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Posted on June 2, 2011 by hillel on Design, Industry

Why does the Valley want designers that can code? Because the Valley doesn’t understand what designers do.

Jared Spool recently posted about “Why the Valley wants designers that can code.” Basically, he makes the good point that hiring managers at startups are always looking for ways to get more value for their dollar. And so based on that understanding he recommends “If you’re a designer, you don’t have to learn to code. But if you do, and you get good at it, you’ll find more opportunities as time goes on.” And in this he’s right. But of course his comments would be just as valid if he wrote a post titled “Why the Valley Wants Marketers That Can Code.” Or Engineers that can write press releases. Or any other combination of useful skills.

Except… the Valley doesn’t want marketers to write code or engineers to write press releases. Because, they don’t trust marketers to write code, and they feel that writing press releases would be a waste of the engineers’ valuable time and skills.

So what’s the real reason that many companies look for designers who can code? Because fundamentally they don’t understand and therefore properly value what great software designers do.

Spool says: “If you’re in a room filled with designers, bring up the topic of whether it’s valuable for a designer to also code. Immediately, the room will divide faster than Moses split the Red Sea. One side will tell you coding is an essential skill, while the other will vehemently argue how it dilutes the designer’s value.” If I’m in a room full of designers and any of take either of these positions, then I’m in a room full of designers I would prefer never to work with.

High quality software designers are true singer-songwriters. They can deliver a combination of interaction and visual design that don’t just make a product shine, they make the product what it is. They create its essence, its DNA. Should they have deep empathy for the software development process? Yes. Should they understand technology and be “technical” to a degree? Yes. Should they have passion for software as their medium? Yes. Much like a designer focused on print projects should understand how various ink/paper/press combinations will impact their final product’s design as well as cost, software designers should understand the canvas on which they are painting. But do I want a true software designer spending time fighting the various inconsistencies between browser CSS implementations to get the UI perfect? Nope. It’s a waste of their time. They should be doing more designing.

(If you’re annoyed by the previous paragraphs, this next one will make you crazy.)

Are there true singer-songwriter software designers that can write high quality code? Yes. But they are the exception. Anecdotally, I’ve found that most (not all) “designers” who can code are in fact coders who have empathy and passion for design, and may even have some good interaction design chops. But often they are weak when it comes to visual design. In our left-brain dominated industry, visual design is often looked at as fluff. Often people will say things like “art is the last step” or “that’s the lipstick”. I believe that when you treat the visual elements as some sort of layer of paint, then all the visuals can be is a layer of paint. And I believe that most “designers that can code” aren’t really designers at all.

The worst part is that design schools are complicit in this misunderstanding of what software designers should do. They’re busy teaching HTML, CSS, and Flash (yes Flash) to art students as if these skills are mandatory for them to succeed as high end software designers. These potentially talented software designers have an allergic reaction to spending their careers writing markup instead of drawing and decide to focus on “print”! Print! Pardon the profanity, but… WHAT THE FUCK??? The most incredible canvas in the world for designers — software — exists, and needs them. It lets them combine text and images and video and audio and user interaction in incredible ways, but they want to go make business cards and annual reports. Our industry needs a fleet of talented software designers and design schools are failing to produce them.

At some point, we will have more than a smattering of true software designers in this industry. They won’t be employees either. They’ll be founders and co-founders. And their companies will produce beautiful usable products that stand out from their competitors. And some of these designers will even be able to code. But we won’t let them, because we’ll want them spend every minute designing beautiful software.

A note: I’m sure that some of you will take exception to this post. Many of you will be annoyed because you either subscribe to the notion that designers should code and that it’s a good thing, or that you are designer that writes code and you are annoyed that I question your visual skills. Understood. I hear you. Please know, just because someone doesn’t fit the model of the designer I think we should be replicating, doesn’t mean I think they aren’t a valuable contributor.

And finally, some of you may criticize me and say that it’s easy for me to lobby for this model for software designers when my co-founder Jenny Lam exemplifies it. And to that I will say… you’re right.

Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • Reply

    Sean Duhame

    June 2, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    This post is perfect. I couldn’t agree more with every word / no offense taken by any of it. You’re absolutely right – code , in large part, is the mediums in which we (software designers) play and because of that we need to understand it. Bravo for sticking up for aesthetic and the role it plays. It’s trying to constantly run into product folk who don’t think that visual design is an integral part of product development and its success. Really enjoyed this piece!

