Should designers learn code?

Our Head of Backend Development comments on the argument that's been dividing the internet since the first webpage was created.

Web development pioneer Jeffrey Zeldman said it as far back as 2009 and blogs and journals agree. Even the Director of Design at Government Digital Services says design students should learn to code. They believe that designers who can’t code aren’t real designers. At last week’s Apple World Wide Developers Conference keynote, Tim Cook went further and said that coding should be required in all schools.

But with the ongoing argument over whether or not designers should learn to code there’s a far bigger debate being missed. Should developers learn to appreciate design?

Think about the developers and programmers you know. You’re probably picturing a geeky male who’s a bit introverted and likes sci-fi. That’s me. But I’m more than that. I graduated from art school with a design degree. I’m a designer who has chosen to be a developer.

Scene from The Hangover, the funny bit.

I believe that gives me a unique approach to development. I appreciate good design and my approach is to put design first. When budget doesn’t allow the desired design to be realised, I have a better chance of suggesting possible alterations in keeping with the initial design vision. Of course, the final decision remains the designers.

I grew up in a different era to developers these days. The World Wide Web didn’t exist when I was at school and it wasn’t until my second year at Art School that we had a computer lab with WWW access. There certainly weren’t Computer Science degrees specialising in web development languages the way there is today. So I didn’t learn web development, I learned design and along the way I taught myself development.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that all developers do a four year design degree, but there are some fundamental things developers should understand. At the very least a developer should understand the principles of UX design. We should understand the visual hierarchy. We should understand why the designer has made the decisions she has. At a basic level this involves questions, communications and collaboration.

Some creative agencies separate designers and developers. That’s not how we work at Good. The digital designers are involved in brand work, the designers sit next to the developers and the Front and back end developers sit next to each other. Communication flows freely and everyone can ask questions without the need for a meeting. The project team is a tight group with no hierarchy.

In this environment our development team is exposed to the design team. They are given the opportunity, and encouraged to learn and appreciate design decisions. And equally importantly the developers feedback to the designers on the complexities and challenges we face. Just as I hope that developers will learn to appreciate design, I want designers to learn to appreciate development, but that doesn’t mean they have to learn to code! Instead we recruit people – both developers and designers – who are sympathetic to each other’s disciplines. We have developers with an eye for design and we have designers who are curious about development. With that, the rest comes naturally.