Why Freelance Web Designers Need To Adjust To A Changing Market For Their Services

Will the web design industry become extinct? Will it one day no longer exist? If you’re currently a freelance web designer, will there come a day soon when there’s less work for you, or worse, none at all?

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It sounds far fetched, but it’s a serious question that should scare many in the web design industry, especially freelancers. The market we serve is a changing market and we need to adjust with it.

The last few weeks I’ve talked about the profession of web design. I talked about the overwhelming pace of technological change and I asked if your age determines how successful you can be. I started a short series on what I would tell my younger self when getting started. And I even talked about how people (our clients) hold an incorrect perception of design and consequently don’t see all the value we provide.

A recent article by Jason Santa Maria makes a point, I’ve made here before. He was talking about technology and wondering if advances in technology might make designers irrelevant. This might seem like a downer for a topic, but I do have some positive thoughts along the way about what I think this ultimately means.

Adjust or Find Yourself Out of Work

I do think a significant part of the industry could find itself out of work in the coming years if it doesn’t adjust its current practices.

Do-it-Yourself site builders and services like Squarespace have always been good enough for some people. Remember GeoCities? These services have historically been less than what you can get with custom design. They resulted in poor code and offer limited access to site files, but they were good enough for some.

That was then. DIY and hosted services have gotten a lot better, certainly good enough for many people I currently call clients. Neither will be as good as a custom design, but within a few years time, I expect the typical person wanting a website, will have more than enough tools to create a good enough site with a few button clicks.

The low end of the market is going to replace designers with turnkey and DIY solutions. It doesn’t mean web designers won’t be able to find work, but we’ll likely need to specialize more and add extra services. Instead of offering web design services alone it might be.

  • web design + seo
  • web design + marketing
  • web design + copywriting
  • web design + conversion optimization

At the high end are larger organizations. Those that understand the value of design will want custom work, but they’ll likely hire internally. When they hire out it’ll be to larger well known agencies and not freelancers.

The Low End of the Market

Again, freelancers are mainly serving the low end of the market. We build sites for less than $10k (£4k). I know I’ve built some reasonably sized sites and have built sites with some complex functionality, but most have been relatively simple. I create them for 1–3 person micro-businesses.

Perhaps I’m only thinking of my own clients, but I suspect my situation is similar to that of most freelance web designers. We typically work on smaller projects at the low end of the market.

The majority of these clients will be able to find alternatives to hiring a designer. They have options beyond hiring you or me. Some will never go for the DIY option, but many more will. Remember that most people don’t see the value of design and the alternatives are already good enough and getting better.

The Shrinking Middle

Most of the people we consider clients won’t need a custom designed site or even a customized theme. They’ll be more concerned with the overall price than the value of something they don’t always recognize. It’s hard to differentiate yourself when your value isn’t recognized.

Many will eventually move on to customizing a generic theme. Some will move on to a fully custom solution. But they’ll do so less and less. Most will be fine with a more generic solution that works well enough and doesn’t cost much.

Those that push for more will want to hire designers who offer more than most of us currently do. It’s not that we don’t offer value now. It’s that much of the value we bring isn’t entirely understood by our clients. We’re seen more as a commodity than we should be.

We need to bring more to the table to increase the perception of the value we add to a project. Unfortunately our design skills won’t be enough to differentiate us. We’ll need the seo or marketing or copywriting or whatever. We’ll need to specialize and apply in-depth knowledge to specific industries.

If You Can’t Beat Them, Serve Them

Another option is to continue to serve the low end by building the more generic solutions they’ll be using. It’s a different design problem to solve. How do you design for many instead of one? How do you design more generically and flexibly? It’s moving your design up a level in abstraction.

I can easily see a future where freelance custom design isn’t in demand all that much. Clients will have moved either higher in the market requiring additional services or lower in in the market where lower-cost options are the norm.

