an AI generated image of an etherial woman with eyes closed floating in digital space

AI & The Future Of Custom Web Design & The Web Development Agency Model

David Gibson

When I started Propeller in 1997, few even knew what a website was and fewer realized we were in the midst of a transition into the Information Age, fuelded by the Internet. Fast forward 27 years (and half my life) and we are still maintaining our position ahead of the curve as we face the dawn of yet another age, the AI Age.

As web geeks we've always been early adopters. We were early to mobile, and more recently we're early leaders in website accessibility and ADA compliance. I'm not trying to brag or claim to be a digital prophet. Leaders of website development companies have to always maintain a vigilant eye on the horizon, which today is dominated by AI. And it takes no crystal ball to see the tsunami of opportunity matched only by the unprecedented disruption it will bring to web design agencies as it will to every company in every sector.

Putting the existential debates of AI aside, more practically, I've been projecting ahead to predict how this transformational technology will impact the industry of web development at the 30,000 foot level, and more pragmatically and how we can use AI. How can we use it to make my team more efficient? How can we use it to deliver better websites for our clients? How can we utilize AI without losing the human touch and creativity that will continue to set our custom web design apart?

The Future of AI in Web Design

Given the rate of AI innovation we've seen in the past 12 months, one must expect this rate to grow exponentially - at a rate never seen before. So, again, putting those existential questions aside, I expect we will soon see the current beta-stage challenges such as security, privacy, accuracy and hallucinations solved. We will soon have personal assistants/agents who will know both our personal and professional history, preferences and be able to apply a level of expertise in virtually any role to not just guide us but also act on our behalf. With those issues resolved and these new powers realized, trust should quickly build and with it adoption at the corporate and individual levels. It's with these assumptions in mind that inform these ideas of what's to come.

The Role of AI in Building Custom Websites

AI can already assist in every corner of a web development agency - or any company. From the strategic levels of research, analysis, planning to the tactical levels of marketing, project management, design, programming, QA, and back-office tasks such as HR, legal, billing and bookkeeping. The point is that AI is and will grow to be a stronger asset in managing tasks related to both running an efficient web development agency, and delivering a better product and service for clients. And I look forward to reducing the burden of repetitive menial tasks for myself and my team, freeing us to focus our attention on more strategic roles that add greater value and enjoyment in our work.

I don't want developers to ever have to write code from scratch again. I want them to focus on using their human creativity to improve current products and imagine new applications.

Similarly, I want web designers to be able to use AI as they would a junior designer to create initial drafts based on the unique aspects of each client's brand, customers and competition. To go from an idea in the eye of the designer to a working interactive experience in moments. To ideate, test, fail, and adapt within moments. Think of the potential for creative innovation with such an accellerated learning curve!

In particular, I'm quite excited about how AI can be used to create dynamic and diverse user "personas"- representing the many types of users in the process of web design, and far broader than those used today. Personas that are not just demographically sensitive to a broader range of cultures, languages, education, income and orientation, but which also focus on age and ability. The needs of young users are quite different from seniors. And of course, the ultimate test for universal usability is accessibility, such that people with disabilities are able to enjoy equal access and enjoyment of each digital space we design. That's the ultimate win and sign of excellence.

Throughout the web development process, AI can help ensure that universal design is applied and properly tested for, ultimately creating more inclusive and effective digital experiences for every user.

And as we see already today, AI can be effectively used for creating engaging content. We've seen how strong AI's writing skills are. I've personally created images with AI that blow my mind in realism, composition, and artistic skill. And we will soon see AI generated video that will really blow our minds.

With no question, AI will provide web development team members with new super powers. And yes, unfortunately the cost will be jobs. Many jobs. Soon the web agency will be compressed down to a very small and efficient AI adapted team composed of the key members who own the sales and client relationships, the creative and technical vision, and the managers who orchestrate it all. It's a good time to be a small and nimble AI adaptive web design agency.

The Value of Human Relationships, Creativity, and Craftsmanship

While AI will undoubtedly transform the web development industry, it's important to recognize that it has and will continue to have its limitations in the foreseeable future. Not all jobs will be lost to AI, and the transition will be over time. And there will be many jobs that AI might never replace. I only say might because once Artificial General Intelligence hits and outpaces the capacity of the human mind, all bets are off.

AI cannot replace the value of human relationships.

AI cannot replace the intuition of an account manager who can take a seed of an idea and collaborate with a client to give it life. AI cannot connect with clients sharing life stories over time to eventually become trusted friends. Relationships are essential to the success of any creative agency.

AI cannot replace a good designer.

Yes, AI can create formulaic designs based on all the principles of design, color, typography and usability and apply that to a client's brand guide, competitive survey, customer personas, and past analytics data. It will be able to create better and better initial drafts - just as a junior designer does over time. But it takes a creative web designer to innovate, imagine, and create something original.

AI Cannot Replace Craftsmanship

photo of Dave and Austin at trade show booth 2022

I came across this old photo at our first trade show and noticed the printed screenshot of our homepage behind me showing the tagline "craftsmanship :: creativity :: experience". I think this was taken in 2002.

As AI becomes more prevalent in web design, I think craftsmanship will be a key differentiator between those who simply use AI-powered tools and those who leverage AI to enhance their creative process. While AI can automate certain tasks and generate design elements, it lacks the human touch, empathy, and understanding of context that are essential to crafting the types of web experiences that will also differentiate our clients from their competitors.

Web designers who embody craftsmanship will use AI as a tool to streamline their workflow and explore new possibilities, but they will not rely on it entirely. They will apply their expertise, creativity, and problem-solving skills to ensure that every aspect of the website is carefully considered and executed with precision.

Craftsmanship is a timeless quality that will endure. 

Wrap Up

While the AI Age transition will be bumpy, I think that web design agencies like us that are nimble, adaptive and committed to blending the best of AI innovation with the irreplaceable value of human expertise, relationships and craftsmanship will not just survive, but thrive.

By embracing AI as a tool while continuing to prioritize the human touch, I believe that we can deliver exceptional, accessible, and engaging custom web solutions that meet our clients' expectations and drive their success.

And we are excited to be again ahead of the curve of this transformational time in history - from the Information Age into the AI Age, we look forward to helping our clients navigate the future of custom web development, just as we have for nearly three decades. As a forward-thinking company, we are committed to exploring the possibilities that AI presents while celebrating the irreplaceable value of human ingenuity and relationships.