The Momentary Compression of Design

Originally written in 2015 for the Quora design blog.

The endless “should designers code” debate erupted again on Twitter today, prompting the same tired arguments (and of course the same tired meta-arguments about how the argument is being argued). I’ve already written my own views on the subject (Designers Will Code), but this time around I began wondering why this remains such an unresolved debate. I’m starting to feel like what’s going on here is just a brief, awkward transition that will be rapidly obviated by the continued advancement of technology.

There are a few large trends that together are forcing a compression of our practice.

The first is the premise that “software is eating the world”, and increasingly large portions of our life are mediated by (designed) apps on smart phones. In response, designers of disparate backgrounds are all coming together to work on apps. One clear sign of this trend is the great agency → in-house migration.

Second, we’re seeing app/UI/product design consolidate into a fairly homogenous set of best practices. A lot of people are critical of this, but I happen to think that a lot of interaction design is closer to scientific discovery than not. We don’t need dozens of different ways to navigate around an app, just like we don’t need dozens of different ways to control a car or turn a door knob.

Third, product design (in the software sense) is a young practice and many design organizations are structurally similar to each other despite the diversity of markets, strategies, and business models. We tend to define ourselves in terms of our deliverables (PSDs, Sketch files, CSS) rather than skill set or methodology.

Added together, it’s become very difficult to distinguish between types of design output, types of designers, types of design roles, types of product companies. Everyone is just designing apps. So when we try to debate whether we should code, it becomes this very simplistic, binary question which ignores the complexity of reality.

However, I think that this particular era will be seen as just a momentary blip in the history of design, because there are also emerging forces pushing towards the expansion of our practice.

Our output may just be Sketch files or whatever, but the inputs are wildly different. Despite how it seems, the truth is that the design challenges involved on a large scale social product (Snapchat, Facebook) are very different than the design challenges of a service (Uber, Amazon) which are very different from the design challenges of utilities (to-do lists, calendars). Our team has written about this in the context of Quora (Designing Quora, Code is Law), where we are attempting to build a design team that incorporates understandings of social science, law, economics, urban planning. I anticipate that over time these will become standalone disciplines within software development (whether or not we will call them designers is unclear).

Further, while everything seems to be a smart phone app right now, we’re quickly approaching a world where we have screens on our bodies, on every device in our house, in our cars. These will be interwoven in ways we don’t yet understand, and the blending of our world with industrial design will become increasingly important.

Even grander still will be the emergence of virtual and augmented reality. Whole worlds and societies will emerge entirely crafted in the realm of software. Who will design the tools, homes, fashion, recreation, political systems, religions? Will those people look or work anything like product designers of today?

It’s not that designers coding is totally irrelevant right now; I would happily debate that with anyone interested. But if software is eating the world, software design ought to be as diverse as the world itself. I would encourage designers to think about their roles and skills in the broadest sense, in terms of their knowledge of humanity and the world, rather than the technical deliverables of today. Divergent processes will become mandatory for survival and in the future I expect the question “should designers code?” to make as much sense as “should urban planners carve wood?” Our practice on the other end of this moment has a good chance of entering the most diverse, vital era we’ve ever known, which should be celebrated and encouraged rather than squashed and judged.