen to get online, and a new job market was born.
The industry reached its peak in mid-2000, says Ian Webster of www.consult, when the dot com boom ended, start-ups went bankrupt, and companies became cautious about their expenditure on online projects.
However, there are still plenty of jobs in Web design, says Webster, because some 300,000 Australian companies now have an online presence. While larger ones are setting up inhouse departments to maintain an online presence, the job of creating their Web site is usually outsourced initially, along with any tricky additional features later on.
“It’s an enormously exciting time, particularly for young Web designers,” says Webster. “There are a lot of really cool things happening out there.
“Every year, more and more companies are either establishing or enhancing their online presence. Even for small companies, a Web presence is as important a part of their marketing and operational services as having an ad in the Yellow Pages. This will continue to create demand for Web designers.”
But the freedom for large-profile Web companies to spend big bucks on expensive sites has gone, he says.
Gone, too, are the ridiculously high salaries: “During the great boom you could walk straight out of high school and straight into a job and earn a lot of money, but that has passed as the industry has matured,” says Webster.
Those in the industry say graduates can now expect a salary of $35,000-$40,000, up to $50,000 with a few years’ experience, and from $60,000 to $90,000 for specialist and proven design experience.
The post-tech wreck environment is breeding better qualified and more professional Web designers, as well. Broad skills in programs such as Flash, Java and Cold Fusion, and an understanding of HTML (hyper text markup language), are prerequisites if you want to lead the pack. But an understanding of design principles is becoming crucial as companies realise that having a pretty Web site doesn’t necessarily get consumers to buy a product or use a service.
Just like the early days of desktop publishing when all you needed were Pagemaker skills to land a job the Web was a crude design environment, says Webster. “If you want to be a Web designer, it has moved beyond just being able to do the mechanics. You need a reasonably broad understanding of basic design and usability principles.”
Sharyn Maddison, 31, is a senior Web designer at the Sydney Internet design agency red square. She had no previous Web experience and “got in through the boom when there were not a lot of people around”.
Before joining red square, she worked as a layout artist for a newspaper, in the creative department of an ad agency, and was a marketing manager for a computer company.
Red square, which last year won the AIMIA Award for Excellence in a Lifestyle Site for its Web site for travel magazine Backpacker Essentials, works on Cold-Fusion-based, information-heavy Web sites such as Qantas and YHA, says Maddison.
“The reason that we’re successful is that everyone here specialises in a particular area. I’m a designer, but we have really good HTML coders, Cold Fusion experts … we’re not each a jack of all trades,” says Maddison. “It’s pretty good to pick something that you’re particularly talented at and specialise.”
Derek Ellis, creative director and co-founder of the Web design company Massive, says strong visual communication skills are more important than technical skills.
“It’s going to become a lot more competitive, design wise the standard is definitely increasing,” says Ellis. “We would assume that [Web designers] would know Photoshop, Illustrator and Freehand inside out. But what we look for is more of a design application as opposed to technical proficiency,” he says, adding that companies may employ experts in certain programs such as Flash.
Massive has eight full-time Web designers and won the Australian Interactive Multimedia Industry Association (AIMIA) Award for Excellence in an Event Site last year for Big Brother.
The Massive designer who created the Big Brother Web site didn’t have any HTML experience initially, says Ellis.
Lynne Spender, executive director of AIMIA, says e-commerce is one of the next big opportunities for Web designers. “The big growth in Web sites over the next 12 months is actually going to be existing companies adding an e-commerce facility to their Web site,” she says.
As education institutions go online, “information architects” people skilled in presenting text in an interactive and interesting way will also be in demand as online chat rooms, noticeboards and video classes are established, says Spender.
She also sees work opening up in the area of digital content for interactive TV: “It’s the same sort of skills [as a Web designer] in lots of ways because what you’re doing is bringing the TV to be more like an Internet screen.”
In terms of personal attributes, teamwork skills are essential, she says, adding that they were greatly emphasised in an AIMIA forum of industry MDs and Web students last year. “The guys were saying, `yes, we want you to be brilliant in terms of creativity and, yes, we want you to know all about the functionality of the Web site, but mostly we want you to need to be a team player because multimedia is a collaborative process’.”