The World's Best Web Designers Are Unknown

I'm a fairly positive person, and most of the posts on this blog have been pretty positive, but today I'm feeling very negative and frustrated. I'm not going to bitch and moan, I'm going to try and give a constructive insight into the issues that I'm uncovering as I continue down the road of self employment.

How It Started

The last couple of weeks, but today in particular, I've just had too much to do. I've got accountants emailing me about late tax returns that I didn't know were due, clients emailing me about website problems, prospective clients emailing me with enquiries, other half-done things that I'm trying to complete (such as the redesign for this blog), articles that I've got to write for other websites, and personal finances that I need to sort out too. All that comes before I can even think about doing any client web design work - which is the only thing that actually pays the bills.

It's not just an issue of prioritising work either, I had a small revelation today which is this: Being the director of a business, and being a web designer are two separate full time jobs. I'm finding that I just don't have time to do both.

In particular, I'm spending a lot of time getting my name out there, marketing the business, marketing myself as an individual, and going after magazine/podcast/blog/showcase features to bolster my reputation.

But Is This The Right Direction?

This month's issue of .Net Mag has a feature article about "The World's Top 20 Web Designers" - but are they really? The list, as I've discussed with some of you on Twitter, doesn't really showcase the world's top 20 web designers, but rather the world's most famous 20 web designers. Just because you make a lot of noise in the web design industry, doesn't mean you're a good web designer. If anything it means that you're a good marketer.

Think of all the web celebs around at the moment, you know, the same ones who speak at all the conferences and are in articles such as the above. Most of them don't design websites every day, they run businesses. They understand html5 and css3, but they spend more time talking about them than they do using them.

The people who we look up to most in our industry, aren't actually the ones at the forefront of innovation on the web. It seems that the web design companies who spend less time worrying about their level of industry recognition are the ones who doing really well. Their sole focus is web design, not marketing, not social media, just web design. The world's best web designers (as individuals), are for the most part, totally unknown.

Case In Point

How many of you have heard of a web design studio called "WebHeads" ? I'm guessing not many, if any at all. They aren't part of the "scene" - but let's take a look at just a few of their clients: Intel, BBC, Daily Mirror, Mercedes, Texaco, Cisco, Planet Hollywood, and The NHS, as well as a few very successful recording artists.

Now tell me which of our beloved web celebs have a client list that's anything like that? To my knowledge, none of them can match it.

Why is that?

Questioning Goals

To "become well known in the industry" has always been one of my goals, but today I'm questioning whether or not it's worth anything. The studios with the big clients don't need to constantly fight each other on blogs about whether or not IE6 should still be supported, or why CSS frameworks are "morally wrong". They don't need to write magazine articles proclaiming the infinite size and wisdom of their own testicles.

They simply say, "Hello Nike, yes we do work with a lot of multimillion pound enterprises and we'd be more than capable of taking on your project. Oh what's that? You liked the work which we did on the new Adidas site? Well I'm sure that we can make the new Nike site even better."

No pretense, no bullshit, no preaching. An impressive client list says everything; "If these highly esteemed companies can trust us with their websites, then you can too."

In Conclusion

There's a balance that's being dramatically overlooked by a lot of people, including myself. Becoming well known in the web design industry does not equate to you being a good web designer. It also does not equate to you having a successful business. To prove this to you, here are the top 5 digital media companies in the UK for 2009, and their annual incomes:

  1. Syzygy - £12,358,000
  2. Conchango - £11,200,000
  3. Reading Room - £8,834,000
  4. Red Bee Media - £8,747,000
  5. Corporate Document Services - £4,484,000

Call me out of touch, but I hadn't heard of a single one of them until I picked up a copy of May's DesignWeek which contained the "Top 100 Consultancy Survey 2009".

When was the last time you saw any of those names on Smashing Magazine, or in .Net Magazine, or on Twitter?

I'm not saying that industry publications, people, and discussions are irrelevant. I am saying that I think we give them too much credit.

[Update]

I just wanted to include a really great comment from below by Adam Reece that I think is highly relevant to this subject:

I agree that the name of the article is definitely misleading. The names on that list are not the top 20 web designers. The question I ask is, what is the end goal for those designers on that list? Is it to become the designer with the largest list of the biggest name clients? Or is it to help the design community by providing useful tools for the everyday designers? Sure we can question the list, but we can’t take away from the designers on that list and what they have done for the community. Have we not used a “tip” or “trick” from one of the designers on that list? What is disappointing about the .NET magazine is that they don’t define what criteria they used to define this "top 20"″ list. You need to define what your goals are for your business, or for you personally. Like you noted, building a name in the design community doesn’t necessarily bring in big name clients, but is that the goal of these designers? If your goal is to get the big name clients and lots of them but you’re pissed your name isn’t on these lists, maybe you should stop paying attention to these lists, and go after clients. Figure out what your business goals are, and what your personal goals are. As a freelancer, or “business owner”, it can be hard to separate personal and business. To me, being a big name in the design industry is a personal thing because your influencing other people in the community. Sure, it helps bring in some clients since your name is out there, BUT, the companies you mentioned aren’t influencing the community and they are getting the big name clients, because that’s their BUSINESS goal. Like I said, it’s hard to separate business and personal. Loved the article and the thoughts its provoking. It’s always good to reflect on things.