There’s a lot of talk of designers learning to develop, but what about developers learning to design?
I’ve been involved with the “web” for quite a number of years, and began to gravitate towards it while at university. When I say I’ve been involved with the “web” for quite a number of years, more specifically I’ve been working with the web for around 8 years. Not as long as some people, but a good length of time, and time enough to see changes and cycles in the industry. Change is obviously common, but there is a change occurring at the moment which I think will impact me (and others) fairly considerably, and it’s a something I welcome happily.
I believe there are many people like me, who are technically minded (perhaps ‘trained’ is more appropriate), but are drawn to the design and appearance of websites. For me this has led to enjoying HTML and CSS a lot, and spending my time working in that direction. I get my satisfaction from building a nicely designed website, and enjoy working with designers. So much so, that I would struggle to enjoy working in a company that didn’t value design. But as much as I enjoy working with designers, they are upsetting me at the moment because there is a movement for designers to build the sites themselves!
Will the role of a CSS/HTML developer (non designer) exist in the near future? I honestly don’t know. Is the current progression of designers designing in the browser a step towards a future where they build the complete site? A part of me thinks it’s inevitable. HTML and CSS is not hard, and there is no reason why designers can’t build the sites they design. It feels to me that browsers have become stable and consistent enough that designers can start dipping into HTML/CSS without the frustration of browser inconsistencies. Lets also throw into the mix some great learning tools such as Adobe Reflow, and soon Macaw, which ease the transition between thinking graphically and thinking in CSS.
Partially driven by the responsive movement
Surely the sensible thing for a developer to do in this situation is to start to design themselves. It’s logical, but easier said than done. I don’t know about other developers but I feel a bit shy about trying my hand at design. Personally, it’s the right time for me to stop being so timid about designing, but it’s also a good time for developers to make a concerted effort to keep a design eye on what they build.
If you are part of a team that build responsive websites, I’m sure you are aware that site mockups are starting to become more like site guidelines. It’s very difficult for a designer to graphically document a flexible page, and a static mockup is not up to the job. Designers don’t have a means of presenting their design flexibly. This results in a game of tennis between the designer and developer. The designer creates a mockup which represents the appearance of a web page at a particular width and height, which the developer then builds, attempting to make the design work in the browser and on devices. The designer then needs to become involved again to ensure that spacing, typography, and layout remain solid. Inevitably changes are required and the designer passes the work back to the developer. This back and forward between developer and designer can become very time consuming, and it’s really important that a team limits the amount of iterations that take place.
To limit the amount of iterations a developer should aim to make small design decisions as he builds. I should make clear that the small design decisions are mostly only concerned with layout, spacing, typography, and usability. A developer that has an eye for these things is a great benefit to a web team and it certainly helps to remove a burden from the designers.
As a team, if you would like to be in an ever stronger position, it helps if the designer can do the CSS themselves. At the end of the day, the build sign off comes from the designer, and it’s more efficient if they can tweak CSS and finalise the build to a level they consider “complete”. I think that increasingly designers are going to be delving into CSS, as an inability to portray their design intentions means they have to jump into CSS if they wish to be in control.
Let’s not get carried away
Adjusting things like layout, spacing, and typography are only small elements of an overall design. In fact it might be better to think of these elements as technicalities of the build? The real meat of designing a website must be creating visual concepts and crafting the website experience to align with client requirements and goals. To be able to do that takes another set of skills which take longer to attain and present a higher barrier to entry.
That being said, you need to start somewhere, and turning your eye “on” to the appearance of what you build is definitely a step in the right direction. If you are part of a team building responsive sites, use the lack of a concrete mockup as an opportunity to experiment. Does a page break when viewed on a mobile? Don’t ask the designer for advice straight away, attempt to make it work, then take what you’ve done to the designer and receive feedback. If you’ve done well, you’ve made the build process that little bit more streamlined, and if not at least you’ve perhaps picked up advice that will help you with your next attempt.
You potentially have more time to grow
Using a CSS preprocessor such as SASS really provides an opportunity to organise and streamline your CSS production. Picking up a CSS preprocessor language might seem simple, but like everything there are subtle complexities that occur when you start to become an advanced user. If however you become confident and experienced, you have a tool which is going to increase the ease in which you can manage CSS on larger more complicated websites.
Change keeps stagnation at bay
Recently in his online journal, Jeremy Keith mentioned the growing diversity of devices, and that people may find the situation depressing. He combats that notion by saying “Let’s face it, the web was getting boring there for a while a few years back”. I really like that kind of response and attitude. Keep upbeat about change, embrace it, and importantly look at the positives, not the negatives.
I quite fancied ending with a quote, and think this one does the job quite nicely:
“Continuity gives us roots; change gives us branches, letting us stretch and grow and reach new heights.”
- Pauline R Kezer