Why Designers Should Code

Ryan O'Neill
Jun 23, 2017 · 4 min read
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Photo: Madison Bruno

When I graduated from college in 2010, I had received a great education in print design. We spoke in points and I dreamt of designing logos, packages, and posters. The print design holy trinity.

There was one problem though, we were two years into the recession and these jobs were reserved for industry pros who had carved out this niche long before I even knew what a pantone swatch was. My dream job was beyond my reach. I settled into doing production work but felt unfulfilled. Maybe it was my naïveté or impatience, but I wanted more.

So when an entrepreneur approached me to be his in-house designer I jumped. Here I would have creative freedom and a chance to shine. He needed logos, apparel, illustrations, posters, brochures… and a website.

That last one scared me.

Now I wasn’t a complete idiot when it came to designing websites, I had fumbled my way through some code once or twice in my life. I had even used cargo collective to make my portfolio. Let’s face it though, I was a complete novice. I knew nothing about web design best practices. While it may not have been apparent to my boss. I’m sure it was apparent to the web developer we hired. I learned enough on the job, and after a few more sites under my belt my confidence grew, and just like every other young adult I thought I knew it all.

I moved to Atlanta. I started applying for jobs, and every interview I would get asked the same question, “Why should we hire someone with so little web design experience?”. I would tell them that my lack of knowledge allowed me to dream bigger and not be hindered by the limitations of what could be made. I wasn’t making it up though, I believed it.

It wasn’t until I learned to write html, css, and javascript that I had realized how bad that answer made me look.

Interior designers learn about construction techniques, industrial designers fabricate prototypes, print designers know how to properly prep files for print. Why should I design a website without knowing the code it’s built on?

I’m not advocating that every web designer needs to be a front-end developer. At the very least, every web designer needs to know the basics of web development.

Why? Well let me explain.

You need to know if it can be done

Web developers can do some crazy, unbelievable things. These things also take a crazy amount of time. Whether you work in-house, at an agency, or for yourself, It’s your job as a designer to make sure that what you are proposing can be done on time and on budget. The impact of your creative decisions needs to be considered constantly, not an afterthought. You’ll know what works and you’ll get to the right solution faster.

The No Developer

The No Developer is either lazy, a pessimist, or both. But they are no match for a well prepared designer. If you can propose a way to code up your design or better yet, have already prototyped it, you’ll have the upper hand every time.

Responsive web design

Every website needs to be responsive. Most web developers will use a css grid like bootstrap. You need to understand how content reflows as the browser window changes unless you want to reinvent the wheel. Web developers use libraries and plugins that speed up their work, so asking them to start from scratch isn’t the best idea.

Edging out the competition

Sooner or later you are going to be applying for a new job. When that happens you are going to look a hell of a lot more attractive when you have the letters HTML and CSS on your resume.

Pushing the envelope

The best designers have a brilliant way of working around a project’s limitations. They solve problems in ways that others never thought of. They do this by knowing when and how to break the rules. Knowing the rules and advancements of web development allows you to be on the cutting edge. How can you make something no one has ever seen before if you have to see it first in order to know if it can be done?

Maybe you’re wondering how to get started? The good news is that there are many free ways to teach yourself to code. You don’t need to buy a book or go back to school. Like so many other great things, this knowledge can be found on the internet. I like codecademy, but I’m sure there are many other great resources online depending on how you like to learn.

Learn to code, be a better designer, and make cool stuff. Every day.

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