User Experience Design · Design

Designers vs pixel pushers. What's desirable and possible?


March 12th, 2014

Have had a recurring challenge for web projects which is finding designers who can produce more than psd's. I'd like to work with designers who can produce interactive work (more than wireframes, more than an invision version of interactive too). This process has raised questions:

a) if the final medium is a web browser, should the designer produce designs in the language of that medium (i.e. interactive html/css)?
b) is the age of static design for web (i.e. psd's)  dying? 
c) should the startup designer be responsible for UX and responsive design decisions too?
d) is this all-rounder designer a pipedream, is it desirable, or do these designers even exist? 

(Part of the problem might be the difference between startup needs vs established consumer-tech needs -- it seems that the specialization of the design function into visual designers + ux designers + front-end development + other specialists produces "designers" that are not that impactful in early stage startup environments.

I'd welcome all thoughts and feedback on this -- from suggestions on process to specific designer recommendations.)

Donald Cramer CEO - Founder at Rocket36

March 12th, 2014

Hi Eoin: I just took a look at your email. In some cases you will find someone who has high standards for UX, Graphics and HTML/CSS/JS work. However, someone who is an "A" player across all three is rare to find. I see most startups go with someone with high HTML/CSS/JS skills who has some graphics ability (icons, buttons, etc). Their actual UX skills for responsive and maximizing conversion funnels may be ok as they are probably not looking at the analytics data (web, mouse clicks, etc) to come up with a plan. My company actually specializes in building sites with a high UX. Our team has a dedicated graphics person, UX person and front-end developer who have all worked on products from startups through to high traffic dotcom websites. Feel free to shoot me an email or call if you wish to discuss or have any additional questions. Best regards, Don Don Cramer CEO - Founder Rocket36 Dev Studio O. (702) 242.6097 M. (702) 427.6703 F. (702) 242.6089 E. DCRAMER@ROCKET36.COM WWW.ROCKET36.COM Follow us on:


March 12th, 2014

Hey Eoin:

a) Not necessarily. It depends on if the same person is doing the work. It can be beneficial to start on HTML/CSS without any preconceived or inadequate prototypes and develop with only wireframes or PSD mocks.

b) In practice, no. But see for what the future holds. Photoshop in the browser that outputs HTML/CSS that can be handed over to a developer and they won't roll their eyes and want to start from scratch.

c) I would recommend ANY designer on web be involved with responsive from the beginning. Anything else is asking for time waste and bad assumptions of how things collapse.

d) They exist, but it's hard to maintain a level of aptitude in all disciplines across all gigs; most of the time you will find gigs that need one or two areas of expertise and unless you have extensive free time (ha) one or more of the other areas will fall behind. 

Simon Bain CEO SearchYourCloud Inc.

March 12th, 2014

Eoin hi. If you want a design, then it is a designer you are looking for. You only want them to produce psd’s, otherwise you will may end up with a generalist. This could of course be good enough in which case no problems. But if you want a fully-fledged design that flows then my own view is get a designer and then a web developer who will take those designs and add the functionality and life to them. I am an application developer and run a small software company. I would never dream of letting my developers (or me) design the User interfaces for the software we create. I can only imagine what would come out. Given the correct brief, the designer we user will produce amazing work, then my team can go wild with the code and produce apps that make the designers work sparkle. So my suggestion would be. Get a designer in to do those psd’s. Then find a web developer to bring them to life. This of course completely ignores finances. However you need to stand out from everyone else as a small start-up(Assumptions here sorry), and one way of doing this, is not to hold back on your designs and visuals. Remember a good designers work will carry over in to your PowerPoints, used to get investment! Your letter head and sales collateral. I do use a freelance specialist and would be happy to share her name, but before I do I will hold back for 2 reasons. 1 I would need to check with here ;-) 2 You may not want the name 3 Others may have other ideas. So I will wait. Poised ready at the keyboard. Simon

Michael Kovacs CTO at Samsung Accelerator

March 12th, 2014

Hi Eoin, Yes that's a very common problem and one that you generally have to mitigate with whatever resources you have available. The ideal is the designer-html/css-UX-front-end-dev but they're rare. The next level is the designer-html/css-UX and then the designer-html/css. From my experience pure photoshop designers are the most plentiful, and you can get by with using them, if you also using something psd2html to convert their designs into workable code. I've had success with that method myself by using 99designs + psd2html. You don't end up with the best in terms of code quality but with the advance of CSS frameworks things have gotten much better in recent years so it's not bad. That handles the design to coding part to get something on a web page but you're still not covered on the UX part of the game which is more important IMHO. If you can only find one person with one skill set I'd say find a solid UX person and outsource the design and HTML/CSS coding, though generally UX folks are usually also designers as well. But in my mind they've moved up in the design "food chain" and understand how all of the pieces fit together and are better suited to early project work like this. They're the architects of the design world and their upfront work helps lay the ground work for the rest of the site/app. Hope this helps. -Michael

Michael Calleia Helping companies build better products and teams. UX and Product Management.

