Do designers need to code?

I fear I may be poking the hornet’s nest with this one, but here goes. My personal opinion on that question…

Do designers need to code? This has been the question of the moment of late. Though, speaking of late, I may have missed the main period of discussions around the subject. Regardless, here’s my take…

Is a web designer really a web designer if they can’t code?

A lot of the arguments revolve around the (false) fact that ‘designers can’t understand what they’re designing if they can’t build it’. This argument suggests that a web designer who can’t code is a fake who’s just blagging their way if they don’t know/understand how to actually build the websites they design…

This is wrong. By this token I should understand MySQL and programming and Project Managers should understand design theory and programmers should be able to manage clients. There’s a reason we have different job titles; people do different jobs.

A designer who can build websites is a designer-developer, a designer who can’t write HTML/CSS is a designer.

Designers should work with developers

One reason, I think, that people believe that designers should be able to code is that they need to honour their designs, they need to be sure their designs are buildable by being the ones who have the responsibility of building them.

The problem is not that designs need to be buildable, it’s that developers should be permitted to send designs back and make compromises. Designers and developers need to collaborate, not be combined. Designers need to keep pushing the envelope, making tricky and outside-the-box visuals that push the work of the developer forward. The developer needs to be able to work back the other way, show the designer the boundaries that cannot be broken. Designers shouldn’t lead developers, developers shouldn’t lead designers, there should be a happy middle ground where teams work together, specialising in their respective areas but understanding and appreciating each others’.

A designer who codes badly is less use to a developer than a designer who can’t code at all. Developers need designers, not bug making machines.

But the client was shown a PSD that needs to be honoured…

I think this may well be one reason why people believe designers should code; the situation where the client has seen a PSD and thus expectations are set. A developer hasn’t seen the visuals and is all of a sudden expected to build something he’s had no input in. For the most part this may not be the case at all, but it definitely could be…

The remedy here might be to make sure designers only create things that they can build, achieving this by making sure designers can code.

This is fixing the wrong problem, the problem here is a lack of communication and a lack of collaboration, not a lack of skills. Designers and developers should work together from the outset, working in the browser to ensure that a) the team is working as, well, a team and b) that a client is never shown a PSD (showing a client a PSD in 2011 is just foolish).

The recurring theme is collaboration… Designers and developers need to coexist, not be one and the same.

HTML and CSS isn’t easy…

…but it is easy to do badly. I know loads of designers who can make the most stunning visuals but their code is not a strong point. Sure, they can write HTML and CSS, but it’s not where they specialise or excel, in much the same way a lot of developers have no design sense.

A designer who writes bad code is less use than a designer who can’t code at all. Once a designer writes poor code then either a) a decent dev has to come along and spend time bug fixing, or b) poor code becomes a tangled mess off spaghetti CSS and browser hacks.

Do not undervalue the importance of HTML and CSS, they are easy to do badly, but hard to do excellently. You need excellence in both design and development, so leave each role to its respective person.

These rules introduce restrictions

If a designer needs to code what he’s designed then he’ll design to what he can do, not to what can be done. This is a fundamental mistake to introduce.

A designer who isn’t restricted by a secondary skill set will produce things outside the box, push the envelope and keep innovating. A designer who is limited by their dev knowledge is hemmed in, scared of pushing the boundaries for fear of creating themselves work they cannot complete.

By forcing one thing you are restricting another, this is not a good thing to bring into your team. What you need to do is keep the contact and collaboration (there it is again) between design and build to ensure that everyone is achieving their full potential.

Real life examples

I know two people, personally, who both excel in their given fields. One is a fantastic designer who constantly produces unconventional but stunning websites, the other is an incredible front-end and JS developer (among other things). The designer can write code, but it’s not his focus, he doesn’t write production code because the developer does that.

They have a dynamic working relationship whereby they collaborate (and again) and consult with each other throughout the whole project. The designs look incredible and they’re built very well. This is more valuable than a constrained designer forced into producing buggy, poor code to build designs they’re not fully happy with.

What do they need to understand?

If a designer doesn’t understand code then this is fine; they don’t need to understand code, they need to understand their medium. Having an understanding of the web is not the same as being able to build it.

A good designer working with a good developer is a team that is good at making websites.

Don’t dilute someone’s skill set by trying to expand it, play to the strengths of your team. Designers who can code do exist, but they don’t have to. If you are a designer who can code (and thus a designer-developer) then that’s great, if you’re a designer who can’t code, but work well with developers that can, then great!

But there is no right or wrong answer

Designers can code, sure, but they didn’t ought to be required to. No one should be saying that a web designer isn’t so because he can’t code, that’s actually pretty rude…

If you have the budget to hire two people then get yourself a designer and a developer. Your designer doesn’t need to be able to code, they just need to work well in a team.

However, if your budget dictates you can only hire one person then hire someone who is a designer and developer. If you need to hire a designer-developer then make are they’re sufficiently good at both. If you can only hire one person then your designer does need to be able to code.

Designers do not have to be able to code, no one can make such a sweeping statement. It depends what you need, what you are comfortable with, and what works best for your team.

Massive disclaimer

When I say designers and developers I’m separating people into two camps; designers (people who just design (people that the industry seem to have a problem with)) and designer-developers (people who design and code (the people the industry expect)).

I’m not saying designers write bad code, because a designer who can and does write code is a designer-developer. Designers are, by definition, people who don’t write code.

So if you are a designer and you think I’m saying you can’t write code when you can then I’m classing you as a designer-developer. If you’re a designer who can’t code then that’s great. Please, no one take any offence, because none is intended.

In short

Designers shouldn’t have to be able to code to be called designers; designers should be able to collaborate and understand the rest of the team and vice versa.

If you need a designer-developer then yes, your designer does need to be able to code. If you can afford a designer and a developer then they don’t.

As David Kaneda so rightly put it:

Just a thought: Devs don’t need to learn design, designers don’t need to learn programming – people need to learn how to collaborate.

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Hi there, I’m Harry. I am an award-winning Consultant Front-end Architect, designer, developer, writer and speaker from the UK. I write, tweet, speak and share code about authoring and scaling CSS for big websites. You can hire me.

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