Designers & Developers: Obsolete Titles in a Web-Made World

An interview question I have been frequently asked in the past is: “On the spectrum of Designer < – > Developer, where would you put yourself?”

I’ve always been bothered by that question, because not only do I have a strong background in the Fine Arts, but I have 8 years of solid experience as a developer. The reason I don’t like it is that those of us who operate on the web apply both our creative and logical skills on a daily basis, and in many cases it is our creative streaks that make us so good at what we do. Problem solving skills and creative expression are absolutely inseparable: We learned this from Einstein, and Galileo, and Leonardo Da Vinci, and Thales, and Newton, and a host of other individuals who nowadays would be called the greatest minds of their time.

And yet, every single time we present ourselves professionally, we are categorized into either a logical or creative bucket: Designer or Developer. Admittedly, there are advantages to this, since one can easily quantify compensation, career advancement and project resources based on defined tracks. Furthermore, most (if not all) web production processes work on the basis of phase signoff to protect both the client and the agent, and design necessarily comes before development. Rigid classification of skill and expertise is a boon to management and customer expectations, though it is a poor representation of reality.

Truly great projects involve all hands from kickoff, and while production can perhaps not truly begin until the ideation and proposal comps have been signed it is only by the virtue of continuous collaborative progress that the possibilities begin to flourish and grow. In this kind of an environment, the terms “Designer” and “Developer” cease to have any meaning; Contribution becomes equal in value and blended along the lines of common expertise.

An example: My colleague Jeff Breckenridge (Who’s a fantastic but under-appreciated designer *hack*cough*shameless plug*) has a remarkable understanding of graphic composition, but that does not mean he doesn’t understand the opportunities of object-oriented design. I myself know how important his expertise is, and with my background in production graphics can bring my own skills to the table and meet him on mutual common ground. The end result is well composed, well designed, and is functionally robust.


Skills: Jeff Breckenridge & Michael Krotscheck

The work we did on Practical Desktop was great not because he was the “Designer” and I was the “Developer”, but because we both mingled our skills across our particular domains of expertise. In some cases, I relied on his understanding of functional implementation, while in return he provided me with comps I could easily derive interface states from. We both brought our skills to the table, and in the middle they blended to produce something great.

I have stated before, and will state again, that true genius occurs at intersections of knowledge domains. The only thing we are lacking is a way to describe our skills in a way that accurately describes these domains, and is useful in managing projects, resources and employees to achieve the greatest level of creative impact for each implementation. The following flash piece approaches a method by which the skills may be described, and even assists in managing skills for a particular project, however it may not yet be refined enough to properly define career progression and compensation.

Skills: Do It Yourself!

In the end, the point I’m really trying to make is this: The terms “Designer” and “Developer” have no meaning anymore. What matters from this point forward is the blending of skills, and we need a new way of describing these skills so they may be properly blended. What remains is the management of individuals categorized in this way. How exactly does one form a team of professionals when a particular set of skills is needed? And how in the world do you compensate them?


  • Erc Meyer mentioned the plethora of "web-related titles" in his keynote on Tuesday. In the end, he resorted to speaking not about what an individual COULD do, but how he did it (hands, hands and brain, hands brain and heart). While I know that's not really what you're getting at, it's an interesting notion. At what point do our passions surpass our actual skills and make up for any shortcomings that may exist? As for team composition -- that's a fantastic point. The abilities of the rest of the team necessarily impact our own work, (hopefully in the complementary sense). That's why I think working as a team collaboratively is the best way to achieve the most from all. We may opt to stay on our own side of the chart solely out of familiarity, or we may find ourselves better able to flex to the other side thanks to scaffolding by other team players. If a given skill is required yet not available, we may be working outside our comfort zone, whether or not that is our forte.

  • Jeff Breckenridge

    A "fantastic but under-appreciated designer"...I didn't know I was under-appreciated! But thanks for the plug! And thanks for sharing your domain of expertise with me. Jeff

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