Interdisciplinary Website Maker

Paul Ford has a great article at Wired about his own experience as an English major working in tech. While I myself am not an English major (more on that below) his desire to be interdisciplinary parallels my own.

I began to realize I was that most horrifying of things: interdisciplinary...the idea that an English major should learn to code was seen as wasteful, bordering on abusive—like teaching a monkey to smoke.

When I’ve interviewed and expressed my desire to work doing design and code, some folks look at me strange and stammer. “Hm...well, maybe we have a place for that…I’ll have to get back to you.” To some, the idea that a designer would write code or that an engineer would move pixels seems strange — like “teaching a monkey to smoke”.

The sentiment I often perceive is: “Why would we need a designer that codes? We have designers. We have coders. Why would we need someone who can do both?”[1]

In the early days of making websites, “a designer who codes” didn’t seem like a big deal. After all, the only place to procure people who made websites was Craigslist. It was such a new idea that “a designer who codes” seemed like the least odd thing. The strangest concoction of disciplines existed in the early era of making websites: an English major who leads product, an actor who writes API code, or a poet who moves pixels around.

But now-a-days, any cross-disciplinary interest is easily interpreted as a lack of specialization and dedication to craft. If you’re doing design and code, how can you be really great at either? You’re not maximizing.

There’s another angle to it though, which Paul discusses in his article when he says, “humans are primates and disciplines are our territories”.

this same battle of the disciplines, everlasting, ongoing, eternal, and exhausting, defines the internet. Is blogging journalism? Is fan fiction “real” writing? Can video games be art? (The answer is always: Of course, but not always. No one cares for that answer.)

The analogy of disciplines as borders is intriguing. In disciplines, when things get complicated we don’t open borders but instead create new ones.

Existing disciplines don’t say, “Sure, c’mon over here. If you don’t fit, we’ll find room for you.” And new disciplines don’t say, “Let’s fold ourselves under the old umbrella of discipline X.” Both parties prefer new lines be drawn. New borders. And so new disciplines arise like Computer Science. And new titles appear, like AI Engineer. In this world of borders and disciplinary citizenship, what do you do with the unpatriotic interdiciplinarian? Paul:

The interdisciplinarian is essentially an exile. Someone who respects no borders enjoys no citizenship.

The irony here is that no discipline works without the others. Paul pointed this out in a separate article when he said:

The most brutal fact of life is that the discipline you love and care for is utterly irrelevant without the other disciplines that you tend to despise.

He illustrates this perfectly at the end of his Wired article using trees:

All you have to do is look at a tree—any tree will do—to see how badly our disciplines serve us. Evolutionary theory, botany, geography, physics, hydrology, countless poems, paintings, essays, and stories—all trying to make sense of the tree. We need them all, the whole fragile, interdependent ecosystem. No one has got it right yet.

Websites are like trees. You need understanding from all the disciplines — engineering, design, psychology, writing, etc. — to make sense of how to best grow them.

Interdisciplinary Studies

My official four-year degree is: Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies with an emphasis in Visual Technologies and Spanish.

I rarely tell anyone that because, well frankly it’s a mouthful. Most conversations about higher education happen in the context of a career story, so to move the spotlight off me I’ll say “Yeah, I got a degree in computers.” That sounds like I majored in Computer Science but really it was more Graphic Design than anything programming-related.

But I don’t feel like a great Graphic Designer. Nor a great Computer Scientist. Somewhere along the way I ended up making websites. A strange hybrid of computer science and graphic design — and a million other things.

To be honest, I chose a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies because it was the fastest way for me to graduate. I knew Spanish, so I could take a test that gave me almost a year’s worth of credits. A four-year degree in three? Yes, please.

But in hindsight, maybe there was more in my decision than just a faster route to the finish line. Perhaps there was more “Hey, don’t put me in a box” inside of me than I realized at the time.

Because now in a world of Designer and Product Designer and UI Designer and UX Designer and Interaction Designer and Front-End Engineer and Full Stack Engineer and Software Engineer and et al., I still don’t want a label.

Lately, “Design Engineer” has felt more and more like a good fit for me. Perhaps because it is deliberately cross-discipline. It satisfies my deep-seated feeling of “don’t put me in a box” while also satisfying my belief that one narrow discipline can’t produce everything necessary to create a great experience on the web.

It reminds me of Maggie’s decisions to just call herself “website maker” because none of the disciplines alone are enough to make sense of how to build websites.

I feel that. Even “Design Engineer” doesn’t feel adequate. It deliberately mixes two disciplines, which is great, but also leaves out all the others.

To Paul’s point, I find myself wanting to draw new borders. “The Web” as its own discipline (I guess that’s the primate in me, oo oo ah ah).

Or maybe “Interdisciplinary Website Maker” is the right title.

Rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?