Should Designers Code?

Accessibility and feasibility of coding for creatives

Whether or not designers should code is a polarizing question as old as the Internet. As platforms like Webflow and SuperHi have begun to blur the lines between visual design and web development, more working professionals and design students alike are feeling the heat under their toes as the rapidly changing design industry looms on the horizon. This challenge is met usually either with eager anticipation or dread, with not much room in between. The institutional and technological changes facing the design community again beg the question; should designers code?

Illustration created by Justyna Stasik for SuperHi

Creatives worry that print is dying, and that designers who don’t have HTML & CSS tucked away in their software utility belts will be steamrolled out of job opportunities by more tech savvy applicants. The resurgence of vinyl records and the apparently universal nostalgia for tangible media hopefully proves that those fears are unwarranted. Regardless, I believe that learning to code is a crucial practice for design students because it stretches unique creative muscles that we rarely are given the opportunity to exercise.

Before studying design, my initial impression of web development was hazy and uninformed. I assumed that coding was a more complicated and digitized version of math, which didn’t interest me whatsoever. Since then, I’ve thankfully learned while coding does make up the fundamental architecture of the Internet, it also can be as simple as an exercise in problem solving.

HTML is a puzzle. Finding the missing piece and putting every element in its place can be a thrilling undertaking. Reloading a page for the first time and seeing custom code appear on a screen —even with something as simple as “Hello World”—is addicting. Coding from scratch is powerful; people say that design won’t save the world, but coding puts tangible problem-solving power back into the hands of designers.

Illustration created by Justyna Stasik for SuperHi

During my freshman year of college, a friend pursuing a degree in Political Science told me that she was going out of her way to take calculus classes just for fun. Armed with my high school vendetta against calculus, I thought she was crazy. She said that she wanted to exercise a different part of her brain that her other classes weren’t stretching, but I didn’t understand how something I struggled with could be doable, let alone enjoyable. After rediscovering coding later in the semester I realized that she had been right; I just hadn’t found my calculus yet.

I discovered the creative power of code when I saw what my peers were creating with web development. Once I started paying attention, I was able to recognize that a designer’s hand had typed the keystrokes to create hover effects and other whimsical touches to sites that made them special. Once I saw the creative potential of web development, I was hooked.

Coding is the best calculus for designers. It helps us practice creative and productive problem solving while creating something both functional and beautiful. Coding allows designers to create monuments to our problem solving abilities.

Illustration created by Justyna Stasik for SuperHi

I loved the idea of integrating code into my design practice, but apparently my university did not. With only one front-end web development course available for students who don’t study engineering, and limited interaction faculty within the art school, we were surrounded by barriers to entry.

I wasn’t surprised that I was one of the only design students taking WashU’s sole web development course, but I was surprised that I was one of the only women. I had assumed that the class would be academically and demographically diverse, making room for students pursuing variegated degrees and levels of knowledge. Even at an introductory level, it was both eyeopening and disheartening to see the gender disparity in STEM firsthand. Throughout the course, I was often taken aback by its cold, unfriendly, and unhelpful structure. It prioritized speed and efficiency of achieving the result over the joy of the process. Despite students clamoring for more access to web development knowledge, the classes were designed for us to fail.

My answer to the age-old question about whether designers should code is: only if you want to. But the inherent problem in that answer lies in the fact that coding and technological skills are not readily available to the designers and creative thinkers whose personal answers are “yes.” So, for the time being, I feel that it is all designers’ responsibilities—especially those with ample access to coding opportunities—to learn and share as much as possible about coding and web development in order to open the floodgates of information. The design community can’t become complacent and allow institutions of higher education to perpetuate the intellectual partition between engineers and designers.

Maddy Angstreich is a junior in Communication Design at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. She also has a minor in American Culture Studies. See more of her design work here!