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What Does it Mean to be a Designer for today’s Wide World of the Web?

This past July, I found myself in Richmond, Virgina, conducting a focus group for a group of Web technology instructors. They were from the state, and had been teaching XHTML, blogging, and e-commerce for the Certified Internet Web Professional (CIW) Web design program for about two years. We had just finished up the second day of the group, and the session had been quite a bit of fun. We had shared ideas not only about how to do Web design, but also how to teach it to students in an entertaining way.

As I was getting ready to leave, Lee Baber, a secondary education instructor from Virginia, took the opportunity to introduce me to one of her students. This student had shown some real promise as a Web designer, and Lee wanted me to take a look at some of the sites he had created. Sure enough, the student did, in fact, show some real promise. The sites he showed me weren't comprised of Flash (a common failing of sites created by young designers), they worked in multiple browsers, and even the text on the site was clearly written. Even though I was a bit tired, I felt myself getting excited as I looked over the pages.

As I complimented the student, he asked me “So, what do I need in order to be a successful Web designer?” I successfully resisted the temptation to say “A bunch of talent, lots of persistence, and at least a little luck,” and then turn away. In somewhat of a rush, I reeled off a few of the usual elements:

  •  Don't get too caught up in GUI-based editors such as DreamWeaver/CS3, FrontPage and the like. Focus on creating XHTML right out of a text editor, or even by using Firefox add-ons such as EditCSS, and Platypus, and Greasemonkey.
  •  Learn some open source: Don't just learn what vendors are doing. The open source world has dozens – hundreds – of projects that will help you excel.
  •  Continue developing your writing skills: Nothing complements an easy-to-navigate site like pithy prose in these days of Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
  •  Learn about accessibility: As the baby boomers get older, more and more money will be available to the Web designer who can create Web sites accessible to reach into the wallet of the “Me Generation.”
  •  Know how to plan a project: It's not enough to be a brilliant designer. You've got to know how to initiate, lead, and manage a project. The most brilliant Flex developer in the world is useless to an organization if he or she can't figure out how to contribute meaningfully to a project.
  •  Develop some business savvy: Entrepreneurship is essential for an individual to succeed as a Web designer, even if he or she wants to work in a larger corporation; in skilled hands, a Web page or site has the power to help a business's bottom line; a true Web designer should know when and how to create pages that fulfill the goals of a business.

Then my co-worker, Stephen Schneiter, added the most useful observation I had heard that day. He basically said that a Web designer needs to make sure not to ignore Web developer skills. Any savvy Web designer needs to have a solid background in JavaScript, a Web application language such as PHP or .NET ASP, and then a working knowledge of databases, such as MySQL or Oracle.

Not just in Virginia

I'm sure that Lee's student walked away a bit overwhelmed with all of the information we threw at him. But I know he heard loud and clear what it means to be a Web developer in 2007. This past summer, I had similar conversations in San Francisco, Edinburgh, and Beijing. Sometimes, I spoke with independent Web designers who lived in Montreal. At other times, I consulted with designers from large multinational companies based in London. One of the consistent messages I was able to gather is that today's successful, creative and “artsy” Web designer is much more than a person with an eye for designing cool looking pages. The Web designer's art now reaches into the business and programming worlds.

Today's workplace: The global knowledge economy

In today's global workplace, the most valued workers must focus on adding value to their companies, not just on fulfilling a job role. The economist Peter Drucker first introduced the terms “knowledge economy” and “knowledge worker” in his 1959 book Landmarks of Tomorrow. Drucker defined a knowledge worker as anyone who has a degree of autonomy in making decisions and who knows how to collaborate. These people work proactively, take risks, and learn from their mistakes and those of others. They regard mistakes less as obstacles, and more as evidence that they are learning and will eventually get things right. They also know that information has a short shelf life, and that value must always be added in order for the information to remain relevant.

The knowledge worker is the opposite of the production worker. While necessary, a production worker performs repetitive tasks within a narrowly defined field. These are the workers most likely to be outsourced, or replaced by automation. When Drucker first coined the term “knowledge worker,” he defined it narrowly, applying it to lawyers, doctors, diplomats and marketing professionals. Over the past 30 years, however, this narrow definition has been expanded due to necessity, because many workers — including Web designers — need to adopt the same skills as knowledge workers to keep their jobs.

Challenges to Web designers

  • I have seen how today's workplace exerts unique pressures on Web designers. The most pressing challenges include:
  • Understanding project management. Web designers need to know how to lead, and how to be led, during complex design projects.
  • Interdiscipline communication. Web designers need to explain their needs to both technical and non-technical individuals. They also need to understand how their activities affect others. This means that as a knowledge worker, the Web designer needs to know more than just his or her own job description in order to remain competitive. Web designers also need to know how to manage expectations and explain the ramifications of their activities to marketing directors, public relations specialists, server administrators and security specialists.
  • Adapting to constantly changing technology. Increasingly, knowledge workers need to know the underlying technologies and principles used by today's applications in order to remain relevant to their employers. This becomes more important as technologies are continually introduced and updated.

Furthermore, areas that are increasingly important to understand in regards to Web design include:

Usability analysis: Part of the field of Search Engine Optimization (SEO), this particular form of analysis focuses on making sites more efficiently attract individuals and search engines.

  • Open source: While many beginning and advanced designers and developers try to remain firmly within a vendor's world (e.g., Adobe CS3, Microsoft .NET), the world of open source offers extremely robust tools that are ignored at their peril.
  • E-learning and instructional design: The Web has been used for a decade to provide sophisticated e-learning. Many accepted standards and practices exist, including SCORM 2004. But there are always new standards and practices.
  • Social networking: Perhaps the most exciting element of the Web, social networking (often called “Web 2.0” involves using the Web to build communities.

