CSS is for developers

Quite often people assume that because the language I focus on is CSS, I must be a web designer. Don’t get me wrong, I love visual design with a passion. I have studied it a lot over the years and I’ve worked on several design projects for clients. Heck, I even have a dribbble profile!

However, if I had to pick one role, I would definitely consider myself more of a developer than a designer. I discovered coding on my own when I was 12 and so far it has been the most long lasting love of my life. Although I lost my coding virginity to Visual Basic (something I’m still embarrassed about), over the years I’ve coded in Java, C, C++, C#, PHP, JavaScript before I even got to CSS. I’ve actually studied Computer Science at university, graduated 4th in my class and I’m gonna be doing research at MIT towards a PhD, starting fall 2014. Regarding design, I’m completely self-taught. My personality is more similar to the developers I know than the designers I know. Coding comes naturally, but I have to struggle to get better at design. I’m a better developer than I will ever be a designer.

Still, the assumption often is that I can’t possibly be a developer and interested in CSS, when there are all these amazing programming languages to focus my energy on instead. Therefore I must be a designer …right? There are even people who know about my open source projects, and still think that I can’t code in JavaScript or any other programming language (not sure how you can make most of these tools with pure CSS, but since CSS is Turing complete, I guess there must be a way!).

If you think I’m an exception, you’re mistaken. Everyone else in the W3C CSS Working Group, the group which defines the future of CSS, fits the profile of a developer much more than that of a designer. In fact, I might be the most designer-y person in it! Even outside the WG, the people I know who are really good at CSS, are either developers or hybrids (designers & developers).

This is no coincidence. The skills required to write good CSS code are by and large the same skills required to write good code in general. CSS code also needs to be DRY, maintainable, flexible etc. CSS might have a visual output, but is still code, just like SVG, WebGL/OpenGL or the JavaScript Canvas API. It still requires the same kind of analytical thinking that programming does. Especially these days that most people use preprocessors for their CSS, with variables, math, conditionals and loops, it’s almost starting to look like programming!

I find it counter-productive that CSS in most jobs is assigned to designers. Designers should be doing what they do best and love: Design. Sure, they should be aware of the practical limitations of the medium and should be able to read and lightly edit CSS or hack together a prototype to show how their design behaves in different conditions, but it shouldn’t be their job to write CSS for production. The talents required to be a good designer and a good coder are very different and it’s unreasonable to expect both from everyone. Also, when you know you’re gonna have to implement the design you’re working on, it’s tempting to produce designs that can be easily converted to CSS, instead of pushing the boundaries. We don’t usually expect developers to design, even though it’s an added bonus when they have an eye for design as well. It should be the same for designers.

And if you’re a designer who writes amazing CSS and is about to tell me off in the comments, hold your horses. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be coding CSS. I’m saying that if you’re good at it, it means you’re both a designer AND a developer. Own it! 😀