To this day, I don’t really know what I want to be when I grow up. I went to college with the expectation of graduating with a Computer Science degree, but instead I walked out with a Design degree. If anything, I found that my college career adjustments would be a indication as to how I would eventually fit into the web design field. Even now, I wear many different web hats, but they all fit.
But what about you? What do you want to do? Would you rather be a developer – writing code to solve problems? Or, would you rather be a designer – pushing pixels to solve problems? How do you find out which is more interesting to you? There are a lot of questions you should be asking yourself, but don’t expect anybody to give you the answers. You need to experiment to find out where your strengths lie; and in experimentation, many new things come to light.
Blur or Focus?
First off, what are you more comfortable doing? Again with my example, I started down one path and eventually changed direction, but I made sure a lot of what was learned came along for the ride. If you want to get your hands dirty with both disciplines, I recommend the following right out of the gate:
Join a Small Web Design Team
Being on a small design team forces everybody to wear many hats. To be successful, it’s sometimes required of all involved to adapt in their duties and help each other out. Understanding what your partner is doing and having the ability to step up and work on the same project is important. You work fast and you learn a boatload of information in a small amount of time.
While this scenario allows for gained knowledge on a lot of topics, it also comes with a price: the old “jack of all trades” axiom. Sure it’s great to be able to have a lot of different skills, but you are never truly exceptional at any one of them.
Sure it’s great to be able to have a lot of different skills, but you are never truly exceptional at any one of them.
Join a Large Web Design Team
More often than not, larger teams mean a higher chance of specialization. Here you could have a defined role. You may be able to spend a lot more time in a single discipline, work with others with the same skill set (it’s doubtful that you are the only web designer there), then gain valuable experience and insight.
In either case, you get to try both the developer or designer tracks out. With a small team environment, the structure is mutable, so you can quickly move from the designer role to developer and back again. Be warned that you may not stay on one discipline long enough to get all you can out of it. The learning curve is steep and the skill retention is not very long.
With larger teams, you can more quickly build on your knowledge in one area, but you may not have as many opportunities to try different skills on for size.
Designer and Developer?
A combination of both skills is extremely valuable these days. The “double threat” of a designer who can code a bit or a developer who has an eye for design looks excellent on a resume and is sought after by many a company.
If you are primarily a designer, it would be in your best interest to pick up a web development book or two. Even if you would rather focus on the design discipline, having the vocabulary of a web developer will get you far. It can make the workflow smoother between the designer and developer, and your designs can be better suited to the project since you know a bit of the code’s capabilities. If the site will be in Flash, design for it. If the project will be an HTML/CSS/JS combo, then your designs will reflect this.
I don’t mean to say that you should stifle your designs to meet the code, but keeping in mind how the design will be built will help everybody in the long run. By all means, go nuts with your layout.
Conversely, if you are a developer, speak with a designer from time to time. Learn the lingo, understand the basic concepts of grid, typography, and color. Your CSS will be all the better for it.
This may be a different path to take, but it allows for greater focus in one discipline, while simultaneously integrating knowledge from the other side into your workflow. It can only help you. This isn’t the same as a “jack-of-all-trades” situation. You are primarily a designer or primarily a developer with a small bit of knowledge of the other side – enough to be dangerous. You shouldn’t be claiming to be able to do both at an equal skill level.
Well, up to this point I have been writing in generalities. This was not an accident, and this article wasn’t really meant to tell you what path to choose. The point here is to give you a heads-up on how to approach the choice. If you have a little bit of knowledge in each skill, then you are in a good position to make that next step. If not, here’s your opportunity to learn from others more experienced than you.
If you have already made your decision, good for you! But you may want to think about bringing in some of the other side. Ride the fence a bit. Take a look around and make a smart decision that will benefit all who work with you.