Should Designers Code? (Pt. 1)

In short, no

Alan Cooper
Modus
Published in
5 min readMay 12, 2017

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The author, programming, circa 1988

TThere’s a recurring debate in our industry over whether or not designers should write code. Some developer will pose the question on Twitter, and then pundits, practitioners, and gurus will answer it. Everyone has an opinion, tempers flare, then people agree to disagree, and the discussion subsides. But a few weeks later someone else poses the same question and social media blossoms with yet another instant replay of the futile, never-ceasing argument.

The debate follows a characteristic pattern: people discussing a question of personal taste as though it were a universal truth. It’s like someone asserting that because they don’t personally like avocados, avocados are a terrible food and others should shun them as well. The issue — obviously — is not in the avocado but in the individual, but emotions conceal the obvious.

I see two reasons why we can’t just ignore this meaningless debate. Firstly, it’s important because young people — ill-equipped to properly assess the question — are liable to waste a lot of effort and opportunity on it. Secondly, the very fact that it recurs, always disguised as a broad and serious question, convinces me that its persistence hides some deeper issues, some lurking motivations.

I consider myself uniquely qualified to comment on the question. Before I developed the practice of interaction design, I built a successful career writing some of the most innovative software for personal computers in the 1970s and ’80s. Despite my qualifications, my own tweetstorms are inadequate for this challenge. There are too many issues and too much nuance for brief expostulations. Thus, my thoughts on this topic are here.

Performing a task does not automatically teach you the implications of performing it.

There are several arguments to make against the premise that designers should code, but I only see one argument for it. The problem that none of the arguments addresses is that the entire question isn’t really relevant. It’s a symptom of other issues in drag. The main effect is to hide the one meaningful, important issue of how practitioners should work together. I’ll talk about that one later.

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Alan Cooper
Modus

Ancestry Thinker, Software Alchemist, Regenerative Rancher