designing ebooks and other fun things

Ask a designer: coding and other distractions


This post is part of the Ask a Designer series. You ask me questions, I answer them to the best of my ability. The questions can be about design process, branding, software, technical things — or even completely unrelated. Want to play? Leave me a comment here, or use the contact form. I will answer it in a few days.


In graphic design related subjects, my hugest concern has always been design coding for websites/blogs! I never seemed to be able to commit to just that: code, everytime because there were a lot of details that were occupying my thinking resources: writing subjects, the graphics themselves, the php scrypts to hunt, the good practices to apply, etc etc.

My question to you Lisa: are you a coder as well as a graphic designer? If yes, does coding disturbs your creativity in graphic design? Because in my case, it does horribly, and I’d like to find a solution.

by Karim


This question has two parts to it, so let me tackle the easier one first:

I am not really a coder.

I am a closet geek, and I know more about PHP, HTML and CSS than I let on – but this is not a main skill for me, nor do I want it to be. And, while this website you are looking at (as well as several others) was created by me,  I am quite happy to outsource the coding part when I am working on the bigger projects.

Because, to me, focusing on one thing is what works best.

This is true on more levels: I find that I write best if I don’t think about the images that will accompany my writing, or which word should be made bolder. I come up with the best concepts when I don’t worry about execution at the same time. In fact, I do my best creative work away from the computer. With pen, pencils, and paper. Without thinking about the technical implementation of whatever it is I am coming up with.

That doesn’t mean I don’t worry about it at all, mind you.

It just means I worry about it later. As the next step.

And that brings us to the second part of the answer: clarity on the concept should come before everything else.

This isn’t true just for website projects – though in all the website projects that I worked on, the first step is always the mock-up. No coding, not even super defined images – just a rough mock-up with the most important elements in place.

What are those most important elements? This will vary based on the project, but they are the ones that communicate the main message most clearly. They can be words or visual representations, but these are the building blocks. In the case of my website, the header you see at the top of this page is one such element. It really shows how I approach the projects I work on. It’s playful yet professional, and it shows off my skills. Other such element is my manifesto, and that is all about what I have to say. Of course, those words had to be prominent as well, and that is why you see a quote from it on my home page.

I could have wasted a couple of years making those elements even better, finding a “cooler” way to represent the concept in the header, or making that quote on the home page flashier somehow, interactive, making sure it has the cleanest code possible, etc.

To me though, that would be a pretty deep rabbit hole and I am not sure when I would emerge from it. And so I establish priorities with my own projects, just as I do with my clients’ projects.

One such priority is the time and effort it takes to complete it – while still answering my criteria of good design and clear message.

Could I have gone and made that header better, shinier, more interactive? Could I have added something more? Sure. It would have probably involved hiring a photographer and spending many more hours and extra money trying to find the best way.

The way it was actually done was finding a stock photo that I could retouch and manipulate – a process I know takes me no longer than a couple of hours.

“Could I do this better?” is not a question I ask myself. Anything and everything can be made better, given time and resources.

The question is, does it communicate what I want it to communicate?

And if the answer is yes, I move on.

There is always time to make it better. There is always, always room for improvement. But if I focus on the message – and I always do – it will still accomplish its main objective.

Design — or any creative process — is very open-ended. If you don’t establish priorities, or what exactly this project has to accomplish in order to be complete, you will never be finished.

Focusing on one thing at a time – be it copy, design, or code – keeps me from getting distracted. If I tried jumping back and forth between them, I’d probably never finish anything. And establishing priorities – or making mock-ups that show the main elements – gives me a defined end point.

At least for the version 1.0. There is always a possibility for 1.1 etc. in the future – but most often, we end up worrying too much about details that aren’t really essential to the big picture – and depriving our potential customers and fans of something they need while we try to figure out how to make it absolutely perfect. Keeping that in mind helps me finish my own projects — rather than keep them as work-in-progress indefinitely.

7 Comments on this Post.

  1. Hi Lisa!

    This was a GREAT question and your answer nailed it! I have a nasty habit of trying to get things just perfect before I move forward, but your approach makes so much sense. Better to focus on the big picture and go step by step through each task full-on, rather than get mired in looking for perfection (and never finishing anything). As you say, there’s always a way to make it better, so might as well go ahead and just get stuff DONE.

    • lisa

      Thanks Tisha!

      Of course the only reason I am able to answer this question is because I have fallen victim to the very same thing many times — more than I care to remember.
      My approach was born from paying attention to this, from noticing how I could endlessly tweak graphics and colors, or search through pages and pages of google results on new and improved ways to implement a certain bit of functionality — only to get so lost in the details that I forget about the big picture.

      Of course, I think it is still a good idea to edit and refine — but for me, it’s usually best to do it once most of the pieces have been pulled together and a couple of days have passed, so that I am not still so deeply in the process that touching one thing would make me change a thousand others.

      It’s also a good idea to ask for feedback on the first rough mock-up or draft — to see if others get that main message. Then I know if I am on the right track!

      Thanks for stopping by! Please feel free to ask your own question — or a follow-up one. I am loving this format; I think many many interesting topics will come up from the discussion.

