Does Your Age Determine How Well You Can Design And Develop Websites?

Is it possible that web design and web development are careers for the young and those of us past a certain age might as well get out because we’ve probably gone as far as we can go?


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Last week’s show about feeling overwhelmed with all there is to learn and how you can continue to learn despite less patience for learning curves, reminded me of a Boagworld podcast from about a year ago. In the podcast Paul and Marcus ask and answer the question “is web design a young person’s game?”

The reminder led me to revive some notes I made last year after listening to the show and here we are. Given I’m not among the young up and coming group of web designers you can probably guess that I don’t agree with the idea that only the young can survive in this industry.

Before getting to that though, we should think about the pros and cons of being younger and older.

Pros and Cons of Being Young and Old

There are pros and cons at any age. If you’re younger you have more energy and are probably in better shape than you’ll be when older. You usually have less responsibilities when younger and often it means you’re less responsible. Not everyone, but most of us are less responsible when younger than when older.

When younger you aren’t settled in your ways. You’re more open to changes in your environment, in you, and in general. You’re quicker to adapt and learn as a result of being more open to changes.

All that extra energy makes it easier to work more hours, stay up late, and put in extra time. When younger you probably don’t have a family, which again allows more time for work.

Older people don’t have the same energy, but what they do have is experience. Older people likely have more wisdom and confidence. They typically have more responsibilities, perhaps a family, that also leads them to being more responsible. When older you’re usually better at dealing with the issues of business and life.

Your experience should make you more efficient. You know yourself and should be able to streamline the learning process to suit you. Maybe you don’t have as much time or patience for learning, but you shouldn’t need as much of either as you used to.

In the podcast, I think it was Marcus who mentioned big successes usually come to younger people. I think it is often true that the best and brightest do their most revolutionary work when younger. Think of large tech companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook. Now think of the ages of the founders of each company at the time the company was founded.

While people sometimes have the most success when younger, I think it’s more a case of certain kinds of things coming from younger people. The truly new and original ideas likely come from the young, but that doesn’t mean the older can’t also succeed. There are pros and cons to being any age.

Play to Your Strengths

As someone who gets older every day, I can tell you my energy and ability to change and learn aren’t what they once were. At the same time I’m definitely more experienced and don’t need as much energy as I used to need to get things done.

I’d like to think I’m smarter about how I learn and work than I used to be and that I can get more done now in the same amount of time.

I am more set in my ways, but I am still open to change where design and development is concerned. I did follow my passion into this field and realize part of what it means to build websites is constantly learning how to do it better. My passion means I enjoy the learning.

Let me offer a sports analogy and compare baseball and tennis. In general athletes peak in their sports at different ages. All sports rely on athleticism and experience, but they require each in different amounts.

Tennis players often peak in their early twenties or even their late teens. Some of the best players are considered old and retire before turning 30. Peak tennis is closely tied to the athletic ability of the player.

In comparison, baseball relies more on experience. It certainly require athleticism, but baseball is a sport where experience can matter a lot. Learning the tendencies of the opposition for example.

Baseball players peak later, usually between the ages of 27–32. As tennis players are winding down their careers, baseball players are hitting their peak.

As a profession, web design doesn’t exactly require you to be an athlete. There’s no reason you need to be in great physical condition to design a website or type code into an editor. Granted, being in better shape will benefit everything you do, but you don’t need to be in peak physical condition to type out code or play around in Photoshop.

Experience plays a large role in what we do. It’s hard to see how you have to be young when physical skills aren’t required. Maybe you don’t have the same patience for learning curves as you get older, but you’ve already learned a lot.

How much your experience pays off depends where your focus has been when learning. If your focus has been on the latest trends, then you probably do need to keep learning at a rapid pace. What you know will change every couple of years. You’ve based your experience on things that rapidly change so you should prepare to keep changing with them.

However, if your focus has been on fundamental design principles, what you’ve learned will continue to apply for a long time to come, if not forever. Everything you learned will still apply regardless of your age. You won’t need to learn it all again every few years.

Understand Your Weaknesses

You play to your strengths, but you want to understand your weaknesses so you can minimize them. If you don’t have the patience for learning curves, adjust how and what you learn. Learn smarter. Don’t feel the need to learn something until it’s proven itself as worth learning.

Be smarter in general. There are many ways to design, many design processes that can take you from idea to finished design. Choose those that involve less of your weaknesses when you have that option.

Where you don’t have the choice, suck it up and learn. Maybe you don’t have the same patience for learning and change, but that doesn’t mean your patience is zero. You can still learn and change, even if not as easily.

