Developers aren’t designers

I know a fair bit of CSS.  I know about the three pixel bug, I’ve even contributed IE5 fixes to three column layout solutions.  However, I’ve just been reminded extremely forcefully of my limitations.

As is pretty obvious, I’m using SubText as my blogging engine.  It’s a good, fully featured system that supports more use cases than you might imagine if you’re still thinking “How hard can it be to write a blog engine?”.  It comes with a number of default skins and a “Naked” skin for developing your own skins.

The skinning system is really powerful and very easy to understand.  Still, I highly recommend avoiding it.  Six hours later and I’ve re-learned what I already knew: developers aren’t designers.  Don’t get me wrong, it was alright, in a Web 1.0 kind of a way.  I could have spent a couple of days learning Photoshop and getting rounded corners and gradients working.  I could have banged my head against a wall for several days trying to figure out why IE rendered a block one way on my local machine and another once I’d uploaded the skin.  The fact remains, at the end of the day, in that time I’d still have something that looked like a MySpace page, because visual design isn’t my strength.  In that time, I could have done something far more rewarding, like writing another article or watching Wall-E.

You want some evidence?  I’m afraid I’m too embarrassed by my own effort to publish it.  Take a look at Ayende’s site.  Cracking content, amateur design.  Now take a look at this one.  This is the weblog of the guy who wrote SubText.  Looks a lot better, doesn’t it?  That’s because the developer of SubText didn’t write his own skin.  This is Adam Smith’s theory of comparative advantage writ large.  Or, to put it another way, yet another example of why you should buy rather than build.  (Writing your own blog engine is another, although that hasn’t stopped Martin Fowler, another case of amateur design and fabulous content.)

So, if you’re blogging, what are your choices?

  • Be a crack visual designer
  • Buy a skin
  • Use one of the defaults

In practice, only really the third option was open to me.  So, having spent a week publishing using the Origami skin, I’m now publishing using a slightly modified Origami skin slightly more to my taste.

It seems like sooner or later, every blog becomes about blogging.  Let’s hope it’s just a phase.  Scott Hanselman recently said exactly the same thing, although he wasn’t talking about blogging at the time.  However, wheras I’ve just wasted six hours of my own time, it’s amazing how many companies delegate design duties to developers or other unskilled workers.  The results are predictable, and much more costly than one night’s sleep.

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P.S. After reading all of this and you still want to give it a go, Simon Phils has written an excellent guide to the architecture.

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Julian Birch

Full time dad, does a bit of coding on the side.

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