A Martial Artist’s approach to the whole ‘should designers learn code?’ discussion

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This Design Code argument/discussion is a dead horse to a lot of you out there, I know. But… I still get to be asked by other designers about this, both newbies and experienced. So I thought I’d write about this topic now. When people ask me about this -this is what I say.

I’ve been doing Martial Arts since I was 8.

I know, I certainly don’t look like that. My friends call me “a bullie’s nightmare”.

I now train in the fascinating art of Shaolin Kung Fu. But in my past I’ve trained 13 years in CMA – which is a combo of the full-contact martial arts Karate, Muay Thai, Krav Maga for self defence, and some small amount of BJJ.

So you see, I can take a punch in the face from a fairly big fellow without falling to the ground. I can blow a decent roundhouse-kick to someone’s head even if he’s higher than me.

But why am I sharing all this with you? Well, here is my opening statement:

I still would NOT want to fight an MMA fighter, even if he has less than half of the years of experience than me in martial arts training.

Wait, What’s this whole MMA thing?

MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) is all about making you the ultimate fighter.

It combines different techniques that each can be studied individually for decades in order for one to master.

MMA fighters know enough Muay Thai (Kickboxing) to stand up and fight hard, enough Judo to take down an opponent, and enough Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to handle the ground fight featuring arm locks, chokes, etc.

Each MMA fighter has his/her strengths,but they all have to be good in ALL of these skills in order to handle a fight in the cage.

I, myself, am really good at fights standing up. But if I get thrown down to the ground — I’m doomed. So you see, if someone is good at takedowns, and then can follow through the fight on the ground, none of my Karate, Muay Thai, or Shaolin Kung Fu skills will help me. I will never be an ultimate fighter.

MMA has another fascinating thing about it. When you learn ground work in MMA — you actually start improving in your standing up work. When you are doing Muay Thai work and in any given moment you know you could be taken down — you’re less likely to fall for that. See where I’m getting?

So what does this have to do with the ‘should designers code’ issue?

Takeaway #1

You don’t have to know code, but accept the fact that designers that do are more likely to develop in their careers better than you.

You may not want to learn how to code as a designer, and these days you don’t have to. Hell I even wrote about this myself. You can still love what you do and not want to do code. 
Going back to Martial Arts — I do not want to do MMA. I’m ok with the fact that I’ll not be the ultimate fighter. I’m happy doing what I’m doing and think it improves a lot of my other skills.

It’s ok, and you can be a killer product designer, and improve your product management skills as well while you’re at it. 
After all — improving your PM skills is just as valuable, right? Ofcourse. But still — it won’t make you a maker. You can always improve your PM skills while designing products, but your coding skills you’ll less likely have the chance to do in your everyday work.

But all that said, just know… Designers that know code, while they have the same years of experience than you and even less sometimes, will always be better designers than you.

Don’t take it personal, it’s a simple matter of fact. Yeah, I know what you think — “You can’t say ‘fact’ on something that hasn’t been hermetically proven”, but you know what? I‘ve had my 8 years of experience in digital design prove it to me. Let see some examples:

From my experience:
One of my clients back when I was freelancing were the awesome team at Wisestamp. They have a chrome extension that helps you build awesome (widget based) email signatures. In some of their signature templates you can add your profile picture, but that was always in a square shape. I wanted to change that. I designed a signature which held a picture in a circle. Back then there was only one problem — there was no easy way to create email bulletproof rounded corners. The developers on the team said they already tried to create rounded corners but couldn’t. So.. I dug around and finally found a way to do it. Then I created the design of this signature template, and sent it to the team as live coded in an actual email. No JPG, no PSD, in the actual email. They were very impressed. 
Let’s analyze this from a UX perspective:

“Design is way more than just looking good, is has to be functional while making an emotional connection between the brand, the product and the user.” — source

Wisestamp hired me to do design, I did design and coded it, sent them the final result. For them it was like a “Delight” in a digital product. I made a functional deliverable, and by sending it like that I emotionally connected between my brand (Sagi Shrieber the freelance), to my product (High quality Design), and the user (Wisestamp — my clients). The code part was the important part of the emotional connection. That magic moment. Some btw can do it by creating amazing UI animations in AE, but after that that ‘magic’ fades as the developer of the team struggles to implement those. Coding allows you to create the end result to your clients/stakeholders.

From a friend’s experience: 
I have a friend who’s a super talented designer that knows his grid and composition amazingly well (he owns a well known Israeli font foundry). And because he is also a developer and was fed up with how we handle grids in CSS, he built his own CSS grid framework back then. He built a tool for himself, to design better in the real environment that he works in — the browser.

From hearing about others’ experience: 
In the past year I’ve had Design Details validate this concept to me. Hear all their episodes, and you’ll notice that all the great designers there have something in common — almost all of them have coding background.

One more thing. When you code — you can communicate better with developers and that’s enough to make you better than most designers out there.

Takeaway #2

The ‘Jack of all trades but a master of none’ statement must die. Behold Jack of all trades and master of some.”

If you’re under the impression that nobody can be good at all things — ‘A jack of all trades but a master of none’ and all that… See MMA as a living proof that different set of skills can be mastered and combined to create a monster.

If you want more proof about it — open up youtube and search for videos like “Muay Thai vs. MMA”, “Karate vs. MMA” and the like.


If you’re in the product design industry, and want to progress in the best possible way, know this:

  • Coding is a valuable skill to learn, and will boost your career. It keeps on boosting mine.
  • Code is indeed possible to learn and be good at, even if you are focused on designing, and no matter what anyone else says.
  • You are super likely to improve your product design skills while you’re doing code.
  • Still have that fear to learn something new? Read this. It will help.
  • If you still don’t want to learn code, it’s ok. You might be happy right where you are. Just accept that people that do will be (most likely) better designers.

And I’ll finish with something I heard a great and highly appreciated designer say in one of his talks:

“If a developer comes up to you and says he can’t implement your designs, you should be just dangerous enough to say ’OK, then I’ll do it myself’.”
Ben Blumenfeld

About the author:



Product Designer at ContrastUX

Find hackingu_admin on:

About the author:



Product Designer at ContrastUX

Find hackingu_admin on:

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