Should web developers also design?

A couple of months ago, The Pragmatic Programmers announced a new book. Web Design for Developers is described as,

how to make your web-based application look professionally designed. We’ll help you learn how to pick the right colors and fonts, avoid costly interface and accessibility mistakes—your application will really come alive. We’ll also walk you through some common Photoshop and CSS techniques and work through a web site redesign, taking a new design from concept all the way to implementation.

My question is this. Should a developer be trusted with design? It is definitely a profitable skill to have. I believe that developers should at least have a basic idea of what goes into design. I also believe that designers should have a basic understanding of web development. However, if someone is at one end of the spectrum or the other, how do they acquire the necessary skills?

There are several books written for each audience, but very few that are targeted at both. To my knowledge, this is the first book attempting to make a developer more capable as a designer. It appears to approach design in much the way a “logically driven”, coding brain works. It breaks down the fundamental components of design. Layout, color theory, spacing, mockups, etc. All are laid out with a logical process. In some ways it only scratches the surface. Entire books are written on color theory, or typography alone.

I’m curious to see how well this book does. After all, most developers I know—myself included—have a difficult time visualizing good design elements. Most of the books that I read targeting developers talk about the mechanics of css or xhtml. The books for designers talk more about inspiration, or perhaps such abstract things as mood and negative space. The problem for me is that I can’t see the design elements as a whole. I can’t find the harmony of colors and typography. Seeing as I know how the underlying system works, I miss some of the more subtle usability issues. Design is its own discipline. The designers that I have worked with have spent as much time learning how subtle shading and spacing can direct the users eye as I have learning how to craft a self documenting api. Those rare designers who can also code, or vice versa, tend to stay out of the overly complex of either spectrum. Not that they aren’t capable, but either extreme seems to be just as tedious to them as coming up with a photoshopped mock-up is to me.

So that leaves me with another question. For those of us who are not able to visualize a design, what should we do? Should we buy a book like Web Design for Developers or should we find a quality designer, and hire or work with them?

My personal belief is that a designer should do the design work. They have spent the time perfecting their craft, and they can be far more effective in a given time than I could ever hope to be. On the other hand, if I am working on a project for myself. One that is self funded, perhaps I don’t have enough money to hire a proper designer. Nobody likes working for free—nor should they. So perhaps this is the kind of project that the book is gear for. Allow a developer to come up with a passable design, at least until he can properly fund his project and hire someone to do it right.


9 Responses to “Should web developers also design?”

  1. Shawn Says:

    Would you ask the architect to paint the mural?

    Simple answer: No.

  2. Brett Morgan Says:

    I’m often put in the position of designing an interface with no designers in sight. I’d like to be able to build something that is half way respectable, as opposed to traditional programmer art. I’d prefer a proper designer did it, but the budget often isn’t available.

  3. Anthony Says:

    Budget at my company is tight, and we have to do our own design for every application we turn out. It’s a pain, because I have less than zero skill in conceptualizing a design, but that’s the way it is.

    This is a book I am very interested in.


    Captcha: expelled two – Kicked out of school for spelling “too” wrong again?

  4. Kevin Shaum Says:

    I’m a software guy, not a hardware guy; but the EE courses I took have paid off for me, have made me a better programmer even if I never did any actual hardware work.

    The same principle applies here. Design is a discipline strongly related to web and desktop development, and it pays to know what the issues are: to understand the language of designers, even if you will never be fluent in it.

  5. Russ Jones Says:

    First, I think we must concede that web development and web design are indelibly wed. While you can separate web design and development from a technical aspect, neither serves any purpose unless they are linked together in some form or fashion.

    That being said, I believe it makes it incredibly important that both web designers and web developers maintain some level of understanding of the technical or aesthetic components of a project. Having that level of understanding allows the two groups to work far better together.

    I do believe that web designers should also design – not necessarily on the end project – but they ought to be able to visualize and produce a usable (although perhaps ugly-as-snot-super-minimalistic) dev product. Similarly, a designer ought to be able to develop at least the code necessary to display their work.

  6. Brent Says:

    I absolutely believe that programmers should be designers too. It is a pain and takes a lot of work to do both. I think you can get burned out by the process, but they are codependent on each other.

    Good find I’m a fan of the Pragmatic Programmer books.

  7. Slomo Says:

    I do both, design and development. I’m not the world’s best designer and neither the worlds best developer, but I’m versatile and can do both parts which can come in very handy when it comes to scoring jobs. So far everybody was pleased with what I do, and I think that I deliver good work.

    Hoever, sometimes I wish I could be better at either of the two traits, but that would mean that I had to decide which path to follow, and I’m a variety guy, easily bored and quite grateful for any type of diversity in my work.

  8. Andrew Ingram Says:

    I do both, though I’m only paid to do one. I’m a programmer at work but my interests have always been with the user interface and aesthetics of the end product. I use my programming to enabled the designs I have in mind. Whilst I may never be a master designer or a master programmer, I can excel at being the guy who can understand what is required of every part of a project in order to meet requirements. I often anticipate design or code issues before anyone else, because I have a strange ability to see both the tiny algorithm-level details as well as the bigger picture, and likewise with the pixel-precision of borders, bevels, leading and kerning and the overall aesthetic and style of a project.

    People who can do both aren’t that unusual, but I imagine they may end up forced into one or the other depending on what their job demands – so they end up letting one of the skillsets go unpracticed.

  9. Emmanuel Okyere Says:

    I have been waiting for this book.