Design the Future
January 19–20, 2016: Training
January 20–22, 2016: Conference
San Francisco, CA

The many minds of the maker: The programmer's mental model and the coding designer

Livia Labate (NPR/OpenNews)
3:45pm Thursday, 01/21/2016
The new fundamentals
Location: The Chapel
Average rating: ****.
(4.67, 6 ratings)
Slides:   external link

Prerequisite knowledge

Participants should have a general understanding of the design practice and designers' day-to-day demands.


At one time or another, designers at all levels and specialties are faced with the question: should I learn to code? While there are very strong opinions about whether or not programming is a required ability for design practice, if designers decide to take on this challenge, they soon face a myriad of obstacles. Although design practitioners are beginning to understand the practical utility of writing code as a way to make design happen, the obstacles to skill building lead many to abandon the effort early on.

Barriers for entry to coding include:

  • Internal concerns—Am I good enough? Am I too old to learn? How can I learn to code while continuing to hone my design skills?
  • Circumstantial impediments—When will I find the time? Can I do it as a side project? How do I make it part of my day-to-day work?
  • External pressures—Is it worth learning if I can’t build it all on my own? Can I just learn a couple of languages without going too deep into things like performance? What language do I start with?
  • Mismatched expectations—I want to learn one language at a time, I need to be able to apply what I learn to my job right away, etc.

If designers are able to get past these initial concerns, then the real difficulty kicks in: rethinking how to think about building products. Programmers have a different mental model for creating products and getting work done than do designers. This permeates decisions like where to start learning, how to organize a training plan and exercises, how to structure projects, how to set up your work environment, and how to participate in community learning and sharing as peers. Moreover, these differences in perspectives become conflated with one’s own identity as a designer, creating more confusion and further challenging designers trying to codify design into programs to realize their visions.

Livia Labate offers guidance on how to navigate these challenges. Designers interested in taking the leap or struggling to learn to code will feel empowered and be able to recommit to coding with a better understanding of how programmers tackle the same issues.

Photo of Livia Labate

Livia Labate


Livia Labate is a user experience designer and manager. She is currently a 2015 Knight-Mozilla fellow working at NPR. With over 15 years of industry experience, she has worked with large organizations such as Comcast and the BBC and heavily contributed to the development of the information architecture community of practice through the IA Institute. More recently, Livia led Marriott’s Digital Standards and Practices group, focusing on the stewardship and governance of digital experiences.