Silverlight is creating a mutant designer who can code.

I look over the past 3-4 years in around the RIA industry and just chuckle at times to myself. I say this with all the appropriate levels of respect attached.

The reason I chuckle is that prior to Microsoft i was laser focused on getting developers to adopt Adobe Flex as we had an abundance of Designers in the Adobe community but less developers. Once I joined Microsoft, I was then focused on getting designers to join the Microsoft ranks as we had an abundance of developers.


Today, nothing really has changed much. As when I was a Product Manager for Silverlight, I think we last announced there was around half a million (there about) Silverlight developers, which for a product that’s roughly 20+ months old, is about 4:1 on Flex Developers give or take. Yet, before we all start whooping and high fiving one another about the success of SIlverlight over Adobe’s products, they would have about 5x as many designers in their ranks compared to Silverlight which would have probably a design audience measured in thousands and not hundreds of thousands.

I’m yet to see any evidence that this stand-off is likely to change radically in the next 2-5 years either, except there seems to be a change in the wind that I was hopeful would happen but skeptical at the same time. It turns out Silverlight is igniting a lot of design passion within the ranks of the Silverlight developer community – meaning, I am seeing some interesting signs of developers wanting to learn “design” albeit also “user experience”.

Can they design though?

Everyone can design, as when you were children you were told to draw a house with clouds, you did so and sure it made your parents happy enough to put it on the family fridge, but is it a realistic house that can withstand the elements such as a sun with eyes?…no.. but you designed. As you began to age towards adulthood for some reason you stopped drawing. The passion in a nutshell, was depreciated from within you.

Designers however kept it alive and continued to learn new techniques and slowly over time mastered ways to explore the concept of design more. That's why they see things differently in the world than most and can bend your ear on the subject in ways you think they are likely smoking crack.

Today, lets face it, the design audience isn’t exactly pounding down the Microsoft Expression door, this in turn has created a discipline that needs to be filled and as such more and more developers are stepping up to fill it. They will in turn need guidance and better techniques on how to pull off the design part and it will take some time for them to master this art form. In the process I think this will also be a more vibrant unbiased beacon for the design audience to flock towards as in order for the developer audience to fill such a position, they will seek out more designers for help. As the design audience begins to help them, they will in turn also begin the journey of understanding what's before them and hopefully it will stick.

Thus as Yoda would say:

“the cycle it will, repeat itself it may”.

Point is, at some point we will have a displaced audience that sit between the words design and develop they in turn will be the influencers on why Silverlight should be adopted. Today's developer is tomorrows designer, so we who consider themselves of the design lineage need to show kindness and patience towards these folks. As they in turn will also show us faster and more efficient techniques to also carry out interactive design.

Next time you hear a developer say “I can’t design” correct them and say “You mean you haven’t the passion to try design” as this is a more correct response.

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  • I think the big thing silverlight has over Adobe Flash at the moment is the fact it’s a stable platform to develop on. I know alot of people who refuse to use Adobe Air because of its resource sucking ways and are looking at going and developing for Silverlight.

  • To be exact, Silverlight did not create that hybrid, the designer who can code, but WPF did. Silverlight made that role more popular, because Silverlight is easier to start with than WPF, thus many firms jump directly from classic technologies to Silverlight.

    I have been a WPF/SL integrator since 2006 and have met a few “designers who can code” (the most talented being probably my boss at my current job, Nathan Dunlap), and I had the great pleasure to train a few designers to use Blend (which is a visual coding tool) and even (oh the horror) Visual Studio. I am very happy to see this trend picking up with the wider adoption of Silverlight, because being an integrator is really all about communication between the two sides of the “fence”. Having a designer who can code, or finding a developer who understands design is like digging a hole into that fence and allowing ideas to go through.

    Finally, let’s not forget the other rare breed, the developer who can design 🙂 Robby Ingebretsen immediately comes to mind, byt there are a few others too.


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  • I’m one of those developers that would love to learn design, and I see a HUGE hole in the market for a book and/or website targeted to ME and those like me. Someone could build a whole business on content targeted to teaching developers how to design… (HINT HINT)

  • Silverlight is my favorite new technology to work with. I’ve always enjoyed the GUI side of things in addition to the detailed programming I do every day.

    But Silverlight had nothing to do with my interest to dip my feet in both worlds, it simply gave me a new outlet. It gives me the flexibility to focus on the design and development side of things without worrying about all the differences between browsers, operating systems, etc. Much like Flash, it’s done an excellent job of abstracting the most annoying incompatibilities away, and just does what I tell it to do and looks how I want it to look. But unlike Flash (or Flex), making Silverlight do what I tell it to do is just plain easier.

  • All the good browsers support HTML5 and SVG out of the box. I can achieve everything I can think of using that combination – I see no technical advantage to either Silverlight or Flash. They’re both unnecessary in the emerging web world.

    When I can target open standards which are clearly on the ascent, why would I commit my talent for design to a proprietary product that’s encumbered by patent concerns and is completely tied to a relatively low tech platform (Windows) that’s in what appears to be in gradual but inexorable decline?

  • @Dave – HTML5 looks very promising and it certainly appears the need for third-party plugin’s will be reduced if some key things happen. For example, if Youtube switches to HTML5 video as their default means of playback, that’ll be huge. The adoption rate of Flash may decline significantly.

    Of course HTML5 isn’t quite fully supported in all the major browsers just yet. And there are a couple things I’m not sure about with HTML5. Will it be possible to handle webcams / microphones? And what about full-screen mode? That’s something that both Flash and Silverlight 4 can do, which is kind of a big deal.

    Beyond that perhaps one of the most appealing aspects of Silverlight & Flash is the ability to build Desktop (or out-of-browser) apps on the same technology. In other words, you can build a Flash app and distribute basically the same app in Adobe Air for the desktop. Or you can build a Silverlight app and run it out of browser even easier.

    Also in both Flash & Silverlight there is some extremely rich functionality built into the runtime. Often it’s the kind of thing that can also be done in HTML5, but it’s not built-in. That means that you’ll be building this stuff from scratch or tapping into (potentially very large) js libraries. It’s a compromise no doubt and as always I contend that your choice of tools should depend on the nature of the app you’re building.

  • I disagree with the premise of this article. Yes there are developers who attempt to try and design but is the design marketable? Usually not. In an organization that has a true marketing dept, most designs that come from the development side will not pass QA. That is not a swipe at developers, its just reality.

    I’m a designer and I’m been to a design school that taught both traditional art and digital art. Developers don’t go to that sort of school because it would be boring for them.

    Its as simple as left brain/right brain thinking. Your right brain is more visual and intuitive while your left brain is more verbal and analytical. In 15 years, I have only met one person who could really effectively do both with beautiful results that would pass the marketing muster.

    Hire designers for design and developers to make it work.

    The whole idea of a devsigner was brought about by execs and managers looking to save money on personnel and the result in the end was mediocrity for the product.

  • @ Dave Swersky: Maybe this is a starting point?