Why The Valley Wants Designers That Can Code

Jared Spool

May 31st, 2011

If you’re in a room filled with designers, bring up the topic of whether it’s valuable for a designer to also code. Immediately, the room will divide faster than Moses split the Red Sea. One side will tell you coding is an essential skill, while the other will vehemently argue how it dilutes the designer’s value.

Interestingly, it isn’t the designers who get to decide if coding is a valuable skill. It’s the hiring managers. And right now, based on today’s jobs market, it’s pretty clear where they stand. Many want to hire super designers—designers who can also code.

While hiring super designers has always been floating around, the real demand has come recently out of Silicon Valley startups. With a couple of high-profile design successes, like Apple and Mint.com, the investors and entrepreneurs in the Valley now have a new appreciation for the work of designers.

Startups, however, try to run as lean as possible, so they look for talent with a broad set of skills. The thinking among the Valley folk is, if they can get someone who does both, they can get their product from concept to ship with an ideal set of resources. Otherwise they’d have to hire two people. Or do without one.

We’ve proven for years that you can ship a product without a designer. Many companies have done that, and while it doesn’t make for a great result, it does ship. However, it’s much harder to ship a software product without a coder, if not near impossible.

That’s why, right now, there are dozens of startups looking to pay big bucks to find the coding super designer. The demand is high and those designers who have proven, practiced coding skills can demand a higher salary than those who don’t.

What about the non-startup portion of the hiring world? Right now, the established organizations find it easier to have larger teams with separate developers and designers.

Yet, that doesn’t make the designer that can code any less valuable to them. A team with two coding designers is more flexible and capable than a team with one non-coding designer and a non-designing developer. The flexible team can produce well-designed results better and faster.

Coding and designing are collections of skills. What we’ve learned is teams with a better distribution of skills, not segmented by roles, produce better results. Having a team filled with individuals who can both code and design will be more effective in the long run than a team where the skills are divided up.

If you’re a designer, you don’t have to learn to code. But if you do, and you get good at it, you’ll find more opportunities as time goes on.

66 Responses to “Why The Valley Wants Designers That Can Code”

  1. NesQuarX Says:

    People who can do both design and code really well, do exist, but they’re only marginally less rare than unicorns… Being an UX designer who began his career as a programmer who freelanced in graphic design from school years, moved into hardcore J2EE and then moved to UX… I can vouch for their existence.

    Though I’ll have to agree that if one has to do both at a regular basis, one needs to do a ridiculous amount of work not really compensable even with a top-of-the-line paycheque. But the actual benefits do show when you’re on either side of the river and need to communicate with the other side.

    While designing, I was always able to explain to the coders exactly what was the optimum way to implement what my UX needed, leaving the nitty gritties and debugging monsters to them.

    While coding, I was always always able to tell the designers how exactly their UXes can be optimized to gel flawlessly with what the coding platform had to offer. (The ‘telling them’ part used to be very tricky in the junior years when they’d just assume I’m trying to teach them in their trade.)

    But it’s this communication bridge which enabled us to make really good applications really smoothly, which gave excellent quality/time ratios, it saved a lot of money for my employers too…

    But sadly, to be recognized and valued for that ability, it did not happen to me until much later in my career, so I don’t really believe hiring managers are very aware of how this kind of a person can actually benefit their organizations.

  2. UXanonD Says:

    I do think it’s funny that it’s always the ones who do strictly programming try to discredit design… even when an article that only states that it is difficult to find someone who is exceptional in both fields. Design, most commonly is something that may come natural and programming may also to some, but generally comes from research and learning of the skill… so maybe that is the reason for the negative outlook. But, I think there are a lot of programmers as well that could enter this category if they didn’t look at design as being ‘beneath them’ and ventured to acquire this skill-set. Anyway, I have respect for both and skill will never be discredited when push comes to shove. I would personally love to be able to find not only a qualified designer, but a ‘unicorn’ to join my team.

  3. cesar Says:

    I have a degree in design, working mainly on editorial I have move to web. I think it is almost a natural step for a designer to learn to code, it is basically the application of design. Now of you want to program, you definitely need another person.

