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Binary Balance

Life on the digital knife edge

The designer, the developer and the devigner

Traditionally in the website building and maintenance sector of the IT industry, there have been two sub-specialisations: the web designer and the web developer1.

To define my terminology more clearly, I’ll risk stating the obvious: web designers tended to have more of a graphic design background. These people might end up doing the ‘front end’ work on websites. They’d do the colour scheme, set the font, maybe do the logo and icons if they were good enough. As websites started to share the space with or become web applications, designers started to take responsibility for the user interface (UI) aspects, although UI design almost seems to have become yet another sub-sub-specialisation of it’s own. Web developers typically had more of a programming background and worked on the ‘back end’ of the website or web application. Server side and client side scripting, maybe some server and/or database administration.

but as the web has matured, the line between these two archetypes has continued to blur and it is this middle ground that I personally find myself standing on.

When I first started on my current career path, I perhaps naively thought that I would become a web designer. I’d create pretty pictures (i.e front end website designs) and get paid for it. Because I was an artist, you see. I had played bass guitar in a band (my beloved six-string Ibanez) and wasn’t interested in all that coding stuff. At least that’s what I used to tell myself. More truthfully there was probably some part of me that didn’t think I was up to it or didn’t think I was suited to that kind of work, because I am always curious about anything with an air of the arcane about it.

I remember a past band mate of mine - a Mac fanatic - would sometimes say to me that he thought I had the manner and mind of a person who would do well with computers. I would scoff at this and tell him I barely knew the first thing about computers these days2. The last computer I’d spent much time on was my parent’s SX64 and my knowledge of this computer pretty much extended to memorising a few commands that would allow a prepubescent me to load the game I wanted to play3. I had mostly migrated away from computers to gaming consoles.

That was until I stopped playing music semi-professionally, I recognised that I would like to start earning some money and decided that I might get back into these computers I once liked so much. I had been around computers in at least a peripheral way for most of my life, but it was not until my mid to late teens that I started really paying attention to them again and this ‘Internet’ thing. Better late to the party than never, I guess.

I studied both in the traditional and autodidactic way over a couple of years. I went from a person who found computers and the Internet frustrating and alien to a person who started to think of them as friends4. I remembered the Operator character class from an old RPG that I used to play and thought how awesome it would be to have their supernatural power that gave them the ability to instinctively understand machines and software. The supernatural affinity for machines sadly never eventuated, but it appeared that my band mate had been right, I did have an attention to detail, patience, and a drive to know how stuff worked (I really need to know how stuff works) that served me well in my studies and career to date. Perhaps this need to know was also why I began gravitating more and more towards Unix and Unix-like systems. The openness of these systems right down to their core and the straight forward simplicity of things like the command line interface and plain text configuration files just clicked for me5.

So finally we come back to my first web related job. I still felt what I now realise was a largely artificial distinction that required I identify myself as what I saw an artist to be, and while by this time I had a good general knowledge of computers, networking, server administration, databases, HTML and a little scripting, I still had it in my head that I would concentrate on developing my pretty picture creating capabilities. It turned out though that what was needed was someone to understand and develop the back end, they had enough people to do the pretty pictures, everyone could draw pretty pictures it seemed. So I jumped in head first, still quite unprepared, but somehow I managed to get by. I’d be happy if I never see another line of ColdFusion for as long as I live6, but I got by and did pretty well if I do say so myself. Jumping in at the deep end, I became more comfortable with saying ‘I don’t know’ and moving on from there, ‘I don’t know, but I will do my best to find out.’ It’s became clear to me that admitting you don’t know (particularly in the knowledge based IT industry) appears to be a mortal fear for many. It holds us back, it’s silly, and with the complexity we deal with, not knowing is inevitable. Learn to learn, people.

What I also slowly started to see was that the wall between such artistic pursuits as music and such ostensibly non-artistic endeavours as writing code is more porous than I had originally thought7. These days I’m probably better at developing than designing, but for a long time now I’ve thought of myself as a ‘web devigner’ i.e. part developer, part designer. Though if a random person asks me what I do, I’m still more likely to give the short answer that I am a web developer, otherwise they’d probably think I travel the Internet looking for water with a magic stick or something.

In the past I have felt a little bitter, it seemed to me that the specialists on either end of the developer/designer spectrum were getting all the interesting work while the generalists just didn’t seem to truly fit in anywhere. I worried that I had made the wrong choices. I realise now that I just needed to continue to become a better generalist and find a way to turn my skill set further to my own advantage. There is great utility in being able to serve as a bridge between technical and non-technical people and I found that I’m pretty good at this too, maybe because I’ve been both. A recurring theme throughout my life has been that I find myself standing between worlds and I figure I may as well embrace this curiosity. Web devigners are particularly valuable for small teams where one cannot afford to have specialists for everything. And if you’re thinking of doing anything entrepreneurial, I’ve found it helps to have a more generalist skill set.

I now feel that many in my industry are feeling drawn towards the centre of the spectrum, demand for the web devigner is picking up. This is a natural side-effect of where the web is heading. I will rue the day if the web I know becomes completely dominated by a handful of large sites where you just keep a semi-personalised page that your friends can comment on. But it none the less appears that programming is becoming more about putting existing pieces of code together with some modification than it is about writing everything from scratch yourself. I’m sometimes a little saddened that this tends to mean that it’s near impossible to completely grok the mountain of code that you’re usually working on top of, but that’s just my pathological need to know how everything works again. I don’t believe that the rise of cloud computing and the mega-social networking sites will be the end of DIY websites and applications, as some people I have spoken to seem to think. One site will never fit all, at least not for the web geeks. But the Internet is not surprisingly continuing to evolve and our skill sets must evolve with it.

The more complex and commonplace web applications become, the more need there is for developers and designers to work closely together and understand at least a little of what the other is doing. Better yet, they could do a little of both themselves and be less afraid to say ‘I don’t know but I will do my best to find out.’

  1. If one was to reduce things down to a simplified binary sort of representation of what has probably always been a more analogue-like spectrum. But I’ll get to this. I also haven’t forgotten about the information architects, full time database admins and whatever else, but I have to draw the line somewhere or I’ll be here all night, OK? 

  2. Where ‘these days’ was somewhere around 1995 when you were lucky to have a dial-up connection that didn’t drop out every 15 minutes, the BSOD was a feature and you could still be expected to sort out your own IRQ settings for the new sound card you’d just installed, or in my case, just broke because I had no idea what I was doing. 

  3. LOAD “*” ,8,1 for the win! 

  4. I still remember the early days though, when I was afraid that hitting the wrong key would cause the computer to arc small blue bolts of lighting in all directions and explode, leaving only a black scorch mark on the desk. To be fair, I’m pretty sure computers were much less idiot proof back then, but those of us who might classify ourselves as experts or power users would do well to remember more often how it felt when we were the n00bs. 

  5. Though ironically perhaps, in most of the working environments I’ve so far frequented, this seems to have made me something of a freak anomaly to the majority who seem to prefer the ‘forest of dialog boxes’ school of server administration (don’t get me wrong, I’m comfortable with Windows servers, I just prefer something else). Let it not be said that I don’t ‘go my own way’ as Fleetwood Mac sung some years before my birth. 

  6. A dynamic scripting language masquerading as a mark-up language? Really? People like me were this language’s primary target market and I still thought it was bizarre. 

  7. A related anecdotal observation I’ve made is that an unusually large number of programmers are also musicians of one type or another. 

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