Why designers should and shouldn’t code

Like the unwelcome advances of an over-friendly wet dog, this debate comes bounding up occasionally. Our canine culprit this time seems to have been this tweet:

Honestly, I’m shocked that in 2010 I’m still coming across ‘web designers’ who can’t code their own designs. No excuse. – elliotjaystocks

Designers need to understand the medium in order to properly design for it. That is a given, whatever your field of design, be it fashion, posters, packaging, architecture or web.

Mark Boulton makes the point that HTML is not the medium. By extension, being able to code HTML & CSS proficiently does not necessarily imply an intimate knowledge of the medium from a design perspective.

At Clearleft, our designers do not mark up their own designs. We require that they can all code well, but they never touch a line of production HTML. By the same notion, our front end developers – the ones who do code up the designs – never push a pixel of design, but we do expect them to have a basic understanding of design principles.

Why should our designers be able to code but not be required to do so? A working knowledge of HTML & CSS gives a deeper understanding of the medium. More importantly, this knowledge provides the designer with a foresight of what difficulties he or she may be presenting to the developer, without having to concern themselves with actually building the design.

The oft-used architectural metaphor holds well here. An architect does not have to be a civil engineer in order to design a building; he or she needs to understand how the building will work for the people or things which inhabit it. But an architect does need to have a sense that construction of the building is actually possible within whatever constraints are present, and they need to know when and how to talk to a civil engineer about the feasibility of their design.

This is the beauty of working in teams of specialists. By being able to rely on the expertise of others, it provides a license to push the boundaries of your own specialism. This only works smoothly when everyone is a rounded specialist. There needs to be a common vocabulary and understanding of all disciplines. Conversations are required; discussion and compromise. The best compromises are reached when both sides understand the issues of the other.

If you’re a lone freelance designer, you’ll most likely be required to both design and build, and the chances are you’ll be better at one than the other. It also means you’ll be having the afore mentioned conversations with yourself. And that of course is the first sign of madness.