In 2003, my wife Lowri and I went to a christening party. We were friends of the hosts but we knew almost no-one else there. Sitting next to me was a thirty-something woman and her husband, both dressed in the corporate ‘smart casual’ uniform: Jersey, knitwear, and ready-faded jeans for her, formal shoes and tucked-in formal shirt for him (plus the jeans of course; that’s the casual bit). Both appeared polite, neutral, and neat in every respect.
I smiled and said hello, and asked how they knew our hosts. The conversation stalled pretty quickly the way all conversations will when only one participant is engaged. I persevered, asked about their children who they mentioned, trying to be a good friend to our hosts by being friendly to other guests. It must have prompted her to reciprocate. With reluctant interest she asked the default question: ‘What do you do?’ I paused, uncertain for a second. ‘I’m a web designer’ I managed after a bit of nervous confusion at what exactly it was that I did. Her face managed to drop even as she smiled condescendingly. ‘Oh. White backgrounds!’ she replied with a mixture of scorn and delight. I paused. ‘Much of the time’, I nodded with an attempt at a self-deprecating smile, trying to maintain the camaraderie of the occasion. ‘What do you do?’ I asked, curious to see where her dismissal was coming from. ‘I’m the creative director for … agency’ she said smugly, overbearingly confident in the knowledge that she had a trump card, and had played it. The conversation was over.
I’d like to say her reaction didn’t matter to me, but it did. It stung to be regarded so disdainfully by someone who I would naturally have considered a colleague. I thought to try and explain. To mention how I started in print, too. To find out why she had such little respect for web design, but that was me wanting to be understood. I already knew why. Anything I said would sound defensive. She may have been rude, but at least she was honest.
I am a web designer. I neither concentrate on the party venue, food, music, guest list, or entertainment, but on it all. On the feeling people enter with and walk away remembering. That’s my job. It’s probably yours too.
I’m self-actualised, without the stamp of approval from any guild, curriculum authority, or academic institution. I’m web taught. Colleague taught. Empirically taught. Tempered by over fifteen years of failed experiments on late nights with misbehaving browsers. I learnt how to create venues because none existed. I learnt what music to play for the people I wanted at the event, and how to keep them entertained when they arrived. I empathised, failed, re-empathised, and did it again. I make sites that work. That’s my certificate. That’s my validation.
I try, just like you, to imbue my practice with an abiding sense of responsibility for the universality of the Web as Tim Berners-Lee described it. After all, it’s that very universality that’s allowed our profession and the Web to thrive. From the founding of the W3C in 1994, to Mosaic shipping with
<img> tag support in 1993, to the Web Standards Project in 1998, and the CSS Zen Garden in 2003, those who care have been instrumental in shaping the Web. Web designers included. In more recent times I look to the web type revolution, driven and curated by both web designers, developers, and the typography community. Again, we’re teaching ourselves. The venues are open to all, and getting more amazing by the day.
Apart from the sites we’ve built, all the best peripheral resources that support our work are made by us. We’ve contributed vast amounts of code to our collective toolkit. We’ve created inspirational conferences like Brooklyn Beta, New Adventures, Web Directions, Build, An Event Apart, dConstruct, and Webstock. As a group, we’ve produced, written-for, and supported forward-thinking magazines like A List Apart, 8 Faces, Smashing Mag, and The Manual. We’ve written the books that distill our knowledge either independently or with publishers from our own community like Five Simple Steps and A Book Apart. We’ve created services and tools like jQuery, Fontdeck, Typekit, Hashgrid, Teuxdeux, and Firebug. That’s just a sample. There’s so many I haven’t mentioned. We did these things. What an extraordinary industry.
I know I flushed with anger and embarrassment that day at the christening party. Afterwards, I started to look a little deeper into what I do. I started to ask what exactly it means to be a web designer. I started to realise how extraordinary our community is. How extraordinary this profession is that we’ve created. How good the work is that we do. How delightful it is when it does work; for audiences, clients, and us. How fantastic it is that I help build the Web. Long may that feeling last. May it never go away. There’s so much still to learn, create, and make. This is
my party. Hi, I’m Jon; my friends and I are making Mapalong, and I’m a web designer.