Jared Spool over at UIE just published an article about “why the Valley wants designers who can code“. In it, he asserts that startups in Silicon Valley want to keep teams small and therefore look to combine critical roles within a single person, while established players in the industry can afford to spread those roles out over more people.
This is partially true. But there’s more to it. Silicon Valley startups are on the forefront of internet technology. The companies that want designers who can code are the ones that are developing cutting edge applications: Quora, AirBnB, Facebook, etc. These apps need to be lean, functional, and scalable. They can’t afford to design an interface that gets in its own way because the designers and developers couldn’t agree on a balance between functionality and good looks. What’s the best way to make that happen? Have the designer and developer be the same person.
The new design constraint is being able to code
When a designer can code, she makes decisions based on an understanding of design and of the result that design is going to create. If that design is too complicated, as a coder, she knows it’s going to make her life harder: getting it to work in all browsers (including IE7), scaling to mobile with techniques like responsive design, being able to quickly iterate when design elements don’t meet functional requirements or usability test results, etc. Her design is going to be easier to implement and lead to better results by virtue of her knowledge in this area.
On the other hand, designers who can’t code aren’t constrained by that wisdom. And that’s a weakness, not a strength. Sure, if you’re designing an amazing-looking promotion or pamphlet, you might want to focus more on the bling and less on the quality of interaction. But for an app – Silicon Valley startups are putting out web apps and mobile apps faster than we can blink – the number one metric of success is whether it works well. Pure designers won’t be able to do that as well as hybrids who can also code.
Designers who can code are like Neo in the Matrix: they can see through the world around them (the app) into the underlying code operating beyond everyone’s vision. That affords them a greater understanding of their environment, allowing them to successfully bend the rules where necessary and possible. But they know their limits, and they know when to depend more on their coding or design abilities when required.
Designers who can code are the future
The reason Silicon Valley startups want designers who can code isn’t just because it’s easier and cheaper. It’s because they know where things are headed. They’re building the next wave of great apps and discovering a more efficient way of doing so. The established companies aren’t – they’re called established companies for a reason. And they need to step up if they don’t want to get left behind when designers who can code become the norm.
There’s a reason leading designers like Rebekah Cox, Glen Murphy, Wilson Miner, and Ryan Singer all said designers should be able to build what they design. It’s not because they’re cheap. It’s because they’re the best.
Jared calls designers who can code “super designers” (and in a previous talk, referred to them as “the Holy Grail” and “unicorns”). Perhaps today we can refer to ourselves that way. But in a few years, being able to write code will be required for any web or mobile app designer worth her salt.
We built Handcraft for designers who can code. It’s the best way to create real HTML prototypes not by dragging widgets around, but by writing the code yourself. Check it out if you’re one of Jared’s fabled super designers – we use it ourselves every day.
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