The Hybrid Designer

A fine kettle of fish

Recently, Johns Hopkins University enacted an “IT Reclassification Process” on its technology employees. The idea was to examine what technical industries outside the university system are doing, and to try and match some of the “real world” salaries and position titles and job descriptions. When done correctly, this helps with attract talent and keeps employee turnover low.

As near as I can tell, someone whom I’ve never met or spoken with, and with little understanding of what I do, looked at my job description and decided that I am a “web site designer,” perhaps because the word DreamWeaver appeared in the description. I logged into the time keeping system one day last October, and I had been magically transformed from my department’s “web development coordinator” to a “web site designer.”

Which got me thinking about the roles web professionals play.

At a conference I recently attended, one of the speakers polled the audience:
“Who is a web designer?”
“Who is a web developer?”
“Who are the hardware and LAN administrators?”
“Who writes content?”

I never raised my hand – I was waiting for him to ask “Who designs AND writes code?” But, he didn’t.

He was making the point that the above mentioned groups fall under the purview of an IT department – there usually isn’t a web department separate from IT – and that designers/developers are often responsible for writing content. That’s an accurate assessment, to be sure.

I read something on Jeremy Keith‘s blog recently where he mentioned a group called “hybrid designers,” which would encompass people like myself, I suppose. Sometimes programmers back into interface design, or designers become interested in scripting and coding – either by choice or necessity. I’m not sure I like the term “hybrid designer,” although I understand what Mr. Keith was talking about.

Web development is exciting because it is all encompassing. We are designing experiences, and as such, benefit from having an understanding of how all the parts work together to achieve our goal. Volumes have been written on all the separate parts. What excites me is the act of creation from a holistic approach. To combine a beautiful, effective interface with accessible coding – to have a logical, clean site organization and to understand its impact on hardware resources – to determine the best schema for a database and create it accordingly – all this is thrilling. Flash, web standards, database design, typography and GUI design, information architecture – it’s a big tasty stew.

In my current role, I wear many hats. I have to gather and document requirements from doctors, nurses, administrative assistants and people from all walks of life. I have to advocate for patients and the end user of my work – I advocate for web accessibility. I design layouts. I communicate ideas and sell new approaches and technologies. I have to learn and understand these technologies. I live in the worlds of Microsoft, Linux and Apple. I program with ColdFusion, PHP, JavaScript and ActionScript. I use Access, SQL Server, Visual Basic and Mumps. I create animation with Flash and encode video. I produce design comps with PhotoShop and take digital photos whenever needed. I am asked to think about security and understand search engine algorithms. And that’s all before my second cup of coffee. It’s a great job – my favorites are always ones that are multifaceted.

Here’s the predicament. Those of us who are web Swiss Army knives, who engage our fields on many levels – what do we call ourselves? In my case, Coordinator wasn’t quite hands on enough – but designer is too limiting. Sure, we are developers – but we are more, too. Hybrid designers? Comprehensive developers? Web Generalists? Integration Architects? Web Experience Facilitators? InterAction Figures?

Is it not written, “This is a fine kettle of fish?”