November 13, 2017
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Why designers should definitely learn to code...

To many designers, the concept and idea of coding is a nightmare. Having to logically order and arrange strings of text and numbers in such a way that they create an interactive experience that people can engage with. Why on earth would you want to do that, when you could be having fun drawing shapes and throwing paint at walls, leaving others to think about the more technical stuff?

This is something that I said to myself for a long, long time. I was adamant on it, I argued over it and absolutely insisted that designers don't need to know how to code. Granted, this was before I began to understand what "design" really is.

"I don't need to code. I don't want to code. I don't have to code. I'll never do it. I can't do it. Don't try to make me do it because it will not end well."

Now, here I am today, with a working knowledge of HTML5 and CSS3, building websites to a professional standard. (Well, they work, at least). The reason I learned in the end was to get a job that I really wanted – true commitment.

I can confidently, positively and undoubtedly say that learning these languages and building my own websites has completely transformed my understanding of design and consequently had a huge positive affect on every single area of my practice. If I had a time machine, I would jump straight in it and throw a cactus with a sticky note at my younger self: MAKE TIME TO LEARN CODE, NOW.

Creative minds work in very strange ways. They are not logical, they don't go in straight lines and often there is little rational sense that comes out of them. Don't get me wrong, this is the wonder of creativity and is exactly why it's valuable. It can't be generated or created through a series of mathematical equations. I cannot truly be replicated. I am completely for creativity, expression and unique thought, that's where everything I do now, originates from.

However, if you're stood in a white room all day throwing paint at canvases, for no particular reason other than to create something that reflects "free expression", whilst it might look nice and be a fabulous piece of artwork – it's not useful. Not on a practical level. I can't eat it. I can't build a house with it. I can't really do anything with it other than look at it and "appreciate" it for what it is. For those of us that have the time spare to do that – cool.

This was probably one of the biggest realisations that I've had in my career so far. That there is a huge, huge difference between being a "designer" a "graphic designer". The word "designer" seems to have lost it's true meaning, or perhaps another perspective is that "design" is just misunderstood. It's not something I was taught about at school, college or even university. Which is concerning (I suppose that's what you get for going to an "art" college / uni).

Design is not art. It has nothing to do with art. Artwork might be plastered onto a design, just like I've plastered all over my latest identity, "design works". It has a purpose. It does a job. There is an intention that it sets out to fulfil. It makes sense.

You might argue that artwork also does this – and to some extent, it does. But it's random. It's hit and miss. You might create one piece that is massively popular, creating a huge movement, and another twenty that are not. It is understanding the reason why one piece became popular in which the fundamentals of true design exist. Good art is a talent, good design is a skill – and I'm sure if you developed a vast enough awareness and knowledge of the world, that the science of design could be refined to an absolute certainty. A guaranteed result. A true designers dream. When I get there, I'll be a "millionaire"... Ha, ha..

This is something that I've been challenged with since I started working as a "designer". When people ask the question, "what do you do?" Oh, well... I'm a "designer". How can you sum up simply what design is? The closest I've got so far is that design works. Whether it's an electric toothbrush, a ceiling fan or a brand identity. The same logic and principles apply. A + B = C. Blue taps are cold, red taps are hot.

Coming back to the original point – this is exactly what I started to discover and realise through learning to code. Perhaps learning code is not the only way to achieve this, I'm sure there are others, but the fundamental principles of design are within logic and reason, which can definitely be learned through the practice of writing code, which is pure logic.

You might apply that logic creatively, by creating an application or a website, but it is still pure logic. Logic that helps to balance out the left and right hemispheres of the brain, giving you room to develop a new kind of understanding. A more balanced and holistic viewpoint, not just on your professional practice, but on the world in general.

Whether you actually choose to build websites, or not, as part of your professional offering is another thing entirely, but I can assure you that learning how to do so can only benefit you as a creative. It's not something that can easily be communicated to a creative mind that doesn't want to think logically in the first place, it has to be experienced and realised in it's own time.

On a more practical level, it has allowed me to take my web design to another level, in that I can now understand the technical limitations and functionalities of websites. When I'm designing one, I consider the reality of taking that design and actually turning it into something that works for a client. Whether it's something I can do solo, or whether it's going to require someone with a much more extensive knowledge of code, or a specialist skill set. Generally, it's improved the quality of the work that I'm outputting and my service as a whole, adding value.

Even when I'm designing something for print, I'm able to think more logically about the structure of the information, the typographical hierarchy and so on. I can break it down into "modules" and assess them individually, considering how each module works in relation to the other. Processing large amounts of information in a systematic and methodical way, which itself is a left-brain activity.

In my experience, there are many designers / creatives, who could really benefit from a hefty dose of logic. Even if it's a headache at first, or you're finding yourself wanting to throw your laptop out of the window – it's worth it. You will find that your work is doing more for you and for your clients. That you are pitching creative concepts more clearly. An even balance of logic and creativity is what separates you from being an artist and becoming a true designer, someone that can express their creativity in a way that serves a purpose and does a job.

This can also be explored through doing research and giving deeper consideration to the audience that you are pitching to. Understanding the patterns and trends that they follow and understand, then implementing your findings into what it is that you're creating. The actual act of "understanding patterns" is amplified tenfold when you understand a language such as HTML, that is based on pure logic, as it trains your brain and gives you a mental workout.

A summary of reasons for learning how to code:

  • Greater awareness of technicalities when designing websites
  • Help the development of strong logic pathways in your mind, allowing you more perspective when solving problems
  • Balancing your creative side, or right brain, which will help in the communication and demonstration of creative concepts
  • A new skill – and perhaps even a new passion

It's not as difficult as you think. Or rather, it is only as difficult as you think.

Two tried-and-tested resources to get started with:

Thanks for reading,