Why Designers Should Learn to Program

A common question I get from fellow designers is, Should I learn to code? My usual response is, Go away, I’m on Twitter. When they just stand there, stone-faced in complete defiance, I answer Yes, I think you should learn to code, but, maybe even more importantly, you should learn to program.

Not all coding is programming

You may be thinking coding and programming are the same thing. You may also be thinking I’m a complete idiot. That’s fair (albeit somewhat hurtful). To clarify what I mean by learn to program, let’s first examine what most designers’ definition of coding is.

Usually, Should I learn to code? means, Should I learn how to build web pages? There’s actually not much programming that goes into building typical web pages; content is wrapped in HTML tags, styled with CSS, uploaded, and then the client makes it rain. You should’ve laughed at that last step.

The idea of coding a web page is concerned with markup, or a predetermined language that’s wrapped around content. The predetermined language for the wide wide world of webs is HTML, or HyperText Markup Language. A content reader, in this case your web browser, reads this markup to understand the content’s purpose and displays it accordingly.

Even if your job title doesn’t have Web in it, being able to read and write HTML today is a viable asset, especially with more and more things connecting to the web. So go learn you some web speak. Programming, on the other hand, tends to be a bit more involved.

Excuse me stewardess, I speak computer

Programming is a specific form of coding wherein a programmer actually talks to the tiny microchips living inside your computer box and bosses them around to do stuff. That’s a gross over-simplification, but I’m all about gross over-simplifications. The main difference between markup and programming is that markup (i.e web markup) mainly deals with defining content, whereas programming deals with writing instructions and memory allocation and cool hackery stuff.

But Ryan, you ask, why would I want to learn computer speak? That sounds difficult…

Simply put, programming, like design, is all about problem-solving. The skills necessary to build a viable grid system are the same skills necessary to build a function that searches for a name inside a list. There is an agreed-upon purpose. There are multiple variables. There are algorithms involving multiple condition sets. Everything has to gel. The only main difference is the vocabulary.

If you want to grow as a designer, you need to constantly sharpen your problem-solving skills. Learning to program can provide a great opportunity to grow those skills, free from the pressure of having to deliver something “great.” You’re not a programmer, so no one’s expecting you to turn out Halo 8 or whatever the kids are playing these days. You’re free to grow through success and failure on your own terms.

Programming can also be empowering. I remember sitting in front of my TV when I was a kid, playing Super Mario World on my SNES and thinking, I really would love to make stuff like this, but it’s probably too difficult. That all started to fade away the day I built a simple side-scrolling game with JavaScript and HTML. It helped me realize that nothing, given enough time and discipline, is too difficult to achieve (okay, within reason; I’m not going to go out and become the Queen of England or anything like that anytime soon).

Learning to program is tough

I’m not going to lie. Programming can be intimidating. There are files to install, manuals to read, and then there’s the dreaded command line(!). There are a whole bunch of un-designer-y things you have to deal with. When most designers are confronted with these barriers, they immediately throw up their arms and quit. That was my story. But stick with it, and you may be surprised what you can achieve.

We choose to…do…things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills

-John F. Kennedy

If it’s worth accomplishing, it’s rarely easy. The idea is to push through your discomfort. The more you learn, the easier it will be to learn even more.

Learning to program isn’t as tough as you might think…

Programming is hard, but I’m willing to wager it’s not as difficult as you might think. Don’t believe me? Go to JSBin, and in the window labeled JavaScript, type the following:

console.log('Hello, world!');

then, click Run in the Console window. It should (hopefully) cheerfully greet you with a “Hello, world!” Congratulations, you’re now a programmer! High fives all around!

Okay, there’s a lot more to programming than printing a statement to the window console, but you get the idea. Don’t let your perceptions and assumptions hold you back from growing in a skill that will benefit you in many ways.

Start out small. Build up slowly.

