This is an article I wrote for the D&AD University Network last month. I will be making regular contributions to this education resource in the coming months.
To Code or not to Code?
When I was 22 I quit my corporate print job at a reputable London agency in search of something beyond 8 Page Brochures and Quark Express. I didn’t know what I was going to do but I knew it had to be something different.
My friend, a Technical Consultant for the aforementioned agency learned of my desire to move on and invited me to work on location on a film set in Venice creating a website for the film maker Mike Figgis. ‘But I don’t know anything about websites, I’ve never designed one’ I said, in a bizarre attempt to talk him out of offering me a job in Italy for 6 weeks in the company of Salma Hayek and John Malkovich, to which he replied: ‘I don’t want you to know anything about websites, I want you to come up with ideas.”
8 years, one BAFTA and a load of FWA awards later that visionary programmer is my business partner and we run a niche digital agency specialising in Film and Entertainment clients. And we’ve never hired a web designer.
We are a design-led agency. We cannot be true to that principle if our designers are asking themselves ‘how?’ before they think about ‘why?’. It’s a case of being technically agnostic – we will design something first and then decide how to build it. If a designer isn’t concerned with the build it keeps the design fresh, appropriate and unaffected. An old creative Director once told me not to have ‘scissors in your head’ – cutting off ideas before they can even form, we feel that a little technical knowledge is just the kind of scissors he was talking about.
We therefore hire designers on the basis of their ideas and visual skills across any medium and pure coders with absolutely no ambition to design. Put simply we’re wary of the jack of all trades and master of none – the kids that do both tend to do neither well.
But how does that thinking sit with students? If they have a great digital idea should it stay as an idea until they can build it properly or should they have a go – cobble it together with Dreamweaver, Flash and a bit of help from a mate’s brother? Let’s face it aspiring creatives have to shoot their own photos and films, bind their own books, and find a million other ‘cheats’ to realise big ideas at education level so is digital any different these days?
Most probably not. I guess my fear is that a little knowledge can sometimes be a dangerous thing and whilst I would encourage emerging designers to engage with new media, to love it and to understand its power I would urge them to not to get bogged down in the technical details. Learn enough to get your idea working, if possible collaborate with a technical student the way you would with a photographer or an animator, get good advice and keep it simple. (And once you have done don’t put ‘proficient in Flash 10’ on your CV if you aren’t. )
I’d love to hear about innovative ways design students have realised digital ideas and how the industry can help guide the development of great cross-media designers without forcing them all down a half-coded fudge that leaves them confused and overwhelmed. Answers on a postcard. Or on the blog. It’s not about the medium, its about the message!