Ahh, coding. It’s literally like another language -- and an important one at that. The question for many of us non-developers or non-technical professionals is whether we really need to spend that much time learning about it, especially if we will only ever use it at a beginner level. For some, the simple fact we’d ask that question is astonishing — it’s a resounding ‘yes’ in their mind. To others, it’s a question of will you really benefit from having a basic understanding of coding?
I’d love to give you a straightforward answer, but unfortunately, it’s just not that simple. That’s why we’re going to break down the various arguments around coding and whether you, as a designer or marketer, should set aside the hours to learn to code, or not.
Firstly, let’s start with the basics and fill in the background on coding before we delve deeper into things.
Let’s just begin by saying that coding is how you tell a computer what to do, and the computer relies on that code to operate. You use code every time you watch a YouTube video, send a Tweet or swipe a bank card — it’s literally all around you.
Essentially, a code is a recipe book for a computer. A precise set of instructions that the computer can use to execute on tasks required by the user. Just with recipes and real life, there might be slightly different versions of code, or they might be written in different languages. For example, you might have heard of ‘Python,’ ‘Ruby,’ ‘PHP,’ ‘SQL,’ Core java or ‘C++.’ These are all different coding languages, and there are many more.
But you don't need to be a computer science major to get the hang of it.
For the sake of simplicity, we’ll go ahead and split coding into two parts: front-end and back-end. In short, the front-end is everything that you can see on a website, app or piece of software. It’s the visual elements that make up the website design or app design and thus, the parts that the user interacts with. The back-end, also known as the ‘server-side,’ is essentially what keeps everything running.
Using the classic analogy of a car usually helps. The front-end is everything that you see, what it sounds like, what it feels like, and what shape it is. The back-end is the engine and internal system that makes it move and keeps it running.
For now, let’s not worry about the back-end because in most cases a designer or marketer won’t have to worry about that, certainly not as a beginner.
So, getting down to the real question at hand. Let’s paint a picture of the typical scenario that most non-technical people face today. At some point, regardless of your profession, you’ll probably have encountered a moment where you didn’t understand how something on the internet worked.
Maybe it was a form that you’d designed or wanted to embed into your website to improve conversion rates. Maybe it was a broken graphic on the landing page you’d created copy for and after you’d inserted the text the graphic stopped working. Maybe it was that the headings on the homepage of your website weren’t displaying in the correct size.
It doesn’t matter what, but at one point or another if you’ve ever experienced this and not known what to do you’ll likely have contacted a developer or someone who codes to help.
What you might not have realized is that in each of the above scenarios the problem can usually be solved by tweaking or changing a simple piece of front-end code. This is an important point for a few reasons:
So, yes, It is helpful to take some time to demystify code and develop a basic understanding of how a code is used. But you don't need to go to a fancy code school or anything. There are many useful learning resources online that can help you get a better understanding of a certain topic.
This is primarily the reason most designer or marketers have decided to learn to code in recent years. It also relieves the unnecessary guilt and anxiety over “not knowing how to code” which can often hamper a person's confidence and ability to create and launch pages, posts or add-ons to a website.
Naturally, although coding is a helpful skill to learn purely on the premise that you’ll be free of the anxiety of not knowing how to do it, it will differ from person to person as to how important a skill it is.
For example, for a UX designer, it could certainly be argued that your desire to learn code should be higher than a social media marketer. Although it might be helpful for a social media marketer to know some basic HTML or CSS, it’s unlikely that they’ll use it on a daily or even weekly basis. Whereas a UX designer can expect to use and require an understanding of coding every day.
With that in mind, there are a few things to ask yourself that can help you figure out just how important it is for YOU to learn to code, or not.
Are you currently in a role that requires less than a weekly use of coding? If so, and you want to remain in that field for the foreseeable future, you might not need to place great importance on coding. If you want to move into a different role that you think might require knowledge of coding then that’s a different proposition altogether.