That’s life. Learning never stops, especially when it comes to technology. Change is the only constant you can count on in the universe. The moment you stop learning and lose all willingness to change and grow, you’ve effectively died as a human being. You’ve stagnated and I wonder what the point of your remaining time is, if you’re not willing to grow.

Move Your Career Up a Level of Abstraction

You do change as you age. Maybe your job should too. Age and experience give you a better view of the big picture. You’ve had more time and to understand the overall context of web design and development. You can better understand where a specific project fits within the overall context of a business and the industry.

As you gain more experience it makes sense for your career to progress from working on the details to working on the larger vision. Maybe you no longer want to learn the details of a new way to build a layout, but you can hire people who do. You can become the business owner instead of the employee. You can become the art director instead of the artist.

That doesn’t mean you can’t still design and develop. It does mean what you do within the fields of design and development will likely change. You should be moving up in the hierarchy. You should be moving up a layer of abstraction in the industry. Your work becomes more about your vision than the detailed work of implementing your vision. You can hire others to do the implementing.

Closing Thoughts

It’s easy to see anything as a young person’s game. Younger people have more energy and can work harder. It’s true that some people peak when younger. Not always, but often enough the big revolutionary changes in an industry come from younger people. These changes typically require more energy and adaptability.

However, being more experienced is a great strength. Age brings that experience or at least the potential for acquiring long lasting experience.

When it comes to designing and developing websites there are things where energy and flexibility are important. You can work longer and learn more. There are also things where experience and efficiency are more important.

You can be a good web designer or developer at any age as long as you understand your own strengths and weaknesses and are willing to adapt to them. If you’ve been preparing over the arc of your career by learning fundaments and not chasing trends, you’ll likely do better when older and more experienced, than if your focus was elsewhere.

The specifics of your job might change as you get older, but that’s a good thing. You should be moving up a layer of abstraction and take advantage of your experience. Let others pick up the slack where you’re weakest.

No matter what age you are, you can do effective work. You may not be able to do the same work at 70 as you can at 20, but you can still work well at 70 and even do some things better than your 20 year old self. You should be more experienced, smarter, more efficient, and more responsible as you age.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

2 comments

  1. Really great article, although I think it could deeper emphasize the benefits of being older in design.

    I do think the way in which an employee approaches learning and new ideas greatly alters the effect of age on that employee’s performance. If an employee is not posturing him/herself in a position of learning, then age can easily result in the progressive dulling of that employees performance. If an employee is posturing him/herself in a position of learning, then age has the opposite effect: compounding wisdom and knowledge throughout time can be immensely critical to the success of an organization.

    I did not like how Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft were used as examples of peak performance occurring at a young age. All of these companies were started by fairly young founders… I don’t disagree with that point. But it was older and more experienced leaders who grew these companies from big successes to massively successful, multinational enterprises. So these companies actually didn’t *peak* in the hands of young leaders, they will peak in the hands of older leaders. Look at how Larry and Sergey brought Eric Schmidt to Google as CEO until Larry matured to a point at which he could take it over again.

    I understand how one can think this way. I often hear people discussing this concept of individuals peaking in terms of accomplishments at a young page. As far as I know, this theory of peaking (in terms of accomplishments) at a young age is most prominent in, and possibly originating from, the field of mathematics. But there are a multitude of compounding factors relating to the nature of the profession of mathematics that make this seemingly obvious theory actually appear to be false causation. For example, mathematicians tend to study deeper and deeper into topics throughout time, limiting the spread of points at which they can optimize their findings. This is actually a mathematical optimization problem that shows that the occupation of mathematics results in mathematicians being less and less likely to find greater local maximums of findings as they progress through their career. So, I disagree with the implied causations of this social theory (e.g. that the effect of lesser accomplishments is a result of increased age); and to apply this social theory to the field of business and technology, in my opinion, is dangerous and falsely fear-inducing for older individuals.

    Thank you for writing a great article and challenging these harmful misconceptions that are currently permeating the tech industry. It seems like everyone talks about them but very few people have taken a moment to critically dissect them.

    • Thanks Michael. Great points. True about the leaders of Apple, Microsoft etc. I hadn’t through deep enough about the arcs of each company. Good point about how they started with young leaders, but needed more experiences leadership to grow.

      Good info about mathematicians. I think you’re right about the peaking young thing originating there. I had famous mathematicians in mind at times writing this.

      Good to know we agree on the general premise. I think where the physical is concerned, there’s something to peaking younger. Where it’s not physical though, I don’t see why age has to be what determines when you do good work. We should be able to do good work at any age and there are tons of examples of people who’s best success came later in life.

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