Should Designers Know How to Code?


Designers who know how to code well (or conversely, code poets who know what the hell a 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 advance 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-judgment, 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.
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