Understanding Code Will Make You A Better Digital Designer

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Code. Ugh. FML. What is this nonsense? Syntax. Semicolons. Brackets. Conditionals. Something called recursion? Oh, and not to mention that each language has it’s own version of all of those things.

It is definitely daunting to think about and even harder to keep up with the rapid industry changes.

But, what you need to understand as a digital designer or UX enthusiast about programming is that it is absolutely necessary for the digital age. Learning how to communicate about and use the tools that developers live and breath every day will help you collaborate with them to create much more effective interactive applications.

When I entered the industry as an Art Director, I essentially was a “web designer”—a broad term that meant I had the duties of laying out website pages and then figuring out how to make them work. Growing up as an illustrator put me in a good place to take on the art and graphics focused parts. Having a knack for computers, I taught myself HTML & CSS by clicking the “View Source” in the browser and comparing it with w3schools.com. I learned enough to make a web page. But, I really had little knowledge of computer science and programming concepts.

Time and time again I would design something and the developer would say, “Dude, that isn’t going to work.” I would always ask them, “Why?” Every time they would just say something to the effect of “The internet just doesn’t work like that.” Ugh, how annoying, right? I design this awesome piece in Photoshop and Illustrator only to have someone tell me that it doesn’t belong on the internet.

Design with CodeSo, I started learning Flash. At the time it was getting some serious traction in the film & entertainment world. It didn’t have the same “rules” that HTML & CSS did. I could animate things. It was like having a low quality After Effects for the internet. After developing some projects with Flash, it was clear that I really needed to understand some programming concepts. What I realized is that while trying to make an experimental website with all the animation and pretty pictures I made in Photoshop, I had to implement the very intrinsic browser features that didn’t exist in the plugin. As Flash developers, we had to create our own components that browsers had been doing for years. Like, drop-down menus and responsive layouts based on percentages (Eventually the platform evolved into a more application based framework called Flex and they started helping the developers out).

I picked up every book I could find about Object Oriented Programming (OOP) from bookstores and asked programmers & google searched so many questions. After a couple years of programming websites and other interactive apps, it clicked. I understood what it meant to program interactivity and why those guys couldn’t do the things I was asking with HTML & CSS. But, I had found the loophole now. I could design and program it myself.

Since I understood programming, I took a few roles as a full-time developer and worked on making other great Designers and Art Directors creative concepts come to life. Computer technology advanced, JavaScript became more powerful and plugins like Flash got pushed out of the mix because of mobile devices. Now in the 2014 digital space, with HTML5 and JavaScript processing power getting faster all the time, we can once again create those extremely immersive interactive applications.


At this point in my career, I’ve kinda stepped back and analyzed some of the designs that I’m creating and I realize that they are very UX (user experience) based. “What do I want the user to see and touch first, second, third and how do I want them to feel as they are doing so?” With the combination of understanding how to program things and being able to rapidly create working prototypes, I can design and program things iteratively and somewhat at the same time by doing one and referencing the other.

Node Study

Design and programming for human interface devices are so tightly integrated with the concept of the application. Without one, the other fails and vice-versa. Also, with the technology advancement of mobile devices, the more recent trends of flat design and the ubiquitous knowledge base and contributions of things like WordPress and other open source projects and communities, this is becoming more and more apparent.

“So how does it make me better?”

If you understand design as a programmer, you’ll know how to make the functionality feel comfortable to the user and let the design breathe life instead of just displaying pictures and text. On the contrary, if you understand programming concepts as a visual designer, you’ll be able to create the EXACT experience you want and explain it in detail to the person(s) who will program the application.

Chris is a passionate designer and musician that has been experimenting with User Experience, Digital Design and Programming for 13 years. He has helped bring award winning projects for Disney, Activision, Fox, Sony, Warner Bros, Porsche, Hanes, Allstate and more to life.

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