By Craig Buckler

Should Web Designers Code?… The Poll Results

By Craig Buckler

Our recent poll asked: What level of HTML and CSS coding knowledge should a web designer possess? It was discussed at length in Should Designers Have Coding Skills?The poll results were as follows:

  • 70% of respondents stated that web designers should have good HTML and CSS coding knowledge
  • 25% stated that basic knowledge was adequate
  • 5% thought that a good designer could create a great website design without coding knowledge.

There were also some great comments…

Great web design can be done by people with no coding experience. Knowing the mechanics of web pages is much more important than knowing how to build one.


There is a very definite advantage to knowing what can be accomplished in a browser, how a user would interact with a design, and how the design would be implemented using either CSS, images and other elements.


If you’re a web designer, you should know how to code. If you don’t, you’re a designer, not a web designer.


The designer should still understand some of the concepts and have a basic understanding of what can or can’t be done in web design, or what should and shouldn’t be done.


The crux of the issue comes down to your definition of a “web designer”. It’s subjective will depend on your own experiences. For some, it’s a graphic artist who creates web design mock-ups. For others, it’s a person who can create high-quality layout code with CSS effects and JavaScript interactions. Most people will have an opinion somewhere between the two extremes. However, I was a little surprised to discover a significant proportion of respondents stating that good coding skills were essential.In some cases, it depends on the size and type of your organization. Larger companies may have specialists in certain technologies, whereas a sole-trading freelancer would normally require a wider range of skills and cannot avoid learning HTML and CSS.Finally, it depends on your aspirations. Many talented graphic artists do not want to code. Many programmers have little interest in design. Yet both may claim to be a web designer because it’s a term used throughout the industry.

HTML and CSS is tougher than you expect…

There’s a widespread misconception that HTML and CSS are easy. Take a sample of résumés from people in IT and you’ll find a ridiculously high number quote HTML as a skill-set. Many of those people will also know the rules of chess — but how many can claim to be a grand master?While HTML and CSS are not programming languages, they have subtle complexities that are not appreciated until you have considerable development experience. Graphic artists rely on precise positioning and programmers rely on rigid coding conventions, yet this level of exactness is rarely experienced in the browser world.Few people master HTML and CSS whether they migrate from a design or programming discipline. Should we expect everyone to have intimate knowledge of browser quirks, usability, semantics, accessibility, progressive enhancement, etc?

…but that’s no excuse for not understanding the medium

It’s difficult to keep up with advances in web technology and best-practice techniques. However, designers have little excuse for not understanding the fundamentals of the web as a medium. The same mistakes are made with frustrating regularity.In my experience, the best graphic artists understand the basic concepts of the web and apply good design practices. The best developers know how to constructively analyze a design and convert it into good-quality code. It’s not often you find someone who can do both … real web designers are a rare breed.Continue reading: 10 Common Mistakes Made by Novice Web Designers…

  • Andhika Zulkarnaen

    Good designer should not have coding knowledge, but great designer must have basic HTML and CSS coding :)

    • John

      Lately, everybody is a Graphic Designer, or programmer, or Sr. Web graphic designers.
      I’m agree with Andhika, no excuses, designers must have knowledge of what html standards and limitations are.

      • I agree that designers should be aware of web standards and limitations of the screen but the question is should they be doing front end production?

        Personally, I’d be happy if designers could do front end production but front end production for creative design that is unique and interesting is can be intense and it takes a lot of time and effort to become an “Ninja” front end developer. My concern is that really creative designers could become so frustrated trying to develop their designs that it ultimately limits their creativity.

        It’s very similar to architecture and engineering. You have the designers and the implementers. You can’t do one without the other and very rarely can one fill both positions successfully.

  • Dave

    …real web designers are a rare breed.

    As well as real everything. Make an application works is one thing, make great applications, with nice performance, serious security, and well written code is another thing.

