The Personal Disquiet of

Mark Boulton

On Designers writing HTML

– February 17th, 2010 –

Every once in a while, this little debate bubbles up the surface, then dies back down again, only to surface again with more vigour. Today was one of those days, and the debate was:

Should web designers be able to write HTML?

I’m being very specific about that. I’m not saying, ‘should designers be able to code’ - that’s a completely different thing. I’m also not saying, ‘should good designers write their own code’. Subtle, but important, distinctions. Regardless, today was one of those days. In may well have been sparked by Elliot’s inflammatory tweet. The discussions carried on for a little while, and the blog posts have started arriving on the subject, this one included.

I dipped in and out of the discussions today. There’s only so much you can say in 140 characters, and explaining the nuances of opinion is tricky to do on Twitter at the best of times, so I thought I’d pen my opinions here. You know, as it’s my blog and everything.

I think the answer is: It depends.

What is web design, anyway?

There are well-articulated arguments on both sides of this. From Andy’s and Meagan’s musings on designing in the browser , to Mike’s short, practical tips. Given these points of view, it’s very difficult to disagree.

Of course, sometimes, it makes sense to design in the browser. You can’t do that if you can’t write HTML. Of course, it helps understand the very building blocks of the web (from a designer’s perspective, anyway). It’s saves you time and money. It can help you realise your designs the way you intended.

But, and here’s the thing, we’re talking about a tiny aspect of web design here. We talking about implementation. Making something work in a browser is only part of what web design is.

Understanding the medium

I hear this a lot when people talk about HTML. ‘You need to be able to code to understand the medium’. Sorry, but that’s bullshit. HTML is not the medium. At all.

Let’s look, for a moment, at Television. TV is a mature broadcast medium. Good telly is not about pixels, or how the they get sent from one place to another. Good TV is about storytelling, engagement, audience, interaction and a whole lot more. The medium isn’t defined by the practicalities of production - although of course, it is a part of it - it is defined by the people watching it. Why they need, what they look forward to, what they spend their valuable time engaging with.

The same is for Radio. Good radio makes the technology disappear (note: so does TV, but you just watch 3D TV fall on its arse later this year - it’ll be like betamax all over again). Great radio is a wonderful thing. But it’s not about radio waves, it’s about people. The medium of radio is defined by the all of the things that defines TV. The differences being the technology, the mode of engagement and the audience. Not a whole lot more.

Perhaps it’s because the web is a relatively new medium is why we’re struggling with this as designers. The medium of the web, as far as I see it, is only partly defined by technology (HTML being a small part of that). It’s defined by people, by stories, by products. There’s just so much in there that by saying you have to be able write HTML to design for the medium is really undervaluing the other areas of the craft. A designer who is a fantastic writer, with a flair for typography - and an understanding of concepts such as semantics and document structure - is no less of a designer just because they can’t write HTML.

Shades of grey

I guess the upshot to this is that I think that there are shades of grey. Modern web design covers so many areas of specialism - from HCI and IA through to Illustration and dabbling with Javascript. To deem it necessary to write HTML to be a good web designer is really quite disrespectful to experts in those subsets of web design who never go near any HTML, yet have equal value to bring to a design project.

So, for me, it’s not a case of ‘yes’ or ‘no’. More like ‘it depends’. It depends on the project, the team, the individual. This upsets me, because I’m kind of a black and white kind of bloke. Never been a fan of grey, but honestly, that’s all I’m seeing here.

Filed in: design.

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