How do you get there?

One of the questions I'm often asked is, where exactly can people receive an education about these essential Web design and development tasks? While there are many ad-hoc and even some good partial solutions, CIW presents the most comprehensive Web technology available today. It's a global program, which has allowed us to create the Master CIW v5 Designer certification, we have kept these challenges in mind.

Master CIW v5 Designer: An overview

The Master CIW v5 Designer certification is one of eight professional job-role certifications offered by CIW. You become a Master CIW v5 Designer by passing three exams:

  • CIW v5 Foundations
  • CIW v5 Site Designer
  • CIW v5 E-Commerce Designer

CIW v5 Foundations

Foundations is designed to be the first step in creating a knowledge worker. The exam verifies that workers understand how their work affects others, from non-technical marketers to networking professionals. In the Foundations curriculum, students learn the following:

  • Project management. Students learn about project teams, leadership and productivity.
  • Internet client configuration. Foundations teaches about various software, platforms and tools.
  • XHTML, and essential design and programming concepts. Students also learn the fundamentals of how Web servers work with technologies such as PHP, Java and .NET.
  • Basic networking. Foundations teaches practical networking knowledge that allows workers to focus on Web design tasks.

My experience has led me to see the value of Foundations. Even though 65% of all workers in North America and 50% of workers in the European Union use the Web every day on the job, few know how to troubleshoot common problems with the basic tools such as Web browsers and e-mail applications.

Just last month, I worked with the owner of a bed and breakfast in England who uses his Web site to generate just over half of his business. He was frustrated by his e-mail application because he could not use it to communicate with 15% of the people who had visited his site. The application was automatically converting all attachments to an unreadable format that his customers couldn't open. I helped him make a simple change to his client, and then introduced him to an alternative open-source e-mail and news client. The B&B owner was quite grateful because now he could stop losing Web-based business. My point? If he had the CIW Foundations skills, he could have solved the problem quickly without frustrating his customers. His lack of knowledge directly affected his Web-based revenue. I am convinced that any business that has a significant number of CIW v5 Foundations workers will operate much more efficiently.

CIW v5 Site Designer

For too long, certifications have focused on the latest features, rather than on the essential product elements for the job. Web professionals can waste enormous amounts of time wandering the deserts of XHTML and the ever-multiplying features of popular development applications, and thus lose focus on their jobs. At CIW, we have found ways to drill down to the essential skills that can be applied in various development applications, from Macromedia Flash to the GIMP to Microsoft FrontPage. These skills include determining the intended audience, creating industry-standard code, and ensuring that Web pages are accessible by all visitors. The CIW v5 Site Designer exam validates these essential skills.

CIW is vendor-neutral, but that does not mean that it is vendor-absent. For example, we offer training in open-source editors and applications, but also provide instruction in using the latest versions of popular vendor tools. Our approach ensures that we remain the leading vendor-neutral Web certification.

I recently spoke with a friend who supervises a Web design team. One of his newest team members had trouble publishing a Web page to the staging server, for which his excuse was: "I don't know much about that stuff. I'm a design person.” He was indeed a very good designer. However, he was not as effective an employee because he had a very narrow definition of his job role — one that his employer did not share. CIW helps candidates prepare for the expectations of today's business environment.

CIW v5 E-Commerce Designer

The E-Commerce Designer exam measures an individual’s ability to generate revenue on the Web. Candidates must demonstrate essential business-to-consumer (B2C) knowledge and skills, including creating payment gateways, marketing products and selecting the right product mix. They also must grasp key business-to-business (B2B) concepts, including supply-chain management, electronic data interchange (EDI) and localization issues.

Certification candidates must know how to analyze hit patterns and click-through patterns, as well as conduct site optimization. Aside from knowing how to secure transactions through Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), they will need to know the steps to take when a security breach occurs. A person who has earned the E-Commerce Designer certification is amply prepared to become a Web entrepreneur or to collaborate with a team of experts to enable e-commerce on a corporate site.

Finally, CIW reflects the growth of e-learning in the e-commerce space by requiring knowledge of Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM), and how to avoid common mistakes as you market and present e-learning. Once candidates show their knowledge of e-commerce by passing this third exam, they will be awarded the Master CIW v5 Designer certification.

A Master CIW Designer was once tasked with creating a self-study kit in e-learning format. She decided to use a virtual lab provider that made it possible for self-study students to log on and control remote computers as if they were sitting in front of them. She ran into a problem, however: Students wanted to save the pages they created for later use. The virtual lab provider had no real way to save the students’ data, which would be destroyed each time they logged out.

Always the proactive worker, the Master CIW Designer worked out a solution with the provider: The virtual lab provider would instruct to students how to upload their completed pages to an FTP account. That way, students could save their data.

But then, our Master CIW Designer took a step that transformed her into a knowledge worker: She realized that FTP in and of itself isn't a very cool technology, but that blogging is. She decided to have students create an account with a well-known blogging site. The technology used (FTP) remained the same, but now it had a much more appealing name that made the students more interested in using the technology  — and reframed the e-learning self-study kit as a more marketable product. In this way, a “mere” e-commerce worker turned a technical challenge into an opportunity to add value to an existing product.

Conclusion:CIW was created to help Web designers excel in the 21st-century workplace. We have based our courseware and exams on detailed job task analyses and surveys. Our success in creating key partnerships in industry, academia, non-profit organizations and government proves that our unique approach to certification meets the needs of today's workplace. CIW certificate holders are prepared with interdisciplinary knowledge that allows them to be proactive, sift information and add value to their organizations.

CIW has seen worldwide adoption. Why? For one, because CIW requires knowledge of essential best practices and technologies. But most importantly, it requires its candidates to understand the nature of today's knowledge economy.

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