“Deciding whether to learn code wasn’t always such a weird rite of passage”

Interview with Alex Cornell, the lead designer of Facebook Live

This is the first interview in a new Figma series about designers’ ‘zag moments,’ where we talk to product builders about the unconventional choices in their career that led them to where they are now.

Should you learn to code? It’s a question that feels like it’s been around since neanderthal designers were sketching buffaloes on cave walls. But a decade ago, the dilemma wasn’t the “weird rite of passage people have to go through on Twitter” that it is today, says Alex Cornell, the designer in charge of Facebook Live. As a young designer, Cornell decided to learn film and photography instead, an expertise that paid off years later when Facebook recruited him to help launch their Live feature.

We talked to Cornell about why he decided to forego the heavily trodden code path and forge his own route.

So Alex, I hear you’re not a designer slash coder. Why?

When I was making that decision in 2007, that wasn’t a question floating around Twitter, it was just a decision you had to make. Do I want to learn to code or play the piano? Nothing more complicated than that.

Where I was, at a startup with a bunch of engineers, it seemed like a waste. We had four guys who knew deeply how to code — went to school for it, came out of Google — and then me who’s a beginning designer. We’re a team of people, it would be beneficial to learn something no one else knows how to do.

So what else would be helpful? For me it became filmmaking in general — After Effects, Premiere, the technical part of filmmaking. After Effects was probably the most helpful since there weren’t prototyping tools back then, I would use it to animate faces the way I thought we should show them.

Basically, that’s an easy way of saying coding sounded boring and making motion graphics didn’t.

Do you ever regret that choice?

Ten years later you always wonder ‘What would it have been like if I started taking Japanese lessons ten years ago?’ which is another thing I think about. I do regret not learning to code sometimes, but it doesn’t take too long to retrace the logical path I described and the same conclusion comes to me. Especially now, I work at Facebook and knowing how to code is not necessary but what I have learned over the years is very helpful — how to talk to engineers and help them understand how to translate design into their language.

When young designers ask you whether they should learn to code what do you say?

If they don’t know then the answer is probably no.

It always strikes me as a funny thing — if somebody asked me, “Should I learn to edit film?” I’d be like, “Well I don’t know — do you like film?” The next five questions would make the answer super obvious and I hope most people would be able to think of it on their own.

These days as the tools are getting blurred, where the boundary is between coding and design — the guy who works next to me works in Framer, I work in Origami and I’m building logic trees — the boundary is pretty blurry these days so it’s less of a binary.

That speaks to why this question keeps coming up. If there was a right answer to it and people understood ‘Yes designers should code’ there’d be no need for the question. But for everyone there’s a different right answer.

If they choose to focus on something else besides coding, what do you recommend?

The two that come to mind for me are writing and…I don’t know the right word for it, but communication or presentation. It’s one thing to do a great design and code it or do an awesome animation, but there’s a low chance of it going anywhere if you don’t get people excited about it. (Editor’s note: John Maeda recommended the same skill in his 2017 Design in Tech Report.)

In school they talk about presentation in the context of a design agency, but the way I mean it is more, ‘I’m in a room with three other people trying to convince them something’s a cool idea and I don’t mean in a formal way.’ You communicate an idea to someone else through speaking and presentation and that can take many forms, a film, a talk, a Powerpoint, whatever, those two skills together are exceptionally helpful in supporting my design work. If you’re good at that you can shift the sands in the direction you want something to go.

That’s one of the reasons I don’t advocate people skip school too early because I’ve found those two skills — the concrete one of writing and the emotional intelligence attached to that — those are really important and you can’t learn them in the same way you can learn coding or filmmaking.

At Figma, we’re amazed by the cool things people are doing across the product design community. We’ve decided to start highlighting those experiences, perspectives and untold stories in articles on our blog. For those new to us, we’re the first product design tool that’s based in the browser, giving people the opportunity to build apps and websites together in real time. Come check us out (and we’re hiring!).