If you have an idea for where you’d like to be in two, five or 10 years time, you might also want to consider what your potential employers think about coding skills.
Firstly, if you enjoy coding and and are getting excited about a coding test, that’s more than enough support for you to put importance on it. You just have to weigh up the time and effort with your other tasks. If you feel like you’re being pressurized into learning code without really understanding the importance of it then you might want to consider why the person (maybe your manager) wants you to learn to code in the first place.
Even if you don’t see it as important doesn’t mean that it isn’t important for your team or colleagues (see example above regarding how your lack of coding knowledge takes up the time of developers).
Marketers have had a particularly turbulent time of it in recent years when it comes to the skills required for success in the industry.
Should you be a specialist or should you be a jack of all trades? Should your role overlap with designers or should you work with them rather than instead of them? Should you learn to code or should you stick to what you do best — marketing?
Designers have also faced their fair share of questions. Should I just hand-off my designs to someone to code? They’ll create exactly what I need and want, right? Should I know how they’re building my app or does it not matter?
While these are all valid questions, in relation to the latter in particular, the case probably stands that it's best to know the basics of coding to be safe rather than sorry or stuck. As a marketer or a designer, you’re always looking to take action on your ideas and implement strategies. And due to the increasing reliance on the internet, it’s important for you to understand how things work so you can ensure your goals are met and your plans are successfully implemented.
For example, let’s use a sign-up form again as a classic scenario for a marketer. You’ve got your landing page, you’ve set up your paid campaign and everything is ready for launch. However, you’re experiencing an issue with your sign-up form — no biggie, it’s only the most important part of the entire page!
By having an understanding of how front-end development works in most cases you’ll be able to spend 10-15 minutes diagnosing and then fixing any small issues. This is unlikely to hamper any deadlines and you’ll also be able to maintain the page and campaign while it runs, without any help from your development team — unless things get really out of hand.
The previous point suggests that as a marketer or designer you should only learn the basics, but if you want to you can certainly take things a bit further and learn to code to an advanced level. Why? Well, once again this boils down to the simple fact that as a marketer or designer, particularly a freelancer, you’re competing against millions of other people in your field.
You need to think what can help you stand out amongst the others based on what clients might require from you. In a large number of cases that will be someone who is creative and technical at the same time.
What’s more, in practical terms you can use your knowledge of coding to not only ‘wow’ current clients, but also attract new ones. Custom building your website or creating visual elements that increase your leads and conversion rates are a great way to use your own work as evidence of your skills.
The million dollar question, quite literally in some cases with agencies and design companies worth millions — how to learn code from scratch. Learning to code as a designer or marketer might seem daunting at first but there are plenty of resources available — no expensive code school necessary.
What’s more, most of them are free, so you don’t need to worry about forking out for lessons or classes to learn the basics. Here are three places that are great if you want to dabble in some code learning activities:
One of the first things you should, and now can do, is probably to give your website or portfolio a spring clean. It’s a great way for you to experiment with some ideas that you’ve picked up while learning to code.
You might also want to take some time to see how current features on your own site work. Maybe you can optimize the navigation now that you know how to add in a custom drop-down menu, for example?
Just an hour of coding a day can help you go from beginner to expert.
Another common task you can carry out is to sign up for some low paying, simple coding projects on places such as Fiverr. You’ll be able to help people who were beginners a few months ago and it’s a great way for you to get used to working with a client on a project that is out of your comfort zone.
Hopefully, if you take away one thing from this article it’s that learning to code will be a helpful exercise regardless of your current role or interests. It just takes some hands-on experience and problem-solving skills. Some other key points to keep in mind are:
With all of this in mind, you should be more than ready to dive headfirst into the world of coding and flex those computer science muscles, even as a beginner. Your superiors will be impressed, your peers will be envious and you’ll be on cloud nine knowing you now have a skill you never thought you’d be able to master.