Commoditization is the process by which goods that have economic value and are distinguishable in terms of attributes (uniqueness or brand) end up becoming simple commodities in the eyes of the market or consumers.This is exactly what's happening to web design as an industry. Commoditization generally starts from the lower end and spreads to higher levels as time goes by. It has been in full swing in the lowest end and now it is starting to spread up.
Current state of affairs
At the bottom end, it has been long since the prices of themes for popular blogging platforms, forums and CMSes has fallen as low as a backlink to designer's web page. This didn't hurt anybody because people who demand these themes were not willing to pay for design anyway.
Than came ThemeForest and swept the segment which was ready to pay for design but didn't have much to spend. They also built inroads to an upper segment: start ups and small web businesses. They don't sell just themes but PSDs and HTML templates. While these are cheapish to buy, there's still a cost of added effort to integrate them with a web site. Inroads haven't lead to domination, yet.
Interchangeability leads to commoditization
You probably heard about Bootstrap. It's not the only CSS framework in town but it surely is the most popular. It used to suffer from what all the others do: your site looked similar to others that used the framework. Sure it offered some customization but it was limited and you still had to put in some effort to make it look the way you wanted.
Enter Bootstrap 2.0, we have a highly customizable CSS framework in our hands. It is great news if you are a visually challenged developer looking to spice up your new project's looks. Find a colour palette, apply it to your less file and you are done. As long as your HTML is Bootstrap compatible you can upgrade to something better later on, with just unzipping a file to your assets folder.
This is not so good news for designers as it removes the urgency for a bespoke design for start ups. Furthermore, designs become interchangeable, which triggers a race to the bottom for design prices. Just look at the price at this market place for Bootstrap themes. Wait till bigger players like ThemeForest to catch up and see where they go.
How to prepare
There are 3 type of survivors in a commoditized market:
- Niche suppliers. If you can marry your design skills with business knowledge of another industry that's your ideal place to be.
- High volume suppliers. This involves undercutting competition and making money by volume.
The bitter reality is only a small number of actors survive whatever their strategy. If I were making my living from web design, I would be looking into new pastures.