Agency Siloing


I wrote recently about my love of conferences; among other things they’re a great for getting a sense of what’s going on outside the office in the wider world of webmongering. One thing that always surprises is they’re chock full of designer-developers, exotic cross-disciplinary creatures that represent a distant ideal to me. Where do they all come from?

I’ve worked in agencies for nearly 8 years now, home of the design-development divide where capital-C Creatives never leave Photoshop, back-end developers have little interest in look and feel, and those with wider skill-sets are outright banned from practicing. It can get pretty bizarre: I’ve seen inexperienced freelance designers brought in at great expense because the guy who’d been designing and developing HTML emails for 5+ years had the wrong job title (in the end he had to redesign them anyway) and similarly tech PM’s forced to negotiate for a dev’s time to change some copy in a line of HTML.

In the ill-defined no-mans land between the design and development lies a handful of Front End Developers, the awkward go-between bridging the gap between form and function, coaxing Creatives into giving a crap what happens post sign-off, explaining to project managers that the PSD can’t be the canon representation of the site, and fixing the layout after the templates go through the CMS meat grinder.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the job and most of those problems can be fixed with a quick chat (few more blog posts in the works about that), the odd part is the identity crisis. Ostensibly as a senior dev I’m supposed to be an aspiring software developer, but I feel no affinity there. Being succinct and inventive with js/jQuery is sweet, but so is being terse with SASS, clean with markup, word-crafting a tweet or curating photos. I work daily with code, but that doesn’t make me a programmer any more than the fact I designed this site makes me a designer.

So I guess that’s part of the reason I take comfort in the designer developer conferences, and reassure myself that my position isn’t so strange. I’ve even reworked my CV to be more unapologetically unsiloed, because like fellow FED Brad Frost says, maybe there’s no des/dev divide at all.

  • Dale Geist

    Amen, brother. I’m here to say that you don’t have to be in an agency to contend with this nonsensical silo-ization. I was a UI designer who established an independent business as a Drupal site-buider, thus unwittingly becoming a “developer.” I’ve been lucky enough on occasion to work with designers who were willing to learn about the design requirements of real live websites, and even one or two who knew how to build front ends.

    And then there were the other occasions, when a print designer was dragooned into creating a PSD, which was then delivered to me, purporting to be a complete spec. Since it was the client-approved design, questions about how it should behave in various real-web scenarios were typically met with, “Well, just make it work right.”

    But I’m not here to kvetch, or at least not only here to kvetch. What I mainly want to say is, I’m just flat amazed that this division still exists, as it is patently a crappy way to build websites. That you and Brad Frost are just now, in October 2013, needing to raise awareness on this, is just depressing. Nobody, and I mean nobody, has any business designing websites unless they are a competent practitioner of HTML and CSS – because this knowledge gives you necessary insight into how browsers affect your design elements. And yes, web designers should taper off their Photoshop chops (a graphic designer can always be found if a stunning graphic needs to be created) and start learning how to design in the browser. Managers, take heed.

    • dangovan

      Heya Dale! Thanks for your comments, interesting to know it’s not just an agency phenomenon!

      I’d have to disagree on your insistence that designers know how to code though, problems arise not when they don’t know what rules to apply, but when they apply rules that aren’t appropriate. This can be rules anywhere, like a background of print design, one of developing sites using tables. An open mind and a collaborative outlook is more important to me.

      The problems run deeper I think, starting with the client being sold a hi-res picture of what the site might look like, that doesn’t take account of any motion, feedback, or changes in device or screen size. It needs the designer to steer development after it leaves the PSD, not because of their job title but because they’re the one who’s sat through all the grueling amends meetings with the client.

      • Dale Geist

        My stridency about designers needing to know HTML and CSS is ideological – from a practical standpoing, I’d be perfectly happy to work with a designer who had a limited understanding of how to build a web page, as long as they knew or were willing to learn about the design ramifications of web pages. (Having said that, an ideological stance is important, I think, in advancing our argument.)

        You’re right about the role that designers play in setting client expectations. I was hinting at that in my comment about “approved design” – if that’s a static mockup without explanation and one that’s been made without regard for browser realities, that’s a setup for client dissatisfaction with the developer when their 15″ MacBook Pro makes their site look different from the mockup.