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Designer artifacts

A few artifacts I found during an archaeological dig though my flat file cabinets.

Published March April 15, 2017

PAASCHE AIRBRUSHES, Castell pens, French curves, orange triangles and various other obsolete bits of yesterday's technology fill a couple of my flat file drawers. I'll likely never use these tools again, but I still keep them as souvenirs from the past. I've lived though at least two big technological transitions that ended or stalled out some design careers while providing opportunities for others.

Many graphic artists retired early rather than learn to use computers when the shift to desktop publishing occurred in the 1980s. There were even lawsuits filed by laid-off backshop employees at the newspaper where I worked. I don't know if it was lack of interest or an inability to adapt, but they were replaced by a younger set of people who felt comfortable drawing with a mouse and laying out pages with a keyboard.

Transition to a wired world

Today, I notice the same kind of thing in the ranks of those who once embraced Quark XPress and Photoshop as the hot new things. Some have dug in their heels and refused to move forward — not so much out of being deliberately obstinate but from apathy and, perhaps, an unfortunate lack of aptitude.

Fortunately, the Internet did not make print obsolete, so designers not wanting to learn too many new tricks have a perfectly valid avenue to continue — unlike when paste-up bit the dust. Of course, these designers pay the price of sharply limiting their options.

I listen to print designers lamenting their lack of technical web design skills, and hoping that a new InDesign-like tool will come along to make things easier. They have high hopes for the dumbed-down and sharply limited niche products like Adobe's Muse. They claim that designers shouldn't have to code, but this claim always strikes me as an excuse and a rationalization.

Coding HTML and CSS is to web design as spelling, grammar and punctuation are to writing. A web designer without a burning interest in learning the requisite technologies is just as hobbled as the old print designer who had no interest in moving from rubber cement and X-Acto knives to Macintoshes. Handing off a Photoshop image of a web page to a coder is like humming a tune then expecting a hired "techie" to write the musical score.

Coding HTML and CSS is to web design as spelling, grammar and punctuation are to writing.

The lack of HTML/CSS fluency is becoming a big career impediment for those designers not already established. Recent design school graduates without a good grasp of HTML and CSS face problems in a market that's already tough. Then again, I don't see too many designers' resumes cross my desk from the under-30 crowd that don't list HTML and CSS skills.

At a minimum, anyone making the claim to be able to design professional websites should be fluent in HTML/CSS, be able to code by hand and have a working familiarity with both Javascript and server-side scripting languages. I don't expect designers to write php applications, construct SQL queries or, even, write simple .htaccess directives, but I do expect web designers to be able to carry on an intelligent conversation with the back-end developers who can.

Going forward, graphic design is rapidly expanding beyond simple web sites to database-driven apps, mobile devices, e-book readers and various other technologies with graphical user interfaces. Ready or not, this is the brave new world of design, and it's where tomorrow's innovation and tomorrow's design careers lie. I interview and talk to young designers just out of college, and this is where they want to be. For those of you stubbornly pinning your professional future on brochures, annual reports, logos and the hope for an easy entry into web design, all I can say is, "Good luck."