Breaking Stuff

Do you know that horrible fear when you’ve broken something on a client project and you have no idea how to fix it? I do… Sometimes I’ll have been wading through templates on a site, getting it all up to scratch, then suddenly I’m faced with a page of doom—a whole page of garbled semi-English that sort of resembles an error message, but nothing I’ve ever seen before.

Article Continues Below

As a freelancer, I’ve always been proud to have the time to dedicate to learning. Keeping up with the industry, and being able to level up my skills on each new project, is very important to me.

But sometimes I struggled when I pushed myself that little bit too far. A few times I’ve had to request a lifeline from kind people on Twitter to pull me out of a hole. And then I feel a bit daft, having to admit my inadequacies on a social network in order to save myself from a worse situation.

Some of us designers write code, and some of us don’t. For some designers, the limit is HTML and CSS. They’ll write markup, but they won’t write JavaScript. For others, it’s front-end technologies. They’ll work on the client-side, but avoid anything with databases and other back-end technologies.

Most of us seem to have a boundary somewhere that defines what we think we can’t do. Working for and by yourself, you are limited by your own experience and skills.

Testing the limits#section2

For me, it was the all-powerful and uncommunicative command line. It terrified me. I thought I would probably find a way of deleting everything on my hard drive if I made a typo in the command line.

My fear of the command line was burdensome when it came to using Git. A lot of people I knew used Git on the command line, but I preferred to use a GUI tool. I found it easier to understand the concepts of staging, branches, pushing, and deploying with a visual representation of the actions.

However, when I was using Git with the rest of the team, trying to debug issues when I’d committed files to the wrong branch, I was assisted by developers who would fire up Terminal (the command line tool) to look at the problem.

The wonderful thing about working with these developers is that they’d explain what they were doing as they went along. I wasn’t expected to sit quietly to the side until they’d used magic to fix my problem. I would stay in my seat, and they would dictate to me what I should type. Typing for myself, and understanding what I was typing, I was learning to do it for myself.

Learning from other people in this way is a rich and rewarding experience. I started being able to use Git on the command line with confidence. Having seen Andy, one of the developers I was working with, look up some of the less-obvious Git commands on the web, I suddenly didn’t feel so exceptionally useless. It gave me the confidence to do the same without feeling like I was a failure because I didn’t know all the commands by heart.

My safety net#section3

My developer safety net made me more willing to try new things. Now, when I’d come up against intimidating error messages, I had people who could easily rescue me in five minutes, rather than having to put out a call of shame to Twitter.

But my confidence wasn’t exclusive to Feeling more secure in my new abilities improved my confidence in my client work. I knew I was now able to do loads of stuff with Git, so why could I not handle some of these other problems?

One day I found myself debugging a JavaScript error through comparing the code with another page that was working. I fixed it! Me! Doing JavaScript! My confidence grew that little bit more.

Stepping over the line#section4

Job titles can be used to put us in our place. I’ve been told I’m just a designer, so I shouldn’t do development. You’ve been told you’re just a developer, so someone else will handle the design. It’s too easy to forget that we’re working on this web platform together, and a crossover of skills is incredibly valuable.

Technical problems shouldn’t just be reserved for those with technical job titles. As designers, it’s our job to be familiar with our platform. Print designers know a lot about paper and inks, and architects know about building materials and regulations. Web designers should understand their medium, even if they sometimes need a hand with the tricky stuff. Other industries have their parallels: prepress technicians and building contractors are available to help designers pick up the technical details.

Exploring the working environment#section5

You’ll get a lot more out of your job if you don’t feel like your job title has put you in a box. It’s fun to learn new things, and explore unknown territories. Get in an environment that pushes you, but gives you a safety net. You owe it to yourself to learn more, be ambitious, be better at what you do, and strive to be the best you can be at your craft.

You wouldn’t like it if someone else said you were “just a designer,” so don’t say it to yourself.

About the Author

Laura Kalbag

Laura Kalbag is a designer working on She was freelance for five years and still holds client work dear. She can be found via her personal site, Twitter, and out on long walks with her big fluffy dog.

11 Reader Comments

  1. Would you be advocating and end to specialization? I wouldn’t want an interior designer to install my electrical, and I think that the idea of an end to specialization is like that, developers are such because the have spent time training in their area of specialization, the same goes for designers. Wanting to educate yourself to smooth a handoff is one thing but in this ‘startup’ age we are in every Tom, Dick and Harriet wants some weird amalgam of designer/ui/front-ender/server-sider/hax0r/l33t that doesn’t occur to me to exist. Why do I think that is? Because they want to save themselves a buck most likely while trumpeting to the world just how their little company is going to ‘change the world’. Do you know what happens when you are a jack of all trades? You master none of them. Food for thought. ::steps off soapbox::

  2. I agree with you and Laura. Being able to understand the code is very valuable and it’s great if you’re able to let’s say explode a string into an array in PHP so you can use the data in the HTML elements you need for your CSS to work. But that’s about as far as I’d go. I think it’s valuable to understand the technobabble of others, but I would never try to interface with a database or read out json.

