Why Developers Need to Understand Design

closePlease note: This post was published over a year ago, so please be aware that its content may not be quite so accurate anymore. Also, the format of the site has changed since it was published, so please excuse any formatting issues.

The image to the right shows 2 panels from a 10 panel graphic describing the typical development and production process. It’s funny because, unfortunately, it’s pretty true to form. The panel about the analyst is the only one that mentions design, but as a developer, I would suggest an extra panel between the analyst and the programmer: How the designer designed it. It would depict a lavish tree-house with multiple swings, a slide, flags, and so on. But I’m not writing this post to knock on designers. In fact, today I’m going to wag my finger at my fellow developers.

Every time I’ve worked where designers and developers work together, I always hear the designers say, at some point or another, something along the lines of, “why can’t the developers just make the [product] look how I designed it?” I’ve heard nearly designer I’ve ever worked with say something like this, and I’ve even said it myself about sites that I designed but didn’t develop! It’s frustrating to see your art changed, especially by someone who probably doesn’t understand that you thought long and hard about the design, and who probably doesn’t realize that every pixel has its place. I’m talking about web design here, but this same basic argument applies anywhere designers and developers butt heads.

It’s not that developers are careless. We, too, think long and hard about the best way to approach certain problems, and it’s not uncommon for the designer to throw us a curve ball in their layout. While web designers should have an idea about what is and isn’t possible with regard to web development, the most creative work will come from a mind not stifled by such restraints. Developers also can’t simply be naysayers, striking down anything that takes more than 10 minutes to implement. After all, it’s through these challenges that we grow.

Building a website is a lot like putting a puzzle together. You have colors, fonts, and pictures, all of which need to be correctly placed in relation to one another. Like the dismayed designer declares, “just make it look like the picture.” While a few small changes in order to make everything “pixel perfect” are acceptable, the finished site should look (and behave) as close to the original design as possible.

It isn’t just about making the site look like the picture; the day will come when you (developers) have to improvise and make a design decision. After all, the designer can only account for so much, and that deadline is looming. With basic design skills, any developer should be able to emulate the designer’s color palette and come up with a workable solution (obviously, some tasks will require the designer to revisit the work).

There is also the matter of communication. Designers and developers think and speak in different terms, and understanding each other can sometimes be a chore. This dichotomy is at the heart of the tree swing graphic. I wouldn’t bill myself as a graphic designer, but I have quite a bit of experience in web design, and I’ve turned out some pretty good stuff over the years (there has also been some crappy stuff, but like I said, I’m not a graphic designer). Every designer I’ve worked with has enjoyed that I know my way around Photoshop (I sometimes know more than they do!) and that they don’t have to explain every little detail to me. Speaking on both designers’ terms and programmers’ terms has even allowed me help iron out misunderstandings between the two.

We developers are always learning new programming tricks and trying to stay on top of (if not ahead of) the current trends and technology. Adding design to your list of continuing education will make you a better developer and a more valuable asset to your company.

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3 Comments

  1. While web designers should have an idea about what is and isn’t possible with regard to web development, the most creative work will come from a mind not stifled by such restraints. Developers also can’t simply be naysayers, striking down anything that takes more than 10 minutes to implement. After all, it’s through these challenges that we grow.

    That’s also a pretty accurate description of how screenwriters and directors/producers should work. Just substitute “screenwriter” for “web designer”, “producer/director” for “developer” and “production” for “web development”.

  2. BC

    Now that we see good designers become more and more proficient as programmers there will be less need for the one dimensional programmer types. That’s not meant to be a knock on programmers, but they’d be foolish not too see the trend of young hybrids coming out of design school.

  3. BC is absolutely right. Every designer I talk to who is in school or has recently graduated says that basic development is part of their course. In some cases, it’s very basic (HTML, CSS), but in other cases, it’s more advanced (ActionScript 3).

    Even our programming intern is actually a graphic design major!

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