Should Developers Learn to Design? How to Code for Looks

The relationship between designers and developers often gets a bad rap, but the two roles frequently run parallel.

Designers are often encouraged to learn code to better understand what happens behind the scenes, and some developers actually start as designers and work their way into becoming a hybrid of both roles.

But what about developers who have no love for art? Should they learn to design too?

There are certainly enough jobs available for a pure developer who wants to stick with coding, but there’s a good case to be made for developers – even those that lack an artistic flare – to learn how to design, too.

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Learning Empathy

Developers should learn how to design for the same reason designers are encouraged to learn code – empathy.

According to Stephen Caver from Happy Cog:

“The primary reason any developer should learn design is to gain empathy for the designers with whom they work. Nothing is more toxic to a project than developers and designers seeing each other as rivals.”

Developers and designers often approach projects from completely different perspectives, and both are necessary for a great user experience.

But for a developer who doesn’t understand the creative process, it can be difficult to problem solve for designers who want to implement creative strategies. You might think, “Why are we doing this?” instead of, “How can we do this?”

Learning to think like a designer will help you overcome obstacles and create solutions faster. In fact, according to ex-designer Mark Kawano, tech giant Apple encourages developers to “think like a designer.”

“I think the biggest misconception is this belief that the reason Apple products turn out to be designed better, and have a better user experience, or are sexier, or whatever … is that they have the best design team in the world, or the best process in the world,” he says.

Thinking like a designer can also help developers communicate more efficiently and collaborate on projects with less interference.

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How to Think Like a Designer

UX/UI designer Drew Lepp argues that there are actually two definitions of a designer:

  • Someone who designs
  • Someone who is creative with a purpose

Even if a developer doesn’t fall into the first category, they should strive to fall into the latter. According to Drew, there are six ways to be creative with a purpose:

  1. Strive to do better
  2. Be relentlessly optimistic
  3. Dream big
  4. Have empathy
  5. Be comfortable with the uncomfortable
  6. Bring clarity to complex ideas

Thinking like a designer is essentially about looking at a project with broader scope so that you’re not just following directions, you’re innovating. It’s about understanding the needs, desires, problems and aspirations of a business so that you can experiment with forward-thinking solutions.

But thinking like a designer is also about understanding how aesthetics play a role in the final product.

It’s about focusing on things like the look and feel of a website, how color psychology affects the end user, how to unclutter a website for easier navigation, and how to organize elements to net the highest conversions.

Learning the principles of design can help developers become better coders, and coding for visual appeal and user experience will improve your chances of building a high converting site or application the first time around.

You may also have the opportunity to help clients who don’t know what they want. You will be able to clarify confusing elements of a project to them as well as understand their wants and needs better than code along can communicate.

Basically, thinking like a designer will help you become more well-rounded in your profession, helping you work better in teams and one-on-one with clients.

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Where to Learn Design

So how does a developer learn to code for looks?

One of the quickest ways to learn something is to ask someone who has done it. This means picking the brains of other designers or hybrids and taking note of what matters.

Another way to is to find a course or program that specifically teaches design. David Kadavy at Design for Hackers has a program geared toward developers, and places like Lynda.com specialize in design programs. Or you can find design tutorials on EnvatoTuts+.

But what sort of things should you focus on?

Even if you don’t want to learn how to design a whole website from scratch, you should understand design principles from areas including:

  • Font – how to choose the right fonts for headers, subheaders, body copy, and accents
  • Sizing – how to size elements like fonts and images to stand out on a page
  • Color – how color psychology affects conversions and how to choose an appropriate color palette
  • White space – how to space distances between elements and how to get rid of unnecessary clutter
  • User experience – where to place design elements like pop-ups and navigation to improve UX
  • Copy – how to use copy to inform and move users through the site effectively

Having a general understanding of these principles will help you communicate with designers (and clients) who make design requests to you that seem unreasonable or confusing.

Again, you will understand the “why” behind the choices so you know how to respond if something simply won’t work from a development perspective, too.

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Final Thoughts

Just because you learn the principles of design doesn’t mean you have to become a designer. In fact, there are some out there who believe that it’s better not to hire or work with a designer/developer hybrid (though others will argue the opposite).

But you don’t have to work as a designer to think like one. Understanding the basic principles of design, how to communicate like a designer, and how to implement creative solutions to improve user experience is a boon for any developer.

You don’t have to be artsy to think like a designer either. Creativity comes in all shapes and sizes, and more often than not, clients will be looking for developers who understand creative concepts and solve their problem in an equally creative fashion.

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