Getting Back That Lovin’ Feeling

Designing for the web and not writing project code can sometimes be frustrating. Jeremy shares how getting his hands into the code gave him the thrill he'd been missing for years.

I love to create. I like getting my hands dirty in a project whether it be physical or digital. I love getting into the creative zone and coming out the other side with something tangible that I can be proud of. I love the feeling of creating something out of nothing and presenting it to a client or seeing someone’s reaction to what I’ve created. Whether the feedback is good or bad, I’ve found it’s what drives me, keeps me motivated and I think contributes to keeping me creative. I’d suspect that most designers feel this way.

This feeling drove me for quite a long time. From my college days until a few years ago, it was a feeling that I felt often. I’m not saying that to brag—I simply mean that in my beginning years, I was doing a lot of work with quick turnarounds, and it required quick feedback. My work in branding and print in the early 2000's didn’t take several consecutive weeks or months to crank out an end product like it does on the web.

Designing for the Web Hurt

So when I started designing for the web a few years ago, things were very different. The static designs I created in Photoshop were being translated into code by someone else, and the end product that resulted of course never looked exactly like what I designed. Sometimes the differences were subtle; sometimes major things changed. I spent so much time tweaking spacing and typography in Photoshop, and even though I was always in contact with the developers (often sitting next to them), it still never turned out quite how I had envisioned, and often that was okay. Still, it was very frustrating, and I felt guilty for feeling that way. It was frustrating because that design was so close to me. I had spent all that time refining it for naught.

Responsive Web Design Broke My Spirit

Then good ol’ responsive came along and added to the frustration for me. Not only did I have to think about what a desktop-width site looked like, but it was constantly flexing, changing proportions and hierarchy. The nerve! Tweaking spacing and proportions in my Photoshop doc seemed even more futile since everything was different depending on the viewport width. This contributed to my frustration of the websites I designed rarely feeling polished. They lacked the small things—the subtle nuances of line spacing to font size, of relationships of elements to one another. In my mind, this frustration simply stemmed from the fact that things didn’t look the way I wanted them to. But I would find out it was more than that.

I thought things would get better as we continued developing responsive websites. I was (and still am) the only dedicated, full-time designer in house. We were all learning this new technique, so I figured that things would eventually iron themselves out. This wasn’t the case. I remained frustrated with the fact that our sites lacked polish.

Getting Dirty with Code

So, finally, a few months back I asked Adam, a frontend dev at Sparkbox, to get me up to speed on how our dev process was working and how to get a site in development running locally. I had been learning HTML and CSS slowly over the previous couple years, enough so to feel somewhat comfortable asking the question. My end goal was to be able to do some of the CSS polish myself at the end of a project since much of the time this phase of a project got lopped off at the end due to budget or other pressing issues. I had normally done these tasks teaming up with a dev, but I found that often, the end result I was happy with took some experimentation. I wanted to see what it would be like to experiment myself.

So I finally got up and running while we were working on the Build Right website, an internal project that houses the details of the workshops we run. I had previously been working with Github and editing the code for the Style Protoypes we created for clients, but to get a site in development up and running locally on my machine was a different story. After familiarizing myself with our code structure, I tweaked colors, background images, spacing, and type sizes, and I submitted my first-ever pull request. Yes, I was scared I’d screw something up. But I didn’t.

Then something surprising happened: yes, those little annoying polish things that haunted me at the end of the project were gone. But it was much more than that. It was the same feeling I felt when I completed a project years before. And it came from getting my hands dirty in the code—albeit how minor it was. Contributing something tangible to the project in its final form was amazing and exhilarating. It felt like I was again doing what I was made to do–creating. This experience is something I’d absolutely recommend to any web designer who hasn’t experienced it. I promise you’ll be better for it.