Tips for Designers Who Don’t Code

I hail from a design background and moved into front-end development some years ago. With responsive web design, the requirement of the designer is shifting. Here are a few tips collated to help designers who don’t code.

In an ideal world, everybody designing for the web medium would also be a front-end developer. The reasons for this are simple – design is development. To truly get the most out of your design skills, you need to be at one with the environment in which you design. Interestingly, many designers from an offline/print background get tasked with designing for the web; cue extraneous design concepts that attempt to detail interactivity and demonstrate web pages at different screen sizes.

But the problem with this is they’re just pictures.

I have been in the position a number of times as a developer where I am given designs from a designer that doesn’t understand the web as a flexible, interactive medium. They’re often not aware of common practices, and this stifles their creative ideas. Sure, you can sort of show what you think a drop-down menu should look like, or the various states of a button, but until you get this into the browser for rapid prototyping you’re seriously limiting yourself.

On a more serious level, you might be designing something that would take a huge amount of time to build, or worse still, you might even be designing a usability nightmare!

The point is, you really don’t know until you get away from Photoshop and start prototyping your designs in the environment to which they are accustomed; the web browser.

Tips for Designers

I’m going to get off my soap box now and try to offer some practical tips for designers who find themselves designing for the web, but don’t have a clear understanding of how web pages are technically constructed.

Disparities Between the Web and Your Design Program

It’s fine to design in Photoshop or Illustrator, but bear in mind that these applications render things differently to the web browser. In particular, you will notice that typefaces look different from Photoshop, as well as from browser to browser. The style will of course remain, but the way they are rendered may be rougher, smoother or have marginal size differences.

Photoshop is not Chrome

Many designers also like to use Photoshop filters to achieve background effects. These can really add to the design visually, but try to think beyond the space you’re working in and ensure that these effects can either scale or repeat indefinitely. Ensure they can be extracted as separate files for use as backgrounds, and that you’re not designing something elaborate that can’t be built with reasonable ease. Photoshop filters (i.e. multiply, linear burn etc.) don’t exist on the web.

It should also go without saying – but keep your folders/layers sensibly named and try not to rasterize huge chunks of the design as this makes it tough for the developer to work with.

Responsive Web Design is More than Just “Desktop and Mobile”

Quite often I’ll see a website design that comes in two flavours; desktop and mobile. Typically these will be 960 pixels and 320 pixels in width respectively. The trouble with this is that there’s no such thing as these fixed widths anymore, and everything we do needs to be completely flexible.

All too often the developer finds themselves trying to “fill the gaps” where the designer has not considered the design at 825, 650 or even 1400 pixels wide (for example), and this can result in a real headache for all concerned as content and navigation structure collapse under the requirements of a screen size not considered.

Some examples of Android devices
Some examples of Android devices. (Source).

To combat this flawed approach, try to think about page elements as separate, modular entities that all coexist within the same environment. Decoupled, but related, and reusable. Don’t make components look different at different sizes – we’re simply reflowing the same content, as such it would not make sense to add or remove content at different screen widths.

Don’t waste your time designing for an infinite number of widths, but do consider page elements as flexible and simple as possible.

As Brad Frost quotes when talking about Atomic Design – ‘we’re not designing pages, we’re designing systems of components.

Explaining Interactivity

This is a particularly tough one because Photoshop and Illustrator are ultimately static environments. Unlike when designing within the browser, where you have access to native responsiveness, CSS animation and real page elements (like buttons and check boxes), in Photoshop you need to laboriously mock-up how something might look in its initial state, its hover state, its clicked state, its disabled state and so on.

Again, because this isn’t immediately apparent until you prototype it, many designers overlook it and the developer needs to fill in the gaps.

UI kits can help this process. A UI kit is essentially a catalogue of page elements laid out in a file to visually describe interactive states.

UI kit example

But this only half fixes the problem. What if we want a transition between states – how do we show this? For example, a checkbox may turn a different colour when you hover over it – but is this a binary “flick” or a fade? Or does it do something completely different entirely? In the example above, do the percentage tips fade in? Do they slide up as they fade, or slide down? Or do they just appear?

Start With Content!

It sounds like a no-brainer, but design around real content! Even with the best intentions in the world, you’re still just guessing when you use Lorem Ipsum. Sometimes real content may not exist, in which case get guidance from your client – they are as responsible as you are when it comes to content so don’t be afraid to put on the pressure.

If you’re designing around user-generated content, always consider fringe cases. How likely is it that “Sarah Jones” will upload a nice picture of herself to her profile? Consider “Jermaine Worthington-Redmond” who doesn’t upload a picture at all – what does this look like? Don’t force your developer into working this out for you.

Photoshop is not Chrome

The Apple Watch – this is a lovely, ideological image but it’s completely useless for anything other than marketing collateral. How likely are you to have professionally photographed, nicely-framed headshots of your friends who incidentally all have short names?

Location, Location, Location

I believe in practicality more than ideology so will reluctantly resign to the fact that designers will, in many cases, not understand code (or even have a desire to learn). If this is the case, my final tip would be to have a constant dialogue with your developer. There really is no room for ego, and long gone are the days of the production line when a design simply gets handed to a developer to build (I know these days aren’t actually gone, but they really should be).

