Designers versus Developers?


Does the Web Industry still where multiple hats

It’s an age-old problem, we see it all the time, the Public Relations branch verses Information Technology branch. They just will not see eye to ee. Meetings between the two groups are often polite at best. It’s like they are from different planets. Marketing verses the Technies. But does it spill over into the web industry. Seeing as most of us work very closely with the Techie crowd and the Marketing people as well. So does it apply, do we have our own great divide. You know:

  • Designers, those communicative, arty types hate the IT Developer geeks.
  • Developers, those analytical, logical, uncreatives hate the air-headed art-freak Designers.

Do designers really not understand Developers and visa-versa? Or is there something in the middle the hybrid Developer/Designer? Search on the topic. There is a lot of old material on this one.

Nathanael Boehm is prompted to raise the question of the hybrid Developer/Designer spring-boarding off Shane Morris’s talk at the Canberra Web Standards Group meeting. It’s often discussed that the web designers of the 90’s with design and development experience don’t exist anymore. However I question this, is it a myth? I say the hybrid is alive and well.

I have often wondered on this point. I’m told all the time that people are specialising; that the age of the multifunction web job is dead. But are people in the web industry that specialised. Are we still specialising is our occupations of a Designer or as a Developer or “Other” (SEO, Project Management etc)? Or are we still all wearing lots of hats?

Having talked to colleagues on this at length over the years it seems they tend to fall into two camps:

  • The people working in a medium to large team where the roles are clearly defined; or
  • The sole operators or people working in small teams where the roles are very loosely defined.

So does it really come down to the business or work environment that you are working in that determined if you are a specialist of not. Does this influence the birthplace of the Developer/Designer?

With most of the web industry being based in smaller teams (okay I have no hard evidence, does anyone?) based on my observations this would mean we should have a lot of generalists (hybrids) in the industry.

Now is the hybrid Developer/Designer going to be as good as the focused Designer or Developer at their general output? Based on my own experience I would say no.

They will however have a massive advantage on their focused peers, as they understand the issue that are facing both camps and in maybe able to act. As Nathanael suggests, as a peacemaker, intermediator between the two groups. However this as he points out, you would expect that this would mean they are purely working in a consultative or project management capacity. Does this happen? Well I agree with Nat. Not that I have seen. These types of multiple talented jack-of-all-trades tend to end up as trouble-shooters to quickly solve the immediate problems leaving the focused talents of the Designers and Developers to their respective trades.

The question is does this divide really exist in the web industry? I don’t think it does, not to the extent that is used to.

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  1. Perhaps the hybrid role IS a specialist role?

    Also on the point of the prevalence of small web teams – I think based on the stats that (from memory) 90% of Australian businesses are small or home based, possibly the cut-off was 5 or less staff? I’d have to check those – but that would seem to indicate that if we went with those stats and applied to just the web and design industry that yes indeed most web teams are going to be small units where the business can’t afford to have specialists in each separate role.

    And thanks for the referral!

  2. Yeap the statistics are as follows the percentage of small business is 97% (reference – Small Business in Australia, 2001). The percentage of this as of 2004 that are home based is 67.5% (reference – Characteristics of Small Business, Australia (Reissue), 2004 ). Which if you think about it is huge. Of this 68.8% are Sole Operators. So it figures that 45% overall are Home based Sole Operators in industry. Translate that to the web industry. Nearly half are hybrids.

  3. WSG Canberra, 28 March 2007…

    Just some notes on the Web Standards Group (WSG) meeting in Canberra this afternoon.


  4. It is fortuitous that this ‘blog post should show up in my Google Alerts, because only this morning, someone came to my ‘blog from a query very similar to the theme of this post.

    It’s also a topic I’ve ruminated on in the past.

    I am that man in the middle; a designer and a developer.

    As a generalist, I am able to see most if not all of the issues.

    Additionally, I’m able to see what qualities I need in 3rd parties I might engage with to get certain aspects of my projects complete.

    Most of the time, I work alone and need little or no outside help.

    Personally, I don’t think you’re ever going to see any imbalance in favour of either specialists or generalists…

  5. Web developers are still requried to have a broad skills base, I think. There are definitely more opportunities to specialise, although my situation still seems rare – we have specialist experience architects, designers, frontend developers and backend developers. From that alone you could probably guess I work for a very large company.

    Thankfully there is one trend that seems to have been reduced: the Unrealistic Underpaid Swiss Army Knife Job Ad. You know the one, “required skills – must have five year’s experience in all of the following: design, technical writing, HTML, CSS, Javascript, Java, ASP, Perl, Python, COBOL, ancient hebrew, database administration, business analysis and project management. $50k p/a.”

    Hybrid positions will always remain though, especially in smaller shops. Just a fact of life, and it’s not like they’re a bad thing so long as the person in them *wants* to be more of a generalist than a narrow-focussed specialist 🙂

  6. I particularly enjoyed the talk that Shane Morris gave us at the Sydney WSG meeting in May. The topic is always a very interesting one. I don’t believe that the size of a company determines whether ‘devigners’ exist there or not – some folks are just naturally gifted. Oops, did I say devigners? Shane used this term to describe a web professional capable of both design and development.


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