Jack of all trades, master of none

Your skills and strengths carry you.

Just a few days ago I was reading Authentic Boredom, Cameron Moll’s blog. He had just posted an entry titled, “Designer, Coder: Separate roles or one?” and I found it very interesting. The gist of his entry was asking whether Designers are as effective coding (front end coding – HTML/CSS) their own designs as a separate design/code team.

Well, I thought about it for a few minutes and came to the same conclusion that he did — designers that can code as well as they design have the edge over those who specialize in one thing.

Now, to me, this was obvious. I have been doing both for several years and have tasted both the bitter and the sweet. Because, there are however, downfalls to doing both, but I won’t go into that now. Rather I want to focus on the successes I’ve had in doing both, which far outweigh any difficulties I’ve faced. To be honest, the biggest reason is control. I used to dread handing over my designs to someone else for coding and was fearful of their interpretation. For this very reason I worked to learn the skills necessary to code my own designs. Which brings up another point…

Anyone can learn a web language whether it be PHP, Javascript, HTML, etc., but can anyone learn design? Sure, concepts can be taught and understood. Theories can be taught and comprehended, but the innate ability of a true designer to capture something special in a design is unique. Some people are born with a natural ability to create visually appealing designs. This is one thing I believe cannot be taught. You either have it or you don’t. Granted, as one practices they’ll get better, but will they ever reach the same capability as one with natural talent? Good question, right? I guess this brings me back to my point. Designers should learn HTML/CSS, but should coders try their hand at design? I believe this is a much more difficult path to forge. If the natural ability isn’t there to begin with the mountain to climb becomes much bigger.

To answer Cameron’s question: Yes. I believe without a doubt that “those who can code as well as they design will always have an edge over those who do only one.” For me it’s simple. I’ve felt that way since the beginning. When I first got into the business I was coming from the world of print design. I was a little intimidated by the other designers who could also do their own coding. I quickly learned that having coding skills was not only important, but almost necessary for a freelancer.

There are also exceptions to this thought. If you’re working in an agency setting teams of designers/coders may work out to be a quicker and more effective alternative. But, I think that’s debatable too. Especially when a coder understands why the design does what it does – troubleshooting is much easier when there’s an underlying design knowledge. Every situation is unique, for both freelancers and in-house teams. Having said that, the evidence, in my opinion, still supports Cameron’s original statement.

By the way, here’s a fun little tidbit for all three of my readers. I originally started this post to call out an unpolished chap from Canada. Let me give you the story… I had registered in a forum to give back a little to the community that helped me out when I was just getting started. I was answering a post from a young designer that wanted to get into web design. He asked if good design skills coupled with HTML/CSS was good enough. I answered, “Absolutely! There are plenty of designers out there today making a good living doing just those same things.” I told him that if he worked to become good at both that there was definitely a place for him. Then, out of nowhere I get a crazy comment from another forum member. Here’s what he said:

designers who only know html/css are at the bottom of the barrel. unless you make extremely amazing layouts, you won’t get very far without further knowledge of javascript, database and some serverside language. especially if you’re just a solo freelancer.

Are you at the bottom of the barrel if you only do design and HTML/CSS? Are there not other freelancers that do server-side work that you can outsource to when necessary? I was amazed that someone could make such an ignorant comment. So, I fibbed a bit, but I had to get his attention and make him understand that the majority of web designers out there only do those two things – Design and HTML/CSS. I know there are other designers out there that can do good design and know server-side languages, but the majority don’t and that’s probably a good thing.

I’ll take my “bottom of the barrel” skills any day. I feel design and HTML/CSS go hand in hand while many other programming languages require a completely different logic. Hence the post title, “Jack of all trades, master of none?”

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