By sitting next to each other throughout the process of design and build (of which, we now know there is a massive overlap), you’re going to eliminate design ambiguity, squeeze the most out of front-end technologies, ensure a much smoother process and create a better product.

Has this struck a chord with any designers or developers out there? Let us know in the comments, I’d love to hear what you think!


  • Loved the article … i would have also added “Prototyping”

  • This totally resonates. My favourite quotable from this is “How likely are you to have professionally photographed, nicely-framed headshots of your friends who incidentally all have short names?” Thanks for writing this.

  • Martin

    I was a print designer then a web designer than a front end developer, but now I’m just a designer using photoshop with frontend devs at my disposal due to our company using the agile process. And I still struggle to get the ideas of the site on paper so the frontend are not asking questions every 5 minutes.

  • nobody
  • Really well explained.

  • I agree those are worth noting, but I think the overall statement stands. Many Photoshop filters don’t translate well to live websites and everybody involved in a project’s development should consider carefully if investing extra resources to mimic a filter is really going to provide more benefit than cost.

  • disqus_klRxXwNdSd

    …and some people just don’t like to code. They understand how the web works and functionss quite well. It isn’t very hard to grasp.

    Graphic Designers are visual peolpe and didn’t go into the business of solving which code to use where and in what combination. That is an entirely other skill, that some people just don’t have any interest in developing because they don’t enjoy doing it. To rule these individuals out would be short-sighted.

    Some front end developers are excellent at coding but are horrible experience or visual designers and should never be making high level ux decisions or visual color choices because, the skill sets are not one in the same.

  • Great article, workflow is different for everyone. I don’t agree that designers are ideally developers because then you’re doing two jobs at half the speed of a dedicated designer and have to hire another rare designer/coder to end up at the same place you would be with a dedicated designer and dedicated coder.

    I’ll outline my workflow if it’s of any help to anyone. I’m a web designer and I use layer comps in Photoshop for desktop at 960px wide with 12 columns and mobile at 320px @2x. I then create a Creative Cloud library of common UI elements and reference CodePen animations for css tricks. This seems to be the most efficient way to work with our developer if you’re one of the many designers who does not code. However, it certainly helps to understand your limitations when designing for the web.

  • Jerz Obille

    that’s when project comet comes to play

  • Come on Adobe, release Project Comet already…

  • As a UX designer who started from Layout Design (and can code) I can’t conceive designing anymore without a prototype. Saves you all kinds of hassles and proves your concept for a fraction of the time and resource.

  • Vitor Neves

    Great article Matt

  • LSmith

    Does anyone just use dreamweaver to design anymore?

  • Lucinda Bedoya-Moore

    Short-sighted. ;-)

  • Lucinda Bedoya-Moore

    I do… and recently I’ve considered using squarespace or wix, but have not yet. The sites I design are small, simple sites and both of these design tools are incredibly versatile and designer-user friendly. I’ve found a couple developers to work with but they always move on to bigger and better things so don’t want to be bothered with “small stuff”. I know a few designers using these two web design tools for clients with success, but I’m not quite ready to make the jump…

  • Thanks for your article. This is really happening in the real world. I happened to be working as a web developer in an advertising agency where primarily their work are mostly visual, print, branding etc. Since most of the web design comes from the lead designer who happens to have no background in coding, all I do is, as much as possible adapt his design elements and translate it into website’s front-end elements. It’s a struggle at times I tell you. And sometimes it’s hard to explain to people who barely have the understanding of the technical side of development.

  • disqus_klRxXwNdSd


  • Jamie Ansell

    Well said. I’ve built sites in the past, didn’t enjoy it, but then that’s just me. My skill set now lies almost entirely in the visual which is my first and only love, really. Now, I’ll build a simple site for a friend as a favour, but I don’t advertise myself as someone who actively seeks to do this. I’ve seen many beautiful examples of printed and silkscreen work which goes to show that the announcement of the so-called death of the printed visual medium has been somewhat exaggerated and taht is where i have chosen to focus the core of my projects on.

    However, some briefing for designers on avoiding the pitfalls in fulfilling a project brief for developers would really go a long way- which is why this article is very useful and much appreciated.

    I’ve sometimes felt pretty isolated for thinking along these lines, so it’s great to see I’m not alone in thinking this.

  • Tim

    I have one tip for designers that don’t like/want to code: play around with Webflow for a week.

  • Simone

    Hi Matt, I just subscribed to the newsletter. My name is Simone Crimella, I am a service and product designer and I have currently realized the importance of learning how web development (not web design) works. I am currently teaching myself the basics: HTML. Then I will learn CSS and finally JavaScript. What do you think about these languages? Is there any other language I should learn in 2016/2017? My dream job would be working as a web developer and UX designer while thinking systematically about every aspect of the service (service design). Please, answer me at ‘[email protected]’.

  • Leanne Pickering

    I like your post, thanks for sharing! The tips are definitely of use to people that are unaware of those scenarios. However I think some of the points you make potentially devalue the work of a designer that doesn’t code; you can be a great designer by understanding the capabilities of code, without knowing how to actually ‘implement’ the designs yourself. I actually wrote a medium post on this subject from the view of a designer who doesn’t code, which might be of interest –