What is it?
For a discipline that is at least 10 years old and is practised by millions of people, web design should be reaching maturity. Yet for the third year running the annual Interactive Bureau survey of the UK's top corporate websites has slammed FTSE 100 companies for lousy design, confusing navigation and basic technical flaws such as poor speed of loading and cross-browser compatibility.
The tools used in web design are cheap or free and the skills easy to acquire. The problem is with the way they are used - there is no substitute for professional training and experience.
Where did it originate?
Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen said that during the second half of the 1990s usability took second place to design and that bad design played a part in the collapse of dotcom companies because customers would not use difficult websites.
What is it for?
A good website design establishes an identity or brand, enables users to find what they want easily and provides the right balance of information on each page, requiring neither excessive scrolling nor excessive clicking. Websites will probably be linked to corporate data systems and may be used to capture information from customers, so they need to be responsive and secure.
What makes it special?
Although many of the skills are similar to those in print design, websites are dynamic and resize to fit different display devices.
Designers need to remember that users have different browsers and may change their display. For example, visually impaired people may change their default settings.
How difficult is it to master?
The most basic skill is HTML, although some courses also require a grasp of Cascading Style Sheets. There are toolsets such as Microsoft's Frontpage, Adobe's Golive and Macromedia's Dreamweaver that can provide what you need to design, build, edit and integrate web pages with the minimum of coding. But they are tools and you need to know what you are doing with them.
Where is it used?
The big web design consultancies such as Razorfish may be reduced or gone altogether, but there are still tens of thousands of small web design agencies touting for business.
Traditional IT services companies offer web design and many large companies have in-house teams or hire contractors. Web design skills are used whenever an organisation needs to communicate with its customers, partners or employees.
What systems does it run on?
Internet analyst Netcraft's June 2004 survey gave Apache 67% of the webserver market, with Microsoft at 22%. Sun and Zeus each had single-figure shares.
Not many people know...
What happened to all the people who used to work for Razorfish.
What is coming up?
Nielsen said the next web publishing breakthrough will come with better tablet computers combined with high-speed wireless connection.
There are lots of free online courses of varying merit. You can also take City & Guilds exams, HNDs, certificates, diplomas and degrees from colleges and universities. The British Council publishes a comprehensive list.
Most large independent training organisations offer web design courses, and suppliers offer training and certification in the use of their own software.
Rates of pay
Web designers can command £18,000 to £28,000, or more with good graphic design skills, or with SQL and a relational database management system qualification.