I see these questions come up again and again in articles and talks within the tech community. Recently I've seen a lot of articles with headlines like "UX Designers: Forget Learning to Code. Study Business Instead." These really bother me - designers have the capicity to learn more than one ancillary skill. We should obviously be choosing what to learn outside of pure design skills based on what we need to do our jobs well, what our companies want, and what we personally find interesting.
For the most part, web designers don’t need to know how to code per se. But here’s the thing: what you *do* want is control over you work and a seat at the table. You’re also not just any designer; you’re smart, and hard-working, and talented, and you want to be able to keep up with the developers and more technical people at your company.
As part of my writing during my 8th Light Design Apprenticeship, I will be exploring development and more technical pieces of how the internet works from a designer’s perspective, and writing about it so that you, the ambitious designer, can better understand what’s going on.
This week I started my 5 months as a Design Apprentice at a software shop called 8th Light. Their modern apprenticeship program is an incredible opportunity to learn from the company’s experts (called “crafters,” in that software is their craft). I get to come to work every day and fill the hours learning to fill the gaps in my knowledge and do it in such a way that I’m learning how to do things that will help me work with clients later on, like getting good at estimating the amount of time it will take me to do something and collaborating with teammates.
One of the most interesting parts about the experience is that I’m the sole Design Apprentice among about a dozen Software Apprentices. Every morning we gather as a group to describe what we’re working on and offer each other solutions, which is followed by an hour-long talk given by a Crafter. For obvious reasons, these talks are aimed at the Software Apprentices and are focused on the world of development.
Much of these talks, as well as the discussion between the other Apprentices, goes way over my head. They sound like a bunch of young geniuses, and sitting in a room of them can be incredibly daunting. I do know enough about how the internet works and about front-end development that I was able to code and deploy my portfolio site, and during my UX Design Immersive, I was among the most technical in the class. Now, hearing so much that I don’t understand is humbling, to say the least.
So where does this leave me? I could tune out during these discussions, as well as find reasons not to go to the talks at all. After all, how much does a web/ux designer really need to know about all this technical stuff? This is the question I’ve been mulling over during my first few days. The answer I’ve come to is this: no, I don’t need to know these things to be a good designer. But I don’t want to be just a good designer - I want to be a great designer. I want to understand the technical requirements and constraints of what I’m designing for (websites, apps, etc) and I want to speed the process of design and production up, not slow it down. If I’m able to gather the information that a developer would usually need to get from a client, and don’t have to run too many questions or ideas past my programming colleagues, everything will run more smoothly.
Not to mention, more skills is never a bad thing. Don’t get me wrong - I plan on being a UX designer first and foremost. But I’m lucky enough to be spending the next few months in a place where it’s my job to learn, and spending a few hours throughout the week getting up to speed on how the internet works, development basics and collaboration tools like using github is definitely a worthwhile use of time.
And since part of the Apprenticeship involves blogging about what I’m learning, I’m going to be writing a series of posts explaining these technical things in a way less technical people who work in the tech field will understand and benefit from. I'm going on a journey to become a techical designer, and I'm bringing you along with me.