Why Tension Between Designers and Web Developers isn’t Just Normal–It’s Necessary

Originally published on Inkling's Fresh Ink Blog

Beautiful design will always be a requirement of great, engaging content. But as designers shift from thinking in terms of the two-page spread to the digital screen, they have a new challenge to reckon with: web development. Now, an idea born in Photoshop or InDesign must translate well to structure-centric coding languages, such as HTML and CSS, in order to prevent great design from coming at the cost of functionality. Of course, it goes both ways: web developers, too, must accommodate for complex design, lest the content becomes practical but extremely dull.

This tension between designers and web developers stems from the fundamental differences in print software and web languages. Jeffery Zeldman, founder of the web design studio Happy Cog, summed it up best when he said, “PostScript is a visual plotting language. And HTML is anything but.” So, the question is, how do designers and developers meet in the middle?

Here at Inkling, we’ve adopted a philosophy for striking the right balance between aesthetics and functionality. Instead of approaching the tension between designers and developers as a problem, we’ve learned to embrace it as a constructive factor in our design process.

I’d like to stress that design tension does not mean a tense work environment. Instead, it is an ongoing dialog between the designer and developer to find a balance between optimal aesthetics and an accessible, robust experience. To arrive at this happy medium, we often employ the divergence and convergence method popularized by Ideo and Frog Design to solve content design problems.

First, we diverge, or create choices. That means that

Designers explore all ideal design decisions, without considering technical constraints. Developers explore all technical capabilities, without considering industry support constraints. Then, we converge, or make choices. During this stage, designers and developers work together to find the right balance. In short, this means weighing the technical pros and cons of the designers’ ideal approach. Some decisions are fairly obvious, such as limiting designs when device support is a factor, but other times the compromise requires both the designer and developer to evaluate and explore alternatives.

To keep the tension from turning south, we’ve instituted a few practices to keep the relationship harmonious:

For designers, a little understanding of web design goes a long way. Even a cursory understanding of designing for multiple screens will have an enormous impact on reaching decisions when the time comes. Developers must constantly reevaluate the capabilities of their code. Digital publishing is constantly evolving, with new features being supported regularly. While it might be easy for a developer to mentally box themselves into what was doable a year ago, they need to consider the potential for new feature support. Most importantly, designers and developers must share a common design language. The basic principles of design remain unchanged, but knowing the difference between a color, fill and background saves time and helps the team iterate quickly. In the event that a content team can’t afford to employ both a traditional designer and a web developer, new tools and languages have made it easier for crossover between the two skill sets to occur. Designers are increasingly involved in web and eBook design, while more and developers are adopting core design principles. In fact, this progression has made the idea of a designer-and-developer in one more enticing. While this may be a feasible–and affordable–option, it is crucial that the ‘healthy tension’ between design and web development isn’t lost. Acknowledging and maintaing the importance of great design and robust development is key to creating beautiful, accessible content.