Should designers…?

It’s been a while since I’ve hopped on the keyboard to write a blog. I had some ideas for what I wanted to write about, but couldn’t find a good flow and kept hitting writer’s block. I continued to seek out inspiration online (Twitter, blogs, etc.) to see if it would spark anything. Eventually, I found a discussion centered around the question, “should designers code?”

If you’re familiar with the design/tech world, you know that this question is a very common point of contention. There are plenty of blogs, tweets, you name it, talking about what designers should or shouldn’t do. From very experienced and amazing people in the industry to inexperienced and newer designers. There’s even a parody Twitter account that addresses this. This question is where my struggle lies and why I felt I had to share my thoughts.

Now, this specific question isn’t where/why I struggle. Should designers always be learning? Yes. And I actually believe that there is a lot of value in designers learning to code and that designers would benefit from having this skill set. I’m even actively learning on my own and working to involve engineers more in my design process. However, that’s not where my focus is right now. I’m still trying to just get better at what some might consider design basics (research, visual design, process, presentation, etc.).

So, why do I find this discussion so frustrating? I’m new to the industry (less than a year), still fresh in my current role (less than 6 months), and doing everything I can to constantly get better and grow. Both sides are very adamant about sharing their opinions. To the point where this specific thread I came across on Twitter took place over 3 days. 3 days?! It has become very counterproductive and that’s where this specific discussion loses its value. This is why I find this conversation so frustrating.

Everyone believes that by sharing their thoughts and “expert” advice, they are being helpful. In fact, it’s the opposite. Discourse like this doesn’t help young designers, like myself, who are trying to improve their skills to grow their careers. All it does is make things more confusing. One person says “yes,” another person says “no,” both with logical arguments to support their opinion. How do you know who/what to believe and what to do? There’s no clear answer and that makes things very intimidating to outsiders and/or newbies. I don’t know what I should or shouldn’t do. It’s a lot easier for someone new to be overwhelmed with the amount of things you “need” to learn to get hired or to do great work.

And this discussion can be applied to any job. “Should [insert job] [insert skill]? For example, let’s use teaching as a parallel. I know that design and teaching have many differences, but because I’ve had both family members and friends in the world of teaching, I feel like this is easiest for me to compare. A new teacher starting out usually focuses their career on teaching a specific subject (middle school and higher) or maybe even age group (high school, college, preschool, etc.). They get better at teaching this subject and maybe take on more challenges (running the department, teaching more advanced classes, teaching multiple classes, taking a job at a university, etc.). It allows new/young teachers to focus their time and energy towards getting better at their current set of skills and knowledge, with plenty of opportunities to grow in their careers. Now, let’s imagine that a young teacher is looking to advance their career and they try to talk to other teachers or research what they can do next. Think about how intimidating it would be to hear and see discussions around whether or not it was better to learn to teach a more advanced topic in their subject matter or to teach a different age group. In essence, should teachers teach advanced classes? Or should teachers teach different age groups? Add in professionals arguing for and against one or the other and all you have is a lot of confusion. Would it make them a more valuable teacher in the long run? Probably. You would prove yourself to be a very well rounded teacher that has a vast amount of knowledge and is capable of sharing that knowledge effectively with students. You would put yourself ahead of other candidates because you have the ability to be flexible when things change and give yourself more opportunities to grow. So could it benefit some young teachers to learn how to teach across numerous topics/subjects or age groups? Absolutely. And if they are interested in doing that, they absolutely should seek out those opportunities. What’s different is that this sort of discussion about what teachers should or shouldn’t do doesn’t happen. It happens frequently in design though. It’s counterproductive to the actual value and point of the discussion. The discussion should be centered around how to help young designers (or any young employee for that matter) get better and reach their career goals.

I’m not saying that all discussions are bad, because they aren’t. In fact, most are great! The key is that it shouldn’t just be an argument for the sake of arguing and for people to share their opinions and say why they are right and others are wrong. That’s not helping anyone. Here’s a tweet I saw the other day and I think it’s perfect:

designers should this. designers should that. how about letting designers be fucking great designers? that’s already hard enough. — Felipe Memoria

Instead, let’s talk about what resources are the best for designers to learn how to code (that are interested) and share them with the community. This would be much more helpful because it makes the idea of learning something new less intimidating and gives me a pathway to start learning, while making me a better designer in the process. Or how about more experienced designers reaching out to people like me that might be struggling with a question like whether or not they should learn to code. This time can be used to find out more about where my current skills are and where I want to go in my career. Every person is going to be unique. My career goals might be very different from another designer and learning something else might be more valuable to me. You should do whatever will help you do better work or reach your career goals. Having a discussion like that will be a lot more valuable to me and more productive. There are plenty of things that can be done (on both sides) to replace this debate and ensure young designers are getting the information they need to succeed. This is where everyone’s energy and time should be focused.

How this topic is being addressed now isn’t helpful to me and I’m sure it’s not helpful to others. Let’s change the question to, “what should I learn to [insert goal]?” And this actually applies to any career you choose. There is no required checklist to move up in your career and do better work than someone else. You should have a passion for the field you are in and a natural curiosity to learn new things that will help you do better work. There are a lot of smart, experienced people out there that can help make this happen. These are the types of conversations I want to see and have.