Should Designers know how to code? What do you think?

Designers who know how to code well (or conversely, code poets who know what the hell Gaussian blur even is) are sometimes referred to as “unicorns” due to their rarity – and rightly so, given the complexity of the types of tasks they can accomplish, and the skillset required by both.

Unicorns typically command higher hourly rates than straight designers or developers, which makes sense to an extent – as a client, why would you want to pay more for the potential headache of managing two people who may not have worked together before, compared with the easy-breezy experience of letting a designer/developer hybrid pick up your project and just run with it from start to finish?

On the freelancer’s end, the wider your skillset, the bigger your potential pool of jobs, so it behooves you to expand your capabilities. Economists would call this ‘Vertical Integration’, but most of us would simply recognize it as ‘What Apple does’. In addition, the advent of scores of easy-to-use development tools & frameworks like WordPress & jQuery have lowered the barrier to entry for designers looking to get their hands dirty.

On the face of it, all of this is a good thing – but there are some drawbacks.

Which came first: the design chicken, or the code egg?

Trust me on this one: there are few worse feelings as a hybrid than to have presented a design to a client, then realize you’re out of your depth when it comes to coding the damn thing. To avoid this woozy, guts-twisted feeling, we do the smart thing & play it safe – we design things that we know how to code.

This is fine for most small businesses & projects on limited budgets, but if we’re only designing based on our personal ability to execute, where’s the innovation? Where’s the creativity? We became designers to push the envelope & find the best solution to problems. Can we be confident that that’s what we’re doing if we’re practicing “defensive design”?

In my view , this has resulted in samey design proliferating across the web. Don’t get me wrong, I love WordPress as much as the next guy, but the vast majority of WordPress sites look like exactly that – WordPress websites.

Designing defensively means you’re neither challenged as a designer, nor as a coder, and you just don’t grow this way.

Two experts are better than a brain divided

So here’s the deal – although I applaud the hybrids (and am one myself), when it comes to truly advancing web design, I say the major breakthroughs are likely to come from multiple, specialized brains, rather than the jacks-of-all-trades.

Having a go-to expert with the code frees you to design without self-judgement, and more importantly, self-limitation. This isn’t to say that you need to ignore the more important rules of web design – rather, it stops you from telling yourself “I can’t build that, so I should do it this way”, while you’re still in Photoshop. As a side-effect, having a code guru at your side will teach you new things that you’d never thought possible with your own designs – that’s the growth we’re looking for!

Need more motivation? If your designs are innovative and differentiated, you’ll likely start attracting better quality jobs and clients that can support both you and your partners’ budgets. By specializing in your role as a designer, and choosing a good development partner, you can raise the quality of both aspects of your work.

In summary

  1. Knowledge of code is helpful, but don’t let it rule your design. If you truly want to raise the bar, don’t be the coder
  2. Get a reliable development partner – you’ll be able to do better, more ambitious work & close more complex, better quality (read: better paying) jobs
  3. Once you have a partner in place, challenge yourself to design out of your comfort zone – innovation is uncomfortable. And thrilling.

What do you think?

What do you think? Do the merits of being a hybrid designer/developer outweigh the costs, when it comes to innovative web design? Sound off in the comments below!

(1 Posts)

Jason Amunwa is the Product Manager for slidedeck.com, a Wordpress & jQuery content slider by day. By night, he writes bylines.

Comments

  • Definitely yes. Every web designer should have a basic knowledge of code and coding process even there would be a development partner handling the code. As said don’t let the knowledge rule your design, but in most situations there’s more than one way to design and as a designer you should know which one is the smartest one for the web.

  • I think what’s clear from your post is that there’s pros and cons to either scenario and in my opinion it’s for that exact reason I don’t think this question even really needs to be answered. It’s nobody else’s place to say whether a designer should code or not. If you can then great, if not then there’s nothing stopping you striking up a partnership with a developer. At the end of the day you just need to do whatever works best for you, regardless of what anyone else might tell you.

