The Design and Development Divide

May 9, 2010 — 1 Comment

WARNING: Hot Topic. Should designers know how to code/develop? This is a question I’ve seen asked many times recently. I’m a designer that started college majoring in Computer Science. This situation is not a unique one, although it seems to rarely happen that someone who majors in design becomes a programmer. I believe many share my opinion on the matter, but I’ll leave that for the end of the article. First, we need to look at why a designer may need to have development knowledge and vice versa. Let’s also look at some reasons designers and developers are hesitant to stray into the others domain.  I’ll give you a hint though, sticking strictly to one domain may inhibit your professional progression.

Boxing Match

Taken from Google Images

In the red corner we have the Left Brain!

This is the old left brain vs. right brain fight. Creative vs. Formulaic. Some designers hate to code and some developers hate to design. I wouldn’t say I’m an anomaly, but I consider myself a fairly creative person but attended a college for 6.5 years that prides itself on brilliant formulaic thinkers. It’s not that one is bad or the other better. It takes creativity to innovate and it takes genius scientists to properly apply formulas and equations for new discoveries. Developers need to be creative in how they code to come up with new and improved algorithms and optimizations. Designers need to apply design principles and theories to achieve solid and user-friendly designs. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to just say we are left-brained or right-brained. You may have a tendency toward one, but you have the ability to use the other.

Don’t people go to college for that?

Nobody’s asking you to become some super System Architect , but wading in the shallow end of the development pool will benefit you enormously. The deeper you go the more valuable you will be. Imagine this scenario, you’re a person who needs a website or small application. Do you want to find one person that can put all of that together or have to find a designer and developer and coordinate between the two? Now, in companies the division of labor is already set, but the more you know about development the more realistic your designs and estimates will be and the more you can speak to clients about the feasibility of their requests. In short, increased knowledge of programming can streamline your processes.

Straight from the source.

So to figure out what designers and developers thought about the subject I went to some designers and developers for their thoughts.

On one hand, there’s something to be said for a purists approach where the designer is focused solely on providing the layout and/or design for the given application.

On the other hand, there seems to be a blurry line between design and web design. The latter usually implies the ability to implementation the actual designs in markup and stylesheets.

I think there is a clear, hard line between expectations of a designer and a developer. Developers should be able to implement what designers give them but should also have the same mentality about the architecture of their system interfaces and designers do about their user interfaces. There’s probably something to be said for a designer being able to play dual roles, but being focused and specialized in an area can also develop some serious strength.

-Tom McFarlin, Software Engineer for Careerbuilder-

I think it depends on where you see yourself working. Being employed by a small business myself, it’s easy to see why a designer with programming knowledge is a huge asset. As one person assumes many roles in a small business (building a product, producing marketing materials, etc.) it’s easy to see that the more they can do for the company the better. Although I have my main background in programming, I’m responsible for designing DB schemas, programming business logic & presentation, and designing the UI in our product. I’m sure that a designer would tear my UI apart – and rightfully so, as I’m not extensively trained in that area – but you get the point: the more well-rounded you are, the more a small business is willing to invest in you.

On the other hand, if you’d like to work for a mid- to large-size company I don’t think it’s as important for a designer to have as wide a background in programming. In these large-scale businesses there’s enough work to fill a full-time role with just design work, much like the programmers would focus solely on business logic and the DB administrators would focus solely on maintaining the data effectively.

-Bryan Davidson, Developer-

I think a designer’s knowledge of programming should span enough to understand what their designs would require in terms of effort and time to create. I also believe that being in touch with the technology available can provide designers with a platform for jump-starting their creativity. However, I do not believe that once the knowledge is acquired a designer should focus their efforts on actually programming.

-Mariana Lopez, User Experience Designer for Roundbox Global-

And the verdict is…

It depends. No, seriously. It depends on what you really want to do and where you want to work. Obviously, the more talents you have the stronger you become as a job candidate. However, you may not want to dilute your strength in one area just to gain strength in another. It becomes a balance as far as what your desires really are. Personally, I enjoy focusing mostly on design but I also enjoy some front-end programming and putting together prototypes. I know some designers that even enjoy back-end programming. However, there’s some designers that focus solely on design. In conclusion, there’s not really a universally correct answer for this question. You need to examine what you want for yourself and hone those skills as much as possible to become the strongest designer you can be. Although, I would still argue that if you don’t know at least some basic front-end programming standards and practices then you aren’t where you need to be as a designer.

Justin Smith

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One response to The Design and Development Divide

  1. I agree that the need does vary – a smaller organization will find value in someone that can play multiple roles while a larger organization is capable of greater job specialization. However, a better understanding of related roles allows for a more well-rounded understanding of what is possible. It is very difficult to become an expert in multiple disciplines, but having a working understanding of related fields – that sometimes you depend on – helps with seeing the big picture, understanding the struggles of your other team members and delivering projects successfully.

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