  2. Hi Lisa!

    Thank you so much for your reply, very cool, and to the point : )

    – Outsourcing coding: ‘been thinking about it, can’t yet hire someone yet, but would like to meet someone reliable for future projects, so if you know someone you can recommend, I’ll cnsider that person.

    – Concept clarity: you meant the general brand identity? Or the business/marketing communication related with visual communication? Whatever it is, I understand, the whole ‘thing’ has to be simple, easy to understand and use, and most importantly: effective, which should be a logical result.

    – Heading: I thought you made the banner graphics using two softwares: a 3D software for creating object volumes, and a 2D software to create 2D graphic design mapping.
    But now that you mention there were no 3D stuff involved, I am impressed by the lights and shadows and color tones!

    – Avoiding perfectionnism: totally! Sometimes I get stuck inside, and even though I kind of know how to get rid of that (I wrote some articles about how to kill perfectionnism) this phenomenon reappears sometimes for a reason or another, but it’s fine when I’m still able to “show” some of my productions, even though they are far from being what I really wanted them to be : ) (you’re right, time will come for making things always better!)

    – Focusing on one thing at a time: totally what I should be doing all the time! Progress have been made by deciding to finish some tasks by a clear date and hour. The only way to finish things in my case, I find (but not just that: eliminating any possible risk to see the project stopped by external elements, like relying on someone else to pay for some online services when you can’t, even if you gave them 100 times more money than needed!)
    Total control on all the aspects of a personal project, is key too.

    Well, I’m excited with my current project, the blog isn’t even touched yet, but it will be created tomorrow, just like that: Vlam! Lol.

    Thank you Lisa for your support and advice, it’s very valuable to me, and I’m touched that you wrote a whole article as a reply to my question, even if that was what you planned from the beginning : )

    I’ll have many other questions, but they can wait for now, until then, thanks again and have a beautiful day!

    Warm regards


    • lisa

      Thank you Karim, I am glad that the reply was helpful.

      Just a quick note on outsourcing coding: once you are ready to hire someone, we can discuss this more on Twitter or Skype.

      Concept clarity: if you are building a new brand, then sure, the general brand identity. However, for every single ad, book cover or layout, postcard, header, whatever — there is a main message. It depends on what it is, but generally this question helps figure it out: if after seeing it, people will only remember ONE thing, ONE sentence (let’s say 6-7 words, or less) — what would you want it to be? That, right there is the main message, the concept.

      And thank you for the compliments on the header. Your way sounds much more complicated, actually. I don’t really do 3D, except as a hobby. For graphics, 2D is plenty!

      I hear you on perfectionism. I have the tendency as well, and it’s by conscious practice that I have taught myself to just get things done. And focusing on one thing at a time really, really helps.

      I am looking forward to seeing your new blog. I am sure you will feel much better — and more sure of your direction — once you launch. Changes can also be made after; just jump in for now!

      And if you ever have any other questions I can help with, please come on over and post them! I am truly enjoying this format of posting, and I think it’s helpful for me as well as for you, as it helps me get some direction of what I should write about.

      Thanks again, and hope to see you soon!

      • Thank you Lisa for your clarifications and encouragements!

        Infact I’m not into 3D, I just observed a friend who was working with 3D S Max once (I even wonder if this soft is still called like that, aficionados were calling it 3DS,) and he explained the complexity of learning to -1 understand sources of lights without envolving the software at all, and 2-learn to use the light sources options inside 3DSmax…

        My little blog is planned for tomorrow at the end of the day, will keep you notified, I’ll be open for suggestions related to graphic design too!

        I’m glad you found a good way to make it easier for you choosing new article topics for your readers, I can tell you right away what I learned not too long ago when I was doing some searches on coders designers:

        I found that people (generally clients of a designer,) once their blog or site is designed, they need to learn how to handle small tasks like resizing a picture, changing it’s position in the body of the text/design of the website or blog, and sometimes even how to insert photos into a blog post!

        I think you know better than me those subjects, and a possible series you could make, are very simple tutorials for people who are still learning how to get the most out of their cool blog : )

        I’ll use the main Ask A Designer page to ask other questions as they come to my mind.

        Thank you again Lisa, have a relaxing night! See you!

        Cool Regards,

        • lisa

          Thanks for the suggestions Karim!
          I do want this blog to focus more on the Why than the How — unless someone were to ask a specific question on how, hence this column. Besides, I always wanted a Q&A column!
          And there are plenty of others who write those super-simple tutorials.

          And I am glad that so far the questions are deep and make me think, rather than just asking a quick how-to.
          So please feel free to stop by with others! And I am looking forward to seeing your site — is it up yet???

          • Hey Lisa!

            It’s true that it’s easy to find good tutorials everywhere else (even yours there : ) and getting the most from Lisa should be subjects related with style, cute graphic outfits guts and charming communication : )

            Let me charge up some good questions in those contexts, will share them with you in the Ask A Designer section, thank you again for your cool reply!

            Have a cool evening!

            With heart felt fries ^^

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