Web designer/developers – you are greater than the sum of your parts.

I’m going to hold my hands up and make a confession. I’m not a specialist. I work across web design and development and have been doing for several years. I sometimes design sites, for other people to build. I sometimes build sites other people have designed. And sometimes I do both design and development. I call it a confession because sometimes in the web industry it feels like those who are able to apply their skills to multiple fields are not applauded for their many skills but viewed with suspicion.

I went to a freelance recruitment event run by a digital agency a year or so ago where the person running the meeting specifically said that although he wanted to hear from developers and designers there was no place in their plans for people who did both.

And openings for developer/designers, whether freelance or full-time seen very rare. While most of my work with direct clients encompasses both design and development, my work with agencies is wholly one or the other.

Design & development skills combined

But it’s not just the web industry that needs to change it’s mind. I sometimes view myself with suspicion too. I worry that I don’t have the knowledge or expertise of a ‘real’ developer. My designs are not going to be as beautiful as those of a ‘proper’ designer. But that’s just insecurity. There are always going to be developers who know more and designers who have greater skills than me.  But that would be true if I were a standalone designer or developer.

And crucially, as a combined developer and designer there are skills and insights that I bring that most specialists would not have:

  • I can offer a combined service either for smaller clients or as part of a larger team
  • If I worked in a larger team, I could utilise my design or development skills wherever there was a current need
  • I understand the perspective of the other side – what works for them and what their frustrations are.
  • I design sites that are easy to build
  • I understand that design is important and will think of creative ways to bring a design to life, rather than trying to fit it into a template

And designer/developers can still specialise. I can specialise in JavaScript animation or Bootstrap or eCommerce sites or WordPress, of course, which is beautifully set up for people who design and develop because it allows for a development or design flying start, if you want it.

Perhaps most importantly I believe that working across distinct fields helps develop mental flexibility and more creative ways of thinking. Using your brain in different ways stretches it and gives it a great workout.

It makes me wonder whether the web industry has got too specialised, when some job adverts are targeted at for example “React developers” – someone to work within a single framework of a single language? Perhaps a mixture of specialists and all rounders is ideal. But that is an argument for another day.

What’s in a name?

I sometimes wonder if perhaps my own insecurities about my role and the scepticism of some on the web world arises from the fact we designer/developers haven’t claimed a real name for ourselves. Saying you are a designer/developer is almost admitting you are a bit of one thing and a bit of another and not a unified whole, with your own unique set of skills.

So, I’m going to propose the term “creative developer”. This is not to suggest people who do only development are not creative – but it’s the best I can come up with right now. You may well have better suggestions.

How to maximise your skills

Having decided on a name, it’s time to make sure that we justify it – staying creative and keeping our development practices up-to-date.

I suggest the following, which I try to do:

  • Remember to specialise – your field of expertise may be broad but you can still bring specific design and development skills to your projects. You can specialise in areas that combine the two, eg tyography or animation, or ones that don’t – a particular JavaScript library or design style
  • Get all the tools – you are covering a wide field, so you need all the help you can get. It’s worth paying for those premium tools – whether it’s setting up your development or design environment, syncing your WordPress databases, or it’s a plugin that you’ll use again and again.
  • Best practice & training – keep your skills up to date. And not just in development. And make sure you’re working methods embrace best practice, such as planning and version control – you need to meet the standards of a professional developer and designer
  • Collaborate – working in both design and development gives you an unprecedented opportunity to collaborate with a range of other professionals. Take advantage of it – it will keep your skills fresh. Don’t always work on your own, just because you can.

And that’s it for now. I hope reading this has been as helpful to you as thinking about it was for me.

This is a version of a presentation I have just given at WordCamp Brighton.

© 2021 Sim Brody