  • Umber code

    I was a programmer in the early ’90s and made the swith to internet almost immediatly. I suppose I am one of the first webdesigners/developers hybrids. Back in those days there was no distinction, not professionally speaking since there was no profession yet.
    I got a degree in graphic design in the late 90’s and I always kept my knowledge of html, css, javascript, php etc. etc. up to date.
    Since the web started growing and the jobs that go with it as well, we got specialization. That is the natural way of jobs to progress. I think that in the end the specialists will become the true designers and developers of the future and hybrids like myself will remain at the bottom of the pile.
    That said, I think there is room for all, because in the end it is not about innovation perse, it is about what the client wants and needs. And small companies with small budgets have different needs form big companies with oodles of money. If you are all about the experience, the innovative, the “wow-factor” then yes you probably be better of working with specialists. If you just want a small to medium website which is both good designed and coded then I see no reason why hybrids couldn’t do the job?

  • Javier Beneito Barquero

    No.

    Furthermore, developers don’t need to know how to design.

    Besides that, knowledge is always a good thing, and having notions of the others’ job always help.

    But the best way to obtain a good program is the synergy of two specialized professionals instead of trying that one (designer or developer) manages the others’ tasks (programming or designing respectively) 

    Computing is always compared to engineering. But I think sometimes is better to compare with medicine. Put together two good specialist will have better results than trying one specialist to learn another speciality.

    For instance, I’m a Java developer and I’m following you by RSS. I want to obtain some inspirations from your job, but I don’t want to do it by myself. And maybe it isn’t a good idea that you learn Java.

  • I am a typical hybrid. I love designing websites and I love code up my designs. In order then I know its like I want :)

  • agentursimon

    People, who know the princilples of design, webdesign and coding, have the widest range of possibilities. I know a lot of designers, who make unworkable screendesigns and common design mistakes.

  • Dan

    You don’t really define what you mean as a “coder”….are we talking about somebody that knows CSS/HTML? In which case I see this as a prerequisite to work as a web designer. For me web design is not just about Photoshop, it’s about creating an on-screen interaction between user and interface.  I always adjust my designs slightly once I see them in the browser, whether it’s hover states that don’t work as well once you try them out or adding css3 transitions that are impossible in Photoshop. I have worked on big projects with “Photoshop only” designers and it’s, in my opinion, a waste of resources, they don’t know which parts of a design should be chopped up and which parts can be done with css3. In the end the HTML guy has to chop up the designs….and then you have somebody working with another persons Photoshop file, it’s inefficient no matter how organized the file is.
    You write about designing within the limits of what you can code…..I agree, this is a bad situation, you should be able to code any design, but to me something that is more important is knowing whether you should code it, not whether you can code it. Does the client want you to spend 20 minutes building those buttons using 3 background images using some old-school sliding door technique when you could have a similar effect in 30 seconds using CSS3. Well when you tell the client it takes longer to build, makes the site slower, is harder to maintain and almost looks the same the client almost certainly won’t want it….but can your “Photoshop only” designer explain this or design with this in mind? No they can’t because they don’t know how the button will be built so efficiencies don’t even come into it. The button is an example, the whole website, when designed by a coder, can be designed with speed of deployment, ease of maintenance AND aesthetics in mind.
    If I got you wrong and you are actually talking about a person that can design, do the CSS/HTML, build the database, set up an MVC framework, write elegant abstracted OO code and add some Jquery for the interaction layer then yes, that would be a “unicorn” and something truly special and a great addition to any team.

  • Pushpinder Bagga

    and the argument begins :p

  • In a ideal world, a designer will have to discuss content hierarchy with his (or her) client. After that make the wireframe of the design with content in mind, and starting his/her design with coding in mind. Coding is part of the design. Indispensable.

  • Jay290489

    Designers need to know atleast the basics well if not much.

  • leannekera

    Yes. Designers are the architects of a website. Not only should a designer have a good understanding of the code but they should also have a grasp on usability and accessibility. 
    This being said I am a 9 year+ freelance usability design and developer with my main source of work being that of fixing other ‘designer’s’ errors and re-coding attempted design related issues… So hell continue because it pays my bills :)

  • Enrique Ramírez

    This post is taking this ancient debate to a whole new level.

    For the question: “Should designers know how to code?” the answer is yes. They need to know at least the basics.
    For “Do designers need to be hybrids, and experts on both sides?” The answer is no.

    Simple as that.

  • Ken

    Having both skills is a plus, learning new things each day and challenging ourselves allows us to become better at the things we do.

    On the other hand if you are a coder or a designer, perhaps that hybrid, and think that you are at the top of the world, that you know everything that there is to know about Photoshop, or x coding language, then you are just limiting yourself.

