Generation Gapped

When I stumbled into the world of web development in the mid 90s, “state of the art” meant table-based layouts, JPEG image maps, and the occasional CGI script. They were dark times, full of spacer GIFs and half-tested regular expressions.

CSS, better HTML standards, and the maturation of server and client side frameworks have all made life better, but there’s a lot that’s stayed the same. Saddest of all, the contentious divide between “developers” and “designers” is still a fact of life in many organizations. I’ve worked in marketing agencies and web development shops; played negotiator between PR departments and IT teams; and watched as weary PERL developers argued with frustrated Photoshop jockeys. It’s never pretty, and the fonts never, ever look quite right.

Like many others who build web sites in those early years, I learned to preach the gospel of collaboration. If developers studied the principles of UX, if print-savvy designers sunk their teeth into HTML, if everyone stretched a bit, we could overcome so many problems! Every year, more and more people nodded their heads in agreement—but the cultural divide still felt like a wide one.

Earlier this month, I had a chance to eavesdrop while a friend taught a class of MFA students about the value of cross-discipline communication. They were studying to become UX specialists, and the eminently practical topic that day was “working with web development shops.” I recalled the many frustrated negotiations I’d witnessed over the years, and was curious to see how open these students were to the realities of production web projects.

What I heard startled me: the divide I had spent years trying to bridge didn’t even seem to exist. They wanted to work closely with coders, and many of them straddled the line between design and development themselves. One scrappy designer wanted to talk about the value of better editorial tools for CMS projects: how willing, he asked, were real-world clients to invest time in that work? After class, I heard a cluster of students discussing the relative merits of PHP and Ruby while another asked for advice about a design internship.

There’s an old saying that “generals always fight the last war—especially if they won it.” In the years after World War I, French politicians and military leaders obsessed about the Maginot Line, a fortified wall of bunkers meant to keep the nation safe from German soldiers. They prepared for The Previous War: Round II, but failed to anticipate the mobile, fast-paced combat of WWII.

Listening to that room full of students wasn’t exactly a blitzkrieg moment for me, but it was definitely a shock. They were already true believers in a message that colleagues and I had struggled to communicate for years. And while there are still many projects and agencies where the development/design divide is a serious problem, this generation of cross-functional creatives seems to have moved beyond it. When they enter the working world they’ll have to deal with entrenched systems, but the skills and perspectives they’ve already developed will help pull those organizations out of deep ruts.

When the class finished up and assignments were distributed (via Dropbox, naturally), I shared a laugh with my friend about how different my expectations had been. In the day-to-day grind of enterprise project scoping and deadline-driven tweaks, it can be easy to forget that things change. We’ll probably never get rid of the crazy deadlines, and IE6 may never truly die, but for an old-school web nerd like me, it’s great to remember that even the most frustrating problems can get better.

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