Should web designers be able to build their own designs?

Yesterday on Twitter Elliott Jay Stocks opened up a huge debate by stating:

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

Elliott has also gone on to clarify his thoughts in a blog post and I thought I’d add my thoughts to the debate given that I spend most of my time working with designers.

At we specialise in developing web applications using PHP, and the majority of our clients are web designers and agencies who subcontract to us the development side of their projects. For many projects we develop everything – the mark-up, CSS, JavaScript and back-end code. Given that our job is to build things for designers you might think that we would be very pleased to work with web designers who can’t write mark-up and CSS, more work for us! However in my experience, asking someone to design for the web who has no idea how the web works, will result in frustration for both the designer and the developer, and a substandard end result.

Looking back over the years I have been working with designers I can say that all of my favourite projects, those I as most pleased with, have been those where the designer really understood the medium they were designing for. As a developer it is so refreshing when a designer can fire up Firebug and play around a little themselves to fine tune the end result, has already considered what we will do with IE6 when a particular design will rely heavily on transparent PNGs, or has considered the experience for users without JavaScript on a page that has a slider for some content.

To be clear, I wouldn’t expect someone who is primarily a web designer, to be able to build a cross-browser CSS layout at the speed that I can, develop a complex JavaScript UI, be able to design a database or develop in PHP. In a small agency it may not be commercially sensible to tie up your lead designer doing front-end development, even if they are capable. However being able to put together a layout – even if it does only work well in Firefox – means that the designer has some understanding of the constraints we work under. They will also have ideas as to how something should be implemented in the medium of the web rather than just expecting a replica of their Photoshop comp no matter what text size or screen resolution the user has.

When you move into the field of interaction design a lack of knowledge on the part of the designer becomes even more problematic. How are you supposed to design user experience when you don’t know what tools you have to work with? I understand Mark Boulton’s argument and don’t believe that simply knowing how to write HTML makes a good web designer, and there are many other factors to take into consideration. However, time and time again I have seen designers from a print background struggle with designing for the web. Once they have taken the time to actually play around with HTML and CSS and gain a basic understanding, they start to become far more creative with the medium instead of constantly fighting against it.

In a large agency, or team developing a single product, where a designer who doesn’t know anything about the web can sit next to a developer the whole time and ask questions then I imagine it would be more possible to design for the web, without understanding the web. However it seems to me a very inefficient way of working, and isn’t a situation that many people are in.

Basic mark-up and CSS, even a bit of JavaScript using a library like jQuery, are not difficult to learn. The tricky things – ensuring a complex UI using a lot of JavaScript remains accessible, making sure things don’t blow up in IE6, actually being able to do this stuff really quickly, is what you need developers for.

On the flip side, I would also say that developers – especially front-end developers – should have a basic grasp of design principles. Having an understanding of why certain things are important to the designers you work with will ease the working relationship and ensure that you can work together to create an end result that is visually beautiful as well as being technically solid. I believe that the web needs specialists, but those specialists need to have an awareness of what the other specialists do, be sympathetic towards them and willing to work together to find good solutions to the challenges of working in this medium.


Andy Budd February 18, 2010 Reply

While I compleatly agree that web designers need to understand the medium they are working in and be familiar with the limitations, that doesn’t necesarily mean that they have to code. Similaly UX designers need to understand what interactions are possible and what functionality can be produced, but does that mean they need to code PHP or JavaScript? While it would be beneficial, i think it’s perfectly possible to understand a medium without having the technical skills to deploy in that medium. For instance, how many architects do you k ow that could actually build a wall, let alone a whole building. Yet they still understand buildings as a medium. So I don’t think your problem is with “designers who can’t code”. I tinker it’s with bad designers full stop.

Grant Vandersee February 18, 2010 Reply

Good comments, Rachel.
I think that if you can’t write HTML & CSS, then you aren’t a web designer at all, you are a digital painter. I can’t imagine ever working with someone who called themselves a web designer but didn’t know how to write the code. To me, they are claiming to be a web designer without knowing how to design for the web, which is obviously crazy.

Paul Cripps February 18, 2010 Reply

Great post Rachel, I agree with the both the post and Andy Budd’s views.

Here at Nine Four we tend to work in a similar way to you guys with a little more emphasis on Design. A large percentage of our work also comes from other design agencies. We found the best way to handle designs from designers who don’t always have “hands on” experience of XHTML / CSS is to have the designer produce a few design ideas, rather than designing the entire site, think of these designs as a starting point you can build upon.

We then take on the role of designer / UI design / developers and produce the XHTML / CSS and design the site in the browser. This give us a little more freedom to allow the design to grown into a fully functional website, sophisticated website.

Sometimes it takes a while for the designer/agancy to have the confidence to allow us to work this way, but once the relationship has matured it’s a great way or working. Both the designer and ourselves feel they are getting the best from the given job… everyones thoughts are taken on board and I hope we produce greater websites.

Bare in mind it can also go the other way too, some companies / designers supply every PSD and HTML template, whilst this works 90% of the time it can be a little restrictive, and if there are browser bugs to fix once the CMS is bolted on it can be a very frustrating time trawling through someone’s XHTML / Css, even if its written well it will take time to resolve.

Moving forward I’d like to think designers do take more of an interest in technology and gain some hands on experience. If they don’t do this however I think our above way of working provides just a rich end results.

Lance February 18, 2010 Reply

Strong points Rachel. I also think awareness of your fellow specialists is a must, that synergy just can’t be ignored.

To summarize, I think the web design community has two factions. The “just” decorators, and the full-pledged web designer.

Eric Karjaluoto has an interesting post regarding this:

Pete B February 19, 2010 Reply

In my experience what I’ve really wanted from designers is not only an appreciation of the constraints (pngs, ie6 etc.) but also usability and accesibility concerns. Jakob Nielsen may be a little divisive but if the designers I work with read one of his books then I wouldn’t have to correct basic usability problems during the build phase of a project

prisca February 22, 2010 Reply

great post – very interesting to read your views as a developer on this debate. I’m a webdesigner who handcodes, working on mainly smaller sized projects though I do work with developers for any larger scale projects.
And though I also agree with Mark’s view – I think that as a webdesigner, knowing how your design will ultimately be realised is essential. And not only that – the debate ~ from the bits I’ve read anyway ~ has left out how much inspiration can come from knowing your code. It will not only make you a better designer – it will in fact open new avenues, new design angles and make the entire process from design to final site so much more efficient and fun 🙂

John Loudon April 9, 2010 Reply

A web designer is not a web designer if the can’t code html / CSS. That removes the ‘Web’ part of it, and makes them a “graphic designer” as they are designing a layout for the web not an actual web site. (css) is design its more our side that dev.

Its weird I have went for interviews and had to knock them back because they just wanted me to draw pretty pictures all day. Can’t understand agencies that want someone to draw and someone to build the UI and someone else to build the dynamics… The way we work is we have 34 dev’s that work with JAVA, PERL to build the apps and the 4 web designers can code, design, and advise what’s the best course for the project. That way if its web design that’s required we can build it and test it.

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