    I really enjoy looking at people that are way more talented than myself and ask “How they did that?” and try to do it. It keeps your job fresh, and your skills growing.

    Señor Amunwa very nice article, I came here from Facebook just to be surprised at the end by the author!!

    -Ken

  • Sam, thanks for your comment. I agree, there are definitely two sides to the argument, but I felt it was worth at least showing that to people who feel the answer is black & white in all situations – which I believe it’s not.

    Until recently, I fell in the camp that believed all designers should know how to code. What changed is that I went from working as a WordPress designer/developer, to working at a UX design company, where a lot of our designers create amazing user experiences, but aren’t as familiar with the ins-and-outs of their development. It was only when I saw what freedom from worrying about development constraints (to a degree) was able to produce in terms of the creativity and innovation of the eventual product that I changed my view. To me, that freedom is what drives innovative web design forward.

  • Haha, Pushpinder it’s a contentious discussion, for sure – but then most of the worthwhile ones are, right?

  • You’re correct Dan – in this instance I was talking about someone who could design and realize an entire site from end-to-end, but there’s no reason it can’t apply to a front-end designer. 

    In the end, a website with any decent kind of functionality needs a good user experience to realize its full potential (ahem, Craiglist, *cough*), and the front end drives this for the most part, as it’s the piece that users interact with most. 

    The design defines the process that users will go through, so my basic premise is that as much as possible, it should focus on the best possible solution for the user, rather than conform to the backend technology upon which it’s built. Not worrying too much about whether or not the site database can serve responses quickly enough frees the designer to create something that solves the problem as best as possible – and gives the developer an interesting challenge to overcome. That’s not to say the two shouldn’t collaborate. Just that specialization can often create a better solution instead of a consolidated skillset.

  • Blake B

    I think it depends on several factors. Do you want to work in an agency setting ? Do you want to run your own business ? do you want to command more money ? I don’t know anyone who can do EVERYTHING, but i have no problem providing my clients with a complete site solution+branding+print design and hadn’t had to refuse requests yet. In response to a previous comment where the writer said someone who can basically handle design work, client side programming, interactive animation, build a database, and do object oriented server-side work is what a unicorn is, then that’s absurd…if you can do all of that yourself, then there’s pretty much no possible way you’re actually GOOD at all of it.

    I have a bachelor’s degree in graphic design, and I write html/css with jquery driven animation, and know enough php to handle what i have to do in almost any of the situations i find myself in. If i need a custom application i call the code monkeys for that, because i know i’m not good at that stuff. Am i a unicorn ? in my area, you bet I am…in Los Angeles…probably way more common. I know several other people who build websites…they know the code side and just DECIDED they were designers…not everyone is a designer folks, if you suck at it, let someone else handle it. Same for the other way around.I think that anyone who is a ‘WEB DESIGNER’ should at least have some grasp on the way that sites are constructed, and know how to set up their photoshop files and organize things properly…i’ve developed a few sites for print design friends of mine who know diddly about web, and i got a flattened PSD file designed with 1800px wide content portions…not cool LOLat any rate, i don’t think it’s black and white, but you should at least know what you’re doing…the world is plagued with people who think they’re graphic designers because they took an online photoshop class, and full of I.T. guys who think they’re designers because they can write a css property to change a background color. those people need to stop…just stop LOL

  • Craig

    I think it’s possible to design and write HTML/CSS well.  I think it is rare a person is exceptional at both, though they are out there.  I design my sites as well as write the HTML and CSS, but I’m far from exceptional at either. 

  • Wilson Masaka

    I share the same comments as Sam, it’s better to know the ins and out of your specific field event though there’s a pro and cons of hybrid or mastering one art.

  • I think you’re absolutely right. As weird as it sounds, a lack of knowledge can be a wonderful thing when it comes to innovation. Being unaware of or not fully understanding the constraints is what makes people question the way things are done and ask how they can be done differently.

  • Captain Kickarse

    Real web designers write markup. End of story.

  • But that’s just it, Evan, I really don’t see it as that cut & dried, which is why I wanted to explore the topic. I know designers who’ve created award-winning site designs, and don’t know a lick of code – not even basic HTML. So in these instances, how can we say they’re not a real designer? The people using their sites don’t get that sense.

