Should Developers Know How To Design?

It’s not a typo. The last few years have been marked by repetitive, breathless cries from the web design community: “Should designers know how to develop?”

Making a website is different than making a printed item. Designers – the myth goes – trace their collective lineage back to print design. But websites are coded, and if you’re going to produce code, well, that’s a developer’s job. There’s a gulf between the two aspects of website creation, if not between the aptitudes required to perform those aspects, and the greatest minds of our industry apparently grind away hour after hour arguing that web designers – definitionally – must know code.

Now, I don’t have a problem with this assertion, and I’ve seen collaboration go more smoothly as a result of designers’ code-savviness. But I can’t stop thinking about how obtuse it seems for my profession not to be equally curious (or demanding, if you want to match tone) about whether developers should know how to design. I wonder why we shy away from asking this question. I wonder why we shy away from a whole lot of other, similarly lateral questions about ways to improve our creative and productive lives too, but I’m particularly interested in this one.

For the better part of a decade, I taught art – first fine arts, then web design. When I taught web design, I taught classes on code and classes on visual design and classes that combined the two. When I taught painting and drawing, I taught painters how to make websites and (because this was a long time ago) “interactive CD-ROMs” to help them promote their art. No doubt, it was unusual for me to encounter students whose structural visualization aptitudes equaled their abstract visualization aptitudes. But that’s the thing – the aptitudes didn’t need to be equal in order to be trainable and functional. There was never an assumption that a painting major couldn’t learn to write HTML and mark up their own site. Similarly, technical majors were expected to learn and apply design tenets as part of the same holistic approach to learning the craft of making a website.

Broader contextual knowledge breeds insight, inspiration, empathy, efficiency – better collaboration all around. That’s as true for a developer as for a designer (not to mention for everyone else on your team). Sure, time is limited, but what’s good for the goose is nevertheless good for the gander.

So, seriously, should developers know how to design?