C is for Code

Technology changes the method in which humans work.

When the major economic system was hunting and gathering, individuals could not afford to specialize. Opportunity had to be seized in whatever form it presented itself. With advancements in pottery, farming techniques, equipment, and weaponry, also came the ability to specialize. Food could be stored, produced easier and protected in ways that allowed some individuals to focus on its production, some on its storage, and some on its protection. Specialized fields were created.

Further advancements in animal husbandry, architecture, and mechanics created further opportunities for specialization and interdependence. Not everyone had to know how to farm, some could focus solely on herding. Better walls and buildings meant fewer men were needed to guard a civilization, freeing up those in city militias for other work. Better machines meant fewer specialists were needed to complete tasks.

Each series of advancements created a contracting and expanding need for specialization and opportunity for independence. At first armies were composed of units specialized in melee. When technology brought the bow and spear, these large groups were replaced with smaller specialists. Quickly however, a saturation point was reached, and the numbers of specialists grew. When new technology was utilized a new saturation point was created, and a new standard for what made a specialist was created. Large stone castle walls created a time when large standing armies and massive assaults were needed to take an enemy fortification. Later advancements in siege weaponry and chemistry allowed specialized groups of engineers and cannoneers to perform what took multiples more.

The response to this specialization was even more specialization. Siege weaponry was challenged with fast light calvary. These were challenged with archers and later crossbowmen. Knights continually added more and more armor, until the advancements in gunpowder made armor obsolete. Military units became known for their specific abilities. These specializations created weaknesses, powerful against some, yet vulnerable to others. 

In the world of industry factories show similar cycles. At first only skilled craftsmen could produce certain products. Machines were developed that allowed even common laborers to produce comparable results with very unspecialized skills. The result is an even deeper opportunity for specialization. 

The assembly line, marked as one of the greatest industrial innovations, allowed specialization in a very narrow area of production. This creates an interesting paradigm. Though the individual specialization is at its peak, the turning of a single bolt or the welding of a single joint, the overall skill level and understanding can still be very low. Using the power of machines, man has created the ability for deep specialization with very low skill.

In the modern world designers face this same specialized technology paradigm. Specialized skills and spreading teams create sheltered nooks where designers can hide in irresponsibility. While the ability to craft a digital product from code is certainly not required, not having the ability creates a handicap for the designer.

If we were to compare this same problem to the standards engineering designers must meet, the answer becomes quite clear. To perform as an engineer a deep understanding of the elements used, the manufacturing process, and the exact method of production is required. This gives the engineering designer the insight to properly design for the products production. While the specialization of an engineer is clear, the experience is still broad enough that the engineer is not naive to how his creations are to be produced. Any engineer absolutely must understand the manufacturing of his ideas in order to properly design.

Taking this principle from our adjacent field, web designers absolutely must understand how to code. If one’s design experience is limited to only what a certain design program can produce a obvious handicap is created. Photoshop or Gimp can do things that are not practical to do in the languages of modern websites. It would be laughable for an architect to not understand how a house he designed was to be built. In the same way, if a web designer had no understanding of the modern visualization techniques he has the liability of crafting impractical and impossible designs. 

At the least, a designer should have a basic understanding of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. This gives an understanding of what the modern web is composed of, and what his adjacent disciplines require to build a site. When a designer is able to create a better site not only for the user but for those building it, life gets better for everyone.

While technology does allow greater opportunities to specialize, this does not cancel the need for creators to understand adjacent fields. Designers shouldn’t necessarily specialize in software development, but an understanding of how code works creates a better designer.

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