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Designer vs Developer – A false rivalry?

“It’s not like we’re marine biologists and coffee baristas, we’re all just making web stuff.”

If you type the phrase “designer v developer” into Google, a lot of the first results you get are variations on articles asking “What’s the difference?” That reflects the ongoing framework of the designer/developer discussion, which focuses more on what divides these two crafts as opposed to what unites them. Sometimes it goes even further than that, with designer and developer seen as Game Of Thrones style foes, engaged in a battle only one of them can win. See this 2013 piece on The Next Web entitled: “UX designer or developer: Who will be king in 2014?.

But down in the comments you find a different point of view, when Ix Techau writes: “We're nothing without each other. The ‘king’ will be a UX designer sitting next to a backend developer.” It’s refreshing to see an increasing understanding that these disciplines are much stronger when they’re viewed as complementary rather than adversarial. In a good talk by Facebook product design manager Austin Bales (delivered when he was at do.com), we’re encouraged to step away form the confrontational categories. “Good designers and good developers actually have a lot in common,” Austin says. “It’s not like we’re marine biologists and coffee baristas, we’re all just making web stuff.”

He goes on: “The primary difference is where we are in the process; designers specialise at the beginning and developers specialise at the end but it’s still the same thing.” He identifies several areas where designers and developers often share ways of thinking, such as a skill for “defining and implementing patterns” and a love of clarity and simplicity. The starting point for both disciplines is the same he argues: “What is it that makes it what it is?”

I came to Austin’s talk via an excellent blog by Diogenes Brito, who describes himself as a “full stack designer and engineer” with a mighty impressive pedigree that includes Stanford University and stints at LinkedIn, Squarespace and Stack. He tackles this idea of “The Supposed Spectrum” with designer at one end and developer at the other.

So the wisdom goes, he writes: “The more of an engineer you are, the less of a designer you are, and vice versa. Perhaps it is because engineering is more associated with analytical ‘left brain’ thinking and design is seen as a more creative, ‘right brain’ exercise. In reality, this is a false dichotomy, as both designers and developers need to use a combination of divergent and convergent thinking to innovate and problem solve. Both disciplines are more similar than most people (and the internet) make it seem.”

The way to address this false dichotomy, Diogenes suggests, comes from creatives themselves as much as anything. “I have realised that one of the biggest barriers is mental,” he writes. “People who have categorised themselves as an engineering (or math and science) type will shy away from and avoid areas of knowledge considered to be in the realm of a designer (or ‘creative’) type.”

But Amelia Humfress isn’t sure these good intentions of moving beyond the labels will come to fruition. She is the founder and CEO of Steer, an organisation which runs a range of coding courses as part of its mission to make tech eduction accessible. She says: “I don’t think the line between the two disciplines will disappear any time soon. Ultimately, designers and developers bring different expertise to the table. However, what’s possible design-wise is defined by the technology. It’s important to understand what’s possible with the technology in order to be able to create your best and most ambitious work.”

So even though the tags will remain, that’s not to say the boundaries couldn’t, and shouldn’t be blurred. More than a third of those who attended Steer’s Front End Web Development Course in 2014 were designers (25% graphic designers and 9% UX) and they have recently switched from using design software for web projects – they’re now put together in the browser using code. “When you design in the browser, with code, you immediately experience a design — you know what it is going to feel like, as well as what it’s going to look like. You don’t get that with a flat design,” Amelia says.

So on the one hand it’s vital, Amelia believes that any designer working in digital understands what they’re dealing with. “If you’re designing a website or app and you don’t know any code, you don’t really know what’s within the realms of possibility. There have been huge improvements to HTML, CSS and JavaScript in the last few years, and there are new advancements being released all the time. Being on top of the latest standards of front end coding languages gives you the power to use the latest technology and create more ambitious designs.

But crucially it’s not just about designers becoming literate in code. “Just as it’s important for designers to have a working knowledge of the latest standards of HTML and CSS, it’s important for developers to understand and appreciate design. In a way, design is a much harder skill to acquire — with code, it’s either right or wrong, it will either work or it won’t. Design isn’t as black and white — what one person loves, another will hate. Design plays a critical role in the success of a product or service. If your product looks like crap, it doesn’t really matter how well it works — people are not going to love using it.

“If designers and developers don’t understand the role that each other plays, that’s going to affect communication and camaraderie,” Amelia adds.

But it may be that future generations of creatives are far more code-savvy than is currently the case. Here in the UK, changes to the national curriculum that came into effect last September mean that children as young as five are going to be taught coding in the classroom. Whether in the long term this skews the balance towards developers over designers remains to be seen.