Designers and developers: FIGHT!

Published June 26, 2008. Filed under: .

In a thorough and well-thought-out article published on Tuesday, Andy Rutledge listed what he considers to be the essential skills and knowledge for a web designer; this list is notable not only for what it includes — namely, a masterful distillation of just what it is that a web designer should be able to do — but also for what it explicitly excludes:

Note also that nowhere in this list do the words “Photoshop,” “Illustrator,” “Dreamweaver,” or “Fireworks” appear. As I and others have observed plenty of times before, tools do not make a designer. Anyone can learn to use Fireworks or Dreamweaver in an hour or less, but nobody can be a competent Web designer unless they possess a foundation in the things listed above. Choose your own tools and learn to use them, but don’t let the tools define your abilities; tools won’t create a place for you in the profession.

He also links, in passing, Jeff’s article from late last year on this very topic.

Meanwhile, in a comment posted on a recent article here, the commenter (Don Ulrich strikes again!) asserted that

Anyone can find things wrong with any language but learning to work within the language is the mark of a developer. Developers design applications web designers literally hang curtains .

I’d love to be able to treat this as an isolated incident, but unfortunately I can’t. It’s always existed, but recently an ugly trend of web developers denigrating and even outright insulting web designers has been coming on rather more strongly than usual. For example, a couple of posts on the 37Signals blog (Why we skip Photoshop and Web designers should do their own HTML/CSS) kicked off some fairly vicious comment threads around the web-dev world. Here are some example quotes, culled from reddit:

Some random Photoshop fanboy is invariably hired, who depends on continued employment by using the wow-factor.

(source)

Explain to me how that is helpful to good software development. I am the one maintaining the site, I want to be working with my code.

(source)

That’s like saying when you hire a guy to design you a new mansion you expect him to be able to put up all the walls himself.

Web designer != web developer.

(source)

I don’t want graphic artists messing about with HTML, that’s my job.

(source)

I could go on with the quotes for a while, but it’s depressing and you probably get the idea by now.

All of this has me thinking about a few questions that I’d like to explore:

  1. How did we get to a point where this kind of infighting — among people who ought to be treating each other as colleagues and partners — is practically the norm, and how can we overcome it?
  2. How can we productively handle the division of responsibilities (and, hence, required knowledge and skills) between web designers and web developers?
  3. At a time when high-quality tools are making it easier and easier for people to “cross over” and do work on both sides of this equation, does it make any sense to resist doing so?

To get started, I’d like to take a look at that first question; the other two I’ll look at over the next few days in separate articles.

But, Mom, he started it!

If we’re going to talk about “designers” and “developers” as separate groups, I don’t think we can lay the blame for the current level of intra-industry infighting solely at the feet of either one; rather, the fault lies partially in both groups. Or, more accurately, I think the fault lies with the fact that we — both designers and developers — represent a pretty big continuum of knowledge and skills, and that those of us who are competent in the areas typically associated with one group just love to sneer and make ugly generalizations when we encounter someone from the other group who’s not quite up to our level.

We’ve all met or had to work with “designers” whose qualifications consisted of doing an online Photoshop tutorial, and we’ve all met or had to work with “developers” whose abilities just barely extended to filling out the code-generating wizards in their IDEs. Even worse: the least competent people are the ones most likely to overestimate their own abilities, leading them almost inevitably to step on the toes of someone on the other side.

Our industry is teeming with these folks, which is massively unfortunate. But even more unfortunate is the tendency in each group to generalize and form stereotypes based on caricatures of the other group’s lowest common denominator. From there it’s an easy jump to bickering and insults (e.g., designers just “hang curtains”), and each side — if pressed — will probably fall back to that old standby: “they started it!”

That sort of thing got old when we were on the playground in grade school; these days we’re not only adults but — allegedly — professionals, which means the kiddie crap needs to go.

Are we really that much better?

And speaking as a developer — lacking any good definition of what that means for now, I’ll just note that it’s the title my employer put on my ID badge — it absolutely disgusts me to see these sorts of petty jabs targeted at web designers, especially when you consider how much they’ve done for us and how much we’ve resisted it.

