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Should Designers Learn to Code?

Kristina Olivia speaking at Front-End London in August, 2016
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About this talk

The debate for whether designers should learn to code is not brand new anymore, however, it is a question that still keeps arising and baffling many. In today's so ever changing digital climate it is quite difficult to pin point what exactly one should do. So how can we go about finding a solution?


[00:00:08] Should designers learn to code? I’ve started as a digital designer and slowly went into code because I just find it quite intriguing and interesting. Sorry, I’ll be reading from my notes a little bit as well, so I hope you don’t mind. I think this designer code thing has been happening for a while now and there’s been a rise in the industry, in the so-called “unicorn” and a lot of people seem to say, “No, that’s a bad thing, you should not do that. You should just focus.” Others are like, “You just embrace that because it’s a good thing.” I just wanted to talk about my experience and what I think and what I’ve gone through and how that’s how I see it. I just wondered, is any here a designer by any chance? Cool. Do any of you code as well? You do? Awesome, do it’s not just me. That’s good. Okay, so let’s get on with it. Let’s look at what a designer does. As you can see, it’s all quite visual, so anything to do with colours, wire framing, layouts, sketching, drawing, that sort of thing. A developer’s role is quite different, it’s all to do with logical thinking, solving a problem and writing things down. Why would you want to introduce something that’s so different into your work because you’ve already got so much to do as a designer. Evidently, it’s a different kind of skill altogether. Has anyone seen, I’m sure all of you have, Napoleon Dynamite? Show of hands. Yes, because the reason is because he’s got the answer. [00:02:13] Jokes aside, as I said, some people say what you actually need is for people to focus. Designers should know really well what they’re doing and just focus on design and do nothing else and developers should just be really good at development and not even look into anything else. I think that works really well in larger companies where you have people like ten UX designers that do slightly different things within the UX. They work in large projects and bringing together such skill really makes for something amazing, for amazing work. I think in some cases you have varied work environments and you can’t always have that, so in a perfect world you would have people who would just do one thing and work on amazing, credible, amazing projects, but actually, sometimes it’s hard to find that perfect match as well. This is probably one of the reasons why people venture into different disciplines. I don’t know how many of you know about this Twitter account but it’s like a parody account. I think this happens quite a lot in work, where a designer wants something and the developer is like no, just no. Actually, it’s all to do with people not quite understanding each other, not understanding so much their whole field, not having the full picture. Not communicating enough, which is actually the big problem. You get stuck in this catch 22 of, “I want to do this” “No, you can’t do this.” There are just so many arguments between people. I think that’s one of the reasons why some people choose to learn both, which is quite a good idea I think. [00:04:14] Perhaps we need more designers who know about code and specifics on digital applications. Same with developers, we need people who understand what designers have to go through and designers need to understand what they need to implement in order to achieve what they need. Yes, again, it’s all about communication. Actually, when you learn something new, or broaden your horizon, you suddenly learn something else, you suddenly see there’s more to the world. I think that’s quite important to keep searching for new things, just to enrich your work, to always keep it interesting. I think all of that ends up bettering your work anyway. That’s another reason why you’d want to learn something new. Also, coding is becoming so increasingly accessible and there’s so much open source stuff, there’s Twitter, there’s Code Bend where you can see code and learn it and just so many online resources, so it’s actually quite easy and quite accessible. Some people do seem to look at code, I know some people look at my screen, my friends, and go, “God, what is this? How can you even understand this?” I think it’s all about how you look at something. If you want to learn something new, or if you want to learn something, it’s all about how you perceive that subject. You could look at code as just learning another language, just to write a new masterpiece or something. Yes, at the end of the day, I think coding is a tool to achieve something to build something. I think it’s important before you start to make yourself accessible to it with your thoughts towards it. [00:06:18] Actually, perhaps, the question isn’t, “Should designers code?” I don’t actually think in order to be a good digital designer, in order to understand the industry and understand developers, you don’t actually need to learn how to code, but it’s good to understand how code works and use it to empower your work, to really see the full picture. For example, if you work with Sketch, as a designer there are so many plugins like Zeppelin that help you deal with developers, so, yes, it’s just setting yourself up in the right way to be able to work within your team. I also want to talk about this change and the need for change within our work environments. There’s actually a change in our industry which is always happening, of course, but ever so more currently there’s been quite a shift in the way things are working, which indicate that we’re going somewhere different in the future. I don’t know if many of you have read this article, “The death of the web design agency” that’s been published in the Net magazine, where they actually talk about the business model of the agencies currently shifting. A lot of companies that used to hire freelancers, web design