Learn to program for free

While there are fantastic for-pay resources, you can learn to program for the low low cost of absolutely free. I’m currently taking a Computer Science course from Harvard University, which, when I say it, sounds completely awesome (there is are verified options, ranging from $99 to $2200, in case you want a certificate or actual college credit). It’s challenging, fun, and insightful, all in one (it actually makes me wish I had applied for Harvard back in the day, but that’s another post altogether).

The venerable Codecademy and Khan Academy are two other juggernauts in the realm of free education that offer great resources for programming. Might I suggest giving their JavaScript tracks a try. JavaScript is a fairly easy language to jump into. There’s no compiling to be done, and there are tons of online sandboxes that can help you realize your programmed creations instantly.


Programming is a skill every designer should learn. It develops problem-solving skills, refuels one’s creativity, and can be incredibly empowering. Programming is tough, but the more you excel in it, the more you become comfortable with pushing your comfort zone, and the more you will learn. Programming’s tough to master, but it’s not as tough as you may think it is.

Designers often pride themselves in thinking (and acting) outside of the box. Take a chance by doing something outside of the norm. A life lived in comfort is a life not lived.

A Change of Pace

Beginning with my last post, I have changed my blogging workflow. Before, I was typing up and proofing drafts in Google Docs, then transferring them over to WordPress, (which, as of this writing, is what this blog is built on, in case you’re into that sort of thing).

The main idea was that I would write a post and then have the ability to share with individuals to get as many eyes on the post as possible (a la Editorially). That was a pipe dream.

Now, I love Google Docs, but not for writing blog posts. For one thing, I write in Markdown to separate presentation from document structure. I don’t want to continually apply a format to imply content hierarchy when I’m stream-of-conscious writing, but that’s what ends up happening in Google Docs. I’m sure there’s a nice plug-in out there to allow me to write in Markdown on G-Docs, but I have yet to find one (if any one of you spam bots out there know of a good one, let me know).

What I’m really looking for is a way to visually represent the Markdown structure while maintaining the keyboard-only workflow Markdown offers, which is something Editorially did out of the box. Sadly, even WordPress’s text editor, which does indeed support Markdown, doesn’t do this, but at least I’m seconds away from a preview screen.

Another thing I don’t like about my old workflow was the transition from Google Docs to WordPress. It felt so disconnected. I can’t really describe it any other way. And now that I’m typing directly into the text editor, I feel a sense of immediacy or instant gratification. I think the change has even inspired me to write more.

It’s pretty amazing what a change of pace can do sometimes.

Year One in Review

As of this writing, it’s the beginning of 2015, and while most of my blog readers tend to be spam bots looking to link bomb me or sell me drugs in the comments section, this last year has still proven to be a great time of learning. First of all, I’d like to review my goals for 2014:

  • One blog post every week.
  • Build a digital portfolio.
  • Style this blog.

Okay, so, really, none of my goals for 2014 were met. Whomp whomp. Why, you ask? Well, here’s the deal:

  1. I’ve actually written what amounts to a blog post every week, but most of them have not been, nor probably ever will be, published. I’ve had trouble figuring out exactly what I want this blog to be about. I think in the long run I want it to supplement my design business and interests, but is my audience other designers or is it potential clients? Or maybe it’s something else? I really need to figure that one out.
  2. The digital portfolio thing is a little harder to excuse. I have the work, I just need to take the time to post it. I did, however, start a Behance account and got on Dribbble, so that was nice!
  3. Styling this blog has really taken a backseat to the other work I’ve done this year, first my wife’s website, then a self-initiated web app and laying out a 300+ page book. I’ve drawn and redrawn sketches for the site itself, but I think I need to live in this blog a bit more to feel it out, not unlike breaking in a new pair of jeans.

What I did in 2014:

  • I started blogging. This was really really hard for me, simply because I don’t see myself as a blogging kind of guy. Maybe I am. I don’t know. But finding something worthwhile to say was difficult. There are tons of blogs out in the internets that are much more knowledgable than I am regarding pretty much everything I can blog about.
  • I redesigned my wife’s website responsively from the ground up. That was fun.
  • I built my first web app in AngularJS. That was not fun.
  • I promptly started learning Backbone.
  • I attended two conferences, Circles and Front Porch.
  • I earned 15,807 points and 221 badges on Treehouse.