    The problem is most entrepreneurs look at the web as something like a playground you hire a code monkey for. They can’t be bothered to try to comprehend it’s complexity and importance, that’s probably the reason for most designers to teach themselves some HTML CSS and basic JS to be able to make use of frameworks, because the you either do, or the entrepreneur hires a coder and buys no design but rather just uses some free template. For me it often is a matter of getting the job or not, because the possible client refuses to pay more than one person – no matter the estimated ROI. It’s a sad truth, but most jobs we as designers and coders can get are offered by people who really couldn’t care less about how it’s done and don’t pay a dime over their imaginary budget. *stops writing, getting mad*

  3. @holliday I wouldn’t at all advocate an end to specialisation. It’s impossible for us to know everything. I just think we should look a little outside of our comfort zones, and try to learn more about our platforms in general, to better inform our design decisions.

    @wenzel we can’t expect clients and bosses to always understand the ins-and-outs, the complexities, and the importance of doing a job well. But we can do that for ourselves. When I was doing client work, I’d always do the best job possible, and try to approach it with craftmanship, regardless of whether the client would understand or appreciate it at the end. A lot of it was about my own sanity. I wouldn’t enjoy my work if I was just doing the bare minimum, and disregarding elements of the job that I considered important. Yes, I’ve taken small financial hits with this approach when it goes over budget on my end, but I had much greater job satisfaction. I also learned to accommodate this care and attention into my hourly rate and estimates for clients.

  4. Yea, totally agree. It’s so valuable when a visual designer knows what’s possible or impossible on the web, so we don’t have to argue about it and come to some sort of suboptimal compromise. The same goes for developers (like me, front-end devloper) – we shouldn’t be making stuff that is “undesignable”. In the same way, we also should try to come up with concepts that are easy on a database developer or an API developer (just roles, not job titles) or help them in their roles, even.

    On the flip side, there are folks that we, here in The Netherlands, like to call “millipedes”. Folks that claim to be able to do everything – concept, design, front-end, back-end, database, server maintenance. The works. When that happens due to too much crossover in disciplines, everyone can do everything ok-ish, but noone can do anything brilliantly.

    Personally, I love to do “some” backend. I don’t want to go too much into it, because I know I’m not good at it and I love doing front-end too much. But getting into Angular and taking over some API development that an experienced developer has set up for me, I’m comfortable with that. And I’m sure confidence will follow comfort, especially when I don’t break it on day 1 🙂

  5. Hey Laura! I just saw your article (sorry it’s taken me this long :P) and I didn’t want to just pass it by without letting you know how much I sympathise with you. You of all people have a good idea of what I could do about a year ago, and these days I’m finding myself configuring virtual machines, working with javascript frameworks and running mysql commands from the terminal! 🙂 As a matter of fact, I am teaching people how to use git! (you know that’s a big deal!)
    I couldn’t agree more with your answer to ‘holliday’, just getting a little bit out of your comfort zone will expand your knowledge no end and make you a better professional who’s more capable of working competently on a wider variety of projects and set ups.

  6. Well being even later to read the article I tend to agree with what you wrote. Yes, I would add specialization is important and needed but wouldn’t it be nice if the interior decorator at least had a bit of understanding say of the electrical when designing the new kitchen to understand what is possible and not.

    I think continually improving oneself while pushing out the boundaries so as to understand other “roles” is important to a more cohesive work environment.
    Plus who can say with the increase knowledge where it may take ones career path going forward if not within the current job the next one.

  7. I personally found this article quite encouraging. I certainly didn’t interpret that you were suggesting an end to specialization. Sometimes when you focus too much on one particular area it’s easy to say “that’s not my responsibility, someone else should take care of that”. When I first started making websites I learned HTML and CSS. That was my comfort zone and I enjoyed it. However, I felt that I should broaden my skill-set and look into JavaScript and PHP and I’m glad I did because it gave me the opportunity to build more interesting websites with richer functionality.

    At my current company, we have a team for JS and another for HTML/CSS. I specialize on the JS side, but, I found my experience working with HTML/CSS very helpful.

    I could probably write a lot more, but, I think I would get carried away. However, just wanted to say thanks, this article made for an interesting read.

  8. Great article. It’s good to know that the people I look up to in the industry still have to grapple with stuff. I’ll mention this article on an upcoming podcast episode. Thanks.

  9. These moments come around every now and then and it’s horrible. They tend to only occur when I’m working on a clients site that has been terribly set up by someone else in the first place, but nonetheless your heart sinks for a second and you know you’ve probably got a few stressful hours ahead of you as you try to fix it.

    We all have our limits somewhere but you always learn from these sort of experiences so you come out stronger in the long run.

  10. I have read this article and it is Very helpful,The problem is most entrepreneurs look at the web as something like a playground you hire a code monkey for. Harga Yamaha Vixion ,They can’t be bothered to try to comprehend it’s complexity and importance, that’s probably the reason for most designers to teach themselves some HTML CSS and basic JS to be able to make use of frameworks, because the you either do, or the entrepreneur hires a coder and buys no design but rather just uses some free template.

Got something to say?

We have turned off comments, but you can see what folks had to say before we did so.

More from ALA