Two reasons designers don’t need to code

From a designer who used to code

Okay, truth time: I was never much of a coder, but back when websites were less complex, I could build a (simple) one myself. I also knew my way around the Flash ActionScript editor, if that means anything (and I know it doesn’t). It was great fun. I learned a lot.

But this topic of designers needing to code is a tired one. I’ve written about it myself at least once or twice. But articles like this still get my goat. So let me say it one more time: designers don’t need to code, and here are two compelling reasons why:

1. You’ll never be a great coder

Sorry, it’s true. If you think you’re going to be a top-notch UX’er, with all that entails, and also be top of your game at coding, you’re delusional. I work with great frontend engineers. Yes, engineers. The stuff they’re able to pull off is scary complex (and cool). They’re at the top of their game, and staying at the top of their game is their full-time job. And staying at the top of your game as a designer is—or should be—your full-time job. 

2. You’ll end up limiting yourself as a designer

You want to build what you design? Great! It’s a solid instinct. But when you sit down to design, you’re going to start thinking about what you can reasonably build yourself. And, inevitably, you’re going to think of some fantastic feature—the one your users really want and need—that’s too technically sophisticated for you to code yourself. And so you’re going to limit your design. Trust me, I know: I realized my days coding websites were coming to an end when I started to change my designs based on what I felt comfortable building.

Look, I’m not saying you shouldn’t learn to code; I’m taking a Processing class myself in a few weeks. Nor am I saying that keeping up on the latest technical advances is unnecessary: you most certainly should. I’m not even saying a talented designer can’t be a decent coder; I know some who are.

I’m saying that the imperative—designers must code!—is bogus. Know your trade; learn your tools; understand the technology; communicate with your engineers early and often; and dedicate all your energy to your craft. Trust me, it works.

Pixels + time = comedy

A journey through time and space with one of my oldest sites

It’s a good thing none of my old sites are around today. For one thing, many of them used Flash. Gratuitously. And while we didn’t have to think about responsive layouts or breakpoints, we did have to contend with displays that are tiny compared to today’s screens.

In fact, a 1998 iMac had a display resolution of 800 by 600 pixels. With browser chrome, the effective canvas shrunk to about 650 by 440 pixels. Talk about a design constraint.

Partying like it’s 1999

Among the sites I designed in 1999 was one for the Lionsgate documentary by Errol Morris, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (It’s a powerful and disturbing doc, if that’s your bag.)

Here’s how it looked on an all-in-one iMac from the period:

The original iMac’s 13.8" (viewable) screen had a resolution of 800 x 600.

Not too shabby. This was when we were told to mind the fold. Also, when home pages were supposed to look like posters, not portals. Anyway, the 650 pixel site width fit right in. Get it? Fit right in? Sorry.

PS Internet Explorer 5! Just sayin’.

Give us 1024 or give us a poor user experience!

Even in the stone ages, some people had larger monitors. Here’s how the site looked on a second generation iMac from 2002:

A second generation iMac with a 15" screen had a resolution of 1024 x 768.

Wunderbar—if you’re a fan of negative space. Nothing’s expanding to fit the viewport here, nosiree. Nonetheless, it works. Kind of.

And now I’d like to direct your attention to the gaping chasm on the right side of the browser—that, folks, is the Grand Canyon!

We used to pin our sites to the upper left corner of the browser to avoid clipping the edges at lower resolutions. At higher resolutions, this left things hanging. Get it? Left things hanging? Sigh.

You don’t see many left-aligned sites anymore. Thankfully.

Fast forward to 2016. I mean, 2560.

If the Mr. Death site weren’t…dead, here’s what it would look like on my 27" Thunderbolt Display:

The 27" Apple Thunderbolt Display has a resolution of 2560 x 1440.

Gah! My eyes! The tiny site occupies less than a quarter of the screen.

And now things get weird.

Here’s how Mr. Death looks on an iPhone 6S Plus:

The 5.5" screen on an iPhone 6S Plus has a resolution of 1920 x 1080.

Okay, that’s just stupid. Apple recommends a 44 pixel hit area for all tap targets. The entire site is basically one large tap target!


Of course, we were designing for what was, not for what might be. We dreamt of larger screens with more pixels, but we also had to play the cards we were dealt.

And guess what: the things we’re designing today? They’re going to be just as obsolete in 10–15 years. Trust me. I know. I’ve been there.