Should web designers build their own pages?

Web designers need to know the strengths and constraints of HTML and CSS in order to successfully create visual designs that work for the web. They don’t have to actually build the pages, but they should have some idea how to if they had to.

There’s a recent debate in the web design blog world about whether web designers—those who create the actual visual designs in Fireworks or Photoshop—must or should know HTML and CSS. I suppose the actual thrust of the debate is whether it’s necessary or desirable to use Fireworks/Photoshop at all as part of the web design process—but I’d like to focus on this little sub-debate of designers knowing how to write HTML and CSS. Is it necessary?

My answer in a nutshell: Ideally, yes.

I’ve been lucky enough to always design the pages that I build. I’ve worked at a design agency, as part of in-house design teams, and freelance, but never have I had a separate designer create comps to then hand off to me to build.

I call myself lucky in this regard because even though I’ve never experienced this design process firsthand, I’ve seen how frustrating it can be for other web designers. (Note that I said “can,” not “is.”) When the visual designer doesn’t know how to actually build web pages, he or she frequently designs in elements that just don’t work well on the web. Either they’re things that cannot be built with HTML and CSS—such as elements that depend on an exact font size—or they’re things that can be done but are either difficult or unwise to implement, due to current best practices in the areas of standards, usability or accessibility.

It’s been my experience that the more experience a designer has actually building web pages, the more successful he or she is in designing interfaces and graphic elements that work well with its strengths and constraints. That doesn’t mean that every designer should build his or her own pages; it’s fine to have a division of labor, and I’m sure it’s actually the smartest process in many teams. Nor does it mean that the designer has to be an advanced HTML or CSS developer. It simply means that the designer ought to have some idea how to build the page if he or she really had to.

Mark Boulton argues in his post “Design isn’t about tools” that “knowing how to build things in HTML/CSS limits your creativity.” I see his point and think it’s a really good one. We all have to be careful to not just keep designing things the same tired way because we’re used to building things a certain way. It can be a really positive, fun experience to drop a print designer into your comfy design nest to force you to consider new design possibilities, even if you can’t use them exactly as-is on the web.

But at the same time, it’s unrealistic to think that you can design without the constraint of any tools. At the Voices That Matter conference I was just at, Jason Cranford Teague gave a presentation on web typography in which he said that design is about constraint—working within it as well as overcoming it—and that if you want to work without constraint you’re an artist, not a designer. I think this applies to the question of whether designers should feel constrained by HTML and CSS, and I think the answer is yes. Architects don’t have to be qualified to build houses, but they have to have some idea of what construction techniques are possible, the physical characteristics of the materials they’re designing with, general physics, etc. They can’t just design buildings without any knowledge whatsoever of how they will ultimately be built.

Mark uses a print design analogy to ask “do print designers need to know how to build a press?” This analogy makes no sense to me. It’s like asking if web designers need to know how to build a browser, or a computer even. Of course not. The real question is “do print designers need to know how a press works”—and the answer to that is an emphatic yes. They don’t need to be qualified to actually operate a press, but they need to know the limitations and strengths of the printing press they’re work is going to be produced by. Print production processes are a pretty important part of the curriculum of any good graphic design program. (That last sentence had a lot of p’s in it!) Print designers need to know practical things like not to design important info within 1/8″ of the edge of a piece, not to run something that must be matched up perfectly across the fold of a multi-page book, what type of paper they’re going to be printing on, etc. I suppose you could call this being constrained by your tools—but it doesn’t necessarily follow that that’s a bad thing.

(On a little tangent, I applaud Jon Hicks for pointing out during this whole debate that Fireworks is a better tool for creating web comps than Photoshop. I switched to Fireworks for web work almost five years ago and can’t imagine going back.)

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5 Responses to “Should web designers build their own pages?”

  1. Ingo Chao

    “knowing how to build things in HTML/CSS limits your creativity” (M. Boulton).

    The topos of a free artist that can only be creative without any limitations is romantic, but not true. Some of the best paintings in the history of art were made by artists under circumstances that were by far less ideal. How can you even imagine a sculpture without knowing the material, your tools and casting mold? In fact only knowing the limitations builds the frame where creativity can exist in. Visual designers that are unaware of the constraints that CSS has are neither free nor creative, they are simply out of touch. This collides with the work flow of the web guys who have to actually implement it.


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