A little while ago our fantastic unicorn Product Manager for SlideDeck, Jason Amunwa, posed an interesting question on Speckboy: Should designers know how to code? For the sake of this article’s argument, we’re going to go with “yes.” But, before everyone goes up in arms and grabs their tablet pens and pitchforks, let me state clearly that what you’ve stumbled upon is NOT another open-ended debate on why designers should or shouldn’t code; rather, we’re going to explore what can occur when code knowledge sets limitations on the creative mind.

In other words, we’ll explore what happens when a designer consciously or subconsciously self-imposes design restrictions and limitations based off of the coding knowledge he/she has. And with this situation, we’ll explore how setting limits and guidelines can actually lead to more innovation and creativity.

Now, before we get started, let’s define what kind of designers we’ll be referring to:

  1. Designers who offer services in designing interfaces (whether it’s UX-related or actual UI designs) for the web
  2. Designers who have basic web coding knowledge (meaning: a. they understand what divs are and generally how layouts are structured through HTML, and b. they have basic comprehension of how CSS dictates and styles their web page)

Boxing Creativity

So why shouldn’t a web designer know the structure of how a web page works? In the case of a print designer, general knowledge of inks, bleeds, papers, and so on brings to light a broader understanding of how to tackle his/her medium. Shouldn’t it seem optimal that web designers know how their designs translate beyond a standard resolution of 1024×768 on their Firefox browser window?

One could argue, however, that the minute a designer learns of divs and the box model, that he/she might start only seeing boxes in his/her future designs. This is based on the notion that limited knowledge into web coding can misinform and bias one from designing for what the web can potentially offer.

On a side note, in the hypothetical that a designer learns the very minimal basics on how divs and css work, would that really stop them from designing outside the box of this information? Considering the amount of exposure web designers have to innovative and creative designs and layouts in the wild, it’s highly probable that they are fully aware of what can possibly be done on the web — especially beyond what their html/css knowledge suggests.

Carte Blanche: Creative Dream Come True or Nightmare?

There’s something incredibly exciting yet overwhelmingly dreadful about a client giving you carte blanche on a new design project or element. On one hand, you can let your creative mind run absolutely free without trivial rules and restrictions. On the other hand, the situation bears similar resemblance to someone sticking you on a boat in the middle of the ocean and telling you that you have unlimited tries at fishing out a white whale.

Ahh, if only we had infinite time, endless resources, and uncapped budgets. In truth, complete creative freedom is a luxury that very few of us can enjoy from time to time. This is why we resort to intakes, kick-offs, meetings, and regroups in hopes of pinpointing a direction that we may then use to create something relevant to our end goal. Even in the face of limitless creative freedom, we still find ourselves gravitating towards some means of gathering as much information as possible.

The truth is, we do everything in our power to narrow our creative playing field in hope of successfully hitting our mark to the best of our ability. We create boundaries and lean on restrictions in order to create focus thus maximizing the efficiency and success of our design. And this focus is ultimately built upon limitations, limitations which allow us to accurately aim and flourish in our design possibilities.

Comfort Zones and Beyond

Often in design school, students are approached with the exercise of designing 5 different versions of a logo concept. Three of these logos will look similar to one another, one will be an utter failure that needed to be purged out of our systems, and the last will be a radical approach that goes beyond our typical style — aka our comfort zone. And while we will most likely refine one of the three logos that resonates best with our style, there is a good chance we’ll still, in some way, gravitate towards that one radical logo concept. That’s because that radical concept has opened the door for more possibilities, more invention, and ultimately, more creative opportunity.

There’s a great phenomenon of creativity that occurs when we push our comfort zones, and while some may reach this breakthrough on sheer perseverance or chance, many of us are left looking for other solutions. Limitations can, however, help augment the chance of reaching this next level of creativity.

In the case of a designer who’s limited by the constraints that their web coding knowledge offers them, they are now placed in the ideal position to truly reach for innovative and creative solutions. If faced with the challenge of placing content within a slider on the top of the page, they could look beyond simply filling the pixels with full size images; perhaps they could innovate with interactive elements within the slider, or maybe they could explore masking the background of the slider so that it matches the background of the page, this way they could design an illusion of images that don’t seem to be confined in a rectangular box.

Ending Remarks

In the end, whether a designer knows how to code or not, he/she can benefit from utilizing limitation to further encourage innovation and creativity. After all, we are already, in a sense, utilizing limitation through our intent of creating focus in our projects. Limitation through code knowledge, forces us to look for other creative options and explore new channels that were never even considered before. It simply takes the right frame of mind to push us out of our comfort zones and towards the path of innovation.