IndustryHTML and CSS: Still Relevant for Designers in 2016

Leon Barnard
writes on February 16, 2016

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If you’re a designer trying to stay current you may be feeling some pressure to learn one of the many new web programming languages that are “hot” right now (React, Angular, etc.). Not only because these languages are gaining in popularity, but because the bar for design jobs seems to be getting higher.

Many companies are advertising for “Full Stack” designers, those who can do UI and UX design, and write code. You may also have read one of the many articles out there about why designers should learn to code.

But before you hand over your time and money for a class in React or some other evolution of JavaScript, read on. Because, in my experience, knowing only HTML and CSS will still get you far as a designer in 2016, and can give you all the qualifications you need to meet the new bar for designers.

Here are five reasons why.

1. HTML and CSS Are Design Tools

Shhh…don’t tell anyone, but HTML and CSS aren’t really programming languages. They don’t compile. If there’s an error in your HTML or CSS, the browser just skips it, or does its best to show what it thinks you meant. There are no if-then statements. You can’t send a satellite into orbit with HTML and CSS.

HTML and CSS are rules for styling and structuring content. That’s it.

And, they’re not that hard (except vertically centering in CSS – yes, that’s a CSS joke). They’re actually pretty cool.

Furthermore, HTML5 and CSS3 are great improvements over previous versions. The HTML5 specification, in particular, has done a lot to add meaningful structure to web content, eliminating the need for ugly <DIV> tags everywhere.

Finally, know HTML and CSS and your developers will thank you. Most developers can’t really be bothered to know the ins and outs of it (especially CSS).

One employer recently wrote “nearly no one could show off substantial markup skills,” after reviewing front-end developer candidate applications.

He continued:

Many are not able to choose the right HTML elements, to explain why and how a clearfix works, or what ARIA roles are for, but they can use React and Angular. If you got some spare time over the next weeks, learn semantics and re-read the basics (or specs if you like the challenge) of HTML and CSS from time to time.

This creates a vacuum of skills that you can be there to fill! So, let your developers spend their time on real programming while you focus on the HTML and CSS.

2. HTML Is What the Browser Knows

Don’t be intimidated. React and others are languages that must ultimately output HTML. The browser doesn’t know React, it knows HTML. So that’s what has to be there eventually.

This means that you can still work with a developer in React, without having to “know” it.

Let’s look at some code from the official React tutorial.

// tutorial1.js
var CommentBox = React.createClass({
  render: function() {
    return (
      <div className="commentBox">
        Hello, world! I am a CommentBox.
      </div>
    );
  }
});
ReactDOM.render(
  <CommentBox />,
  document.getElementById('content')
);

See everything in that return block? That’s HTML. The only thing you need to switch in your brain is that “className” means CSS class. That’s it. You can essentially ignore the rest and write the HTML and CSS for your developer without needing to code anything in React.

HTML and CSS: So Hot Right Now

Even when it gets a little more complicated

// tutorial4.js
var Comment = React.createClass({
  render: function() {
    return (
      <div className="comment">
        <h2 className="commentAuthor">
          {this.props.author}
        </h2>
        {this.props.children}
      </div>
    );
  }
});

What’s “{this.props.author}“? Well, some kind of content goes there. Ask your developer what it is. You just design around it.

Let’s take a look at another common web language, PHP. Designing a WordPress theme? Your header might look something like this:

<div id="header">
 <div id="headerimg">
   <h1>
    <a href="<?php echo get_option('home'); ?>">
       <?php bloginfo('name'); ?></a>
   </h1>
     <div class="description">
       <?php bloginfo('description'); ?>
     </div>
  </div>
</div>

Technically, that’s a PHP page, but it’s mostly HTML. Again, it’s code that writes HTML. If you know CSS and HTML, you can probably figure out 80-90% of PHP, especially if you’re starting from an existing template.

“Knowing” a programming language isn’t all or nothing. Knowing HTML and CSS well can actually help you communicate in other languages just fine. It’s like visiting France after taking one year of French. It’s enough to get by, and a lot better than nothing!

