Need to know - what?

Several times I've seen and participated in discussions where the topic has been: What does the designer (of web sites) need to know? In most of the cases I've seen, the designer is of the opinion that he only need to know about the aesthetic, and leave the rest - the technical - to those who should implement it. He's usually alone with his views, but what does he need to know? Why isn't it enough for him to concentrate on the purely aesthetic aspect of it all?

The word “designer” means different things to people discussing web design, but in this article I'll talk about the graphic designer; The one whose task is to present the visual aspect of a web site. Also, many people are thinking of the graphic designer when they use the broader word designer.

The graphic designer don't need to know HTML

That is the claim, but how valid is it really? Why shouldn't he know about HTML? One answer I've heard to that is that “it inhibits the creativity.” The graphic designer should make the design as he wants it, and leave it to the coders to make it work. “Knowing HTML would only limit the ideas, while designing without that knowledge may spur the coders to create something revolutionary, as it's not limited by some ideas of what's possible and not.”

Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? Or - is it only excuses? Will the extra knowledge really be inhibiting on the creativity, or will it just prevent the graphic designer from wasting valuable time on stuff that's impossible to work?

Ah, the back side of the medallion; Wasting time. You're bound to be wasting time designing web sites if you don't know anything about HTML, because sooner or later the design is impossible to implement. Also, it's possible to make a design that's possible to implement, but is awkward to use, is limited to very few browsers, or needs specific setup (like screen resolution, fonts installed, plug-ins etc.) It may be a technical achievment, but is the result really wanted?

Not wanting to waste time designing unusual sites should be reason enough to throw away the first claim and replace it with another.

The graphic designer do need to know HTML

Well, it seems like the logical step then, doesn't it? Knowing HTML prevents the graphic designer from designing silly stuff that won't work, end of story. Hmmm - then there's Javascript, ASP, PHP, CGI, Flash... In fact, there's quite a lot that can be involved in making a web site - does the graphic designer need to know all this? Certainly not!

Now, I'm not trying to go back on what I've been saying in the beginning - but I won't go from one extreme to the other - from not knowing anything about HTML to knowing everything about all. Between those two extremes there is a lot of knowledge, and what a graphic designer need to know, is what is possible and not, not neccessarily how. The more knowledge the better, of course.

OK, so some knowledge about HTML (and the other stuff) prevents a graphic designer wasting time designing something that won't work - but how about the point made about creativity? Do the knowledge inhibit it? In my opinion: No, rather the opposite!

Knowledge stimulates creativity

Let's step away from the web a little while and look at design on paper. Here, the good designers know a lot of their medium and how to design for it; Paper texture, font size and font face, placement of pictures, white space, and how it all works together as a whole, making a presentation that says exactly what's needed. The designer has total control.

Unfortunately, what we often see is that the same designers are taking their ideas from paper to web, wanting to see them implemented there. This is hardly successful, nor creative. Paper and web are two different media, with their own strengths and weaknesses. Just as TV producers found that “radio with pictures” didn't make good TV, and learned to draw on the strengths of the new medium, so must graphic designers.

In design for paper, the designer knows exactly how much space he has. The font can't be changed by the reader, and the pictures are there in their places. Nothing of this holds up for the web; There are different monitor sizes, screen resolutions, font faces and font sizes - the designer know nothing about the equipment of the visitors, and not even if the visitor is blind! In other word, the designer have nothing of the control he's used to from paper design.

What the graphic designer on the web needs to do, is to adapt to the web. He needs to learn what works and how, and how to to exploit the medium on it's own terms. Not simulate paper, not even simulate computer programs - that's too limited compared to what's possible with web sites.

Learn how to work with the web, not against it.

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