Ideas, insights and inspirations.

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 equalled 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?


  1. Front-end coder here. I’d love to learn how to design. However, my brain can’t think that way for some reason. I’ve tried multiple times to design my own website. I eventually settled on a simple, responsive wordpress theme (P2).

    I personally see it as a left brain right brain problem. I can’t think in design terms, only code. It’s never worked for me and I’ve never been able to pick up significant design skills. It all feels theoretical or emotional to me, and doesn’t click. I tend to get more excited about code snippets than I do about typography and white space.

    I dunno, that’s just me. Maybe I’m weird.

  2. I seem to be a jack of all trades kind of guy. I learned a little HTML, then I learned a little Photoshop, eventually I ended up running into Drupal and made a number of sites, some of the visual designs made from how-tos online and some completely from scratch.

    I’ve found that both disciplines are helpful. I’ver learned everything outside of formal education (as far as web design goes). I think I started with the assumption that a web designer needed to know code and design, and just never looked back.

    I really don’t think people’s brains work much differently in this regard. Each discipline has best practices, toolkits, starting points, and most importantly – proper process. I think it’s more of an aversion to doing two jobs instead of one. I am continually in the process of identifying what design decisions need to be made when. I believe good code is dependent on well thought through design (read, wireframes, prototypes, and user flows), and FE coding should start after that. With this in mind, it’s easy to see that the same person could conceptually do both jobs.

    Contrary to popular belief, many design decisions are made completely outside of visual design. In my opinion, if coders took the time to think through best practices of interface design and user flows…just with a pen and paper, they and their projects woud benefit greatly. I know I have.

    A GREAT book that has helped me think through this process is Modular Web Design by Nathan Curtis. The modular approach design is very synonymous with proper coding principles.

    I also think people are afraid of design, thinking that their designs will be judged more harshly, and that because it’s more public, they personally will be judged more harshly.

    In the end, both are necessary, and I do believe that both jobs can be done by the same person. If that’s impossible, proper process and communication can make up for it being done by two separate people/roles. And in the words of my 5-year-old self, “Who doesn’t like to color?”

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