Pros and Cons of Designers that Code

Posted by Katie Pang /January 22, 2015 / Engineering, Hot Topics

UntitledThere’s a lot of talk of late about being in the age of design and we certainly support and encourage more designer entrepreneurs. But there is great debate about whether or not designers should be adept at coding. Given the interaction between front end and back end, should you only work with designers who can write code? How much is too much coding to ask of your designer? The debate around designers and coding fired up on FD:Discuss (from designers, coders and founders alike). Here’s a rundown of what designers and developers had to say:

1. Basic coding knowledge makes better designers

For many situations, a designer who knows how to speak basics of the language is great. “Designers need to know the technical limitations and implications of their platform. A perfect analogy is an architect versus an engineer,” writes Alexander Lau, of Hublished. “Does the architect need to know EVERYTHING? Weight distributions, loads, fluid dynamics? No, they don’t need to know all those calculations. But they do need to know about materials, curves, arcs, geometry, what’s possible and what’s not.” As Lau and others point out, knowing the basics of coding makes a designer better at making codable designs, better at prototyping his creations, and possibly most importantly, better at communicating with coders.

Furthermore, many designers chimed in that learning to code has helped them grow their creative skills. Michael McGee of The Starter League, writes “For years I was a graphic designer who was continually frustrated by the web. I would make these pixel perfect mockups in Photoshop, only to see some computer science grad screw them up. I thought my design skills would be constrained by learning HTML and CSS, but I actually have become a better designer! It was empowering to finally create something on the web and spend less time in Photoshop dreaming about it. ” It doesn’t mean the designer will be a primary coder but it builds empathy.

2. Different designers for different companies

But when it comes to putting these skills to use, careful thought about how a designer can match up with a company’s needs is more useful than an ultimatum about whether or not a designer should be able to do more in-depth coding. If your team only has three people, your options are different than if you have 20 open recs. As Camellia George of Fab said, “On a small team it’s helpful when each and every member can extend themselves beyond their core skill set to move a product forward. But as your team grows, you have to be careful to direct each person’s (including your own) energy where you get the most bang for your buck.”

Aside from disgruntled employees, the other risk to pushing a designer too far beyond his coding skills (or vice versa) is a mediocre product. Ian Maddox, of Sweetlabs, Inc., writes “You can always tell when a developer did your design because it looks like the web circa 1998. For folks who know what to look for, it’s also very easy to tell when a designer has done your development—frequently it’s because your site is ripe with security or scalability problems.”

 3. Think about how your players fit into the team

Building a team that makes great use of each members’ skills is what matters most, and this can take many shapes and forms, but shouldn’t including trying to squeeze more work out of people not suited for what you need. “Designers and developers work tangles together enough that both should hack around in the others’ expertise just for understanding,” writes Stephen Cataldo a Lead Developer. “Should designers code sometimes as part of their continuing education? Yes. Should you demand a good designer code javascript as a major part of their regular work? Not unless they gravitate towards it.”

The bottom line. Like in every craft, it helps to speak the adjacent languages.  But remember you can’t be great at everything. What do you think? Should designers code? Let us know in comments…