Wanted: Graphic designer. Must be really creative yet also happy spending majority of time messing around in code. Apply within.
Scanning the internet recently I came across a job advert that illustrated how many people seem a little unaware of the pace of change going on around them in their own industry. I’ll not bore you with the entire details of the vacancy that triggered this post, beyond saying it was a fairly low wage position stipulating that the suitable candidate would be:
“Fluent using Illustrator, InDesign, Photoshop, HTML, Dreamweaver”
It’s been widely accepted (if often quietly resented) in our industry for a while that graphic designers have got to just be okay with web designing. As only an idiot would deny, the world has shifted into the online realm quite rapidly and quite comprehensively over the past decade and graphic designers have had to shift with it in order to keep doing what they do. That’s fair enough – stuff needs designing whether printed or on a screen.
The commonly held belief is that you have to move with the times, stop lamenting the loss of the printed page, the smell of fresh ink and any sort of control over the finer details of your typesetting and instead bite the bullet, learn HTML and CSS and stop being so afraid of the internet. Any designer in 2011 still resisting the move is surely just burying their head in the sand, right?
I’m not entirely sure.
Prior to going freelance I spent just shy of four years working exclusively in the digital realm. Designing computer game GUIs I spent my time making things look good entirely in 72dpi RGB. It was interactive and innovative, it was progressive and exciting. I produced work that couldn’t and wouldn’t stand still, where the more immersive and featured it was, the better a job it did. But despite the dynamism, the feature packed excitement and sheer visual indulgence of it all, I found it was causing my design muscles to wither.
The reason was simple. It was all style, and I’m not a stylist. I’m a designer. A communicator. In fact I do this job because I have a passion for communication. I love to write, to talk, discuss, think, to solve problems, to share and develop ideas. I like to interact, to make clear what was once unclear. To see between lines, find themes, to deconstruct and rebuild. That’s what I consider ‘proper’ graphic design – it’s about substance. Style is just the icing on the cake, and as pleasant as icing may be it turns out I can’t dedicate my life to it. A growing lad needs cake.
So I turned my back on my job, a position many would have Gumtreed their kidneys to land, and went in search of substance. Unfortunately the only person that would have considered looking beyond my wilted portfolio and battered motivation at that time was me. So I went self employed and took myself off on a hunt for some good old fashioned print work on which I’d be able to ease my brain back into gear.
Naturally however it wasn’t long before I was required to do some online work. “Do you do websites?” is a request you can only decline so many times when faced with a rapidly dwindling bank balance, and despite my practical professional knowledge of animating, input, feedback and general User eXperience stuff, I’d never actually done any website work. So I forced myself to learn what HTML means and what CSS does. I learnt what PHP is, how FTP works, what DNS stands for and why one needs such a thing. I learnt just enough to put together a basic standards compliant website that could be offered as an interactive side dish to the printed main course I was there to serve. So really, I’ve barely scratched the surface of web design yet I’m already deep within a world of acronyms, of tech, of numbers, settings, rules and code. A world in which the likes of me have absolutely no place.
In that world I feel completely lost. I’m quite thankful to have an aptitude for learning that allows me to pick things up reasonably quickly, but even the bits I understand and can handle still feel alien to me. It’s a bit like putting on lipstick, I suppose. I could learn how to do it until it was the easiest task in the world, but I’m never going to be comfortable wearing the stuff.
Paddling as I am in the very shallow end of the web makes perfectly clear to me that graphic design and web development are two completely different skills. Building websites is about coding. Coding is about unflinching structure where design is about intuition. Coding is about accuracy where design is about ideas. Code is literal where design loves metaphor. Code is on off, yes no where design likes playing with those nuances in between. Code is about compliance and logic where design is committed to questioning the boundaries and challenging logic. The two disciplines are mutually exclusive yet the industry still frequently continues to view them as one and the same.
I can’t blame it, of course. It’s a funny time for the design industry, and has been for a while. It exists in the midst of a technological revolution but there still remains at the top of the tree many creative directors who never quite got on board with these computer things. We have established, Adobe literate senior designers who haven’t got the first clue what HTML or CSS actually is and they’re quietly terrified of it. And as recently as ten years ago design graduates (me among them) were coming out of colleges and universities having never learnt – nor had they ever expected to learn – anything about web design. These guys are the middleweight designers of today.
