Going Gray

Mindy Wagner, Former Design Director

Article Category: #Design & Content

Posted on

Shades of gray

Every few weeks, the web design community stirs itself into a tizzy rehashing the same old debates. We were just getting past the "design in the browser" brouhaha when the "designers must code" tweets (and follow-up blog posts like this one) started cropping up again.

If you haven't seen it yet, you're probably holed up in some #snowpocalypse ice hut. The controversial tweet came from Elliot Jay Stocks, a talented designer with over 9,000 followers.

Elliot Jay Stocks - Twitter Debate

It was exactly the kind of off-the-cuff remark that incites riots and comment wars. It inspired lots of back-and-forth between players large and small. It's hard to articulate any complex ideas within 140 characters, so it's not surprising that most of the responses were shortsighted knee-jerk reactions.

I'm not going to throw around metaphors comparing web designers to architects, TV producers, photographers or musicians. I'm not going to rehash the rehashing of an already played-out debate. Instead, I want to focus on the nature of our arguing. Why is it that designers, who should be open-minded and creative in our thinking, can't seem to see beyond black and white? And why is web design as polarizing as politics these days?

It's another false dilemma, and watching everyone pick sides and lob dodge balls across the fence is getting incredibly boring. Everyone wants to argue about these issues as if there are only two answers. Design everything in the browser (die, Photoshop, die!), or design every last detail in Photoshop. Designers must excel at markup because it's essential to know your medium's limitations or Designers shouldn't learn code because it will tether their creativity.

These choices are not mutually exclusive, and we all know it. Very little of what we do can be labeled as right or wrong. Unless you're a template churner every project, client, and technology requires a slightly different solution. It's part of what makes web design so much fun. So, aside from the traffic generated by rehashing controversial subjects, why are we all arguing about the same thing every few months?

Dichotomous thinking is our brain's way of simplifying an argument down to its basic elements, choosing a side, and moving on. We need to fit everything in our world into a mental category, and it's human nature to reduce these categories down to polar opposites. Good or bad. Easy or hard. iPhone or nothing at all, you might as well use a tin can. We ignore all the less extreme options in between even when those are the ones that make the most sense. It's the easy way out. Pick a side, shout from your soap box, and save the rest of your energy to tweet your thoughts on the next big debate.

And while we're at it, that ultra important side you're picking? Chances are it isn't the one you know to be right, it's the path of least resistance for YOU. If you spent a lot of time learning markup, you probably sided with Elliot and made snarky remarks about the designers who weren't as awesome as you. If you consider markup a waste of time and focus all your energies on more visual aspects of design, you were linking to Mark Boulton's well-crafted retort. But each of us landed on our side of the fence for a number of reasons - not purely because it was "right". When I started learning code, I did it because I'm a control freak. Now I can say I believe in that choice because it makes me a better designer, but it's an easy argument to make since I already did the legwork.

The thing is, we shouldn't forget that we are helping to shape a young industry. We are doing our craft a great disservice by taking mental shortcuts. We should be thinking harder, questioning more, and resisting the urge to jump on any bandwagons. Please, take time to stop and think about all the possibilities - and all the incredibly talented people behind those possibilities - before filling the web with more blanket statements.

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