Designers – to code or not to code

Designers – to code or not to code


Design, Digital, Education

I've been working as a Digital Designer for three years now. I recently had a moment of realisation about my design process that allowed me to grow as a designer. I thought I'd share some of my thoughts and experiences on that realisation. It all stems back to my first year in the industry and making the decision not to learn how to code. 

Year 1: Learning the basics of coding

When I say I was learning the basics of coding, I really mean the basics. I learnt that HTML and CSS were not the only languages of code. I learnt how to update colour in CSS, and to check the size of padding. I learnt that a website is made up of actual files and where to access these files, edit them and re-upload them. Followed quickly by learning to make a duplicate of anything you're editing. Whoops!

These were the types of basic things I learnt in my first year as a designer. I remember the joy that would run through my body when I changed a colour on a website or fixed padding that was off. It was this feeling that led me to believe that coding was a skill I needed to have as a designer. It was incredible!

I started to teach myself through online tutorials and reading as much as possible on coding for designers. I soon realised that my brain wasn't built to think the way the world of coding needed me to. I'm sure I could have trained it to be over time – but looking back, choosing not to pursue this extra skill has helped me become a better designer.

Year 2: Believing my designs should be restricted

At this stage, I'd predominately been working with developers, in comparison to designers. I was also now working in-house, as the only designer in the company. It was this scenario that led me to believe my designs should consider the simplest option for the developers. Along with the user experience, functionality and the overall look and feel. 

This is where I got stuck. I was becoming friends with my developer. Which is never a bad thing. Looking back, it did restrict where I would take my designs as I didn't want to make more work for the person sitting next to me. My designs weren't pushing any boundaries. They were still doing the job – but they were never going to win any awards. 

I can only see now, that my minimal understanding of coding back then, was limiting my designs. Although it's annoying that this was the case or one of the reasons my designs weren't where I would have liked them to be. If I hadn't had this realisation and started to re-think my design process, I might have been stuck doing that forever. 

Year 3: Design first – re-work later

I'm at a good stage now when it comes to balancing the need to keep developers happy, clients happy and produce better designs. 

This change in mindset seems to have stemmed from working further apart from my developers. They still need to be involved at an early stage of any project. Before this year, they were sitting next to me as I was working through the design process. I would ask questions as I was working, hence, limiting my reach to a certain extent. 

I've come to value that the person using the website, app, whatever it may be – in the end, they are all that matters. We need to be making decisions relative to them at every stage. 

Don't get me wrong – none of what I'm saying is meant to shed a bad light on developers. This change in my mindset is purely from growing as a designer and what I need, to make better designs. I've worked with some incredible developers, and we couldn't do what we do without them. 

Sure, we have the more glamorous side of the job – designing this wonderful, functional application. Which then may be harder for them to build, if we've gone a bit nuts. 

In my humble opinion – it should only be after the initial design is completed, and the great ideas are out there without restrictions or limitations, that re-works should be looked at in conjunction with build times. 

After all – shouldn't we be reaching to the moon and back for our users? Isn't that the entire goal of designing anything, like, ever? I sure hope so.


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  • joshua 31st October 2017 @ 2.12 PM

    Nice article Alice! It's made me think a little about how I've adopt coding as a User Experience designer. I'm often coding, building small proptypes or rough version of full scale apps.

    In my experience, designers get exposed to code too late, once their work has been implemented in the development process. Tweaking some padding or font sizes once the code is in production can be a lot of fun and very valuable – but to deeply learn the associated skills does take a lot of time and perhaps an engineering approach (as you identified). The whole point of a design process is that you don’t have to be able to build it yourself, so I can relate your decision to pull away.

    The nuance I appreciate is that you can write code that is focused on design outcomes. In this sense, I believe that designers should lead with the code. Rapidly building the first iterations with feedback from real users, that then become references for engineers to scale. Too many projects fail because designers get feedback too late!

    It may sound a lot like you’re just learning production skills, as opposed to design skills – but I think there’s some key differences:

    When I'm coding I'm building systems to test out the team's ideas and deliver them to real users for feedback.

    When I'm coding I'm not committed to solving engineering problems around areas like performance, security and maintainability. These are problems best understood and solved by our engineering team mates.

    When I'm coding, I'm mindful that I'm not an experienced engineer. I treat all my production facing code with a risk management approach, often only running it in closed betas with trusted users.

    When I'm coding, I can build designs that can be quantitatively evaluated by many users .

    When I'm coding, I can start testing my designs for accessibility issues.

    When I'm coding, I'm very often using other people's code, that I didn't write and don't need to fully understand to use. This is made possible by using Open Source code.

    I think designers only need to learn a subset of web development skills to start doing these things. I also don't think all designers need to learn this – but I think having someone on your design team with this approach creates a great dynamic. It could certainly be you, if you like!

  • comment
  • alicemoir 02nd November 2017 @ 4.47 PM

    Thanks, Joshua!

    I definitely agree that in some cases learning to come at a design from an engineering/development point of view is really crucial. I personally feel that I'd prefer to design without limitation and then cut back in the hand over to development (which might sound insane).

    It could just be due to how my brain works – but I found I was getting caught up so much in the detail of the coding at the early design stages and it was hindering where I would take the design.

    I get where you're coming from in reference to gaining feedback from real users. In my situation, we use prototyping tools like InVision to gain as much insight from the target market before moving onto the build. This process also involves our developers so we address any potential problems after the first iteration of the design. I know this isn't how everyone approaches the process – but we find it works for us.

    Thanks for letting me know your thoughts, I really appreciate it! It makes me take a look at my own thoughts from another angle, which is always good to do!

  • comment
  • PeteConforto 08th November 2017 @ 8.55 AM

    Hi Alice, I really enjoyed your article!

    Coming from a tech background before I started design I remember learning to code.
    Really great to hear about your progress and how you found it useful! Great stuff

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