Designer Eats Engineer

Nathan Bashaw
Jan 13, 2013 · 2 min read

Here’s a prediction for 2013: just as software is eating the world, I believe designers are eating (some) engineers. Here’s why:

Web design is maturing

The first generation of web designers mostly came from print, and had a tendency to treat web pages as clickable sheets of paper. It made sense that their tool of choice was photoshop. Now that web design is maturing, it’s practitioners are increasingly discovering the benefits of learning to think in code. The new front-end engineer is really just a designer who prefers HTML, CSS and Javascript to Photoshop.

Engineering is getting easier

You no longer need a CS degree to build reasonably scalable web-applications. This wasn’t possible a few years ago, but B2D companies like Heroku, MongoHQ, Stripe, and Firebase have made it possible to outsource big chunks of your infrastructure. In the meantime, fierce competition in the open-source community has led to an explosion of reusable components and guides for beginners that make it easier than ever to learn to build industrial-strength products.

This has given designers the ability to build products that only a traditional programmer could have made in the past.

Delighting users is getting harder

If anyone can build a product, then anyone will. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of web applications built each year is exponentially increasing. This leads users to expect a higher level of polish, which makes it harder than ever to build something that stands out. This is the designer’s specialty - crafting delightful experiences. Being able to do this requires more than just visual design, and designers who understand the native capabilities of the tools they work in (web browsers) have an advantage over those who don’t.

The maturation of web design, simplification of engineering, and sophistication of users’ tastes has created an environment where designers are strongly incentivized to not just learn the basics of HTML and CSS but become full-fledged front-end engineers. It’s not hard to go from there to coding entire apps on your own and moving into the back-end.

Many of my designer friends have gotten to the point where they can hold their own against traditional programmers. One good example is - a startup founded by two ex-Foursquare designers that built their product from scratch and have scaled to tens of thousands of users. Half of my friend Ian Storm Taylor’s blog posts are about code. I started out a designer but once I learned a bit of Ruby and Javascript I never looked back.

It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out. I don’t think designers are going to replace most engineers, but I do think the distinction between designer and front-end developer may increasingly become a thing of the past.

Only time will tell.

Let’s Make Things

on the art & craft of constructing software

    Nathan Bashaw

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    Let’s Make Things

    on the art & craft of constructing software