BOSTON—In the creative world of rich Internet applications and the growing importance of user experience in Web applications and other forms of rich content for business and entertainment, developers and designers are bound to butt heads more than ever before. Yet, two young Turks in the field ask why they all just cant get along.
In a presentation at the Flashforward conference here Sept. 20, Marc Leuchner, a designer and developer at Boston advertising agency Almighty Boston, and Matt Wright, a graphic designer-turned-Adobe Flash developer at Rokkan Media in New York, tried to educate a crowd of designers and developers on how they can better collaborate on projects.
The talk targeted Adobe Systems Flash platform, but could just as easily be focused on Microsofts Silverlight, as much of the advice was generic. For its part, Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., launched its own set of tools aimed at creative content developers in its Expression suite, and has worked hard at facilitating the communication and workflow between developers and designers.
However, Leuchner and Wright, who originally met while in college at the Rochester Institute of Technology, recommended that for developers and designers to work successfully together, they need to break down communication barriers.
“Get everything out up front,” Leuchner said. “Active communication early on will help avoid some conflict.” Leuchner also said both developers and designers on teams need to respect all disciplines and become familiar with everyone elses role on the team.
Meanwhile, Wright said that inevitably in many companies there are some people who can play the role of “middle men” and are adept at both design and development—creating innovative designs and also writing the code to put them into production. Leuchner jokingly referred to these people as “deselopers,” adding: “If youre lucky enough to find one, hold on to them tightly and give them a raise.”
Wright called the creative RIA industry, particularly the one that has cropped up around Flash, “the most awesome industry related to the Internet ever.”
Wright said the Flash industry has become “extremely creative,” both graphically and programmatically. In addition, the technology that initially attracted mostly designers and animators has now attracted more and more developers. Plus, with developer-focused technologies like ActionScript 3.0, Flex 2 and AIR (Adobe Integrated Runtime), there is even more incentive for developers to not only create Web sites, but also Web and desktop applications.
“So now we are seeing an even greater need for collaboration between designers and developers as the technology expands, gets more technical and creates its own subcultures,” Wright said.
Leuchner identified some of the industry subcultures as: code fiends, design junkies, framework freaks, application addicts, game gurus and usability nuts.
The duo of Wright and Leuchner described the difference for the designer and developer roles in large companies or teams versus small companies.
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In a large company or a large team, the roles are strictly defined and communication between the two groups is difficult. However, on a small team, peoples roles are more loosely defined and individuals have to absorb more responsibility, yet it is easier for folks to communicate.
Leuchner said he started in a larger company and then moved to a smaller one. At the large company, “I was in an office full of just developers,” he said. “In a smaller group you can wear more hats—designer, developer, animator. … Flash lets you do it all.”
The stereotype over the past few years has been that designers and developers are always butting heads, Leuchner said. Some of the common designer stereotypes are that they dont understand technology, hate Web standards, believe the client only cares about design, and have questionable fashion habits, the duo said. Some of the common stereotypes about developers are that they are sticklers for the rules, have no sense of design, believe the client only cares about functionality, and have questionable social skills, they said.
Leuchner said that, in essence, designers and developers often approach projects from “two different sides of the brain, and with that youre going to have clashes. [But] in the end we all want to make an awesome product, and, flat out, we all want to make money.”
Moreover, “developers are some of the quirkiest, weirdest people out there, which can often translate into wild creativity,” Leuchner said. And developers need not “be scared to give your two cents in those brainstorming meetings. The team must be welcome to any and all ideas—good, bad, dumb, brilliant, it doesnt matter. Egos cannot exist in this stage of the project.”
Wright and Leuchner said designers and developers ought to enter projects looking for opportunities to collaborate. And designers need to try to think like developers and vice versa.
Meanwhile, Wright said, “I honestly havent met many developers who want to learn about design, but you really need to learn about this stuff.”
However, he said that although developers are typically not good at user-interface design, the Flex framework can be a big help there. Other areas where developers tend to be weak are typography, color theory and the use of Photoshop and Illustrator. Wright said developers who want to learn more about design should check out thefwa.com, newstoday.com and .Net Magazine.
Leuchner said designers who want to get better at development should check out some blogs such as weblogs.macromedia.com/mxna, www.mikechambers.com/blog, www.reflektions.com/miniml, www.bit-101.com/blog, and www.onflex.org/ted.
After the brainstorming stage and into the creative development phase of a project, both the designer and developer teams need to discuss both the creative approach and the technology to be used for the project.
At this stage, designers should “be as clear as possible, justify your ideas and ask for a developer opinion,” Wright said. Meanwhile, developers ought to “discuss the appropriate technologies [to be used to carry out the design], include no developer speak and stay open minded,” he said.
“The creative development stage is the only stage where you should be arguing,” Leuchner said, while displaying a photo of an infamous baseball altercation from 1996 where Baltimore Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar was prepping to spit on umpire John Hirschbeck as Oriole manager Davey Johnson tried to intervene. Alomar had gone nuts after a called third strike during his at-bat.
In the design and art direction phase of a project, Wright said designers should not work in a vacuum, should avoid non-objective views and run ideas by developers.
“Designers should always, especially with Flash projects, they should be running their ideas by developers often, but this doesnt happen enough,” Wright said. “Developers should be involved because they are going to be the ones building the applications.”
Added Leuchner: “This is insanely important when doing Flex development.”
Developers then take the lead in developing prototypes of the project deliverables. And in the testing and QA (quality assurance) phase, both developers and designers need to be involved, Wright said.
Though testing and QA is often viewed as a developer responsibility, “designers should be involved as well, and not just doing creative QA,” Wright said.
At this phase, Wright and Leuchner said the combined team should “try to break stuff.” This will help to ensure “your product is solid as a rock.”
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