It isn’t hard to see today’s freelance market shrinking in the near future. It may seem crazy. How can we not have web designers with so many websites, after all? Then again content management systems reduced the need for some development work. The price for a shopping cart went from thousands of dollars to free in just a couple of years.

On the bright side if you add more value through additional services you move into a higher segment of the market. It’s also a way to differentiate yourself from your competition. Perhaps best of all you can raise your prices significantly because of the extra value you’re bringing.

I’d also think designers with more time than clients are in good position to create the themes and DIY tools the low end of the market will look for. I’d suggest anyone working as a freelance web designer or developer think more about side projects and the earning potential some have.

One more positive is we’re in a good place to set up other online businesses for ourselves. We know design and development and how the web works. A large part of any online business is the website. We’re actually in pretty good position to compete with people who are currently potential clients. Not that we want to compete with our clients, but in many cases we could.

Closing Thoughts

I think the web design industry as we currently know it may look different in the not too distant future. We’re an industry filled with freelancers who are designing and developing relatively small sites for micro-businesses. They may not seem small and simple while we’re working on them, but in comparison to what’s out there, they are.

I think clients for this part of the market will shrink of not entirely disappear in the years ahead. At the very least we’ll need to adjust to continue serving it.

We’re in a good place given our skills and the understanding we have about the web. Even if the clients we serve today shrink in numbers to the point where we can’t build a business around serving them, there will still be many opportunities for our skill set.

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  1. We’ve been trying to educate our clients for years about custom design, but it’s changing. Maybe now, good enough really is good enough (at least for the smaller biz). With thousand of templates to choose from that are getting better every day, you’d be crazy NOT to consider it.

    What I see happening is the design funnel keeps narrowing, for all designers. As biz’s choose a template and work slows, many jump to another design niche, joining an already saturated design niche. Driving our prices down even further and, like you said, adding to the image of ‘designer as commodity.’

    Great article! Thanks

    • It sounds like we agree and see the same things happening. As much as I believe custom design is the better option, it’s hard to tell someone just starting out they have to invest thousands in a site, while they’re still trying to figure out a business model.

      I think there will always be custom designers, but more and more businesses will go for an off the shelf solution first and fewer and fewer will go on to do custom work. It’s probably a good time thinking how you can either serve this market or find a niche market.

  2. Great article – I found myself nodding the whole way through.

    I think that designers and small shops in our particular stratum are being squeezed from all directions right now.

    At the extreme low end there is the new breed of sitebuilder tools – Wix, SquareSpace, etc.
    I don’t blame a small business owner for choosing to pay $9/mo to one of those services for a site that is “good enough”, rather than fork over $2-4K to a designer.

    Just above the sitebuilder tools you have the thousands of people who are slapping up Wordpress template sites for $295 each. (Check the ads on Craigslist sometime – the competition at that level is unbelievable.)

    On the high end, the big agencies are being forced to scramble for projects as well because many of their clients are now building in-house teams. So, the agencies are willing to do work they normally wouldn’t do for prices that are lower than they’re used to.

    And then you have us. Just as custom sites have gotten more complex and time-consuming to develop (responsive design, front-end Javascript frameworks, etc), we’re getting hammered with price competition from above *and* below.

    If anything, I think the competition for the lower end of the market will only become more intense. I think the only way to enter that market – as you said – is to build some of the tools that others are using to build sites.

    I suspect the high end situation will resolve itself eventually. Time will tell whether how many small business website designers survive in the meantime.

    • Thanks Derrick. Sounds like we’re in agreement. In fact many of the points you make are included in a series about the same subject I wrote/recorded at the start of this year.

      This is the last post in the series. I talk about how I want to transition my own business.

      If you look at the paragraph that starts “I spent the rest of January…” there are 4 links and they link to the first 4 posts in the series.

      I talked about how we’re sitting in the middle and getting hit at both ends. I think there are solutions on either end, but I do think the middle is going to go away.

      Whether we like it or not there are some low cost solutions that are good enough for most of the people who have been hiring us. I think more people will choose those less expensive options in the future.

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