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The scenario is a familiar one: A brief for a new digital project comes in. The creative director and design team sit together for days on end to create a “never done before and potentially revolutionizing idea!” for the project. Concept papers thicker than a telephone directory are rapidly prepared and presented to a wowed client. Ironclad proposals are drawn up, detailed features guaranteed and the whole thing is happily stamped and approved. Everyone is pleased, job well done. Except, of course, that it isn’t. In fact, the job hasn’t even started, and all the aforementioned promises may not be possible to fulfill at all, let alone in the proposed timeframe.

Sound familiar? I’m sure it does; this scenario has been standard practice at many agencies for years. After all, this approach has always worked in the past for print design, so why not keep using it? But it is this kind of thinking that leads me to ask the question: Given the nature of digital, why is it that designers, and not developers, lead the majority of projects?

THE PROBLEM WITH THE DESIGN-FIRST APPROACHDigital projects that lack developer involvement from the start are doomed to run into major problems, in terms of both budget and quality. Design and development should never happen independently of one another.

Agencies that think they can hand off layered PSDs to an external development agency and get good results are living in the ’90s. Working with developers is not the digital equivalent of handing files off to a printer (as many traditional graphic design agencies seem to think). On the contrary, developers are often in a stronger position than designers to create better and more user-oriented solutions for digital products.

DEVELOPERS TAKING THE LEADEven now, in the age of shiny graphic interfaces, creating digital experiences has more in common with product or motion design than graphic design, in which many fundamental rules are based on the static format of print.

In particular with responsive web products, using graphics software such as Photoshop for page layouts is a waste of time. Designing in a fixed pixel layout is the opposite of what is needed when the end result will look different on every device it is viewed on. Good digital products change and evolve so quickly that heavy concept papers are rendered irrelevant after the first week of work. Making decisions when you have the least amount of information just isn’t smart.

With all this said, graphic designers can still contribute a huge amount to shaping great digital products. Problem solving, the core of what we do, is also at the heart of successfully executing a digital product. To do this, however, the roles, skills and processes of modern designers will need to change dramatically. And, most crucially, we need to fully embrace the engineering side of creating digital products from the very start.

AGILE: A UNIFIED APPROACHMany forward-thinking agencies have already moved away from the traditional “waterfall process” (i.e., designers hand off design files to developers, then developers pass them to content editors) and are adopting Agile working practices in which design, development and content production are done simultaneously in short, timed sprints (usually two weeks). Each sprint aims to finish a fixed number of features, prioritized by a product manager on the client side. Releases are early and frequent, and user input is incorporated as often as possible.

In these multidisciplinary teams, there is little separation between design and development. Everyone works with real content from the start, never lorem ipsum. They do as little design as possible in graphics software; instead, design is coded directly in the browser. The lines between roles become blurred, with designers often using straight HTML to “sketch” their ideas or working with one of the many in-browser responsive tools available such as Typecast or Gridset.

For this approach to work, both design and development need to up their game. In my opinion, the following two points are nonnegotiable:

• Designers who make things that will appear on a screen need to have the ability to code (at least a basic understanding).

• Developers who build the aforementioned things need to be competent in design.

This way of working must be introduced at the graduate level. For too long, digital design has been taught at a highly abstract and conceptual level, with little consideration for implementation. On one hand, this type of thinking is to be applauded for its creativity. On the other hand, designers who consider putting the word digital in front of their title need to fully embrace the “less glamorous” engineering side. Whenever I give lectures to design students, I am amazed by how few do even basic coding. And let’s be clear, in the coming years this approach will not be optional. Users are expecting more from their digital experiences and only a unified approach to design and development can deliver this.

THE DIGITAL CREATIVE LEAD OF TODAYTrue understanding between designers and engineers leads to better digital products. Period. With this mutual knowledge in place, both can respect the unique focus that the other has. Designers want to shoot for the moon—as they should—whereas developers are generally more focused on the user and performance. The best digital products arise when the healthy tension between the two comes with a real understanding of both parts of a digital product. Regardless of whether they come from a design or a development background, the digital creative lead of today needs to be versatile and understand all parts of the process.

Once both sides fully understand the rules of their digital craft—in this case, both design and development—they can start to break them. And that’s when the interesting stuff really happens. ca

Paul Woods (paulthedesigner.ie) is a design director at Berlin-based agency Edenspiekermann, working in digital and brand design. Outside his agency work, he likes to create hand-drawn typefaces and write design commentary.

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