Hackernoon logoShould a Programmer Learn to Design? by@ux_app

Should a Programmer Learn to Design?

Edit: as many have pointed out, I really should have qualified the word design as visual design.

We so often hear the opposite question of whether designers should learn to code, but what about the flip side?

Should programmers learn to design?

In short. Yes, but maybe not for the reasons you might think.

First some background. I’m a programmer, I’m currently working with my fellow co-founders with the goal of producing the world’s best UX design tool.

In addition to programming, I’ve also been interested in design for as long as I can remember. I’ve been designing 3D graphics as a hobby for over 25 years (my first taste of 3D Graphics was POV Ray). When other kids were playing football on the weekend, I was hunkered down in my bedroom with a pirated version of Imagine3D on my trusty Amiga600.

Imagine 3D on the Amiga, circa 1992

When I was 12 (1992) I was obsessed with the idea of becoming a 3D graphics designer. My interests eventually led me to study Computer Science with a Minor in Multimedia Studies which involved Web, Graphic, Video and Sound Design along with studies in Database Systems and Programming. By 1997 standards, it was an exciting University programme, the first of its kind to formally offer studies in web development. Considering that the very first web page ever published to the World Wide Web was authored a mere 6 years earlier, these were truly the early years of the web.

Reality Sets In

University brought my dreams of becoming a visual designer crashing to ground. In high school I was the only one of my peers to be interested in 3D Modelling, texturing and graphic design. This meant that, among my peers, I was the best at these things by default.

You can imagine my shock when I met, for the first time in my life, people with actual talent in these fields.

I can still picture, as clear as day, exactly where I was when one of my classmates showed me the 3D design work he had produced for an assignment. It was around 1999 or 2000, and by this time graphic and 3D design had been an obsession for me for close to a decade. When I saw his work, the realisation hit fast and strong, I was only ever going to be a hobbyist graphic designer.

The same held true for print design, and the same held true for web design. In each of these University courses, despite my sincerest efforts, my results were middling at best.

Web Design, Y2K Style

I thought it would be fun to dig through backups to find some of the earliest sites I published online. Most of my work hasn’t survived the countless tech upgrades I’ve gone through over the years, but I was happy to see that one site survived, source code and all!

Here’s a website I designed in 2000. Despite my best efforts, the design was average, even by 2000 standards.

Wow, look at that logo, you can tell I had just discovered PhotoShop’s Layer Styles!

Back then not everyone had an internet connection, so there was an accompanying CD-Rom (remember those?) that came with this project which has since been lost to time.

Another Design, 2001

I’ve long since lost the source files to this design, thankfully it’s been preserved via the Wayback Machine.

Believe it or not kids, I actually got paid reasonably well for this work in 2001

It’s interesting to note that the designs are optimised for a screen resolution of 1024x768. Risky business since many visitors would be on machines that supported only 800x600. I was a true pioneer!

I really enjoyed design, but I was a realist. My classmates produced far better work for what seemed to be a fraction of the time and effort I was devoting.

It was time to face reality and focus my efforts where my skills lay, which ended up being programming for the web.

FFWD 20+ odd Years

More than 20 years after my fascination with design and graphics started I found myself as the solo designer and developer of (what I think :)) is a really cool UX design tool.

In the intervening years I continued to produce both 3D graphics and web designs as a hobby. I continue to enjoy design and I’d like to think that my design skills have improved throughout these years, but I never kidded myself.

Regardless of how hard I would work, how many hours I would spend poring over Dribbble designs and collecting folders and folders worth of design inspiration, just like in my University days, my design work continues to be middling at best.

The Design of UX-App

As with my 3D and web work from almost 2 decades ago, I present to you the pinnacle of my web design work. This really is the absolute best that I can do. It represents countless hours spent tweaking and sweating over the visuals of the application I am working so hard to produce.

On the left is the home page, and on the right you can see the sandbox/editor.

Even I can tell, the design is really not that good.

So, why bother?

If 20+ years of my efforts to become a better designer have led to mediocrity, why am I advising that programmers would benefit from learning design?

Because, all too often, programmers dismiss, either the value, or difficulty of design work. Like it or not, design is key to a product’s success. This includes

  • Visual design
  • UI/UX design and
  • Branding

Unless it impacts performance, users are oblivious to the quality of a product’s code. Lots of the worlds most popular applications are riddled with “bad code”.

Design on the other hand, can’t be faked. It’s right there in in front of your users. It’s the first thing that your users will judge your product by and you don’t have to be an expert to spot shoddy design. In essence, unlike programmers, designers don’t get a free pass from users, which makes their work that much more critical.

Learn about Design!

So my conclusion is, if you are a programmer you should have a go at learning to design because

  • It’s loads of fun, even if you’re not very good at it
  • You will get better at it the more you try
  • It helps you recognise and appreciate the work of talented designers

BTW: it’s worth noting that UX-App isn’t a solo effort any more.

There are 3 of us now.

  • Shai (Israel) — Product Manager Extraordinaire
  • Tommi (London) — World class designer
  • Myself

Tommi, our extremely talented designer has improved our design beyond recognition.

Here’s UX-App version 2.0. I’m sure that you’ll agree that Tommi’s design far outshines my own. If I hadn’t tried design myself there’s simply no way that I could appreciate the complexity and difficulty inherent in great design.

UX-App, Version 2.0

I know how hard it is to produce great design, and for this reason I don’t take Tommi’s talents for granted.

In addition to Tommi’s outstanding visual design, our superbly talented head of product Shai has worked tirelessly polishing the UX and UI workflows into a far more pleasing and polished state. Well done Shai and Tommi!

UX-App version 2 has taken 6 gruelling months and thousands of hours of hard work to complete. I hope that you’ll have a chance to check it out!

Eli, Shai, Tommi
The UX-App Team


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