3. CSS3 Is Replacing JavaScript as the Language of Animation on the Web

Ok, I lied a little bit when I said that HTML and CSS aren’t real programming languages. Some of the new stuff is starting to get kind of programming language-y. CSS animations in particular. But if you really want to level up your skills without learning a whole new language, CSS animation is a great place to start.

Val Head, CSS animation guru, wrote an article called “UI Animation and UX: A Not-So-Secret Friendship” in which she explains why, and how, the domain of CSS animation can belong to designers.

With the death of Flash and the power of CSS3 animation properties, CSS is where it’s at for animation right now. And, probably not coincidentally, animation and motion design are the thing for designers to be working on right now. So leverage your existing CSS skills and get into the animation game!

4. Wireframes with CSS Are Better than a Photoshop Mockup

If you’re in a more traditional environment where developers work from visual specifications or pixel-perfect comps, you’ve probably run into issues where the design details in the mockups need to be interpreted into code.

This might be in the form of questions like:

“How many pixels is the padding here?”

“What’s the border-radius value for this button?”

If the developers have to translate what you’ve created in Photoshop or Sketch into CSS properties, you might as well just give them the actual CSS properties. Why waste time getting your design comp pixel perfect if the developers are going to have to make a bunch of guesses when they implement it?

I’ve had a lot of success creating rough wireframes that give developers enough to get started, and then supplementing with actual CSS code once they’ve built a functioning prototype. You don’t need to specify everything all at once or in the same document.

This also frees up developers from thinking about the CSS, which, as we learned above, is probably just fine with them!

5. At the Very Least, You Can Customize a Web Framework

If you work on a web product, there’s a good chance your developers use Bootstrap, or something like it. If so, you can put your CSS skills to use and take ownership of the design by customizing the framework theme. You can also start with one of the many custom themes out there.

By separating features from appearance, developers can code independently of the design team, yet give the design team control over what the customer sees.

A hybrid of this technique and the one above, Using Wireframes with Pattern Libraries and Frameworks, is also effective.

Conclusion

An interesting thread appeared on the UX Mastery forums recently entitled “Busting myths about a career in UX”.

The discussion kicked off with “The one that I hear the most is that being able to write code is a pre-requisite.” I’ve encountered this myth many times in my career. The same poster ended with “If you want to learn, a basic knowledge of HTML and CSS would be a good place to start.”

If you’re a designer concerned that you “only” know HTML and CSS, or you want to be a designer and are looking to make yourself marketable, you don’t necessarily need to learn a complex programming language. HTML and CSS – “ancient” by technology standards, yet tried and true – are as integral to the web as they’ve ever been, and a powerful tool in the modern designer’s arsenal.

Now go out there and use your skills with pride!

And, of course, if you’re a Treehouse member and want to learn more, check out “Introduction to HTML and CSS” or any of the other Treehouse courses on HTML or CSS.


Leon Barnard is a writer and designer at Balsamiq. He contributes to the Balsamiq UX blog and curates the Balsamiq Champions blog about how and why people use Balsamiq Mockups.

8 Responses to “HTML and CSS: Still Relevant for Designers in 2016”

  1. informative and well described aspects of web application development

  2. React and Angular aren’t languages, they are JavaScript libraries 🙂

  3. Agree ! And I’m now trying Meteor, which is especially good for prototyping without a hard learning curve (like Angular or React can have IMHO). As a designer, I found it very simple and efficient to quickly give life to an idea.

  4. The entire internet is HTML and CSS, how could it not be relevant??? lol

  5. I completely do agree with these aggressive points. Learning HTML and CSS have become necessary for professional designers. If you are at beginning level, then it doe’s matter, but if you are at high position in the company and handling a team and connecting directly with clients, then HTML and CSS make your job simple.

  6. Sarah Evans on March 11, 2016 at 7:36 am said:

    Good article but the image of the sexist t-shirt from “Silicon Valley” disappoints me. I didn’t know that objectifying women was part of the Treehouse mission. The fact that it seems to be so forces me to reconsider my Treehouse subscription.

    • Leon Barnard on March 15, 2016 at 8:13 am said:

      Hi Sarah,
      I’m very sorry for including that image. You’re right, it sends the wrong message. Thank you for calling me out on it. I’ve removed it.

  7. Definitely web designers need to know about HTML and CSS in 2016 also. Anyway its a nice post.

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