Designers vs Coding
“Do I need to know how to code?” is a question that comes up with sure-fire consistency in design circles. I’ve seen it asked by so many, from uncertain design students in classrooms worried about their chances of landing a job, to seasoned professionals at conferences seeing their pool of print projects slowly evaporate. The question is being asked with even greater frequency as of late, because Adobe has launched their product Muse, which promises designers the ability to “create unique websites without writing code.” So, if a designer wants to work on the web, should they take the time to learn this dastardly “code” or instead rely on software like Muse?
My short answer is “Learn code.” My long answer, I suppose, would be that one should learn to code (specifically HTML and CSS), because it’s the language of the web, and while these skills aren’t necessary for every position, team or project, the knowledge does nothing but benefit the designer. Design decisions are not only affected by the characteristics of the content being designed, but also the qualities of the format. The best way to understand the characteristics of the web is to speak its language.
Good design and good markup provide structure to content. Good markup is a fundamental part of good design: beautiful on the inside, beautiful on the outside. HTML and CSS give another venue to provide structure to content in the native language of the web, and learning these guides decisions by surfacing the affordances of the medium. Design decisions are affected by both the content and the format, like how a sculptor would make different decisions if she were working with clay rather than marble.
It’s important to realize that the web is an experiential medium. It’s 4D: there is change over time as users interact with the work. Still images of sites are no good, much like how a still from a movie only gives a faint sensation of what it is to see the film. The best pathway to achieve parity between the construction and final result is to learn markup and stylesheets for concepting and prototyping.
The skills needed to learn HTML and CSS are not far from those used by the print designer day to day. One only needs to take the time to learn the terms. HTML is a markup language that annotates content with tags that define hierarchy and structure. Print designers already do this when establishing typographic hierarchy. CSS applies aesthetic treatment to parts of the design based on the content’s classification. Print designers should be familiar with this behavior from using styles in software like InDesign and Illustrator.
The mental leap in coding HTML and CSS is to learn the particular tags necessary to define the structure, hierarchy, and aesthetics. My belief is that learning them is a short step if a designer already understands typographic hierarchy, knows nesting relationships from producing outlines, and grasps separating aesthetics from structure by way of Styles in other software.
To get started, I’d recommend watching a few videos at Don’t Fear the Internet, which offers a succinct introduction to HTML and CSS for the print designer. Don’t miss their resources page as well. Learning to code is a leap, but it’s not as far as you think. Maybe it’s time to become bilingual.