One of my subscribers, Erwin asked me this question just the other day. As I was replying I started to realise this probably warrants some further analysis, so let's get down to it!
Let's start with the very basic (and probably somewhat obvious) answer. Can you develop a website without really knowing design? Of course! Will it look like shit? Very possibly! At the very simplest level, development is just that. Write some code, create a website. What is looks like that at that point is pretty much irrelevant, it exists and that's it. You didn't use any design skills to get to that point.
Of course, we all know that's not exactly realistic. Not only do you need to develop the website, you need to make sure it looks good too. That's slightly more tricky. At that point, design will come into play, there's no two ways about it. The more pertinent question then becomes - where does the design come from?
You may have won at life, and are one of these people that can turn your hand to anything and be instantly good at it, without even trying. If you are, I hate you. You guys could probably quite easily develop a website and almost without thinking style it beautifully in no time at all. Design flare comes naturally to you, and you're wondering what all the fuss is about. Basically you can stop reading right here if you like, because you struck gold.
Other people (myself included) are way more comfortable in a code editor tapping away at the keys than using gradient layers in Photoshop. Design doesn't come naturally to us, we're not creative enough to think up unique, stylish designs easily. It takes us a long time experimenting with things to actually come up with something that looks half decent. Once something is in place - we can look at it and say "That padding isn't quite enough, let's increase it", or "That text needs to stand out more, let's make it bigger". But coming up with an overall design is not our strong point.
Fortunately, my current job doesn't require me to do so. My boss is a graphic designer. In most cases, he will create designs in Photoshop, I will open the file and start creating a website based on that. For me, this is perfect. My development skills are being put to best use, and I'm not spending hours deciding between ten different shades of turquoise - something that would take him two seconds. Sometimes, there won't be a Photoshop design - but the client will have seen a website they really like and you then have a source of inspiration which you know is going to work.
Chances are, if you are employed (as opposed to freelancing) you will also be in a similar situation. You will be on the payroll as a web developer, and - depending on your job description - your tasks will reflect that (ignoring all the hours spent on Reddit while your boss isn't looking). If you're employed as a web developer, then usually it's going to be expected that your talents lie in programming, and not design. You're not a web designer after all. That's a completely different job, and the clue lies in the title.
On the other hand, if you are freelancing I would imagine your design skills need to be better. Full disclosure here - having never freelanced before, I have absolutely no idea if what I'm about to write is correct - but it's an educated guess based on what I think would be the case. If you have any actual experience then please share in the comments section below!
I would expect that if you are in this situation, there are a few possible sources where the design for the website might come from.
- The client. Maybe they're really creative and have already drawn up a design that they love, and just need someone to turn it into a working website for them. Step right up, developerman!
- A graphic designer you know. If you'll be making a habit of this freelancing lark, and you know your design skills are pants, it might be a good idea to start working with a quality web designer so you have a source of fantastic designs to use.
- Yourself (kindof). The Internet is a very big place. There are lots of great looking websites out there. They surely might inspire some people to create other (very similar) looking websites of their own... surely? You see where I'm going with this. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And you wouldn't be the first, trust me. I'm not saying make a duplicate of another website. Look around, get some ideas of what looks good and incorporate all those ideas into your own site.
Either way, as a web developer it is completely possible to get by without possessing great design skill. I know from personal (albeit limited) experience. It might vary depending on the direction you intend to go in, but there will always be options available to you that will let you focus on what you love doing... developing!
Do you disagree? Have you got experience freelancing and can share some valuable insight in that area? I'd love to hear from you! Please add a comment below.