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Graphic designer, educator, and writer Nika Simovich Fisher (@labud.nyc) is our resident advice columnist for our Ask a Designer series, where we aim to get real, get deep, and get practical with your most burning questions about life and career in the creative industries. This week, Nika walks through some options for a front-end developer looking for a more creative role in product design.
Possible identity crisis: I wonder how creative or visual you can get as a front-end developer.
To provide some context, I’m a mid-level front-ender. I’m visual. What I love is animation, fun layouts, experimental design and solving user problems. I got into code because I wanted to make design solutions come to life but the more senior I get, the more I'm expected to do engineering and this work is more numerical and logical in character. I can do it but I don't enjoy it that much, it's a departure from what excites me the most: visual and creative solutions for users.
I’m considering going into product design and putting my technical skills to use there, shifting from a developer who designs to a designer who codes, someone who designs and understands the medium. What’s the demand like for designers with a background in development?
Hi Creatively Undernourished,
Thanks for reaching out. It sounds like you’ve reached an interesting point in your career and there are several paths you could take. It’s fantastic that you know what you’re interested in and enjoy doing, this is important and will help you think through your next steps.
First of all, you have a very distinct skillset that, in my experience, is highly applicable in a variety of contexts. Since you’re already considering a move into product design, I’ll start with that.
Product design could be a great opportunity to utilize your coding background in a more visual context.
Since product design consists of making functional and fluid systems, your expertise in programming is a huge asset because you’re already capable of creating well organized structure in your code. Programming also already has visual systems in place, such as inherent type hierarchies, which will transition seamlessly to design as a big component is working with type, establishing hierarchy and maintaining a consistent visual language. All of this is similar to creating an efficient work flow with your code, and everything from native HTML to tools like GitHub encourage this behavior. Designers who work like programmers are at a huge advantage.
In addition to systems-oriented process, your interest in animation and experimentation could lend itself well here.
While a lot of product design becomes standardized, there are a variety of opportunities for unexpected details, whether it’s letting the branding shine in a transition or making a memorable microsite for a special event.
If you’re making a novel interaction, being able to experiment with the code will allow you to have more control of the outcome. This is helpful because many prototyping programs have limitations, so having the capability to create your own experiences will help you define the rules and provide new solutions. If you choose to focus fully on design, you already have a vocabulary for web development, so collaboration with a programmer will help you land on unexpected results. And on the converse, if you stick with being a programmer in this setting, you can take more liberties in filling in the blanks within the design, adding your own touches to certain interactions.
What kind of professional environment do you see yourself working in long term? This consideration is worth reflection because it can have a huge impact on both your day-to-day job as well as career growth.
Your hybrid skillset is incredible for an independent practice or small scale studio or collaboration. You mentioned that you enjoy the visual side of design as well as bringing designs to life. Freelancing or working with your own clients could be a fulfilling avenue of both creating a coherent graphic system and having it work efficiently online.
As an individual, you also have an opportunity to represent the type of work you like doing as well as cultivate an aesthetic that people can count on you for.
This type of work can start to feel like a more custom practice and while it can be challenging to get it started, can provide the most flexibility and opportunities for personal growth. If you have an entrepreneurial spirit and a way to supplement the first couple years financially (read: working elsewhere until you have a steady client base), I would definitely suggest this as a way for getting the most satisfaction on completing a project from start to finish. Freelancing or an independent practice isn’t for everyone. As mentioned, it can often take a little time to get the practice to a sustainable place but I’d say the largest downside is that there isn’t a clear trajectory for professional growth. From personal experience, this type of practice is the most personally fulfilling, but after you start getting into a rhythm with client work, it can be hard to scale upwards. Certainly some studios grow and hire more employees but if you’re less interested in running a business and more interested in actually making the work, there’s only so much you can do as one person.
A second option could be to work in a small studio or small team within a larger organization. At a job like this you’ll likely have more opportunities to work on projects from start to finish and have a greater say in the entire experience. In some teams, you might be able to do both the design and development, while in other moments you could be doing the full design and collaborating with a single developer or vice versa. A design or branding studio often helps with the strategy and brand development, which could be an interesting way of taking your logical skillset and learning to visualize it creatively. If you tend to be more introverted, this type of workflow could be great for you because you’ll need to work independently, but still have the benefit of learning from other people and deepening your skillset from your teammates. This could be a great place to gain more experience with design and enjoy the benefits of wearing many hats, without the shock value of going out on your own initially.
At a larger company, you’re more likely to be assigned to a specific team that focuses on a particular facet of a product rather than a complete experience. If you’re not interested in branding or creating experiences from scratch, this type of position might allow you to get more granular and focus on solving specific user issues. If you appreciate getting into the more technical aspects of a visual system, this type of job would be great for you. You’re also more likely to have a larger team of people to learn from and your team will collaborate with other teams, too. Another consideration about this type of work environment is that there are more opportunities to grow. Your technical knowledge and combined interest could make you a great mentor and skillful leader because you’ll be able to view design problems from both a visual and technical perspective. Since there are more people involved, there are simply more leadership opportunities than at a smaller studio, where hierarchies tend to be more egalitarian. If eventually you’d like to manage a team and move away from doing the actual design work, I’d certainly suggest this type of environment over a smaller team.
Overall, your skillset is versatile and desirable. I’d suggest considering where you are and where you’d like to go in a few years and I hope that my suggestions help you evaluate your position!