It’s Time To Grow Up.

I have a confession to make: I’m a designer who can’t code. OK, let me clarify, I can code a little. But this website you’re reading right now? Nope. Any of the websites I’ve designed for clients? Not a chance.

Does that make me a bad designer? Some would have you think so.

Back in October, Jeffrey Zeldman had this to say on Twitter:

Jeffrey Zeldman - Twitter

Spurred by Stuart Thursby’s admittedly misguided “The Case Against Code,” Andy Rutledge followed up with this tweet in December:

Andy Rutledge on Twitter

Then today, by virtue of being a full work day ahead of America in the UK, Elliot Jay Stocks set the TwitterBlogoVersoSphere ablaze with this 119-character missile:

Honestly, I'm shocked that in 2010 I'm still coming across 'web designers' who can't code their own designs. No excuse.

Yeesh. Here we go again. And so the age-old question is resurrected: should web designers know how to code?

The Architect Metaphor.

Many have made the argument—myself included—that architects aren’t expected to construct their own buildings, so why are web designers required to code their own designs? You may have heard variations on this: the industrial designer who doesn’t fabricate his own products, the chef who doesn’t cook at his own restaurant, etc. Some, lead by Carsonified’s Mike Kus, have argued that this logic isn’t relevant, that the building of a structure is simply too complex and the individual tasks too specialized to be understood and executed by one person alone:

For example, an architect who wished to build their house after designing it would then have to learn how to drive a JCB, lay bricks, be a carpenter etc. Comparing an Architect and a Web Designer just doesn’t make any sense in this context.

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but hasn’t web design and development reached this level of intense specialization? To successfully pull off the modern website, you need to be able to do the following things (and countless other things that I’m leaving out): conceive strategy, understand user behavior, create a design taking color theory, proportion, typography, and brand into account, write compelling copy, navigate the ever-shifting landscape of HTML/CSS/Javascript, develop in Flash, construct complex back-ends and databases, and under most circumstances, juggle a delicate client relationship.

Is one person capable of all this? Of course not. We separately delegate the tasks of client management, user experience, Flash, and back-end programming. So why is everyone so hell-bent on arbitrarily lumping design and front-end development together?

My guess?

Because That’s The Way It’s Always Been Done.

Time was, you needed to code your own designs. I know I did. My first websites were sketches in HTML, little more than dabbling under the hood of my Angelfire sites. More often than not, you designed in the browser, because you had to. There was no way Netscape or Internet Explorer could have handled the complexity of a Photoshop-derived design. Download speeds were molasses. Code specs were limited. Rendering engines were elementary. CSS had no critical mass. And there was certainly no such thing as a front-end coder. If you wanted to be a web designer, you needed to know code. There was no other choice.

But industries mature. Their output grows in complexity. Specialized labor develops. And soon, there are twenty people performing the tasks previously performed by one. Is the profession of web design mature? Not by any measure. The time I’m referencing above isn’t the late 1800s. It’s the late 1900s…the late 90s to be more specific. No matter how long you’ve been at this, you haven’t been at it for very long. So no, our industry isn’t mature. But that doesn’t mean it’s not maturing.

It’s Time To Grow Up.

To say I’m not a “real” web designer simply because I lack the ability to build my own designs is an insult to a career I’ve spent the better part of the last decade crafting. And I’m certainly not alone in feeling stung. Now, if you’re talking about “those” web designers—the divas who bury their developers in non-standard fonts, rounded corners, and drop shadows, the “artists” who scoff at the mere mention of web standards, the ones who wouldn’t know HTML5 from a RAV4—keep lobbing grenades at those guys. Just don’t hit us with the shrapnel.

If you’re a designer who has kept your coding skills sharp, good for you (seriously). If you’re a designer who has taken up coding recently, I applaud your effort to broaden your skill set. But understand that it’s not necessary anymore. We believe this so fully that we founded our company on this very division of labor: I design it, Nate codes it. Our business model requires intense collaboration and constant communication; Nate’s coding research informs my design, and my design pushes his coding ability. But you know what? We’re doing just fine.

Our industry is growing up. It’s time for everyone to follow suit.

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