What I want to do in 2015:

  • Digital portfolio. Seriously, this needs to get done. No excuses.
  • Complete some advanced Computer Science education.
  • Attend online classes for UX certification.
  • Attend the Squares conference and 3 Meetups.
  • Be more intentional with this blog, and that means posting maybe every 6 weeks, if I have some quality content, and focus more on personal experience. Maybe even do some JavaScript tutorials (I’m learning some cool stuff from the book Effective Javascript).
  • Take a break from Treehouse. With all of the extra stuff I’m working on, there’s not much time for Treehouse right now.

Just Make It Work

Since beginning a new web app project, I’ve learned a thing or two about product design. I wanted to take a few minutes to share one of the most important lessons I’ve learned: Just Make It Work.

You’ve been there. You have the best intentions to start a new project. Maybe it’s something that is a personal passion. Maybe it’s something that will make your life easier. Maybe it’s something that will get you recognition. Whatever it is, no matter your intentions, there’s always the danger of dropping the ball. I’m sad to admit this has more often than not been the case for myself.

This makes what just happened yesterday that much more exciting to me. I’ve finally finished the first working prototype of my app’s main email module. It’s great to say that. And yet, it’s certainly not what I envision for this product.

While exploring the product architecture of the app, I began to realize the full scope of what I wanted to build. I began to realize this was a much larger product than I initially predicted, and I froze. I couldn’t figure out what to work on first. Meanwhile, it was taking me fifteen minutes to put together a list I could’ve easily typed into the body of an email.

It was during my daily list-making that I got a revelation: build a prototype of the email module that just works. It would need to be something that could grab a JSON file, display it in the browser, allow me to perform CRUD operations on the data, and then save the new JSON file over the old one.

I didn’t worry about aesthetics. It’s not grotesque looking, but it certainly isn’t winning any beauty pageants. I didn’t worry about experience design. There are more rough than smooth edges in this prototype. What I focused on was the exact minimal requirements I needed. The result is a finished product that I can now use to inform the design of my final app.

If you feel like you’re stuck on a project, what’s the absolute bare minimum you need to meet your goal. Build that and use it as a starting place.

Notes from Circles 2014

What I got from the Circles conference:

Design Authenticity

  • Design should be authentic. Every piece of your design should have a purpose.
  • Start with meaning, What is this design supposed to do?; then and only then can you move on to aesthetics.
  • Whether it’s your company’s history, your portfolio, or even a design pitch, the ability to skillfully craft an authentic and compelling narrative is a crucial skill in today’s design industry.


  • If you’re looking for inspiration on a logo or design, start by researching the company’s/subject’s/message’s past. You’d be surprised what might turn up to inform the design.
  • Rephrase what’s being asked of you. Sometimes this helps get rid of self-imposed limitations.
  • Sometimes you need to forget about inspiration and just start.
  • Embrace the awkward first draft. The quicker you accept the awkwardness, the quicker you can move on to finishing and polishing it.

Good to know

  • As creatives, we all have fears and insecurities, no matter how “successful” we may be.
  • Saying no to others’ ideas of you, overcommitting and standing still can be the best thing for your creative career.
  • Three important traits of a designer: Humility, curiosity and willingness.
  • Learning is the only skill that will be relevant your entire life.
  • You have to respect the people you work with and have each other’s back.
  • I should always assume I’m dehydrated (thanks Jessica!).

Have a Purpose Bigger than Yourself

  • What you do is not as important as why you do it.
  • If you design just for the money, you will end up being sorely disappointed.
  • Look for ways to give back. Share resources and knowledge with the design community. Mentor someone. Give your services to a charity that you feel especially connected to.

If you didn’t get to go this year, you can still catch all the greatness on demand on the Circles website. And make sure you sign up for Circles 2015. It’s definitely something you have to experience live!