Why Your HTML And CSS Mastery Are Not Enough

Shortly after the new year started, Jeff Croft wrote an article titled, Web Standards Killed The HTML Star, which attracted my attention. It was’t so much for what the article was specifically about, but because what it said connected to something I wrote around the same time on design becoming a commodity.

Note: This post includes an audio version. If you don’t see the audio above, Click here to listen.

Let me walk you through the ideas in Jeff’s article and then talk about the connection to my article.

HTML and CSS Gurus Need Not Apply

Over the years there have been many front end developers who’ve mastered html and css to do their work. They’ve earned guru status by understanding browser quirks and quirks in the the html and css languages.

I can remember a time not long ago developing sites in multiple browsers. You’d do a few things in Firefox and then test your work on IE or Safari before adding a few more things while checking Firefox again.

There’s less need for that today thanks to web standards. I now typically build a site to the standards in any browser and little needs to be changed after checking another. In fact, I now rarely test in other browsers until the end.

Web standards have really reduced the need for the guru who’s html and css mastery comes from knowing quirks. That means more people can enter the field of web design, because less mastery of html and css is required.

The point of Jeff’s article is that more competition means the gurus of today need to diversify their skills if they want to remain employed.

Design is Being Commoditized

Around the same time Jeff was publishing his article, I was publishing one of my own. Mine talked about how the market for web design services is maturing and segmenting and how a segment of the market is seeking commodity design.

Customers in the low end of the market will sooner use things like WordPress themes and services like Squarespace and their design tools. In large part that’s due to the lower cost, but cost alone isn’t driving this change.

These low cost solutions may not be as good as a custom design at the high end of the market, but they have become good enough for many and probably most. They really have improved beyond the minimum level of good enough.

The need to diversify as a result of standards reducing gurus is really part of this same discussion. It’s how we need to think about our services and how we need to think about running our businesses in the years ahead.

I think the competition Jeff talks about won’t necessarily come only from people offering design services. Some of it will certainly come from more designers entering the industry, but some will come from tools that can do the job well enough for both less experienced designers and even our customers who will do more of the work on their own.

What Can You Master

There’s still a lot to master in regards to html and css even as the standards have reduced the need to master quirks. It’s not as though all the quirks have gone away or will go away any time soon. But there are other things you can do.

First standards don’t make it easier to write code that’s

  • modular
  • efficient
  • maintainable
  • performant

Each of these things has been part of the mastery of html and css and will continue to be part of them in the future.

We can look deeper in the specs. There’s more in them than many of us realize. Recently I wrote an article for Webdesign Tuts+ about the z-index property. The comments show that many designers weren’t aware of everything associated with z-index. I know I wasn’t before spending time in the spec.

It’s similar for many other properties. There are more layers and depth to much of the code we work with, which leaves plenty of room for mastery.

You can master how html and css are combined into effective layouts. Standards won’t make our layouts better by default.

You can also gain css mastery by keeping up with new specs and looking ahead. Things like flexbox, css grids, regions, shapes, exclusions, and many more things aren’t commonly used yet. The majority of designers and front end developers won’t know how to work with them at first. You can stay ahead of the curve to gain mastery over your craft.

Better Tools are Coming

We should keep in mind that the tools to develop sites are getting better and making it easier for non-developers to enter the field. WYSIWYG editors are producing better code. Consider Macaw, which might become a tool many of us are using a year or two down the road.

Tools like these will open the industry to more people who don’t need to master html and css in order to develop sites. A few of these tools are already good enough for some and will only become good enough for more.

I’ve talked a lot about how I think designers should know how to code. I don’t think it’s a requirement to design, but understanding code only makes you a better designer. Some of the tools that will come will probably reduce the reason to learn code. The tool will produce good enough code and perhaps the extra knowledge won’t take you as far.

And our customers will also have access to these tools and will use them. They won’t be designers and may not design the greatest sites, but they will have tools to develop their designs beyond an acceptable level.

It’s Time to Do More

We need to be thinking about what we can add above and beyond our current skill set to push ourselves further up the market. Learning more languages and writing better code are a start. Another option is that we should be developing more of the tools the low end uses.

We need different and more diverse skills. If all your html and css mastery is based on knowing a few quirks you may be in trouble. You’re going to face increased competition from more people finding it easier to be designers and from your clients turning to tools instead of you.

We’re going to get hit at both ends. There will be a greater supply of web designers and a reduced demand for their services. It’s in our best interests to learn a wider set of disciplines and appeal to different segments of the market that will still appreciate custom design.

Jeff’s article started a conversation. I’ll leave you with a few of the articles I found that continued the discussion.

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