March 12th, 2014

You're asking too much.

One person doing UX research + UX design + UI and visual design is considered a unicorn (or was just a year ago). 

You want someone who understands what HTML/CSS/JS can do, and who can grok what is happening between the front and back end.

Then find a front-end dev that can work with your designer and optimize code. You'll save money in the end.

Peter Swearengen Director of Product Strategy at Originate

March 12th, 2014

A resounding "Yes!" To A, B, and C. As for finding your Designer, yes they exist, but you may need to choose between an experienced designer with all these skills, at a premium cost, or a recent grad from one of the better tech schools who's driven to learn how to release a product and sustain it. If you have the experience on your team to cover the gaps in things like setting direction, customer communication, and planning/agile development, then I'd gamble on the younger version. Static psd files might be a way to deliver UI assets, but they are not a way to prototype or set design direction... Not anymore.

David Crawford Partner at Roket / Designing, Building & Growing Brands, Apps & Ideas

March 12th, 2014

Most designers and their skills have become a commodity. Some people take classes and only learn the applications. They often pursue the field for only the aesthetics or technical execution. Few are taught the theory and the commercial rational of the skills. And even fewer are concerned with business pursuits and the ROI that's necessary to keep them employed. 

Throughout my career, I've been involved in hundreds of early-stage businesses and so has my partner. We're entrepreneurs by heart, who just happen to be skilled creators. We know the only real way to supply startups with value is to have the skills and commercial reasoning-at a reasonable price. This is actually why we formed our firm, Roket. Separately the two of us have tremendous skills, but together, we're unbeatable. Because, you're right, one person usually can't fill all the needs a startup has. They can say they can, but if that was true, they're probably a jack of all trades, master of none. 

We've seen many startups with the same issue you speak of. That's why we've built Roket as a lean and mean team of only two balanced partners. I focus on the creative, branding and marketing strategy. My partner heads up technology specification, development and product strategy. We collaborate on commercialization, UI/UX, business strategy and product strategy.

Rick Thompson Founder at Snapshot Publisher

March 13th, 2014

Hi Eoin,


Generally, I agree with the "jack of all trades, master of none" theme several people have put forth here. Gifted designers have very different, and more "intuitive" skill sets, than developers who have more "logical" skill sets. As such, for breakthrough work, engage specialists.

A second point. You mention design and UX, but there is not mention of what is guiding the creative direction. Perhaps you have assumed there is a clear guiding brand direction before the design and development work is initiated. But in my experience, I see far too many companies jump into design and development without having a clear understanding of what their brand stands for first. As such, I'd suggest a 3-step approach:

1) Brand Definition - clearly define the brand first. What are the core values and key differentiators? Who is the target and what are their beliefs? What is your brand personality? Are you serious/easy-going, structured/flexible, formal/informal? What is your brand "tone and manner"? What types of words properly and uniquely represent the personality of your brand? This helps create your brand vocabulary which is critically important because it is the combination of words and visuals that communicate your brand to the visitors.

2) Design - given the brand definition, a creative designer can  bring a brand to life visually in a PSD file. They will explore design concepts, shapes, and color palates that evoke the essence of the brand in a unique and engaging way. In addition, the complete brand can only be effectively communicated when the "design" and the copy or "Brand vocabulary" work together in harmony. As such, entrepreneurs need to spend as much time on the copy as they do on the design.

3) Implementation - here is where UX and web developers can determine the best way to implement the design created in step two. Again, somewhere in the process, there needs to be a great deal of focus on creating: clear, concise and compelling copy. The design attracts, the UX guides, and the copy converts.  

