Should Designers Code?

Every industry has debates where people on either side hold rigidly to a point of view without really thinking through the issue. The world of web design is no exception and one of the debates we seem to argue about is whether or not web designers need to code to be effective web designers.


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I’ve said several times in the past that a word like need is too absolute. There is little you need to do. That’s the problem with this debate. The question isn’t whether or not web designers need to code, but rather should designers code, a subtle yet important distinction.

A Lesson from Vincent van Gogh

Awhile back I mentioned that I was rereading the letters of Vincent van Gogh. A few days ago I came across a passage in one of his letters that applies to this conversation of web designers and coding.

Lately I have been working with printers ink, which is diluted with turpentine and applied with a brush. It gives very deep tones of black. Diluted with some Chinese white, it also gives good grays. By adding more or less turpentine, one can even wash it in very thinly.

I think it will give good results on the paper Buhot gave you.

Similar words to the above come up again and again in Vincent’s letters and in fact the above isn’t necessarily the best example of Van Gogh talking about the materials he used. It’s simply a recent example I came across. Notice the different materials Vincent mentions.

  • Ink — Printers black and Chinese white
  • Turpentine — As something to modify the output of the ink
  • Brush — As the tool to apply the ink
  • Paper — As the material which will hold the ink and render the finished work

The passage isn’t about painting in the sense of how to compose a picture or which colors work well with others. It’s about the materials used, because the materials contribute to the finished work. While Van Gogh was an artist, it’s not hard to see how this applies to designers as well.

Industrial designers need to become familiar with materials, because material and final product are so connected to each other. Graphic designers seek to understand materials, because the materials greatly influence the finished design, even if not as intertwined as with industrial design.

Print designers consider ink and paper and they look beyond both. They look to cardboard, wood, vellum, and any other material that can color can be affixed to. They also look deeper at the paper to see what it can do beyond hold ink.

The materials used to render designs can and will affect the resulting design. It makes sense to understand what you can about the materials you use daily and also explore materials you don’t commonly use. It gives you greater control over your finished work and it opens up new ways to explore and be creative.

The Materials of Web Design

Regardless of what kind of design you practice, materials play an important part in your finished design. Understanding the properties of ink and paper are no different than being practiced with a certain brush stroke, or understanding how effective use of visual weight creates hierarchy in a design.

Two important materials web designers work with are code and browsers. They’re our ink and paper. Regardless of how much or little you know of them, anything you design is going to ultimately live in a browser and the browser is going to display your design based on what code is written and how it’s written.

Do you need to know how to code or how a browser works to organize content, choose type and colors, or create an aesthetic for a site? Of course not. You don’t need to know either. However, the more you understand either or both, the more you can understand how your finished product will work and look.

Web designers should spend time learning how to code for the same reasons they spend time learning how to use a graphic editor or learning what various shapes communicate and the role space plays in organizing information.

You should spend time learning these things, because the learning will make you a better web designer, the same way understanding when to use a .jpg and when to use a .png makes you a better web designer.

There are many more things beyond html and css that influence the finished design of a site. Things like gzip, DNS lookups, network connectivity, and latency. You don’t have to be an expert in all these things. I barely know what some of them are beyond having heard the term. You don’t need to know them, but as they affect how visitors are going to experience your design, the more you know about them, the better a designer you’ll be.

Being able to code and understanding how browsers will render your code is no different for web designers than a print designer seeking to understand how a certain kind of paper will absorb a certain type of ink. It’s no different than Vincent van Gogh seeking to understand how he could alter and control the value of printer’s ink, by mixing it with turpentine.

Do you need to code in order to be a web designer? Of course not. You don’t need to do much of anything. Should you code in order to be a web designer? Absolutely, since it will only make you a better web designer.

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4 comments

  1. I got the same feeling when reading about the Bauhaus. They were proper print nerds because that was the tech of their time and it makes sense that we should be, at least, code amateurs.

    • That’s a good point. That was the tech of their time and they wanted to know what they could about it. It made them better designers. I think it’s the same for us an code. I don’t think everyone needs to be an expert code, but it only makes sense if you’re going to design web pages that you should understand what you can about both code and browsers.

      By the way the phrase proper print nerds is great. :)

  2. As usual, a deep insight into the processes that schools are supposed to teach. Thank you for this article, it is this kind of input that make me feel less alone in my teaching. I have always argued that a web designer who can not code, is nothing more than a designer. One more.
    The understanding of techniques, both design and coding, are equivalent to the understanding of the paper, canvas and other materials needed to create. And, as you say well, it is not necessary to know thoroughly all the techniques and processes, it’s also virtually impossible for one person, but it is essential to be aware that the deployment of a page involves an unlikely event chain.

    • Thanks egiova. I think we’re all much less along than we realize at times. I know it’s easy for me to think I’m along at times, since I am literally sitting here by myself at the moment, but we’re hardly alone.

      I don’t think much is ever really necessary. You can always find exceptions, which proves something wasn’t necessary. However, I would think no matter what your career you’d want to learn as much as you could to do it better. If you design websites it only makes sense to learn what you can about code and how browsers work, etc.

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