  • Reply

    Jamie C.

    June 2, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    Amen to that Hillel! You totally get it. Now how do we get more people, companies, and schools to figure it out?

  • Reply

    greg melander

    June 3, 2011 at 7:09 am

    Some great points Hillel, about designers and developers and if there is such a thing as a “Super Designer?” For me, I’ve never met any one person who can code and design at the top levels for both disciplines. They either code better than they design or design better than they code. To make great software you need to do all of these things (http://gregmelander.com/post/1287593439/experience-design-pyramid-this-may-seem-a-bit )…and specialists are the people who know how.

  • Reply


    June 3, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    Nice post – “software design” might need some more defining though.

  • Reply

    Navid Sadikali

    June 14, 2011 at 5:17 am

    This is totally on-track. Early in my career, at a young age, I was a software architect and the only reason I unlocked my true potential in design was because of Alan Cooper’s firm was hired and I tagged along for the ride.

    I can tell you this, I design some pretty complex stuff (medical imaging software) and find that my deep technical breadth is essential. It allows me to understand what the dev’s are saying and win their confidence and honesty (rather than create false roadblocks) which allows me to further get aggressive on executing the design. I can’t imagine not having the technical chops and trying to get a design built.

    I totally agree that a new-world is possible, where designer-founder led companies flourish.

    As evidenced by various information out there, I don’t even think people who are affiliated with Design like Don Norman, truly get the issue at hand.

    See my tome about 2/3 of the way down, where I talk about this “New World”


  • Reply

    Craig Erickson

    June 22, 2011 at 10:35 am

    Thank You Hillel! For truly understanding. I’ve spent enough time with code to understand how to speak the language. But really, a designers passion should be creating environment that emotionally connects and communicates with the audience. This is more than a full-time effort. It takes knowledge of business, of technology, of human behavior, and of instinct to be a good designer. Not just with the visuals, but also with how it works and what it feels like to use. Good design can become a platform for marketing, brand, experience and so much more. It IS the soul of a product.
    A designer should be that person who can honestly empathize with the user and create with beauty an experience that is both useful, meaningful, and rewarding.
    Visual design as a practice in software is failing because it struggles to speak up for itself (in a very noisy room of people who WANT to talk)… I’ve often asked myself why this is? Well, perhaps we do speak up, but not with clever industry insights – I think we speak with visuals. It just takes more than a casual observer to really look at what is being said (and to even be aware of the conversation). Perhaps then it is more like art, it requires patience and thoughtfulness from the observer to grasp all that is being said.
    Anyways, great fodder for thought. Thanks!

  • Reply


    June 28, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    I agree with this totally – except that while I’m a “designer that can code” I don’t fall into the “coders who have empathy and passion for design, and may even have some good interaction design chops. But often they are weak when it comes to visual design.”

    … quite the opposite actually. I consider myself a designer mostly, who while i understand technology and can even tell you why you should use one over another, I think I’m pretty weak in the actual programming/coding department. I do it because I have to and even sometimes like it, but I don’t love it and it’s not my strongest talent. I think you’re right; it’s really good for a designer to understand the technologies so she/he can take advantage of them in their design, but at the same time that’s no replacement for a real coder who knows all the nuances.

    At the university I work for (and where I’m in charge of the entire campus website) I find it extremely frustrating that the graphic design program has only one “web design” class, and that the class should really be called “flash design” because that’s all the professor teaches. It’s really quite the disservice to the students. (On the other hand, the university I went to goes too far in the other direction, where “web design” classes were filed under “computer science”).

    Maybe it’s because I originally started as an architecture student, but I really feel like web design is a hybrid of right and left brain activity – like a good architect, you need to know what materials can do what, but that doesn’t mean you need to be intimately involved in every nail or 2×4 that gets put into the final product. Maybe you want to take into account new ways to build that are more efficient or let you do certain things you couldn’t do before, but no one would expect the architect to also be the general contractor or carpenter on a project. Yet it’s asked of us in the web design field all the time.

  • Reply

    Stephen Bates

    September 10, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    I think you summed up the relationship a software designer should have with their medium pretty much on the nose.

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