  4. Ravinder Tulsiani - Corporate Trainer Says:

    Ravinder Tulsiani – Corporate Trainer…

    […]Why The Valley Wants Designers That Can Code » UIE Brain Sparks[…]…

  5. Four reasons why I don’t think a ‘designer’s gotta code’ | Jessica Vallance – User Experience Designer Says:

    […] spool started off this debate last summer, but recently his tweet, ‘The ugly truth: Designers who can code will squash designers who […]

  6. Fernando Val Says:

    I must be that some one of you consider a “Super Designer”, I name to myself like “Designer & Front-end Samurai”, but terminology aside, Lately I’m finding this profile is to seeking by startups specially. And this article is a sample of this.
    I haven’t come to current situation in a premeditated way. Really what happens is I’m an old rock star… 🙂
    Happens to me like Mike Rundle says in this article: http://flyosity.com/application-design/if-you-can-think-design-code-you-win.php
    An I’m so curious and I had time to learn to many stuff, An I reaches a point that only design was bored to me, and needed to learn new skills. At first markup code, next interaction code and last back-end.
    All of this has given me a background and a knowledge so important to tackling a project.
    Finally, I think a Interaction designer must to know almost HTML and CSS to bring an holistic good work in opposite a nice look and feel.

  7. Think, Design & Code: Do It All, Win It All | Seeqnce Blog Says:

    […] M. Spool, a software developer and programmer, has a great article too, “Why The Valley Wants Designers That Can Code”, explaining why a great designer who gets good at coding over time, or a  coder who learns a […]

  8. Anu Ramaswamy Says:

    I was shy of taking a stand on this issue, but, I am now quite convinced that combining designer and UI developer into one means something’s got to give. I am a big fan of Jared Spool, and have to disagree on this one. Looks to me that people’s opinion on this have been formed by varied experiences. I wrote a blog post to share mine.


  9. “We don’t hire designers who can’t code.” Says:

    […] times there have been articles popping up all over the web with persons advocating the benefits of designers who can also code as well as the need for designers to learn to code. Some even go as far as calling them […]

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  11. Steve Says:

    I think it’s important to elaborate on “code”. Front end coding? C#, PHP? There’s a huge difference between a person who’s great at design and HTML (I’ve met many) great at design and javascript ( I’ve met some) and who’s great at design, javascript and C# (I’ve met one and heard of another) Article is too general. Even designer is too general when thinking of UX and Usability. Do you mean visual designer? None of the aforementioned people had ever run usability tests, written personas, run stats, created ux storyboards, experience maps, etc.

  12. Not Just Unicorns: A Designer Bestiary | Designcult Says:

    […] describe interaction designers who are also talented visual designers. Others carry news of the rare designer who can also code. And the wildest tales of all describe a designer who is supernaturally capable of anything. These […]

  13. Josh Nimoy Says:

    To those who say the unicorn is unstable and bound to fail – for those who cannot fathom that two disciplines would possibly fold into one: you are mistaken to assume this collection of professions are skill-sets so mutually esoteric, and so partitioned, that diving deep into one necessarily thins the other.

    If you ever meet someone claiming to be great programmer as well as a great designer at the same time, then you measure for yourself and see that one of these two sides is lacking relative to the competition, then you have not met a real unicorn. Not yet. Keep looking.

    ps. I agree with “not just unicorns”. There exists a universal artistic grit allowing a designer to flow freely between architecture, science, engineering, politics, maths, and raw creativity, thumbing noses at every preconception we have about left versus right brained “types”. I wouldn’t call these people “unicorns”. I think “wizard” is a better title. Furthermore, I would not assign “designer” as their home-discipline just because it’s their profession or educational background.

  14. Pavel Says:

    Well, hiring managers and business owners might want it, but that does not make it any more plausible. It sounds to me like a management daydream: let’s hire the great pianist, and make him to build his piano himself.
    Of course, graphic design takes lots of practice to hone one’s talent, and coding is very time consuming to do the research and learning, and everything.
    So the jack-of-all-trades effect kicks in. I suspect that in real life, most coders use Photoshop and other graphic software so they are technically able to do the job, without the artistic mastery behind it, and hiring managers start telling to graphic designers, how it would be great if they could code. I don’t think so.

  15. Patrick Breslin Says:

    Hi, some great debate going on here. I work as a traditional print designer, and am hoping to re-skill into UX / Web design. I feel programming is much less subjective than design, while there are good and bad programmers its still a very specialist skill. The general public never uses a website and says I don’t like how its coded. However they often look at a site and comment on how its designed.
    Visual design is also a specialist skill. In 15 years in design I’ve seen the value of good design increasingly eroded. Software now allows anyone to create their own ‘artwork’ in Word, Powerpoint etc. However being able to select fonts/colours/layout is not the same as being able to create a good design. The same advances also affect programming, current technology allows anyone to create their website, but not necessarily the best code for it.

    I’d like to be a good designer who understand the possibilities of code.

    Or a good programmer who understands the principles of design. To be both is possible, but to give all you time to doing both jobs properly is difficult.
    Our head of design in College always said “good or bad design is not the same as what I like or don’t like”.

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