Coders and designers – a marriage of inconvenience

There are numerous anecdotes on the Internet parading the disparity between those who work for creative agencies and those who are pure software developers. You’d be hard-pushed to find two more different kinds of people.

There are those who went to one of the various arts colleges dotted around the country; vibrant minds that never stay still who envisage a product as a painting never quite finished. Then you have the self-titled geeks who have a computing or engineering degree. For them a product is a finite set of instructions with a goal defined from the outset.

Due to the demanding union of software applications mashed with innovative and attractive interfaces, particularly on the web, these two archetypes have no choice but to work together. As a developer, I’ve worked in pure software houses where geekery reigns, but I’ve also worked for a political party and a multinational branding agency. In any organisation where there are those who would consider themselves laymen in a technological sense, the challenge is communicating needs and priorities that would not be immediately obvious.

One example that comes up again and again is the pretty but powerful web application – you might be implementing sophisticated back-end software that interacts with an organisation’s Active Directory system along with various web services to allow for single-sign-on to third-party applications, yet the creative team will be more interested in the minor CSS changes on the front-end. The project may have invoked sweat, blood and tears for you to produce efficient code and a unique way of solving a challenging problem, but unless communicated in real-terms such as “it will now run 10 times faster”, non-technical people won’t share your love. I used to think it was rather like buying a young toddler the most expensive present in the shop, only to realise he’s more interested in playing with the wrapping paper.

Having worked in both environments, I’ve found my prejudices smoothed over somewhat. Techies often dismiss designers as artsy types who can’t stick to a specification. Although I was once sympathetic to that view, it is rather ignorant to shun a mind on the grounds that it draws graphics but doesn’t write code. Graphic designers can be deeply frustrating to a logical mind that doesn’t like a plan to change too much. A cynic would call the designers chaotic, others would point out that rarely does a piece of art start with the finished oil canvas.

The dismissal isn’t just one-way of course. I’ve met designers who were quite open (some far too much) about their dismay at coders. Unless work was appearing on the front-end, as far as they were concerned, no work was being done. Whilst coders must try their best to accommodate changes that happen along the way, designers often failed to understand that building a website is like building a house. It’s rather easy to modify things when you lay the foundations, but it is pretty impossible to start moving walls when you’ve begun plastering.

The point where the gap seemed most stark was the week Steve Jobs passed away. As somebody who merely owned an iPhone, it was puzzling why everybody else in my company raised a glass “to Steve” at the weekly Friday team get-together. To developers, he was somebody who stole ideas. To designers, he was somebody who harnessed them into an end product that sold millions. Dennis Ritchie, the inventor of C, died a few days later. Much to my bemusement, few Facebook posts appeared about him and Twitter was deathly silent in comparison. Those that did surface expressed resentment that Steve Jobs got the praise for products which contain code that wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for Dennis Ritchie. This was the divide between techies and designers at its most vicious. Dismissal of either man’s success is naïve, unfair and disingenuous. You will find no more poignant example of a techie who kicked the ball past the defence and the creative who knocked it into the net.

I left the creative agency as a convert. Designers have fascinating minds; they are normally deeply interesting people with wonderful eccentricities. Although bridging the gap between Photoshop and ASP.NET will always bring communication challenges between two very different types of mind, it doesn’t do the developer harm to appreciate why the designer is upset that some content is out-of-kilter by a few pixels. It also does the designer no harm to understand the process of software development – that a house needs bricks and mortar as well as just the pretty feature walls and post-modern décor.

It may be a marriage of inconvenience, but in this world of ubiquitous web and mobile apps, techies and designers need each other. Developers ignore this at their peril.

Leave a Comment