A Designer’s Role in a Digital World of Code

As a print designer, is there a real need for you to learn to code?

There’s a number of lucrative reasons to take the bull by the horns and dive into front-end web languages including HTML, CSS and JavaScript. But why is this important? Coding isn’t the final product, so how does it apply to you? When designing in Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign or any other design application, code can be a blissful afterthought as you create, but it certainly plays an integral role in the final product that you do produce when targeting digital mediums. In order to produce the highest quality design possible, you need to know what goes into it. That requires learning code.

Look at it this way: if you were a professional chef, you probably wouldn’t be able to produce a gourmet dish if you didn’t know a little bit about the ingredients you were tossing in the pot.

The same thing is true with designers and code.

While many designers may feel as though they are ‘only’ a print designer, in reality there is already a growing expectation to create a digital counterpart to the print work you produce. HTML isn’t just the web anymore. HTML is being used as a platform for digital magazines, eBooks, websites, and applications. The way we consume information is changing, and this is especially apparent with the rise of mobile devices. It’s predicted there will be 114 million tablet users by the end of 2013 – this is no small shift and more publishers, design agencies and advertisers are seeking ways to tell their story on the broad range of devices available today. If you’re going to remain competitive, you need to be prepared to take part in the digital revolution.

The Employment Market is Changing

In response to the wired world we live in, a growing number of studios today expect to be able to hire an individual who can serve a kind of all-in-one purpose. By being able to code as well as design, you automatically become more valuable to employers. As the employment market becomes increasingly competitive, improving your marketability is certainly an advantage that you literally cannot afford to overlook.

There is no denying that the world of print design is evolving and designers are being asked to go along with the ride. Think back to the role of designers of years past who built careers using Letraset, paintbrushes, canvases and stencils to express their creations. In the 1980’s we saw a rapid transition to desktop publishing with the introduction of new software such as PageMaker, enabling designers to expedite their process on a computer. This same shift is happening in the design industry today; design is no longer reserved for the world of comparing paper weights and prepress approvals. Printed creations are expected to be consumable on a range of devices and digital mediums, and to remain relevant in this industry the wise designer will adapt, change and learn.

Learn to Champion Your Designs

Learning code can also help you to create better designs and fight for your designs when they go into the hands of a developer. Does it ever feel as though you are speaking an entirely different language when communicating with your development team? Well, there’s a good reason for that—you are! Code is a language and if you do not understand the language then you’re going to have a hard time efficiently communicating with your developers. Designs need to be able to remain fluid but without distorting the original intent based on a need to meet technical requirements. Even if you never become as fluent in code as your developers, taking the time to at least learn some of it will create a bridge for more effective communication. You will have a better understanding of what you are able to do and what simply isn’t possible technically. The ability to speak the same language as your developers can do wonders for your designs and improving your working relationships.

Step Outside of Your Comfort Zone

One of the most common problems that I have encountered with many designers is that they simply think code is too hard to learn. Personally, I think it’s because when a designer looks at all of those lines and lines, it’s just kind of overwhelming. And, I get that. I really do. The thing is, it’s just not as hard as most people think. It is somewhat intimidating and it takes time and practice. It’s like learning any other language, however. You start out by learning a little at a time. You learn how to read it first. Before you know it, you’re learning to write it. It’s just not as abstract as you may think.

CSS and HTML are both design languages. HTML, which is structural, allows you to work with structural building blocks as found in layout applications such as InDesign. CSS, on the other hand, is a styling language. With every design application you touch, you are already using stylesheets. There’s a definite pattern to it and once you grasp that pattern, you’re ready to take off with it.

Even if you’re not planning to transition into a coding career, taking the time to learn some front-end web code will help improve your skillset as a designer. It can help you to fine-tune your work and even be more creative with increased awareness of the medium you’re designing on. Learning to code can also help you to keep up with the industry as it continues to evolve and can actually provide you with a tremendous amount of opportunities that would not be possible otherwise. Let’s face it: there are still relatively few designers that can also do development. If you take the time to join that limited club, you’re going to have more doors swing open for you.

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Posted on November 3, 2013 by Sarah · 4 comments


  1. Josh Suttle
    - Reply

    Hey I have almost all the same books!

    As a designer struggling to get into web development, this helped. Coding is really hard, but it’s also hard to ignore my studio hiring more “hybrid” designers and letting go of dinosaurs. Painful to keep up but a necessary evil. Grr!

  2. Jonathan Pimento
    - Reply

    Among all the articles I have read in the past that, talk about the overlap of a designer’s role in code, I think this is the best one I have come across.

    Love the way you have broken it down. Super!

  3. Pingback: Code and The Designer’s Role | Our Code

  4. Sean
    - Reply

    Hey Sarah
    Loved your article…..am slowly getting my hand around coding and enjoying the challenge.
    Think all designers need to be open and widen their horizons.
    Difficult to find the time to really understand coding, but well worth the effort.

    Thanks again.


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