agencies, they’re not doing that so much anymore and that’s really dying out. People are feeling like work is actually drying out. A lot of companies are taking in-house designers and developers and this is how things are moving forward. Also, you have stuff like square space, for example, WordPress has been around for a while but it’s something that maintains webpages quite easy for people, and Karen McGrain, who is a UX designer, she believes designers need to broaden their skillsets or even developers in this case. Going beyond design or development and perhaps into other areas of business because especially as freelancers, we’re at the mercy of the business. [00:08:46] For example, maybe you’re a freelance designer and actually you need to learn another skillset, maybe go into consulting or something like this in order to carry on doing your job as you are because of the shift within the industry, again, supporting my argument that things are always changing and it’s good to embrace that. Also, Sarah Parmenter, which I’m sure most of you have heard, she’s quite a well-known web designer, she wrote this very interesting blog post, “The Elephant in the Room” where, again, she talks about how a lot people have been messaging her, emailing her, and asking her, “What’s happening? The work is really drying out and what can we do about it?” This brings things home that things are changing and we are entering a whole new era of web designer as Sarah Parmenter said. All of this might sound quite scary, like what’s happening, but actually, I think it doesn’t have to be. I think it can be quite exciting because we’re entering into something new and the newer things that we learn, the more we can improve ourselves and our work and the industry and all our tech. Actually, this is a good thing. This is one of my favourite books, “The Best Interfaces Known to Face” by Golden Krishna. It sounds quite controversial, especially for me because I’m a UI designer, so I’m thinking what is the future not going to have UI design, what am I going to do? [00:10:37] Actually, he welcomes a new vision of the future of interface app and web design and really dissects the fundamentals of UX design. In this book, he actually gives an example of having a knack, so you actually have to take a number of steps in order to access your car if you have it on an app; whereas, if you just had your car keys, it’s just one click of a button and it’s done. I think we often think, “How can I put this in an app?” but we don’t think, “Is that the best way to do things?” I found it quite interesting that he questions that and he actually says, “Can we work to make a better interface for something working with human reaction and instinct, not so much apps.” Maybe we’ve been stuck in the same way of doing these things for too long, when we just need to shake it up and see what else can we do, where else can we go, what else can we improve? To me, code is just really another tool for designing things. I use it to improve my work in order to understand what I’m doing. It helps me within design as well because I know that I can code this up and this would work or this wouldn’t work, this would be a really bad UX, so I’m not going to design it in that way because a number of clicks would interfere. Yes, just to conclude from all the articles and everything, I’m sure all of our roles within the next ten years or so will change and it will be different and our industry will be different as well. It’s up to us to embrace that and to look towards new things and see, “Well, I’m also interested in this, how can I use that within my work to better my work? To make myself grow as well.” Just so you always find new, exciting things that you can do as well. [00:12:58] Whatever road you take it’s your journey and it’s okay to do what you really want to do. The best thing you can do is open yourself up to trying new things and learning something new so it will enrich your work and your abilities. I think that’s just within every aspect of your life. Not staying stagnant but trying to improve yourself – it’s a good thing. Actually, I wanted to share from going into code, I had this little project that came about which is this. Can you see that okay? Basically, I’ve started a blog, so Designer Does Code, I’ve just put all of my frustration with learning code and having to write code into this blog post, trying to make it funny, so what’s a good one I can show you? Yes, when someone’s like, “You do that boy thing, coding.” Another reason why I love writing code is when you fix a bug and it’s just the best feeling in the world and it just feels like this. Again, functional programming, just trying to make jokes, just trying to make my work more fun. I hate reading documentation; you know? You can tell I’m a designer. Looking at your old code. Forgetting to pull before committing. I absolutely love Stack Overflow, it’s my God. There are better ones. Converting pixels, that’s nice as well. I’m just trying to find good ones. This thing, counting everything from zero, at first I was like, “What is this?” It’s just weird. You try to solve something and another thing breaks and you’re like, “What is happening.” When you write your first GS function. This was literally me. Again, someone trying to explain PHP to me, I was just like, “No, don’t understand.” When you start advanced SAS, it’s pretty cool. This is how it feels. [00:15:54] Yes, so it’s just these little things that I’ve learned and they’ve enriched my life so much, it’s just made it more fun. It’s a good thing to do. That’s a little project that came from it. Okay. Should designers code? I hope I haven’t said yes or no but gave reasons for and against and you can make your own minds up, because I think you should do what you want in life and you shouldn’t listen to other people because they’re not living your life. I also think it’s quite important to have a reason why you’re doing it, have a vision in the future of what you’re working towards and not just go and learn all the random code. I work primarily with SAS and CSS architecture. I work a tiny bit with JavaScript as well but this is where I draw the line and I enjoy that and I love that. Yes, that’s all. Thank you very much.