Last week, I heard a developer refer to someone on my team as a “unicorn”. This term has come to mean someone who can do multiple things, like a developer who can design. I don’t like this term. It implies that someone with dual abilities is a rare mythical creature.
For the best part of 17 years in the industry, I have witnessed the debate/polemic that designers should code. I feel they should; it’s just a matter of how much. Designers should write code in the same way as artists should mix paint, as just another part of the process. But this conversation is never ending and not much has changed. Designers are stubborn and continue to refuse to learn how products are built but yet are willing to spend hours in a prototyping app, creating something that will be thrown away. The lack of enthusiasm for learning makes me feel that the designers’ time is up. The torch of creativity, the spirit of the maker, now falls onto the shoulders of the developers.
Another reason why I feel developers increasingly need to learn to design is that we’re reaching the point where there won’t be enough designers to make every start-up product that needs creating. The obvious thing to do is to pour more money into design education. but we also need to educate other disciplines about the importance of design and artistic merit. If designers don’t want to move the needle on their skill set, then it falls on the developer to do so.
Instead of being a “unicorn”, I prefer the term polymath, which is Greek for “having learned much,” as it says everything it needs to. Being able to do multiple things is just a learning process. There is nothing mythical about the abilities to do many things other than time, energy and effort.
In truth, being multi-skilled was the way the world was once upon a time. Leonardo Da Vinci was a polymath, as was Michelangelo, yet we still hold them up as master artists. I would argue that Da Vinci was in fact a programmer, because he embodied the spirit of the modern day engineer in many different ways. He took on more projects than he could possibly handle and he almost never finished anything. That is a programmer if ever I saw one. For example, the Mona Lisa, perhaps one of the greatest paintings of all time, was described by Théophile Gautier, the French art critic, as a “sphinx of beauty who smiles so mysteriously”. It is a complete piece of art that represents human form in all of its beauty and has captivated audiences for the best part of 500 years. Except it was never finished. So we have no idea what it was supposed to look like. Leonardo, even later on in life regretted “never having completed a single work”. So I propose that when we look at the Mona Lisa we shouldn’t think of it as a mysterious painting but rather a GitHub Repo that hasn’t been updated in awhile. Because that is the bane of genius, never finishing things, because they’re always in a state of wonder, and get bored easily. Like most engineers.
Da Vinci was an engineer who could paint well. This idea that developers don’t design is a modern construct. Anyone can develop design skills, given enough time and patience. I’ll admit that our industry has moved forward and developers have become much more cultured in design. The appreciation of vertical rhythm in typography and accessibility, especially when it comes to colour, have originated from the development communities. Design guidelines such as Bootstrap and Foundation were a way to educate the industry about the importance of design, giving everyone a common knowledge and understanding. The Material Design guidelines are the next evolutionary step where we speak about design theory and ask the question “what are these bits of digital things made of…”. From there we built an opinionated system that can teach users things like hierarchy without explicitly saying it. For example, by using shadows to bring elements closer to the user, we can indicate that they are more important. These ideas require experimentation and play in order to be understood, but you can learn them with enough time.
Some might say they can’t do it, that it’s too difficult to learn and you have to be born with the ability. To those naysayers, I’d like to point to another multi-talented person, Al Biruni, the Persian polymath, who despite being born in 973, was able to study and teach physics, mathematics, astronomy, natural sciences, history, anthropology, chronology, and linguistics. He managed to author 146 books on these subjects, his most famous being a study on Indology. I take inspiration from what he managed to achieve in his lifetime and believe everyone should take this as a form of encouragement. Anyone can learn the principles of design, it just requires time.
In our conversation, Sergio spoke about focus, and how our job titles aren’t supposed to be literal, but rather our core focus. It’s fine to specialise in a subject or discipline, but that shouldn’t be the end of it. Developers, it is your time to design because designers have ultimately failed at being the polymaths they were supposed to be. Now it falls to you to carry the torch of creativity and start redesigning the world in your image.
NotesThis article is for a new youtube series called “Designer Vs Developer”, which you can see here on our Youtube Chrome Channel. You can also listen to a longer version of the conversation by downloading or subscribing to our podcast.
First appeared in Creative Review.