There was a time, not too long ago, when the front-end designer was considered a commodity. There wasn't a lot of complexity to the job; it was more like drafting on a piece of paper. There simply weren't that many frameworks to build upon. They worked on a two dimensional screen, like a painting, and the designer or developer put the pixels where they belonged. The heavy lifting fell to the back-end developer doing the custom coding.
Today, instead of creating a painting, the front-end designer must think more like a video producer dealing with movement, HTML5, CSS3, responsive design, and interactivity. These innovations, and more, have blurred the lines between development and design. Now there is much more emphasis on the capabilities of a front-end themer, who implements the design. There will, of course, always be a demand for the back-end developer who will push the envelope in new and exciting ways. Now, though, with the tremendously expanded capabilities of new browsers, themers are pushing the envelope as well.
Designing for the client's needs
Our client, Capsule Tech, Inc., wanted to tell their story visually. They educated the designer and myself on their business, in order to make us more comfortable with understanding who they are, and who their clients are. When it came time to implement the design of their site, we had to be sure that fancy visuals didn't get in the way of their branding message which was, after all, the purpose of their website. Who Capsule is, what they do, and how they will serve their clients is far more important to the website than a trendy, Parallax effect, which will wow the visitor for 30 seconds, but tell them nothing.
It is always exciting to go through the design discovery process with a client. The more we understood their messaging goals, the clearer both sides saw how to convey it. We love to leverage the latest technologies, and build the most exciting looking websites imaginable, but we have to meet the client's needs above all else.
Just because you can do something, doesn't mean that you should. The features on your website have to provide value. Build a flexible platform that's easily navigable. Make it responsive, fast, informative, and helpful. You can do all that and still make it handsome to look at. It's a balance. Much of the responsibility for accomplishing this falls on the designer.
Looking toward the future
Responsive design really drove the changes in theming over the last five years. While interactive features were previously available due to Flash, they proved to be less than reliable, and it wasn't well supported. Suddenly, industry wide, responsive design became widely accepted. Recognizing the need to be consistent across all platforms and browsers, technology solutions became increasingly sophisticated, striving to meet the demands.
Ultimately, I see development becoming very design heavy. Thanks to the Meta that they collect, Google will lead the way in telling your audience all about you, and disseminating the critical information. Who you are, where you are located, your hours of operation, what you specialize in '- all of this data and more will be collected and made available as an informational website.
The need to integrate web design and development with marketing will only grow in the future. Since the facts of your business will already be known, your actual website will be designed specifically to appeal to your audience. The job of the front-end developer will be to make the site fun, interactive, and tell the story visually. This is where the art of design can propel the narrative, and motivate the visitor into becoming a customer. No search engine is ever likely to provide that level of personalization.