If You Can Think, Design & Code, You Win

Earlier today I tweeted a link to Andy Rutledge's latest entry, "Web Design is Product Design" which, in the first line, offended at least 50 of my followers on Twitter:

A designer who does not write markup and CSS is not designing for the web, but drawing pictures.

The reason I know that this stirred up controversy is because I received dozens of replies, nearly instantly, about how much they disagreed with the statement. On the other hand, the tweet was retweeted over 70 times so that means a healthy number of people agreed with Andy's view of the web design profession.

So who's right? Is there a correct answer? I don't know, but what I do know is that designers who are also programmers are incredibly valuable so let's talk about why.

I'm the odd combination of both a designer and software engineer. I've been designing websites and software for more than half my life, and I've also been developing websites and software for the same span of time. In the early 2000s I helped start a successful design firm and a (mostly) successful startup, and as any entrepreneur can tell you, you have to be able to wear multiple hats and do a great job no matter what you're doing. Hell, I was even half-decent at cold-emailing companies and selling advertising spots. After the iPhone came out I learned Objective-C and the Cocoa APIs and now I also design and build iOS software. I work on web software during the day and mobile apps at night.

I design all day long, I code all day long.

But most people don't do that.

Most of my friends who are designers are pretty amazing at what they do. World-class icon artists. Apple Design Award-winning user interface designers. Terrific web designers. The crazy thing about most of my hyper-talented friends is that, for the most part, they were the ones who disagreed with the notion of designers needing to know how to code. They had well-written thoughts about the importance of specialization and how teams of individuals doing individual jobs worked well, and there's really nothing wrong with that.

My issue with this whole situation is that it seems that designers were against even learning, just a little bit, about how to be a programmer. It's like the mere notion of them stepping outside their comfort zone was an affront to their talents, when nothing could be further from the truth.

If someone is talented enough to do a great job within his or her skill set, then they're probably talented enough to learn a bit about someone else's job, too. Designers learning how to program. Programmers learning how to design. Product people learning how to actually design or build something instead of just writing about it. (I kid! Sorta.) Whoever you hand your work product over to, that other person's skill set is what you should learn about.

Do It All, Reap The Rewards

Almost everyone has read stories about businesspeople with ideas for products or mobile apps and "all they need are some programmers and designers" to make it real. Or perhaps about programmers who build amazing systems and prototypes but they lack the polish a designer can bring. Or how about designers who design immaculate interface mockups but need a developer to make them real. All these stories are cop-outs. They're tales of woe from people who lack the curiosity and drive to just Figure It Out™ and start learning a new skill.

Do you know who the most valuable software people are in the world? They're the ones who can think up great ideas, elaborate these ideas on paper, design the interface, then prototype and build the idea into a real thing. Idea to design to code to product. One person who can do it all. One person whose skills cut across job titles and areas of purview with an overwhelming drive to do the whole thing because that's just how they do things.

Who are these people? Who are these designer-programmer hybrids? Brandon Walkin, Kyle Van Essen, Shaun Inman, Michael Simmons, Andreas Illiger, Michael Villar, Ben De Cock, David Kaneda and Cathy Shive just to name a few. Also, me. We're out there and we're designing and building amazing stuff, mostly on our own.

I can't really speak for anyone else, but I'm guessing the common trait amongst us is that we're curious, almost to a fault. I'll read about programming languages, science, math, psychology, economics and space until the cows come home. I absolutely had to write software for the iPhone when it was announced so I had to teach myself C and Objective-C. Jesus, it was hard, but I did it. It took awhile, but now I consider myself a fairly competent Cocoa software engineer and I write & sell tutorials that try to teach others what I learned.

So do designers absolutely have to learn how to program to be a good designer? No, it's not a requirement. There are plenty of amazing designers out there who don't know CSS. But there are also plenty of designers out there who know CSS and advanced JavaScript. There are others who know CSS, JavaScript, Ruby on Rails and some SQL. And a few more who can setup and administer web servers. And a couple more who can write iPhone apps. And maybe a few more who know Java pretty well, too.

Can you be one of those people? Someone who is great at their main area of expertise, but also pretty good at other areas of expertise as well? Someone who can dream up software then design it, build it, and ship it? Yes. A thousand times yes. Like anything else, it takes determination, hard work, and lots of curiosity.

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