Ada Zhou blurs the line between engineering and design
Going into my second year of college, I was determined to figure out what I was majoring in (and in my head, despite the sound advice of those around me, deciding my major clearly also determined what I was doing for the rest of my life). Fall quarter sped past and soon after it, winter. I was continuously cycling through the same arguments in my head at this time between Product Design and Computer Science. Design or code?
In the midst of this indecision, summer internship opportunities were abuzz. That’s how I found myself landing in Julius Nyerere International Airport, luggage in hand, gearing up to work at NALA this summer. In the startup environment where the lines between roles are blurred, I could design AND code. I didn’t need to choose. The interdependence of these two fields, in app development particularly, made it a convenient combination. I could design the functionalities to add into the app and then code it to look the way I designed. It would cut out the back and forth between what would be a development team needing to understand the mockups on how the screens should look and interact with users that the design team creates and the design team needing to understand the complexity of designs code-wise. Great, simple. Or so I thought.
Throughout the summer, I was continually struck by the obvious fact that design work and developing work are different. I felt myself categorizing what I was doing and thinking into one of the two categories. But how were they different? There would be times when I would be on Android Studio writing lines of code but I felt that I was designing. There would be times I would be on Adobe XD and feel like I was developing. I wasn’t sure what it was. Sometimes the simplest design choices required complex code. Sometimes the code dictated what designs would be more suitable. I was continuously re-evaluating and reconsidering decisions. If I made a certain decision to code a function a certain way, I would have to go and think about the design again, and vice versa. It was a constant bounce back and forth between designing and coding, coding and designing. I felt like there was a design side and a developing side within me that had to communicate with each other. This helped me realized that I had different mindsets when I was working on the project as a designer as opposed to a developer. That’s why I had to make conscious transitions to connect the threads of how I thought when designing and coding.
I finally realized that the differentiating factor is the focus. When I was in a design mindset, I thought about whether or not something would look good on the screen, whether or not it was simple and easy to understand. When I was in a code mindset, I thought about what the best way to break down a certain function into steps and what the most efficient and simplest methodology was. The two mindsets don’t always match up which is why there needs to be this back and forth.
This reminded of the controversial question of whether or not designers should code. Before the summer I had just hoped that the answer was yes since I wanted to code and design. From my experiences, now I’m firmly on the “this isn’t a good question” camp. What the question seems to be getting at is defining the role of a designer. It proposes that the bounds of the profession are not yet clearly set or are not adequately set to include “enough” skills. The fact that the question of whether or not developers should design is much less debated seems to support that. At some level, I think it stems from a belief that all a designer does is move things around a page to make it look pretty — and viewing that as “not enough” of a discipline. Often, coding is seen as a much more technical skill and more difficult to learn. In contrast, design is rooted in aesthetics and creativity which is seen as less rigorous. (After spending hours struggling to come up with simple yet visually pleasing ways to display a date on the screen, I’ve definitely expelled any possible remnants of such beliefs in my head.) This question tries to define the job of a designer by skills. But those don’t necessarily define a role, rather, viewing jobs by the questions it requires one to explore and answer much more effective in delineating them. So let’s reframe the question. Instead of debating about whether or not designers should code, we can discuss what the goals of a designer are and for individual designers, what skills and experiences they believe will help them achieve those goals which may or may not include coding.
I left Dar es Salaam this summer from Julius Nyerere International Airport, luggage in hand, with questions to answer and memories in a beautiful country with a wealth of learning experiences on my back.
Ada Zhou is a junior Product Design and Computer Science major at Stanford University. Ada spent time working with NALA during the summer of 2018. Ada heard of NALA through SENSA Labs at Stanford University.
You can access NALA through the Google Playstore.