Learn to code but do it in secret
I know how to code. Terribly for a developer but well enough for a designer. I know other things many people say are great for designers to know but all of them are a burden.
I come from the last generation that didn’t pay £20.000 for a BA. I hacked my way into this profession, like many others, with practise, books and jumping into any job where I could learn and grow. I did these things and I like all I've learnt but at the end of the day, they didn’t improve my career, I regret learning these things. Here is why.
Working means that you are able and willing to do something your client can’t or don’t know how to do and so he hires you to do that for him.
If the client hired you to do something he doesn’t know how to do, he TRUSTS you. Every client implicitly trusts the designer to know how to do and trust is the key of the problem of learning, knowing and being able. Trust should be earned with time, portfolio and results but in practical terms trust is magic. Does the VP, sales guy, executive or whoever know how or why the product is built/designed that way? do they care? does it matter? do they care about results or about not screwing up and losing their jobs?
Trust is the job of the people that don’t know how to do, the tall people, the bosses, the managers, the nicepeople, the car sales men who convince other people. But of course, these guys need a salary, they need someone to actually do the job and here comes a guy that designs and codes.
Knowing how to code (or any other difficult specialty) is vital so, if you know how how to do it, you will do it. And if you are there doing, you won’t be deciding, ideating or building a relationship with the client. You will be DOING, because again, someone needs to do it, right? and by the way, doing is the end of the chain, so your salary will be safe (you are indispensable) but it won’t be great.
Learning to code will make you a much better designer, it will open up your mind to new ways of thinking and it will help you understand design in systematic terms but remember this, you won’t become a boss by being a great worker. Let me repeat that, you won’t become a boss by being a great worker.
Knowing how to do won’t land you that promotion, it will just make your more indispensable at the end of the production chain.
The understanding of creation by the wide public (that includes the guy hiring you) is deeply wrong. Design, creativity and art are understood as a touch of magic coming from nowhere (inspiration) mixed with an invariable potentiality given at random by the gods (talent) and these two in complete opposite to formal knowledge (boring, technical and acquired with gruelling effort). The more formal knowledge you have, the worse designer people assume you are.
To become a better designer in the eyes of your future employers, avoid advertising formal knowledge (unless it has anything to do with RCA, ECAL or any of the two or three great design schools). Lie and appear a bit crazy; emotion and magical thinking look very design and if you can, grab your chin and talk at length about the inane and the obvious like it was important. Confuse. Work on your design aura of unapproachability. Real design is boring.
The more you learn, the less you’ll be sure of anything. You begin to learn because you think you don’t know enough and you keep learning because you think you still don’t know enough and finally, when you know something, you realise you truly don’t know much (this is not my idea, some smart fella made this popular long ago).
The more you know the more you are going to end up answering every question with “it depends”. Wisdom and knowledge pushes you further and further away from simple answers (the ones people actually buy) but they bring you closer to get things right but your clients don’t want truths or results from design, they want reassurance. True is not catchy.
Let’s say that after many years of learning and working you finally get some sense of how things work in your industry, will you tell each of the three or four bosses/teams above you how they each short-sell each other to waste time and money? You won’t be making any friends. Will you tell your immediate boss how to do something better? He’ll keep you close to him to save his ass, reap the rewards and worse of all, he’ll put you do it (see first problem). Politics trumps efficiency everyday.
Coda from an old man
At the end of the day someone needs to pilot the ship and someone needs to lead and reassure the passengers. Careful what you know, salaries don’t depend on results, smarts or knowledge. And if you know how to do, keep it secret and save it to open your own studio.