Understanding the material

This week I started teaching our front-end development course to a few classes of students in the second year at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, where I work. One of the first questions I asked my students is why is this an important course, even for people who do not want to become a front-end developer. They all agreed that it makes complete sense to understand the material of the web if you want to create or design stuff for the web. Everybody I spoke to was looking forward to improving their HTML and CSS skills. You can understand that I am a very lucky lecturer, teaching a class like this.

This discussion used to be much harder in the past. Some designers really didn’t want to understand the constraints — and thereby the possibilities — of the web. They thought that understanding how things work technically would limit their creativity. While working with the constraints and possibilities of Photoshop would somehow not be a problem. This was, and still is, a very common way of thinking among designers in the Netherlands.

Today Stephen Hay published an article about the question if designers should know how to code. It’s brilliant as all his writing, you should really read it. In it he writes that tooling became much better in recent years. Everybody would still benefit from knowing how to write code, but maybe not as much as a few years back. This is of course true. Like everything Stephen writes, really. I just don’t like the idea of depending on tools, so I’d like to add this little personal warning to his article: Understanding a tool is really something else than understanding the material your medium is made of. And depending on a tool, even if it’s fantastic today, also makes you work within the limits of that tool, which will always be a subset of the possibilities of the raw material.

So sure, go ahead and use tools that help you accomplish your tasks easier, faster and better. Just make sure you never depend on them.