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The real reason the Valley wants designers who can code: they’re better

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.

“Whoa”

Neo seeing the code of the Matrix

Is Neo a designer who can 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.

12 Comments

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  • I came here because I thought you were talking about real designers (electronics engineering) who can also code.

    Now, I discover that you are writing about toy stuff – web applications.

    by Martin Felder • Jun 1st 2011 • 15:06

  • Hello from Reddit. I agree completely with this reasoning. When I first started doing web design I had come from a pure graphic design background and really struggled to adapt to the web (this was the days of table based design so a long time ago). Over the years I have learnt HTML, CSS, JavaScript, PHP and now C and Objective-C. Having learnt to code I would agree 100% that it is essential to know at least HTML/CSS and some JavaScript if you are going to design for the web. Not knowing these absolute basics will impede any designer and create bottlenecks in any team workflow who need to educate or edit the designers work to translate it to the web.

    by Dan Davidson • Jun 1st 2011 • 16:06

  • @Martin_Felder

    I came here because I thought you were talking about real designers (mechanical engineers) who can also write code.

    Now, I discover that you are writing about toy stuff – electronics.

    This whole “real” engineers have chest hair gets boring real quick…

    by __darknite • Jun 1st 2011 • 16:06

  • @Martin_Felder

    Right in this website’s header: “Our blog about HTML prototyping, craftsmanship, and designing in the browser.”

    Some engineer – you don’t even RTFM! :)

    by youTool • Jun 1st 2011 • 17:06

  • “I came here because I thought you were talking about real designers (electronics engineering) who can also code.

    Now, I discover that you are writing about toy stuff – web applications.”

    Because electronics engineers are what people think of first when they think of design.

    I would rather make toys, than be a total bore at parties.

    by Greg • Jun 1st 2011 • 21:06

  • Yeah, um. No. They are not “the future.”

    Web (and all graphic) designers come in all shapes and sizes. Typically, though, the brain which works to provide effective visual experiences does not function on the level which creates fluid and concise code. And vice versa. This is why I approve of the term ‘unicorn’.

    Do these dually remarkable people exist? I’m sure they do but odds are they’re also remarkably rare. All in all, I’d rather have two experts who are knowledgeable of each other’s expertise than one person who supposedly is great at both — because in creative enterprises like web design, collaboration beats lone wolves 9 out of 10 times, in my experience.

    Soloists may succeed the app market on a large scale but I’d have a hard time putting my entire site design in the hands of a single individual. Quite frankly, the sentiment that the person you’re describing is ‘better’ is insulting to some of the finest designers I’ve ever met who couldn’t write a single line of code even though they do understand how it works.

    Then again, perhaps this is just typical ‘journalism’ in giving an article an inflammatory title. In that regard, you’ve succeeded.

    by Angelo Barovier • Jun 2nd 2011 • 00:06

  • I had a number of tabs open, and my CPU was being chewed to death. I closed them one by one with an eye on the CPU meter, and this is the page that is responsible.

    Imagine my surprise when I find the page is about better code being written by designers. I know a designer who is one of the best coders I’ve seen, but he sure wasn’t the one who wrote this web page.

    You tell me why your web page is chewing so much CPU when there’s no video, no 3D, no animation, nothing but text and a perfectly standard layout? Why is your page so crappy?

    Fix that first, before you start lecturing the world about who writes the best code.

    by steve • Jun 2nd 2011 • 15:06

  • I completely agree with a point made by Angelo.

    The best designs come from the discussions and collaborations between team members with different skillsets.

    When one person does everything, it is more efficient, but you often miss out on these interesting conversations and ultimately end up with a worse product.

    by tommyr • Jun 2nd 2011 • 21:06

  • Angelo, TommyR,

    I’m not saying one person should do everything, just that one person can do both. But on many projects you have more work than one person can do, so having multiple people involved is always a good thing.

    by Rahul • Jun 2nd 2011 • 23:06

  • 1. The problem with engineers is the do what can be done whereas (good) designers do what can be imagined. It’s highly unlikely we’d have smart phones, iPads and a myriad of other technologies if it just left to engineers.

    I’m going to make an assumption that (generally) these valley businesses want to create ground-breaking products that will make their name, make their businesses and make their fortunes. Those that hire a jack-of-all-trades just because it’s cheaper are not going to do that.

    Thinking about it logically, someone with the right level of skills and experience on both fields is going to be so rare they could name their own price and so defeat the object of the whole thing.

    2. “When one person does everything, it is more efficient”. I disagree. Doing an adequate job is not efficient when what’s required is a paradigm shifting job and surely these businesses are looking to make an impact. Mediocre solutions don’t make an impact. They just make more of the same.

    by David • Jun 24th 2011 • 21:06

  • I just read through your website where you emphasize the importance of “content” over “coding” and I got the impression that your product supplied some coding or provided some “libraries” of frequently used code–or somehow made html coding less of a drag.

    After reading this page, however, I’m totally confused. What is it that your product does?

    by Laurel • Jan 14th 2012 • 21:01

  • Hi Laurel, why not try it out? You can sign up for a free trial at http://handcraft.com/signup. Your impression is correct – we make it easier to create HTML prototypes by supplying a templating language called HCML and adding convenience options like sharing and collaboration which would be a headache if you had to do it all from scratch yourself. Our argument is that if you get the coding write, you do a better job with the content because you’re developing in the same environment the final product will be produced in.

    by Rahul • Feb 2nd 2012 • 12:02

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