Jake Carlson Software Development Manager at Oracle

March 13th, 2014

I may be uniquely qualified to answer this question. Most of my work centers around development, but I also hold a design degree and have plenty of experience on the creative / UX side as well. I agree, it's rare. ;)

I generally agree with the 'jack of all trades, master of none' sentiment; however with the caveat that it's all a matter of degree rather than a boolean master vs non-master. I have been running an interactive firm for the past 15 years and have done branding, marketing, design, UX, frontend development, backend development, server admin, database admin, and everything in between. I would consider myself a 'master' in only a handful of those areas. In general, people pursue mastery of things that they enjoy most and only become competent in other things out of necessity. While I do have a design degree and have a great foundational education in it, I generally prefer development. But I still use that design foundation frequently when necessary, as in situations where there is not a separate person to handle the design.

It seems obvious, but in general, the larger the business, the more specialized the roles. When I interviewed at large development outfits, I found that my interviews did not go as well because they were looking for absolute mastery of a very specialized skill set. I would go into an interview for a Javascript Developer role thinking that I was very proficient in that area, but would then be asked to solve theoretical language-specific problems I'd never encountered in the real world. For the most part I could muddle my way through them, but I knew right then that I wouldn't be happy in that kind of position. It is too siloed for me.

Instead of level of skill or 'way of thinking' being the mitigating factor, I would contend that in many cases (such as my own) it is more a matter of available time and interest. Good design takes time, and so does good development. Hiring one person that is good at both will save some time and money, but it will not halve your costs or time. You can expect the right person to be more productive in that there will be a cohesion about the design and development process, less miscommunication, and less poor assumptions. 

A hybrid designer / developer will design things that they know how to code (or at least have a general idea). That is a bad thing if his/her development skills are poor, because he/she will be afraid of designing something he/she has no idea how to code. But if his/her development skills are good, it will open up all kinds of possibilities for the design that a specialized designer may not think of or may not think are possible to develop. And even if the specialized designer does come up with a great design that is possible to code, the more interactive it is, the more time and energy will need to be spent conveying the actual interaction rather than simply the static visuals to the separate developer. 

But make no mistake: a person's skill set usually aligns with their interests. For example, for me personally, my interest in typography does not keep me awake at night. Even though I have had formal training and always strive to use type appropriately, you will not find me designing my own typefaces or spending a lot of time on kerning a headline. But I will tweak a general layout and design of an interface for quite a while, and how to solve an interesting frontend development problem will keep me up at night. Here is how I would rate my proficiency in the theory, tools, and execution of some relevant skills (and I am doing this only by way of example, not to brag!!):

Branding: 70%
Marketing: 60%
Typography: 50%
Design: 70%
UX: 70%
Frontend Dev: 90%
Backend Dev: 70%
Server Admin: 40%
DB Admin: 40%

% based on perceived proficiency in comparison to those considered 'masters.' I may be doing myself a disservice with some of those numbers, but I'm trying to humble and it's only an example anyway.

If you have the money to hire a separate designer and developer who are both very proficient at their specialties, by all means you should do so. And if you have even more money and can hire a separate frontend developer and backend developer, do so. And if you have even more money and can hire a separate designer and UX specialist, do so. As the company grows you will split roles to be more specialized, that's just the way it works.

But even specialists need to have a working knowledge of related disciplines, or you'll be asking for trouble. Interactive design is different from print, so don't expect a wonderful poster designer to be a good web designer. (This is actually a pretty big issue with this in the company I'm working for right now, where an outside designer who clearly has little web design experience is creating extra work for me because she's not taking into account our target audience's screen sizes.) The concerns of frontend vs backend development overlap but are not identical, etc.

In summary, proficient hybrids exist, but I agree that they are rare. If you are just starting out, I recommend finding one. And when you do, just understand that proficiency is a matter of degree rather than just master or non-master. Ask candidates to rate themselves in all the areas that you want them to be responsible for, then ask them to back up their claims with work examples and/or explanations. IMO a candidate that is 70%+ in all required areas is much more valuable that someone that is 100% in one area and poor in others when the business is small. Or, you could hire someone with demonstrated proficiency in almost all the areas you require and then contract out to make up for the deficient area. As the business grows, split roles and specialize, allowing people to follow their passions.

Sam Collett DR at Phenotype Digital Brand Review

March 13th, 2014

We believe that all of our designers should be able to build at least the foundations of what they design. In other words the html5, and css should be deliverable by them. More advanced obviously you need a techie. We have this philosophy as if you know how it will be built then not only is the design process quicker (you dont have to worry about pixel perfection so much) but you get better designs. The other side of the argument is that this approach is wrong because the designers will stick to what they know works. In an age where pretty much anything can be built I do not buy in to this. In specific answer to your questions then...