Quid Pro Quo

The rot set in when we started asking whether designers should code. That poorly-framed, closed-ended question opened a debate about the margins of the field we call user experience and/or product design. I argued at the time that a better question might be “is code design?”.

Then following the thread to its conclusion, some proclaimed “everyone is a designer”, which didn’t go down well. I understand the alarm: jobbing designers have a long history of suits, product managers and other backseat practitioners believing their pub-chat opinions are equivalent to professional expertise. I have been that jobbing designer. These days I’m a jobbing writer. So believe me, I know.

Still, rejecting this idea outright is an uncomfortably territorial stance for a discipline that preaches the need for empathy and collaboration. Defending expertise is one thing. It’s quite another to imply the designer is the primary agent of creation.

It’s fair to say that designers can act as auteurs, backed by evidence, experience, or both. But that doesn’t seem to fit with our cross-functional practices. It also unduly burdens the designer with technical, editorial and business concerns they would prefer to (or be advised to) hand off to another expert. These concerns prompted the “should designers code” hoopla: a tacit acknowledgment that code was as least a valid design material as pixels, coupled with a sometimes-valid fear that without the designer’s guiding hand their intent would be rendered without due respect for fit and finish.

If you’re such a designer frustrated by sloppy engineering or user-apathetic leadership, you have my sympathies. I see how that would raise your hackles and trigger a belief that designers should take charge because no one else seems to care. It’s not just a defense of your job, but of product quality. I’m lucky to have worked with fabulous front- and back-end engineers (and writers, taxonomists, and researchers) all of whom care just as much about making something good for the people who use it.

If design is informed creation for a purpose, then in my experience all these folks inform and create just as much as titular designers. If it’s the rendering of intent, they do both the intent and the rendering. They don’t act in the service of a design auteur. Rather, their skills and yours equally contrive the look, feel, structure, voice, tone, performance, security, reliability, and value exchange of the thing. The quiddity; making something what it is.

If you’re conflating design with user interface design, you’re missing the point of what makes a product valuable.

Even when scoped to UI, is it only ‘design’ if rendered through Sketch rather than CSS? And if the creative choices of CSS count as design, how about React, C++, or content modeling? In all these acts of creative instantiation, where’s the line between what can and cannot be said to be ‘designing’?

Then comes the question of skill. Because secretly what I think we’re all really guarding against is not the contribution of our peers but the meddling of power-abusing stakeholders. It’s totally fair to insist that a professional in any skilled discipline will do a better job than an amateur. But it’s silly to imply (as some have done) that bad design isn’t design. Bad writing is still writing. Bad music is still music. And amateurs and professionals alike can have good or bad days. Perhaps what defines a designer is not their medium, but their skill and commitment to improvement. Perhaps the same could be said of any professional working within their sphere of competence.

If you’re the best on your team at animation, typography, information architecture, pricing, or server load balancing then the buck for those things should totally stop with you. Let no one take your crown. But beware the fallacy of thinking that since these things contribute to ‘design’ you as designer must be supremely accountable. You’re responsible for your own domain, but accountability rests with the team.

I get it. The reductive phrasing of ‘designers should code’ disenfranchised those who couldn’t. So we don’t want “everyone is now a designer” memes to spew over LinkedIn, gleefully lapped up by marketing managers and recruiters alike. But let’s not demote the role of engineering, research, content creation and information architecture as somehow being less than design.

They’re all in the service of design, but not in the service of the designer.