It seems every single web designer out there has already written about this subject, so why bother with this article? Well, there’s just too many interesting opinions out there and it’s simply much easier to write my response here than comment on a gazillon blogs. Who knows, maybe I’ll even share some viewpoints you haven’t already read.
Before we begin, and for the record: whenever I use the word code in this article I’m referring to HTML and markup.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll keep the focus to a recent post by fellow web designer Andy Rutledge, a man not afraid to voice his point of view. Unlike some of his peers who are reluctant to damn non-coding web designers to htm-hell (sorry, that’s a really bad pun – it’s late), Andy is not afraid of hurting anyones feelings and comes right out with it: a web designer must (emphasis added) craft markup and CSS. Why? Because whilst graphic design is important in web design, it’s only one component – if you stop at the .psd you’ve stopped too soon. Hmm, ok, that kind of makes sense, right? Let’s explore it a bit further – in fact, go read his article (it’s short) and come back here when you’re done.
Web design is product design
Andy’s hypothesis is that web design is product design, and if you don’t actually create the product (ie build the website) all you’re doing is drawing pretty pictures. To support this, he makes a series of bold statements – intentionally bold, no doubt – about web design, graphic design and the relevance of code to the web design process, and I think the best way to analyse his point of view is to look at some of them, one at a time.
A designer who does not write markup and CSS is not designing for the web, but drawing pictures.
Wrong. A (web) designer who does not write markup and CSS will invariably produce a graphic representation of his design (call it a picture if you like), but in doing so he will have made a plethora of considerations, including (but no limited to) the business goals of the site, the target audience, the navigation structure, the brand, the user journeys, browser compatibility, accessibility – the list is as long as you make it. The actual design thinking happens before the visuals are created. Obviously then, “drawing a picture” is only one aspect of the design process, a means to communicate the concept to clients and a visual guide for whomever is putting the site together.
Web design is product design. Drawing a picture of the product is not designing the product
It’s easy to agree with this statement, at least if I’m not being pedantic. But, alas, I am. What is implied here is that the product is not designed until it’s created and, moreover, that a product designer must create his own products. Now, that’s simply not true. I’ve never practiced as one, but I’m fairly confident that most product designers will create a computer model of their product – probably based on paper sketches – long before the design ever gets shipped to the factory for prototyping. Is this not designing?
Arguably, the design process doesn’t end with a computer model, it may not end until the factory has shipped a perfect product, but that’s besides the point: the product (be it a prototype or finished article) is created by someone other than the designer. In the world of product design, there’s a clear divide between designers and producers – I mean Jonathan Ive didn’t actually build the iPod, did he?
Graphic design is often important in web design, but only as one component of web design’s requirements.
This is the last, and perhaps the most important, of Andy’s statements I’ll include in this little analysis (ok, rant). Again, on the surface it may seem quite reasonable. After all, we all know visuals are only a small part of the process of creating a web site. But is that what graphic design is – creating visuals? I know a lot of print designers who would resent that suggestion. It seems Andy, along with a lot of other web designers out there, makes the mistake of equalling “graphic design” with “creating graphics”.
Let me be clear: design (be it product, web or graphic) is not sitting in front of a computer creating visuals, no matter how interactive they may be. Design is making decisions and solving problems. Ideas – creative solutions to the problem at hand – emerge independently of Photoshop or markup, the latter are merely tools we need to realise our visions.
So, should I learn code or not?
Having established that design is a concept much broader than the tools we use, the question remains: Should (web) designers know code? Well, I guess the short answer is “yes, to some extent”. Despite my disagreements with Andy’s attempt to reduce designers to pixel pushers I think it’s a good idea that web designers learn a little about what makes their creations come to life. I’m learning CSS and markup as we speak and I find it really interesting, exciting and really helpful to my practice. Just like a talented product designer will have a good grasp of the properties of the materials and production processes needed to create a given product, web designers will absolutely benefit from knowing a bit of code.
However, for most mortals basic knowledge is enough – any more means you have to sacrifice time spent mastering your conceptual and creative skills. At the end of the day design is different to coding, and becoming a front-end wizard can take years. If I didn’t have talented developers to show me the ropes and introduce me to revolutionary ideas like Slim and Sass I would’ve had to start at the beginning, and even though their knowledge allows me to learn one major leap at a time, I’ll probably forever rely on them for the real magic. As Davide Casali put it in his great article on the subject:
Coding and Designing tap into two very different kinds of intelligence
In my mind it’s about choosing which mountain to climb; if you choose more than one you may never reach the top of any.
If you haven’t already read the accumulated debate on this subject, here’s a selection of articles to inspire and annoy you:
The “designers should code bullshit” and a not so new idea by Davide Casali
It’s actually pretty simple by Yaron Schoen
Should web designers code? by Dmitry Fadeyev
Designers vs Coding by Frank Chimero
Web designers who can’t code by Elliot Jay Stocks
5 Good reasons why designers should code by Mike Kus