Josh Seiden’s article, which we worked through yesterday, catalyzed some thoughts for Dave Malouf, currently at Rackspace, who came out guns blazing with a robust, nearly 4,000 word post on his own blog titled Thoughts on code, programming, design, production, development, technology and Oh! Design. There’s a lot of chunky goodness in this stew—much that we agree on and a few opinions that I take issue with. We’re going to savor this one in a few spoonfuls.
Dave kicks things off with this little nugget:
But the question isn’t whether or not designers should know HOW to code, but rather, “Should They Code”. Implicit in this question is that the code they do has a purpose and I think where I disagree most with Josh is the purpose of not the knowledge of technology, but the application of that knowledge to production.
If I read this correctly, Dave is saying that it is important for designers to learn how to code, but they shouldn’t be writing production code. If I were to stop there, well, them’s fightin’ words! But the issue is more complex than that, and Dave does a great job breaking it down.
First, let’s talk about design and designing…
Dave and I are both academics, so one thing we have in common is that we’ve given a lot of thought to “defining the damn thing”, as they say. Dave dances around the definitions here without picking one, and that’s wise, as definition isn’t his point. However, your personal definition(s) of design say quite a lot about your perspective on design issues, such as the relevance of learning to code. So, I will share with you my favorite definition of design to give you some insight to my biases.
Design is the human power to conceive, plan, and realize products that serve human beings in the accomplishment of any individual or collective purpose. - Richard Buchanan
The reason I particularly like this definition is that it includes conception, planning, and realization as equal siblings. The definition doesn’t say that the same person has to do all three to be considered a designer (It’s not the definition of a designer, but the definition of the activity.), nor do I believe that you have to be able to do all three to be a good designer. However, I strongly identify with this tripartite and believe that truly great designers will be capable of doing all three. I strive to be a truly great designer, thus I feel compelled to excel in all three areas. You can agree or disagree with my personal conviction, but now you know where I’m coming from and, rather than taking umbrage at my commentary, can compensate by applying your own lens to my thoughts.
Dave describes five changes that have brought us to the current conditions in which designers are often expected to know how to create production code:
- Greater accessibility through tools
- Startup culture
- Agile/Lean (which is in large part a response to #2)
- Maker/DIY culture
- Open source
This is very insightful, but I don’t believe it paints the whole picture. I see historical influences at play as well. If you ask an Interaction/UX Designer the history of our field, you will get a different story depending on the background of the person you ask. Dave alludes to this in his earlier listing of focus pairs:
- HCI - people & technology
- New Media - graphics/interfaces & technology
- Information Design/Architecture - graphics/navigation & people
The fact is, Interaction Design grew out of several disciplines at the same time. One of the significant contributors was Graphic/Communication Design, which also happens to be my background. Graphic Design, along with Industrial Design, has a tradition of craft. Graphic Designers don’t just conceive and plan things—they make things. There was no such thing as a Graphic Designer that couldn’t produce their design. Some of the greats were able to produce both 2-D graphic design and 3-D industrial design. To this day, I get dumbfounded reactions from my students when I explain that a large percentage (likely a majority) of Interaction Designers and UX professionals are not visually trained and have to rely on a Graphic Designer to realize their wireframes. I believe that this tradition of craft still has a huge impact on the field, which we see surfacing in “design studio methods”, sketching workshops, discussions of materials and foundations, and yes, the pressure/attraction of learning to code. There is a drive for designers that resonate with this tradition to realize—to produce—what they have conceived and planned.
That is enough for tonight’s post. I’ll continue dissecting Dave’s article tomorrow.