    • Very true, coming from a Programmer… many dud programmers out there, way too many…

  • Anonymous

    I am a hybrid. I was a designer for years, became a web designer in 1998 and I also teach as an Adobe Instructor. Sometimes I do the designing, and sometimes with some clients I do the client-side XHTML, CSS, UI and UX. This one designer I work with, even after taking a class on CSS and HTML, still designs things like a brochure. Navigation in the middle of the page, no idea what is outside her fixed area for the background, and I often have to figure out how to make her designs expand to account for more text than the Lorem Ipsum she added in and designed around. She does the most ridiculous stuff for navs and fonts it makes me beat my head up against the wall.

    If you don’t have an idea how to make CSS work, how oh how, can you design for it? Seriously. If I didn’t have an idea how to code, I woudn’t be any good at UI design, or didn’t do usability testing, then how would I know where best to place items for users.

    Of course, this is my own personal opinion.


  • Anonymous

    Effectiveness. Not efficiency.

    No one cares how clean your code is – only if it works.

    • WRONG! Other developers who may get stuck with your code and need to modify it down the road will care how clean your code is. If the code is messy it will take twice as long to update and that will in turn affect how much the client will need to pay for any updates.

    • Arun

      Thats been real novice. Efficiency is an important criteria.

    • Yeah, I can’t say I agree that “no one cares how clean your code is”. I think that’s a lazy or careless position to take. I for one, care immensely how clean the code is because it has to be serviceable. Besides, anyone can look at the source and shoot holes in it. Why would you make yourself a target?

      a) It has to work and
      b) It has to be clean and follow standards.

  • There is no such thing as a good designer who cannot code. Please to show even one award-winning site where the designer knew no code…

    In fact, a so-called “web designer” who knows no code does more damage to any given web site than good. Look deep in your heart and you will see it to be true.

    Being someone who actually tried to follow the premise that designers did not need to code, and that WYSIWYG editors were all you needed (back in 1996!) I have learned through painful experience the truth that I speak. I finally learned my lesson in 1998 when I entered into a collaborative project with a PERL programmer and discovered that my pages didn’t even have “HTML” tags, but still looked fine in CyberStudio & Internet Explorer 3.

  • I mean it would be amazing to have an amazing graphic designer that have full HTML/CSS coding skills, but improving your coding skills may just take away from your design skills. However, I believe all web designers need to understand the intricacies of the browser and the inherent limitations: for example font availability, size dimensions, different screen sizes including mobile, and so on. Entire PSDs with these aspects in mind would make any web developer that has any knowledge in HTML/CSS more than satisfied.
    What I will say though is that web designers that are knowledgeable in Javascript and/or Flash and can use their design skills to add animation to ensure that the way user’s interact with the site is what they intended. That can make a profound difference in the user experience of the site.

  • tdriley

    It is absolutely imperative that the person who makes the visual design for the website understands how those will then be created. By drawing the designs, the designer is making all manner of technical decisions about which/how technologies are going to be used. Without this knowledge, all that they are drawing are mockups/concepts.

    You are asking for all manner of problems later down the line if the person designing the site cannot build HTML/CSS.

  • Scott Petrovic

    In most fields, if someone is a designer, they do far more than just give something aesthetic appeal. Designers try to understand the underlying problems to systems and create solutions that will be more efficient, cost-effective, profitable, and attractive.
    Web designers are “whole brain” thinkers as you say. Websites are businesses. Making it look good is nice and creates a hook, but you won’t be successful unless your product, service, or message is marketable as well. Everything else is just noise.

  • Anonymous

    If a web designer doesn’t know how to code html or css, they are certainly not going to get a job around here…

  • I was surprised to see so many people supporting the “webdesigners should be proficient with HTML-CSS coding” view. I expected something like 30-40 per cent, not 70 per cent.

    I think there are two reasons for that:
    1. The poll didn’t define what a “web designer” is, and failed to use more precise words (avoiding the controversial “web designer” altogether), so many people used a definition very common in the English-speaking world: “somebody who does websites for clients”. (On the other hand, for me, “web design” is graphic design for the web. So i’m more inclined to say that graphic designers working for the Web medium don’t have to know how to code, even though knowing the basics might help. (It might hinder them too if they’re no front-end development experts, and don’t know what the full technical possibilities are!)
    2. It seems there are a lot of freelancers on SitePoint. Freelancers might favor people learning a full spectrum of skills (graphic design, front-end developement, server-side development, SEO, usability, web marketing, and more). On the other hand, people working in big webdesign studios might push for specialization, and it’s probably easier for them picturing a graphic designer doing great mock-ups and graphic layouts… and never ever messing around with code.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more and I too was surprised by the percentages. I wonder if it truly does come down to conflicts in definition or marketplace?