Pop quiz number one: in January of 2008 an influential industry player released a new tool, advertised as a fully modern, state-of-the-art system which treated Web-based interaction as a first-class citizen, but it was built from the ground up to use HTML tables for layout. Did it come from:

  1. Adobe, the font of Photoshop mockups and — since its acquisition of Macromedia — also the world’s largest manufacturer of Flash monkeys,
  2. Apple, the Holy Mother Church at whose altar all those design weenies come to worship, or
  3. Paul Graham

Pop quiz number two: for most of this millennium, a group of (fill in the blank) have been steadfastly and patiently dragging this industry, including (fill in the blank), kicking and screaming into the 21st century or, failing that, at least something in the neighborhood of the published standards of 1999.

Answers: Paul Graham, hacker extraordinaire, is the man with the table fetish, and for the past six and a half years it’s been a cabal of designers who’ve carried the banner of modern technology and done their best to drag developers along for the ride.

Although it’s true that the web-design community took some time to warm up to the idea of a brave new standards-based world, that’s nothing compared to the level of heels-dug-in resistance you’ll still find today among “professional” web developers who’d rather die than learn a little CSS. And you know all those cool things the browsers are supporting these days? You know how now we’ve got a pretty solid baseline of compatible features and techniques to work with across all the major browsers? Guess who we developers have to thank for it?

A coalition of web designers who took some time out from hanging their curtains to give this industry a kick in the pants, that’s who. Yes, there were early adopters and major figures on the developer side who pitched in, but if you take a look at the progress that’s been made over the past few years you’ll find that it’s largely been the web designers who’ve taken up the cause and fought the good fight to get us where we are today.

Can’t we all just get along?

So it’s high time we all got over our little internecine feuds and started acting like the professionals we claim to be. That means learning to work with with our colleagues, no matter where they fall on the spectrum of specialized industry knowledge. That means learning to educate each other — without looking down our noses — and concentrate on bringing everybody up to a high level instead of letting pettiness and infighting drag us down. And that means accepting the fact that whichever group we naturally fall into, we’ll always have something to learn from the folks on the other side.

I’ll freely admit that I’ve been unbelievably fortunate when it comes to working with knowledgeable people; we’ve had so many people on staff who’ve written well-received books that you can literally use a stack of them in place of a laptop stand, and so I expect people will want to dismiss what I’m saying: after all, I don’t have to work with a bunch of idiots, so it’s easy for me to just tell people to respect each other, play nice together and all that.

But you know what? None of the folks I’ve worked with were born with any sort of domain expertise, and neither was I; good web designers and developers don’t spring fully-formed from someone’s forehead like the gods of old. We all had to start out somewhere, sometime, as clueless newbies and work our way up, helped along by people who shared their experience and their knowledge. A few months ago when I explained why I don’t run ads here, I tried to explain this curious feature of our industry:

And part of the reason is the simple fact that I am where I am today because of people who shared their knowledge and experience, for free, with anyone who was willing to listen. I didn’t learn programming or web development or anything directly related to my craft from a formal process; I learned it by reading and tinkering, and by asking questions and getting answers from people who are smarter than I am. And ever since I got into the Web in earnest, I’ve consistently been astounded by the ongoing willingness of its experts to openly give away their expertise, pro bono publico in the truest sense of the phrase.

If we’re going to make progress, as an industry, this is the only way forward: no matter how much you may hate or love to complain about the Photoshop fanboy across the hall, no matter how much you may hate or love to complain about the point-and-click “programmer” in the next cubicle, you have to accept a few things:

  1. Web designers and web developers are stuck with and, in fact, need each other.
  2. There’s a lot of work to be done, and flinging poo won’t get it finished any more quickly.
  3. The only way it can get done is if we actually start working together, as colleagues and partners.

Stay tuned over the next few days for part two of this series: Division of Labor, or, “Whose Job is This?”