Across the entire industry you’ve got people who haven’t got a clue what they’re doing, what they might want or even how to ask for it. Just note the wording in the advert above. HTML and Dreamweaver. Dreamweaver? Who uses Dreamweaver? People who haven’t got a clue about the web and mistakenly think Auntie Adobe can rescue them.
I think the industry is currently being pretty short sighted by employing young designers who they assume will “sort all that web stuff”. I don’t think that approach recognises just how big a job that side of things is becoming. Employers are still looking for that jack of all trades who can do a bit of everything, hoping that they’ll then have all the bases covered. These versatile design chameleons are the guys everyone wants right now, but I think the sell by date for that way of working might be imminent.
Once upon a time computers were being invented and built by individuals with soldering irons, an aptitude for maths and rigidly intact virginities. They were wiring circuit boards together by day and scripting software by night. Now here we are just a few years later and there is within the field of computing countless different specialities, with entire industries built around them. Not too long ago you could quite validly claim an interest in ‘computers’. Now that’s too vague a statement to even mean anything.
As the industry moves forward and the world of digital media continues to advance, the technologies behind it are going to specialise and diverge further. Since the industrial revolution the progress of our society has increasingly required all its members to specialise, and there’s no reason this is any different. After all, a sure fire way of guaranteeing that progress stalls is to make everyone mediocre at their job.
So digital media will continue to push forward, taking us to the places we as yet can’t imagine but will soon take for granted, and it’ll reach and pass the point where there’s no longer any room for graphic designers moonlighting as coders. It’ll be too far gone, too in depth. Those at the sharp end of that technology will be dedicated coders, those who’ve specialised in the area, pushing it forward by doing what they do best. And those best suited to designing in that world may well turn out to be those who were committed to developing their design minds while those around them were getting distracted by endless developments in code.
There is of course the quite valid argument that designers have to understand how the web works in order to design for it. Of course I agree, yet I suspect that knowledge and understanding could be taking with one hand what it gives with the other. If you worry too much about what the boundaries are you tend to think only within them. We’re not architects after all – in the digital realm we don’t have to worry about those laws of physics capable of reducing buildings to rubble. The only laws we have are virtual, and they’re being smashed every day.
Some of the most rewarding projects during my previous digital tenure were when we designers would dream up wildly ambitious, apparently pie in the sky ideas that initially got us laughed at. We’d generally be forced to back down in the face of mass programmer rebellion, but the seed would be sewn and soon enough their cogs would start turning and they’d make it work. Massively talented, creative and dedicated in their field, there would never really be anything standing in their way. They’d just never have thought to give it a go until some naive arty farty designer suggested it. It’s because we were there to think not of what the technology allowed, but rather what the end user needed. Not what we could do for the technology, but what the technology should do for us. That’s the kind of thinking, and the kind of teamwork that drives progress. The kind of thing that put Cupertino on the map.
We’re all getting more specialist, and if any agency thinks it can keep its head above water by forever limping along, bodging through the things it finds terrifying and not taking the world of code seriously, I fear they may soon be in for a shock. Because it may well be approaching the time where we must all start working out what we do best and sticking to it.
Employ designers to design and coders to code. Let shine the strengths of each. The skills aren’t interchangeable now and they’re getting less so by the day. Together they work brilliantly, but we need both – not half of each.
I’m not a coder, I’m a designer. So I might as well stick to doing what I do best. If I’m wrong, if I can’t continue to make a living by using my design mind to design, my second port of call certainly won’t be coding. Between here and there lie a whole host of jobs I’d be better suited to, including but not limited to teaching, fixing bicycles or being a cleaner.
I’m not burying my head in the sand trying to avoid this relentless march of technology. In fact I’m craning my neck enthusiastically, trying to look forward, wondering how best we might embrace it. All I can see at this point is an industry moving rapidly forward at a pace that won’t be carried much further by graphic designers reluctantly spending half their working lives struggling to be coders.