      It seems that from my perspective, there are creative directors or designers who are involved in coming up with the concepts to encompass the whole brand from print, television, radio and yes the web. Below them are the various people and/or teams that are tasked with translating the branding vision to the various mediums.

      For most jobs even the big ones, it’s only a few people who actually touch the presentational layer (html/css). The designers don’t need or more importantly don’t have time to dabble in html/css.

      Well that’s been my experience anyway.

      • Stomme poes

        If the question were made broader (does a front-ender need to know back-end stuff) you’d maybe see something similar. Personally, I consider PHP and mySQL back-end stuff, but if you look at jobs for “front-enders” they usually expect you to know LAMP/etc related things.

      • I think that’s always been the case…

        I’ve seen job postings looking for ‘designers’ with a list of developer related items as being beneficial. Nothings changed regarding this in the last 10 or 12 years. When I look for someone for front end, that’s it… I want front end and conversely if I want someone for back end coding, I don’t expect them to do any html layout from PSD files.

  • Kaje

    Finding a great programmer/coder that is a good designer is also a rare breed! The question is should programmers learn to design?

    • Anonymous

      Is design something that can be taught? Great design comes from natural talent. I think you are fortunate to have a designer who also codes, but finding a programmer who can design and design well, that is rare…

      It seems more realistic for a designer to learn to code than a programmer to learn to design.

  • Anonymous

    I think it depends on the situation. Being a one-man-show I need to know everything. Even so, I like to design the mock-up and continue the design in a browser since thats where it will end up anyway. So my answer is yes designers should have a good knowledge of HTML and CSS IMO.

  • cstalker

    In my opinion ,it depends on your situation. Being a one-man-show, I need to know everything I can for now. Even if that were not so… I feel a designer should have a good working knowledge of HTML and CSS. In my case, I like to design a mock-up and finish the designing in the browser since that’s where it will end up

    Chris S

  • brad

    There is an obvious answer to this question. It depends what is expected of the person to provide to their company. It is what you define a web designer as.

    In a strict sense, a web designer takes a design from a UI designer, and interprets it into HTML/CSS, making it a live living work. The UI designer is the one who draws it, and needs no knowledge of HTML or CSS or anything that has to do with coding.

    The true steps to designing a website with specialized professionals is:

    1) UI Designer creates the conceptual design. Their output is wireframes and screenshots and some documents explaining user interaction.

    2) Web Designer takes the outputs from the UI designers, and creates working, breathing web pages.

    3) Web Developers takes the output from the web designers and plug in the modules to make the system connect to a database.

    I am a web developer. Our company has worked with a web designer who was also the UI designer. I have worked with UI designers and I was the web developer. Currently we have a third party firm who are the UI designers, and they are handing the design to us, and the developers are the web designers.

    If you say you build websites, but you don’t make the HTML/CSS, you are a UI designer explaining to people you are a web designer because they don’t know what a UI designer is, or what UI stands for.

  • Great designers just need to be great designers. That’s a monumental task in itself and it doesn’t make a lick of difference whether they know their HTML’s from their CSS’s as long as they can come up with compelling concepts, designs, and layouts.

    I have worked with “web” files from designers in the past and it has never been an efficient way to go about it. Send me some pdf roughs so we can go over the design and cover any technical issues that might arise then send Photoshop file so I can get into production. It’s that easy.

  • W2ttsy

    I think one of the biggest assets a designer needs is to understand how the web works. I’ve worked with some designers who understand what UI elements work, and others who think the web is just a book on a computer screen.

    Ultimately, a designer (the adobe kind) should understand what can and cant be done effectively across all browsers, what will aid users and what will ruin the experience for them. Those who can create effective sites, while still keeping the usability under control will be the best designers… They dont need to know how to code, thats a developers role. But they do need to know how a page is assembled…

  • greenday

    70% = we win.

