As a designer, I have a very complicated relationship with code. Whenever I try to spend less time with it and focus on the many other technical aspects of user experience design, I feel I need to keep my skills sharp and realise I could never quit coding cold turkey.
Like many designers, I started my career as a web developer, which is why I value coding as a skill. As a teenager, I was hired by a large music store with a small online presence as the sole developer of the website and needed to quickly learn everything from interface design to back-end integration, maintenance, and basic server configuration. My next role at an agency required me to continue designing and building websites and other software for small and medium-sized businesses.
Beginning my career in this type of unconventional ‘generalist’ role was both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because I learnt every step of the web design and development process at once in a pretty high-pressure environment. It was a curse because my work history requires a lengthy explanation as I don’t have a single specialty. Industry people often use the term ‘unicorn designer’ to describe designers that code, but it’s often used as a pejorative term for technologists who can’t design or code very well.
As I’ve progressed in my career, recruiters and employers with good intentions have suggested I specialise by ‘picking a lane’. This has usually been great advice, as it has helped me join companies and work for teams that I’ve truly enjoyed being part of. But a few times, recruiters have asked me to alter my CV so it didn’t appear as though I started my career as a web developer. They believed it put me at a disadvantage in the job market.
I always refuse to change this, as many product designers don’t get the opportunity to learn how to build their products and are hired only to navigate the experience and interface design.
There is no consistency across the industry though, as some design roles still require coding skills. I’ve seen job descriptions requiring front and back-end development skills, business analyst skills, project management skills, and server admin skills on top of design capabilities. Yikes, steer clear of any role that tries to cram many jobs together. These unicorn jobs usually pay terribly as well.
So what do I actually miss about being a developer? I’ve struggled with the answer for years, but I can now articulate it in a simple way.
I don’t miss development, but I’ll always love designing with code.
HTML and CSS. SVG animation. CSS transitions. Building design prototypes and modifying a design for an A/B test. I still enjoy this line of work. Whenever I honestly examine this, I’m reminded of why I chose to focus on design in the first place. I don’t miss software development at all, but rather technically demonstrating and prototyping high-fidelity design concepts.
Although the software industry prefers to hire dedicated front-end or full-stack developers, I believe designers should stay across what is happening in the front-end world. Designers need to understand new front-end technologies from a user’s perspective, and the best way to approach this is by experimenting with how they would be developed in code, even in only a prototypical form. And code is really just another tool in a designer’s toolbelt.