Designers Who Code

— Topic: Design

Mic check. Test, test… Does this blog still work? It is crazy to think, the last time I used it was in 2011, whilst suggesting to my fellow designer friends that they ought to learn Sass.

sonspring.com/journal/sass-for-designers

Note: Even in 2011, my presupposition was that the “designers” I was addressing already knew CSS. If you had told me then that in 2015 we would still be disputing whether designers ought to learn to code, I would have been sad.

Well, let me take a step back and address some of my 2015 thoughts about designers and CSS.

Oh, and apologies to those reading on mobile devices. At the time of this writing, my own site is not yet responsive. The cobbler’s children have no shoes. But hey, while you are at it, check out Unsemantic.com. See, at least I know how to do responsive, right? Ahem.

A few days ago, I posted some brief ramblings on Twitter about how the designers at TandemSeven are learning to code…

twitter.com/nathansmith/status/557603260459388931

twitter.com/nathansmith/status/557603388360499200

twitter.com/nathansmith/status/557604708324741120

twitter.com/nathansmith/status/557604954085789697

As is often the case when speaking in an echo chamber, the words reverberated around the Internet, through the process of re-tweeting, replying, and having my words cherry picked in isolation.

If you have not read those four tweets in order, go ahead… I will wait.

A few people have told me that I seemed brash, or that they did not appreciate the hubris of my remarks.

While I am not retracting anything, though I would have hoped for a bit more leeway around my off-the-cuff blatherings of 140 character increments, I felt I should clarify.

I do think there will come a point, maybe it will take a generation, where (web) designers who do not know the basics – of how web technologies (HTML/CSS) work in tandem to achieve their visual designs – will metaphorically be in a tough spot. Yet, perhaps “left behind” was not the best phrase to describe it.

I do not think the industry is there yet, but I see the writing on the wall, so to speak.

It is not like we are all going to board some grand ship and set voyage without some segment of our peers. I certainly do not fancy myself the captain of such a vessel. I am especially not saying that I am the arbiter of who stays or goes. Heck, I think it would be downright tragic if any talented designers ended up excluded. I am not trying to be elitist.

Personally, I would not ever fire a designer who does not (yet) know how to code, or not hire an amazing designer who cannot (yet) code. What I am saying is: I believe that doors which would otherwise be open to a designer, whom is yearning to further understand the medium, those same doors will increasingly be closed to someone who is not striving to learn the basics.

Currently, I think knowing how to do prototype quality HTML/CSS is the tie-breaker between two designers of the same caliber, all other factors being equal.

Note: I have had some people tell me that things are never that equal, or the scenario is based on conjecture. To that, I say: Of course. This entire “learn to code” conversation is itself ethereal. We are way down in the depths of introspection and hair splitting.

In the future, I think that basic coding skills will be more like table stakes rather than a tie-breaker.

“The buy-in is set at: design skills, and HTML/CSS.”

“You must be this tall to ride the ferris wheel.”

Etc. That sort of thing.

Again, I do not fancy myself as that gatekeeper. Just survey the job postings that are out there now. I think you will find that HTML/CSS nearly always accompanies “designer” job postings. What we will probably see, though I make no claims to clairvoyance, is the phrase “preferred” gradually changing to “required.”

Much like knowing only HTML/CSS ten years ago was sufficient to land a job as a front-end developer, nowadays companies expect proficiency in JavaScript. We see this with more targeted job postings of “JavaScript Engineer,” lest any HTML/CSS only developers would apply. But I digress.

My tweets – it still feels weird to say the phrase “my tweets” – were meant in the context of how we are doing things at TandemSeven. Obviously, your mileage may vary. Perhaps your company has segmented roles:

  • Information Architect
  • Interaction Designer
  • Visual Designer
  • Front-End Developer
  • Server-Side Developer

Ours does as well. However, we are trying to gradually erode those distinctions. Which is not to say everyone will be a generalist, but for those who are willing, we are trying to help people learn more about aspects which tangentially touch their areas of expertise.

In talking with some designer friends who work at GitHub.com, Twitch.tv, and Twitter.com – companies I would consider to be on the cutting-edge of “cool” places to work – it sounds to me like the notion of a “designer” has also evolved to include HTML/CSS. Such that, when referring to “designers who do not code” the prefixed qualifier of “non-technical designer” has come up in a few of our conversations. While this is of course anecdotal evidence at best, it does seem to be how things are trending.

Anyway, this post is getting a little lengthy. So, before I disappear from my blog for another four years, let me just part with this…

I do not harbor any ill will towards designers who do not code. However, it is my sincere hope that if you are a designer who does not code, that you have some latent interest in learning. If you feel intimiated, I bet there is a front-end developer willing to help. If not, there are plenty of resources out there.

If you are not sure where to start, hit me up on Twitter.

twitter.com/nathansmith

Myself and others can probably get you pointed in the right direction.


P.S.

My first salaried job was as a junior designer, in a role where I was not even allowed (or supposed) to touch front-end code. Thankfully, I happened to work with a front-end developer named Cody Lindley who was of the opinion that as a designer, I ought to learn how other things worked, too.

For that, nearly ten years later, I still feel indebted.

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