  • Irina Petculescu

    IMHO, mark-up languages and programming languages are fundamentally different. You don’t need that much of “math” thinking to write good mark-up. So, in case of HTML+CSS and a bit of JS i do think that web designer absolutely must know them. Photohsop-only web designer is an oxymoron :) and a waste of money & working space.
    On the other hand, complex JavaScript interactions, PHP, JAVA, C langs require different kind of mindset than that of a designer. Here I agree with you – two minds need to pair up to produce good results.

  • My question at that point would be whether it’s accurate to say those designers “created award-winning site designs”. How much of the on-site animation, interaction and non-static content did they design for, beyond the overall site appearance and concept. Arguably they worked in conjunction with another designer, one who codes, and their award winning site design is not their work, but rather a collaboration.

  • Absolutely. As much as print designers should know paper texture and ink details, web designers should know how to code. Design and context should both be considered.

  • Dan

    Thanks for replying, I guess my question to you though Jason is do you consider someone that can design something in photoshop and then build it in decent HTML/CSS a unicorn? Because to me that is normal and a unicorn would be the person that can either build or follow along with the backend stuff as well as the frontend stuff, somebody that understands what makes a dynamic website/application tick from server to ux.

  • Dan

    You´re probably right…maybe there is nobody out there that is GOOD at design, CSS, HTML, OOP, database architecture and server admin, but then a unicorn should be something really out of the ordinary right? Some amazingly gifted individual of the likes we haven’ t met but maybe there are a few of them out there. On the flipside can we call a “unicorn” this person who can do decent looking designs in Photoshop and then turn them into clean HTML/CSS? I don’t think so, sounds to me like the normal job requirements for a web designer on a small to mid size start-up or the guy running his own web design agency. Sounds like me and you and a whole lot of other specky boy readers.

  • To me, a unicorn is essentially an end-to-end person, that can execute on their designs – whether that means they’re using WordPress to build a site, or they’re some kind of code poet that can design and build a full web application from scratch. There’s a definite range.

    The point is that when you’re working alone, you tend to design for your own skill level, which limits the potential for innovation in your designs.

  • I can’t speak from a ton of experience, but on my personal website my husband and I combined forces as front end (me) and back end (him) and it worked out really well. I’ve also seen this type of structure at smaller companies and it seems to work best. I think designers should have SOME clue about how the code works, but will flourish more if they focus on the creativity of the design.

  • theres no excuse for not mastering both code and design. there both arts. own it.

  • YES, YES, YES…

  • How can you design for something that you don’t know its capabilities? A true “Web” designer knows how to code for the web. You might not be a full-time developer but you need to be familiar with coding, usability and functional capabilities of the platform you’re designing for. (only my opinion)

  • Ispellgood

    Mastering grammar and spelling is not such a bad idea either.

  • Kateangle2

    It was only when I saw what freedom from worrying about development
    constraints (to a degree) was able to produce in terms of the creativity
    and innovation of the eventual product that I changed my view. To me,
    that freedom is what drives innovative web design forward

    A valid point, but unfortunately it’s the poor web devs who get the short end of the stick here, and spend a *lot* of time trying to make these free flying designs works. It’s also the web devs who are held accountable to timelines and budgets at the end of the day since the work finishes with us, even though they’ve nearly always blown out because of super fiddly designs and multiple layouts.

    I don’t mind if web sites are designed by people with no html/css/back-end experience (provided they follow standard web usability guidelines), but they should not also be quoted by the designer if anyone plans to break even, let alone make a profit. Quoting on web designs needs to be done by someone who understands what’s involved in coding them.

  • Harmony Steel

    If you’re referring to a Designer who can also code Java, set up a virtual server, and troubleshoot DNS issues – then no.

    If you’re referring to a Designer who can also code HTML/CSS, implement jQuery, and set up a Content Management System, then for the love of all that is holy, YES.

    I’ve worked in small design studios where the Web Designers were Print Designers who’d started producing web sites in-house when there was more demand for that than print work, have never touched a piece of code, have only briefly examined web usability and accessibility requirements, and now call themselves Web Designers.

    These people churn out fiddly, bloated, multi-template layouts which are then passed on to us in the web dev team to convert to HTML/CSS and do all the back-end work. Budgets nearly always blow out because, not having any technical understanding of their medium, these Designers completely underestimate how long production will take, and yet who gets the blame – yup, the web devs.

    The situation is so ridiculous and counter-productive that I’ve decided never to work in a studio like that again. If you’re going to call yourself a Web Designer you should also know how to cut up your designs and convert them to fast, standards-compliant, HTML & CSS. If you can’t do that, you have no business putting the word Web in your job title.

