Eric Karjaluoto

Designers Should Learn Marketing

I’m unconvinced of the familiar “designers must code” refrain. Sure, some designers need to code—just to get closer to their materials. (For example, if you create data visualizations, you probably want to turn the knobs for yourself.) That said, this unilateral belief that all designers must code seems simplistic. First off all, both coding and design are deep practices. Being strong in both seems improbable.

I’m not the band

A lot of designers who code are neither great designers nor great programmers. (Admittedly, there are some exceptions.) For most, though, it’s better to collaborate with a good coder. I have a bias to this approach, as it’s what I’ve done, with my friend Eric Shelkie. Our collaboration works well as it allows us to best utilize our strengths while distributing our learning and workload.

If I were forced to use a metaphor, I’d compare what we do to being in a band. Sure, either of us could probably learn to play the guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards. But, I doubt either of us would be great at any of them. (There are only so many people like Prince in this world, and neither Shelkie nor I possess such genius.) At the same time, an appreciation for other instruments, roles, or skills is beneficial. This sort of understanding helps us play well together.


I suppose appreciation/understanding isn’t the only benefit of learning indirectly related skills. The most important one is in broadening one’s outlook—and this makes you a better designer. (Designers who only talk about design tend to make boring work.) We see the same in sports. To get better at your chosen one, you might take part in other ones. In doing so, you work muscles you otherwise wouldn’t. This approach also helps you escape the doldrums of doing the same thing day in and day out.

As an aside, design is in a weird place these days. On one level, we have designers who make pretty things (see Dribbble). I fear that this results in a whole class of tragically myopic designers who mostly just imitate one another. It’s a kind of visual masturbation that might feel good, but is only about one’s self. On another level, we have the “design thinkers” who seem happy to attend conferences and speak about design in the abstract.

This latter group is as self-serving as the former, but in a notably more deluded way. While their counterparts are happy to spend their days polishing their work; those in the latter group seem to truly believe they can “save the world” with design. (Oh, brother.)

What drives the work

The more we talk about the aura (for lack of a better word) of design, the less action-oriented we seem to be. (I worry that I too am guilty of this.) What I’m trying to get at, is that the act of making/designing is infinitely more compelling than our discussions about the nature of design. If you’re a designer, you know how right I am in this assertion. We fell in love with this work because of the creation. In comparison, the debate over whether we’re product designers, UX designers, or whatever-other-label, seems dull.

Part of the challenge designers face relates to perspective. The dribbble-focused designer gets too close; meanwhile, the “save the world with design” designer is too far removed. None of this has much to do with actually producing good design. To get closer to the making, we need to focus intently on the task at hand. This requires us to gain understanding of our users/clients actual obstacles and needs.

Design isn’t about the designer. It’s not about the dialogue surrounding the profession. It’s not about what others call us. Design is essentially about marrying purpose and form. And that purpose component is missing from far too many design solutions. This is because the wrong desires (e.g., winning an award, peer admiration, or building a portfolio) get in the way. The principle concern for the designer must be in facilitating a suitable outcome.

Why marketing is so darned important

The phrase, “I don’t do marketing,” is spoken by many designers. I’ve probably said it myself. And I get it. It’s challenging, and difficult to quantify. It can also feel cheap—like a form of trickery. That doesn’t make it any less necessary, though. In fact, I say the vast majority of designers would be just fine if they never learned a line of code, and instead started thinking like marketers.

Perhaps this seems contradictory, given all I note about collaboration. Fair enough, but I’m not proposing you become a marketer. Instead, I believe you can benefit by learning how to think like one. Good design is found in the end product—but it’s not limited to that. That end product is the culmination of many conversations, debates, and revisions. The question is: What’s directing those conversations, debates, and revisions? For many, the answer is a gut feel, internal power-structures, or some silly trend. (Not one of these is a suitable answer.)

Designers need to think like marketers because doing so breaks our siloed mindsets. It forces us to ask questions like: Who needs, or will use, this? Where are they, and what are they using instead? Why does what we’re making matter to them? How will we get them to care? What will we do if no one pays us any attention? …and so on. I’ve watched designers obsess for days over a typeface, without knowing the answers to any of the above questions. This is a travesty. Good design requires all those big questions to be sorted out, so the smaller—more detailed—decisions are made appropriately.

A beautiful marriage

More than anything, I want to impress upon you the notion that design and marketing are two sides of the same coin. Designers who think marketing is the domain of “someone else” relegate themselves to the role of craftspeople. For some, this is fine, but it generally involves acting on instructions provided by others. I believe this is an unnecessary limitation of a designer’s skills.

I spent part of last week canoeing in Algonquin Park. Knowing I’d have some time to relax, I brought along Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw. The book is a collection of selected articles from The New Yorker. The first article in the book centers on Rob Popeil, and his kitchen inventions. You’re probably smirking at this reference, but I assure you, this piece is worth a read.

Following is one notable passage from this essay. I believe it argues my points above more convincingly than I can.

If Ron had been the one to introduce the VCR, in other words, he would not simply have sold it in an infomercial. He would also have changed the VCR itself, so that it made sense in an infomercial. The clock, for example, wouldn’t be digital. (The haplessly blinking unset clock has, of course, become a symbol of frustration.) The tape wouldn’t be inserted behind a hidden door–it would be out in plain view, just like the chicken in the rotisserie, so that if it was recording you could see the spools turn. The controls wouldn’t be discreet buttons; they would be large, and they would make a reassuring click as they were pushed up and down, and each step of the taping process would be identified with a big, obvious numeral so that you could set it and forget it. And would it be a slender black, low-profile box? Of course not. Ours is a culture in which the term “black box” is synonymous with incomprehensibility. Ron’s VCR would be in red-and-white plastic, both opaque and translucent swirl, or maybe 364 Alcoa aluminum, painted in some bold primary color, and it would sit on top of the television, not below it, so that when your neighbor or your friend came over he would spot it immediately and say, “Wow, you have one of those Ronco Tape-O-Matics!”
The Pitchman

Post script

This is probably the last of this sort of article I’ll write, for a good while. There’s plenty of commentary out there about what designers should/shouldn’t do, and I’m not convinced that I’m contributing anything particularly useful to it. Instead, I’m going to go a little narrower and focus on a topic I find more interesting.

A lot of us are making things—or want to make things—of our own. The tough part in doing so often revolves around how to get anyone to care (in other words: marketing). So, for the foreseeable future I’m going to think and write more about identifying purpose, communicating values/ideas, building things, and making meaningful connections.

Sign up to receive new articles by email: