How Working in a Browser Shapes Your Design

Over the weekend I was listening to an On The Grid podcast where the discussion revolved around today’s tools for designing websites. Matt, Andy, and Dan discussed how current tools aren’t working as well as they did a few years ago and speculated about what better tools might look like.

Note: This post includes an audio version. If you don’t see the audio above, Click here to listen.

During the conversation the subject of designing in the medium came up and in the case of web design that ultimately means designing in code meant for the browser, since that code is ultimately how designers and developers interact with and control what happens in the medium.

I’m certainly one who believes web designers should understand code. You don’t necessarily need to be a coding expert, though the more you know the better. You should have a reasonable amount of knowledge of code the same way a print designer should understand the differences between various inks and paper.

Working closer to the medium will help you understand both the limitations and the strengths of the medium. It also improves your intuition for how anything you design will ultimately render.

Limitations of the Medium

In a previous post I offered the example of using a fountain pen to draw on a balloon. The combination isn’t likely to end well. Naturally it’s better to know that in advance than find out in the moment.

One limitation of working with a balloon is that it doesn’t deal well with sharp things like fountain pens. It’s a limitation of the particular medium and if you fail to recognize it, you might waste a lot of balloons.

It’s similar with a browser and code. If you understand the limitations of what you can do in a browser with html, css, javascript, etc. it can save you a lot time in chasing unworkable solutions.

Because I write code I can usually look at a Photoshop image and quickly tell what parts of it will be easy, difficult, and maybe impossible to develop. I say maybe, because I don’t think anything is truly impossible. Impossible simply means we haven’t figured it out yet.

Because I both design and develop sites, I can be thinking about the ease and difficulty in coding something while I’m designing the visuals or working out a layout and I find that very helpful. An understanding of medium helps me be more productive and finish projects quicker.

However, you could make a valid argument that what’s really happening is my knowledge of the medium is limiting my design creativity because the former is suggesting to the latter what it shouldn’t do and that it shouldn’t try to expand the boundaries of what’s possible.

It’s a fair point to suggest that knowledge of the medium leads to less creative solutions, because you’re starting at a point where you automatically exclude many possibilities, while thinking about how difficult they might prove to implement.

Advantages of the Medium

Working in the medium isn’t just about understanding it’s limitations. It’s also about understanding its capabilities. For example the web offers advantages over print in being more flexible and more dynamic.

Without an understanding of the medium and the code with which we work, would you know about the many transitions and transformations that a browser can handle natively? Would you be aware of the different things a browser might determine about the visitor and how your design could respond appropriately?

Probably not. Without understanding the medium, you’d likely see it as just another flat surface. You would in effect be inhibiting your creativity based on what you know of the limitations of a different medium.

Working closer to the medium helps you envision more of the possibilities the medium allows. Without getting to know the medium and know it well, you’re destined to view it as some other medium with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Not Being Limited by Tools and Medium

You have to admit that the tools we use and the medium we work in, do influence us. It would be hard to deny that. However, I don’t think that means our tools and medium have to limit us.

The On The Grid podcast mentioned architect Frank Gehry and how he found typical tools of the trade like AutoCad insufficient to design the buildings his imagination was after. If you’re unfamiliar with Gehry’s work, let’s just say his buildings have their own visual language. In order to design his buildings he turned to design tools that were made to help design aircrafts.

I have no idea if the above is true or a bit of myth around Gehry, but I see no reason to doubt it, and in truth it sums up how I feel about this topic.

It’s true that the tools we use and the medium we work in influence us and perhaps at times limit where our thinking and solutions will go. Everything looks like a nail when your only tool is a hammer.

However, our tools and medium don’t ultimately limit us in any way. Only we can limit our creativity and the creativity of our solutions. If we see something in our imagination and want to see it come to life, no tool or medium can prevent that from happening. We can always find a way.

What working closer to the medium ultimately does is give us a clearer picture of the end result of our designs. We have to make many decisions while designing a website and the more informed those decisions, the better they’ll likely be.


The medium we work in and the tools we use can certainly shape the direction of our designs. Our knowledge, experience, and physical skills in designing do the same. We can choose which tools we work with and how much knowledge, experience, and skills we have is entirely in our control.

Some might suggest that too much familiarity with the medium leads to less creative designs, because we’ll design to the limitations of the medium. There’s more to understanding a medium than knowing its limitations though.

Understanding the medium also lets us know what it can do that other mediums can’t. It can show us where we’re more likely to be able to push the boundaries and where we’ll more likely bump against them. Ultimately knowing the medium just gives us more information for better design decisions.

The medium is simply one more tool you have to work with and the more you work with it, the better you’ll be able to express yourself using it.

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