    Next question:
    Should coders implementing the html/css be familiar with the basic design principles of C.R.A.P.?

    On a couple occasions we’ve been hired to design templates AND we decided to do the css as well because it seemed like the sensible thing to do. The client’s developers decided to work from the .psd instead and their results were a total mockery of the original design.

    For starters, NOTHING LINED UP. Every element was off by at least 4 pixels.

    Then they tried to take the design element in the .psd and apply them to brand new areas of the site that didn’t exist when we designed it. Things just didn’t fit. It was horrible

    • I wonder if that’s a left hand / right hand issue or that they needed new elements but didn’t take the same care and attention to the job that you did… There is no shortage of crap developers who don’t take care and attention in what they’re doing or worse, think they have a clue about design.

    • W2ttsy

      conversely, what was the quality of your code? did you use absolute positioning to line stuff up so perfectly? Was your HTML semantic? Yes, coders can break designs, especially if they have to invent layouts, but really it shouldnt be left to either party 100%…

      I’ve worked for several design focused companies now, and the winner has always been close collaboration between designers and devs with question time, feedback sessions and spec reviews.

      Leaving this sort of stuff to the very end produces the sort of complaints others have described. Just like waiting til the end for IE testing.

  • Anonymous

    We have two designers and three programmers at our office and we work together to build fantastic websites that both look stunning and function properly and efficiently. It is a team effort.

    Being one of the designers I benefit tremendously knowing how to build a static site in HTML/CSS and I know the programmers appreciate that we can build a site with our designs, it leaves a lot less work for them to figure out how to make a good design function as a website.

    Yes. I think designers benefit from knowing HTML/CSS, and I don’t think it hinders the design, only challenges them to make great designs that work!

  • Prodac

    I think that to call yourself a Web Designer, both desig, HTML and CSS is an essential skill you should master.

  • PixelCrayons

    Well, I think it is not necessary that designers should ought to have knowledge of coding. Moreover, it is time-consuming job. So it is better not to delay the projects and hire PSD to HTML service provider. It would increase the quality and efficiency of the work Even if designer is quite good and skillful at coding, then also there always comes a time to outsource the work of coding so as to save time and efforts. This avoids designers to get over burdened and over stressed with work.

  • Perhaps this should be a Poll Question– Who would you hire first first: a coder who can design, or a designer who can code?

    • Neither… I haven’t met any (in either camp) who can do both at a professional level.

      I know good designers who can kludge a page together and it might work in their browser of choice but is full of tag soup. Conversely, I know good developers who will try their hand at design or layout and fail miserably.

      For professional level development, you want the best of both worlds so I’m afraid, you’ll have to hire an expert of each.

  • NewEraWebdesigns

    Web designers should totally code. How else will they learn to create proper and appropriate mock-up for development? Developer/Programmers are generally not the creative types …. they’re more concerned w functionality. Where as a designer is concerned with the look and the feel of the website to the consumer or target audience, both aspects are equally important you can’t have one w/o the other.

  • I think web designers should be able to code. I myself, am a web designer but I also know how to efficiently code websites, which helps in creating mock-ups and final designs for websites.

  • Maybe it comes down to definitions… I think (and it’s taken some time to come to this conclusion) the term “web designer” is too generic. Anyone can walk in a coffee shop with a laptop and designer shades, sit down and say, I’m a web designer. Maybe they are…

    …But what does it actually mean to be a web designer? Do you design in the traditional sense with a sketchpad and then move it to the screen or do you push pixels?

    This is a really thought provoking article on the subject that was written about 9 years ago:

  • camslice

    i started out as a graphic designer, taught myself web design under the guidance of a programmer. now i can design really nice layouts and code cross browser compatible standards compliant XHTML & CSS.
    i’ve also started teaching myself jQuery for extra functionality & visual effects.
    apparently we are a rare breed. i can understand why, it’s hard to keep both your coding skills up and your design aesthetic and inspiration fresh.

Get the latest in Front-end, once a week, for free.