    Keep in mind this is speaking from a studio perspective, where client’s and budgets and timeframes set the pace (and where, quite frankly, I think there’s very little room for innovation). When it comes to designing web apps or ground-breaking websites on a freelance or startup basis then maybe a pure designer, working with a coder, can work. I don’t know. I just know it doesn’t work at all in a studio setting.

  • Blake B

    Yeah there’s like one guy/girl somewhere that can do all of that and win a webby award for it lol That would be pretty impressive

    This question is as old as the profession, and I really think the best answer is just “WELL IT DEPENDS” lol as horrible as that sounds. I know an AWESOME designer who can’t even write an H1 tag and several designer/client side development people who build pretty raunchy looking stuff that functions perfectly. I run a one man show web studio and do pretty well with it, so i guess knowing both is good for me ! Thanks to anyone who reads my rantings lol

  • I have to say this is an excellent article! :)

  • Federico Bucchi

    Yes should knows the code.. But if is not so He should interacts with the programmer to understand what can be created and in how much time!

  • Front End Post

    See, it being 2011 and all, I just assumed that any web designer worth their salt has HTML/CSS/JS skills because web design extends beyond a flat Fireworks or Photoshop image. With the rise of importance in user experience I find it shortsighted to not have those skills in order to influence design decisions. If web design was only about appearance then front end development skills wouldn’t be necessary.

    Does that mean that a web designer absolutely MUST have front end skills? I would say ideally and for the sake of professional credibility and potential, then yes. There are still agencies and teams who prefer to separate design, markup and programming so as long as those environments exist then web designers who don’t know how to markup their work can still survive, although I believe that approach only holds back the designer’s growth.

  • my opinion, if you are a web designer complety need to know how to code, you cannot escape from html tag and css code,

  • I agree with Jay290489 –  All web site designers need to know the basics of programming. With this knowledge a designer can make a great design that can effectively be implemented in development. Any web design business would think twice about hiring a designer that didn’t know the basics of programming!

  • Christopher Morales

    I agree with you Jason. Often I’ve found my desire to execute designs have fallen to the “how do I code this bug” often it leads to redesigns and compromises in order to execute. 

  • I’m a hybrid, but primarily a graphic designer. I do web graphics and interfaces but do know how to code. I think designers need to understand the fundamentals of HTML/CSS/JS, wireframing and development or else they are going to create unrealistic designs that will have problems. If a designer is freelancing or working inhouse for a very small company, they will probably be expected to know everything. But for larger projects and larger companies, it would be much more beneficial to have a dedicated designer working with a dedicated developer.

  • In my point of view  web designer should know how to code first then only do a good and perfect  design..

  •  Unless you are disciplined enough to push your skill sets to expert level in both areas. There are those rare individuals who have a gift for design and a determination to master code, and therefore might qualify for the label of “Unicorn”.

  •  Good article.  Totally off topic, but your photo is pretty awesome in what it conveys for your personal brand.  Very well done.

  • airtonix

    You need to at least understand that : 

    my-lol-website-version1.zip
    my-lol-website-version2.zip
    my-lol-website-version2a.zip
    my-lol-website-version2b.zip

    Is a horrible way to do versioning… any designer that still does this needs to learn GIT.

  • Bikeman

    I dont see how you can call designers who code or coders who design as rare as unicorns; you only have to review the job boards to see that there is no longer any demand for web designers who aren’t experts in html, css, javascript and jquery.

  • Bikeman

    There’s a massive technical jump from html/css markup to javascript/jquery. Its a jump too far for me. I know the capabilities of js and so can incorporate it into my designs but I don’t have a programmers aptitude to write scripts. An aptitude for visual design rarely gies hand in hand with an aptitude for coding.

  • I treasure Craigslist as an online icon of sorts – it would break my heart if they let a typical assembly-line type segmented digital shop get their paws on it. There’s something to be said for a eccentric labour of love!  

  • Sandra

    To make this short and sweet : Should a Neurosurgeon be able to perform Brain Surgery ? Or should they call in another Surgeon to perform the surgery for them ?
    Or better yet : Imagine Picasso or Dali having to hire someone else ( Artist/ Painter ) to Paint for them .

    Therefore : YES! every Designer should be able to { code } .