Code is friend, not foe

[Hey students! is a multi-part series. Read the rest.]

Should design students learn how to code? Yes? No? How much? Why?

As a designer-who-develops/developer-who-designs, I wanted to share some thoughts on the topic. My hope is that by explaining a little, it will help you – as someone interested in web or UX design – make informed decisions about the kinds of opportunities that would be best for you to pursue.

My view is that any new design students should have an introduction to (and opportunity to hand-write) basic HTML and CSS. That allows you, the student, to see if you might enjoy front-end development work and/or have an aptitude for it – and it gives the broader class of design students some insight into what it takes to transform designs into interactive experiences. That type of understanding will become incredibly valuable if/when you work with a developer or development team in the future.

Beyond that, I’d encourage any design student interested in web/mobile/interactive/UX design to give “real” programming a shot while you’re in school. Try some server-side development, maybe try to make a simple mobile app, and definitely try to learn some javascript that’s more involved than activating a plugin. Familiarize yourself with modern best practices in digital design – things like accessibility, usability, and multi-device support – and learn what it takes to implement them. Even if you’re convinced that development definitely isn’t the career choice for you, you’ll get to see all the pieces that have to work together to get a robust application to run in a maintainable way. It will open a lot of doors for you, and it will make you a better designer.

You heard that right.

If you’re a decent visual designer, you’re knowledgeable about best practices, AND you’re able to build what you design, you could find yourself in a unique position to solve problems in ways that traditional designers or developers probably can’t. You’ll have a better appreciation of the constraints and opportunities available to you for a given project, and you’ll know when and how it’s appropriate to push the limits with your design. When you’re developing a project, you’ll become keenly aware of the design tweaks that would provide a more cohesive experience for your users, and you’ll see opportunities for improvements (both visual and technical) that would enhance the application.

And on an interpersonal level, having a good understanding of both design and development puts you in a great position to facilitate communication between the other designers and developers on your team, which is always nice.

So to sum up: If you’re currently a design student (especially one even a little bit interested in UX), take advantage of the opportunities you have to learn about programming and front-end development. It will help more than it hurts!


3 Jul 2014


Amen to all of the above! :)

. . .


Great to see another Hey Students! post with such great advice. Will there be any Fun With Code posts in the future?

. . .


You bet! There’s a good one coming up in a week or two.

25 Mar 2017

‘Enter’ to submit

The design student’s dilemma

It’s that time of year when students are looking for summer plans. Many agencies and design firms in town are accepting applications for internships, and students are applying (and the smartest students are applying at Oxide). For design students, it’s a great opportunity to put your skills to use in a professional environment, produce work for real clients, and gain valuable experience working within deadlines and budgets. I don’t think it’s some big secret that design jobs are hard to…

Your online portfolio

Here at Oxide, we review student portfolios on a fairly regular basis, and I have some thoughts to share. First of all, when you are not showing your work in person, you need to have your portfolio online. (This isn’t just because I’m a developer.) An online portfolio shows so much better than flipping through a bunch of pages on a PDF. And I would highly recommend against sending a potential employer or internship several individual files of your projects.…

Sketching is good

True story. Since I started at Oxide last June, I have filled 14 official Oxide sketchbooks (and I’m well on the way to finishing the three I have on my desk right now), a large 200-page sketchbook, a small hand-bound sketchpad, three Field Notes memo books, and countless index cards. In addition, I have a three-inch stack of computer printouts, hand-rendered sketches, and other miscellaneous design ephemera. (And those are just the notebooks I used at work”¦ I also have…

Never stop learning

I recently had a discussion with one of my professors from Iowa State University. She was asking what skills I felt ISU needed to better teach to prepare students for the real world. Which got me to thinking about the things that I have needed to learn in the past ten months at Oxide. I spent most of my four years learning about typography, proportions, and print design. And while I still utilize those skills, I’ve had to learn how…

Put yourself out there

For most of us, landing a job in design didn’t just happen. In our field, there is an abundance of applicants and a minimal number of openings. This means that you’re going to have to do everything you can to even get noticed. If you’re getting ready to take the plunge into the frigid waters of the design job market, following these guidelines will help you to get noticed.

Live! Seriously! Let’s do this!

Last weekend, intern Kelsey was reading through the Hey students! series. During Monday’s traffic meeting, she suggested that it’d be really helpful for students if we could talk to them directly about the entire series “live, in-person.”

Know when to care

This is a sequel to the first post in this series: Care about your work – which continues to be the most important lesson we have for you. But caring is more complicated than that. When you start caring, you lose the ability to evaluate your work independently of your personal investment in it.

Awards don’t matter

At Oxide, we have a love/hate relationship with design awards. We have a good number of accolades laying around at this point, but I’m not sure what they’ve ever really gotten us, save for a quickly fleeting ego boost. In the local (and probably national) design schools, it seems like there’s a great deal of importance placed on the winning of awards. Students are encouraged (and sometimes required) to enter competitions held by local organizations and national publications. But a…

You’ve got competition

While judging the 2010 Nebraska Student ADDY Awards, I was inspired to address the student readers of our blog. While Joe has been the regular author of our Hey Students! series, he has graciously allowed me to contribute to his already great student reference. There’s no easy way to say this. If you didn’t already know, there simply aren’t a ton of desirable jobs just waiting to be filled by design students. Knowingly or not, you have signed up for…

Start with the problem

Classes are back in session, so after you’ve ranked all of your new professors on the Sparano Scale™, it’s time to get down to some designing. Today’s bit of advice may be the most important in the Hey students! series so far. It’s so fundamental to your growth as a designer – and so critical to the effectiveness of design in general – it should really be addressed to Hey all designers everywhere!

Let go of the leave-behinds

When you’re in the classroom, you imagine that life as a professional is just like life as a student. Or, at least, you prefer to imagine it that way. Even though, buried deep inside your thoughtful designer brain, you know you’re kidding yourself. Some of your classroom experiences translate into the real world and others don’t. Every moment that you spend designing is worthwhile, but each finished piece isn’t necessarily going to help you outside the classroom. One particular project,…

Yeah, really, you

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with several design students. I won’t embarrass any of them (intentionally), but here’s the general consensus: most need to spend more time designing, several show a lot of promise, but very few are ready for the next step.

Design is not a job

We listen to a lot of internet radio at Oxide, which means we hear a lot of internet radio ads. One of these ads features a list of college degrees that, I assume, people listening to internet radio during the day may be interested in. They’re they kinds of degrees that are often listed together in these kinds of isn’t it about time you did something with your life kinds of ads: nursing, criminal justice, business, technology, management, and graphic…

Care about your work

It’s portfolio review season, so if you’re showing your portfolio around this year, there’s a chance you’ll see one of us. Personally, I’m returning from a portfolio-review-hiatus. You’re probably thinking: “Mr. Sparano, Professional Designer at Oxide Design Co., why in the world would you need to take a break from student portfolio reviews? It’s totally fun!”