How Design Skills Improve Developers

Designer vs Developer

This article is an interview between Mustafa Kurtuldu; a Design Advocate at Google who speaks to Paul Lewis, a Developer Advocate on the Google Developer Relations Team, about if they are born with a natural ability to design & develop or whether life opportunities and their own environment that they grew up in dictate their successes.

MUSTAFA: I'm a designer, who amongst my design clique, has been known as the technical person. And amongst the DevRel folks, you are known as the creative person, even though you're a developer. So I suppose the question is, are designers born, or are they made?

In the same as, are developers born, or are they made?

PAUL: You could say there are people who are going to affirm like, it's just you've either got it, or you haven't. You're born with it, or you don't have it, right? And then there are the other people who say, like, if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything.

I feel like I want to be somewhere in the moderate middle there. And say, for example, even like, not talking about designing or developing.

No matter how fast I run, I will never beat Usain Bolt. But if I took running lessons, I'm sure I could improve where I'm at.

MUSTAFA: I mean as a designer, I'm supposed to say, no, we are born. Because we're in an ivory tower. And we shouldn't be challenged. Everything we should say is as-is.

But the longer I've been in the industry, some of the best designers I've come across come from a computer science background. Or even completely unrelated — related to art.

It's almost like they are more cultured, they're good with other disciplines, therefore, they're almost better designers.

PAUL: Yeah, I think that there's probably a function of opportunity in there, right? And so I don't know, but my feeling is that it's a function of both your opportunities and the context in which you grow up, so the nurture I suppose. And then your suitability to a particular area.

From my own experience, I would never introduce myself as a designer.

MUSTAFA: I find that strange, because you do actually — I mean, your design skills, I mean, are quite respectable.

PAUL: Thank you. Yeah, but —

MUSTAFA: I mean, you kind of occupy a very interesting space where, you're someone who can speak code or developer, and you're someone who has a strong appreciation for design and can apply it.

PAUL: But in that sense, it's interesting, because I had that opportunity. My first job as a developer was in a design house, where I was working alongside print designers, day in, day out.

And I was exposed to kerning, leading, widows, all these bits of terminology. And you know, I could see those things. And I could start to see the principles that were at play.

And then I tried to apply them myself, got it wrong, and I adjusted and tried to course-correct. And still, that's a process.

But it's the same process that I go through with programming. It's the same mindset. The mindset is simply I want to understand what the principles are at play here. And I'll figure some of those out by myself, but I'll figure some of those out because other people have figured them out before me.

And so I'm interested in improving in that area. So again, the desire is there in me to actually improve. But I'd say my attitude is more skewed towards development. I find it easier to adapt and adopt those principles —

MUSTAFA: I find that strange.

PAUL: — more readily than the design ones.

MUSTAFA: I always find that interesting, like, as a developer is able to navigate both. I mean, like, with your media app, how are you doing that? Because you feel that there is something you have to be born with, but you're kind of proving my point that you're not.

PAUL: I mean, you'd have to have a 'control' me somewhere else that was not given the same experience, and then put them in a similar situation and see what happens. In fact, you'd probably want two mes, one that's just purely doing development, throw them into the design to see what happens, and one whose done design and throw them into development and see what happens.

My attitude towards design is it's something I wanted to understand better. It was something I wanted to be able to do. I was surrounded by designers in my first professional role who could design. And I was comfortable with my own ability as a developer, having done a degree in coding. I felt like, actually, this isn't a thing that I kind of need to prove myself as being able to do amongst my peers.

Write the bits that they can do that I can't. I feel inferior now, and that's probably playing into some of my psyches, right? I better learn how to do that. There was no benefit to me other than I can now do something else.

MUSTAFA: I suppose one last point on that is, do you think it makes you a much better developer to be aware of design? Like, do you feel much more cultured developer? I mean, because from my point of view, I think, as a designer who knows, I mean, I say I know how to code. When I say that amongst DevRel folks they laugh.

PAUL: We don't laugh!

MUSTAFA: Yeah, well, you know, HTML, CSS, that's not real code. But —

PAUL: It is. It's really hard.

MUSTAFA: It feels to me, it feels like you become a much more cultured designer because you're aware of the platform.

PAUL: Some of the best and exciting projects for me that I've ever done have been the ones where a designer set out the goal and the overall feel, but they had no idea that that was unachievable.

And so it fell to me on the development side to both maintain their aesthetic, but achieve the thing that they'd dreamt up.

So that was a really — that would be technically challenging. So it sort of scratched that itch in my personality. So sometimes you want the people who just like, I don't know what's possible. So I did a thing, and now you're forced to make that thing a reality. And that can be a really good testing ground.

In the middle bit, where you're actually like I said, I had to maintain an aesthetic and do some code. That crossover point, rather than it being over the wall and sort of a strict silo, you want that transition point where you've got somebody who can go between those two worlds and say, look, I understand the aesthetic. I can understand actually what you're trying to achieve visually and from a UX point of view, and all these other aspects of the design.

But I also know the technical limitations that are there, or there are more suitable ways to achieve what you are trying to achieve. So how about we do that? So it's that point of compromise in the middle that actually has been most valuable to me.

If you're a designer, and you take the view that you can't develop, and therefore you won't develop, are you holding yourself back? I think that's — I mean, maybe. Maybe in some context, only for that crossover point, yes. And the same way with the developer. Can you be a perfectly good developer without designing? Yes.

Would you be a more empathetic developer if you knew more about design and aesthetics? Yes, I think you would.

How far you can get along that path is partly how much time you want to invest, how much of yourself you want to invest. And the function of your suitability to that task, and how easy you find it to take on, say, the principles. Even if you don't say, I'm going to be the most creative designs out there.

I'm a developer, I'm going to be the greatest designer. Even if you say, I'm just going to try and understand why line length matters, why leading and kerning matter. So I understand the principles or easing of motion, why that matters, and how that plays into things.

And you know, I'm going to invest just a little bit of my time. That goes an awful, awful long way to actually, in my experience, of improving you in other ways. It just broadens your horizons.

MUSTAFA: So in reality, it doesn't matter if they're born or made. It's just about the individual wanting to —

PAUL: Well, we were all born not knowing how to say, write, or speak or walk, and yet we all managed to get to, at least, you know, many of us get to that point, right?

MUSTAFA: Well, I don't know about us, but—

[LAUGHTER] PAUL: And so there's clearly a sense in which you can always improve. And I think you should always look to improve. And I think certainly in what we do, improving across that boundary is helpful to you and it's helpful to everybody else if you do.

DESIGNER: I won't be doing design full-time. But I feel like I should know enough about a designer's work process, about a designer's tools, about a designer's language in order to be able to collaborate with them.

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