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Should Developers Learn How To Design?

Ruby class depicting a developer

Look! I designed this all by myself

There’s been a lot of heated chat in the blogosphere recently, necromancing that time old topic of “should web designers know how to build web sites?” but one thing no one seems to be discussing is whether or not developers and programmers should know how to design. Maybe that’s because developers tend to be monosyllabic creatures who shy away from these word intensive debates, maybe it’s because everyone just takes it for granted that for a dev to learn design is a biological impossibility or maybe it’s just that no one really cares. But they should. Just as people argue that a web designer should know markup, a developer should be able to appreciate design and usability and be able to tweak aesthetics, imagery, colour and content when required. Right?

I was a backend developer for many years (and still am) and my old Creative Director used to constantly harp on to us (rightly so) about how we should understand design and be able to take a mock-up created by a designer, iron out of any of its imperfections and transpose it beautifully into a perfectly finished product. To us coders though, who were more at home with their head in PHP, frameworks and big ass databases, this seemed like a crazy – and impossible – request. We’d never been taught anything about design and could barely draw a circle with a crayon, how on earth were we expected to consider design in the things we built? Yet the benefits of knowing how to do so were clear.

I suppose the big question though is can developers actually be taught how to design?

The benefits

Probability the biggest benefit that we used to discuss was time efficiency. If a developer can immediately make alterations to a design or use their ‘design sense’ (I’m assuming this becomes available only after being bitten by a radioactive designer) to minimise the flaws and issues that occur when turning a flat PSD into a vibrant and complete web site, time will be saved as they don’t need to bug a designer and interrupt their workflow for help. Indeed, every site I’ve ever worked one has required some sort of post-completion check by a designer in order to ensure that final percentage of perfection and if this step could be removed then the build process would be faster, more streamlined and more time/money efficient. At least that’s the theory.

Another major benefit occurs when developers are left to their own devices when building more technical stuff like backend interfaces. Now, before we get carried away, I do truly believe that these interfaces are important and need an experienced and skilled designer to, y’know, design them and that a dev probably shouldn’t be left to make it up as he goes. Still though, it’s very hard and very time consuming for a designer to be involved in every tiny decision made during UI development and doing so can be a huge burden on them in terms of both responsibility and time, slowing down the entire process and killing agility. If a developer was capable of making informed design decisions when working on backened components and the like it would save everyone a lot of headaches and, again, be a huge boon to the efficiency of the project.

Genetic impossibility or teachable skill?

I suppose the big question though is can developers actually be taught how to design? Is it a teachable skill or does it require to be born with certain style of brain? I know there are a lot of claims that some people are just wired to be creative, artistic or what not and that trying to turn a pragmatic, logical, maths based programming brain into a design one is a genetic impossibility. Unless someone is born with a design streak, they will never be able to acquire the skill. Or so some claim.

To be honest, I’m probably not the best person to comment as I’m colour blind which means it’s very difficult – if not sometimes completely impossible – for me to be able to distinguish between certain shades of colour or even see some completely. Aside from being mocked relentlessly about it by, well, pretty much anyone I’ve ever worked with, it means I am physically unable to see some subtle design considerations. I’ve worked on building web design mocks that I thought one had one shade of grey when in fact they utilised three or four. Stuff like that drives designers crazy, trust me.

However I do think I’m starting to gain a basic understanding of some fundamental concepts of design, such as the importance of consistent spacingand even things like baseline grids, so maybe it a skill that can be taught even to the most nerdy and technical developer. I, for one, would certainly love to one day overcome my crippling biological disability and be able to design something that doesn’t make people wretch when they see it.

Ultimately there’s no point trying to turn a good developer into a bad designer (or vice versa).

Finding the balance

So should developers learn how to design? Well, I can definitely see the advantages to developers knowing fundamental design concepts and having an appreciation for aspects such as usability. Whether that’s something that can be taught or requires a certain type of brain though is an entirely different question.

Regardless, I think it’s all about finding the balance that works best for your team. If your devs are genetic abnormalities and are able to master design then all power to you. If not, there are ways round it such as getting your designers up to speed with technologies such as Sass so they can help improve work flow efficiency by creating variable sheets of colours and text styles for developers to utilise during build.

Ultimately there’s no point trying to turn a good developer into a bad designer (or vice versa).

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Author: Gordon McLachlan

Gordon is uncomfortably good looking.

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  1. Bart September 18, 2011 at 8:34 am

    You should change “design” to “graphics design” and “developer” to “front-end developer”. Then it would make more sense. Developer without basic application design skills is a root of all evil.

  2. DMC September 19, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    Gotta kind of agree with the vague comment above mine.
    You need to differentiate between the disciplines.
    There’s a BIG difference between a front end developer and a back end developer.
    I’m a web designer who went to college at a time when it was unthinkable for a web designer to not know how to write markup and build a site (front end w/ some back end knowledge).
    A front end developer who doesn’t have a sensibility for design is going to be a burden to any company. In my experience though, back end devs can be left away from the visual stuff.

    • Gordon September 19, 2011 at 2:48 pm

      To clarify, yeah I was thinking more about backend programmers than frontend web developers although the question is kinda relevant to both camps. I think the answer for frontend devs is more obvious though whilst for backend programmers it’s not as cut and dry especially as a lot of them end up doing bits of frontend as well.

  3. Andrew September 28, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    Another question that could be asked is “would it ever be viable for a designer to learn to develop?”

    I recently, after 10 years as a designer, had to learn to code in order to complete a project for a client. The task ahead seemed much greater than it actually was once you learn to embrace the simplicity of the languages.

    Mabe, this is a topic for another post, to complement this article.

  4. The Eternal Debate « APPTITUDE December 6, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    [...] these out: Exposing an Imulus Discussion: Should Designers Know how to Code? Designers vs Coding Should Developers Learn How To Design? Web designers who can’t code Should Web Designers Code? Designers Shouldn’t Code, the [...]

  5. Jose Caballer February 8, 2012 at 6:24 am

    There is no answer to this question. It’s up to the individuals, their strengths and what they like to do.

    At the end of the day is more about having a common language and framework to work within. Collaborating is the key, the problem is that every role has a different interest and speaks a different language.

    I love the passion and indignation in this blog – I suffer from it too. After 15 years of being a Graphic Designer who designs for user experiences of screen based digital products – IE. Websites, smart phone applications and other touch screen interfaces (is that clear enough?) – I got tired of it and developed a system that helps mitigate all of these languages. And I teach it every week to thousands of people on Youtube and iTunes on a show call This Week in Web Design ( Don’t you love the title, since it has nothing to do with what we talk about and everything to do with it at the same time).

    Should designers code? Should coders design? Who cares – they should be able to do what they are best at and learn how to collaborate well.

    -jc

  6. The Eternal Debate | Case Studies on Life January 30, 2013 at 12:37 am

    [...] these out: Exposing an Imulus Discussion: Should Designers Know how to Code? Designers vs Coding Should Developers Learn How To Design? Web designers who can’t code Should Web Designers Code? Designers Shouldn’t Code, the [...]

  7. [...] on 8gramgorilla.com puts this succinctly when he states: I do think I’m starting to gain a basic understanding of some fundamental [...]

  8. Jon Vaughn June 1, 2016 at 8:46 am

    Developers must have little bit of Design knowledge but must focus on the development part.

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