Should designers learn to code?

Should designers learn to code?

John Pawson's Layout avatar

Web design is an ever-changing beast. Designers concentrating their creative efforts on pushing the envelope in site design have a tough job. Balancing beautiful design with great user experience is hard enough… surely then, throwing into the mix learning the (again, ever-changing) skills of coding would be overkill, and should be left to similarly specialised professionals? Perhaps, but then again, perhaps not.

As someone who started off as a creative writer, moved into marketing, then added some design and coding in for good measure, I’m able to talk with SOME experience of both fields. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly wouldn’t class myself as a purist designer, nor would I say that I could code with the big boys, but I do carry out both functions (to varying degrees) when creating websites for my clients.

Web architects

Coming back to the question, I for one feel that there is a benefit for designers to <em>understand</em> code, even if they don’t comprehensively or formally learn it. Compare web design with architecture. An architect works from a similarly creative position as a web designer. They want to push the boundaries, make a splash, and produce real stand-out, wow- factors in their designs that people will remember.


But if an architect is constantly drawing up blueprints that are beyond the realms of the physically possible, what use are they? An underlying understanding of physics is useful in this instance to act as an “earthing rod” to bring an architect’s wild visions back into the realms of possibility.

So too, I believe, an understanding of coding and what’s actually possible to achieve online can be of benefit for designers, to ensure site designs are fit for purpose; that they are able to become reality once they reach a developer’s desktop.

The flip side

On the flip side of this argument, the impossible only ever becomes possible when people dream up wild new ideas and pursue them. Without designers pushing the boundaries, would the realms of the possible in web design ever change?

Designers need to be an integral part of the evolution of web functionality – forcing those responsible for how browsers work to come up with new ways to realize those “out-there” web design dreams. Getting too close to the code could cloud creativity, and potentially even stifle the development of new functionality.

In addition, current coding techniques are able to achieve a LOT. With the right level of expertise, the possibilities of modern coding are extremely far reaching, but that level of expertise can be very very deep… so perhaps just a base knowledge of CSS and HTML isn’t worth bothering with at all.

Photo credit to Cristian Labarca. Photo credit to Cristian Labarca.

So what’s the answer?

The answer to this question is always going to be ambiguous and dependent on a variety of factors.

Purist designers may never have the inclination, or for that matter, requirement, to learn even the basics of coding. Those that are working in established, large-scale web agencies with separate  departments covering design and development have the benefit of close working relationships with their coding counterparts. In fact, in this instance, developers probably don’t want their design colleagues even thinking about the code.

The same applies to a certain degree to design-only agencies or individuals who have long-standing partnerships with developers. In this instance, however, a little coding knowledge could end up going a long way to making the partnership slicker, quicker, and ultimately less costly.

I would argue that for the vast majority of web designers, who may not have a large-scale level of resources at their fingertips, a basic understanding of current coding capabilities can’t do any harm. A little time spent understanding even just the basics of HTML and CSS can make a world of difference when it comes to ensuring designs are fit for purpose and achievable. And with such a wide range of learning resources available, including plenty of free online courses, with a little time and a bit of curiosity, an understanding of coding is there for the taking. Some sites with great, free online resources for coding newbies include:

In addition to all of the above, it’s important to remember that there are a number of tools available that can empower designers to get from initial sketches all the way to the live site launch themselves. Content management platforms such as WordPress (and the vast array of available extensions, templates, and “drag-and-drop” page builders), when coupled with basic coding knowledge can empower smaller-scale designers to achieve full end-to-end design and development and realize their website designs themselves. In fact, setting up a WordPress sandbox site and using it as a bit of a coding playground can be a great way to get a grasp on HTML and CSS fundamentals.

So should designers learn to code? Basically, the answer is up to you. If you’re interested in understanding how a design comes to life, get involved; it’s simple enough to try and there’s no reason not to give it a go. It could end up being another string to your creative bow, and who knows what you might achieve!

Comments ( 1 )

  1. Andre

    May 31, 2015

    Interesting article....I have a lot of years designing websites for clients until I moved into developing WordPress themes. I can assure you that designers should have some understanding of development code; more so if one works independently. Within a design agency you get the privilege of having designers and developers that work together and collaborate on various concepts. The designer comes up with the creative ideas and user experiences, while pure developers are the engineers (the Scotty's of Star Trek) that make the impossible possible.

    Designers should have some code experience outside of the basics of HTML and CSS, in things like Javascript, PHP, MySQL, etc. If you work with a CMS like Joomla, WordPress, Drupal, and many others, you definitely need to familiar yourself with their code and structures as well.

    There's also the flip side where developers should have some design experience as well :)

    • John Pawson

      June 4, 2015

      Thanks Andre - agree with you entirely; those who are lucky enough to work in an environment with pure developers might not need quite the same level of understanding as others. Meanwhile the rest of us have to have at least a basic understanding to be able to speak with authority and know how to bring our designs to life.

      The developer-designing side of things feels like a bigger discussion point to me... is creativity an inherent character trait, or can it be learnt... or is creativity even that important for web design?! (personally I'd say a big yes to the last part at least!)

      Thanks again for the feedback.

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