Agile & design: The myths of web design no longer serve a purpose. Did they ever?

Delivering user experiences for the web requires close consideration of both visual and technical requirements. In an unfortunate industry cliché, designers and developers are often described as something of an odd couple: the free-thinking creative drawing on a Wacom pad versus the neckbeard developer wearing a conference t-shirt and rolling their eyes. Beyond the frequent and problematic gender stereotypes that accompany this comparison, the depiction of a conflict between designers and developers is belittling to both parties and can stifle creative collaboration.

Tools and culture evolve together. When we started Alley in 2010, Photoshop was in its heyday as the most dominant web design software, at least among the media companies that we worked with. “Slicing” PSDs was an important skill for frontend developers, or “themers” as they were referred to in the realm of developing frontends for Drupal sites, which is mostly what Alley worked on back then. The role of the front-end developer has expanded and proliferated. At Alley, we call these folks UX developers, and we couldn’t deliver much of anything without them.

Why did so many designers pick Photoshop over other tools? Even amongst the Adobe suite as it existed in 2010, Photoshop was hardly the optimal tool for web design. I think part of the answer lies in the expectations of design stakeholders back then. I recall dozens of meetings between 2007 and 2014 where designers were expected to present bundles of glossy printouts, often on 11×17 paper, which they taped on the wall for editors and other executives to admire. Another answer likely lies in Adobe’s cornucopia of products and burnout among designers from needing to constantly learn new tools without an appreciable upside.

Photoshop skills were also a shibboleth of privilege and a certain kind of experience in the rough adolescence of the internet when websites and print magazines were at their peak of self-reference and resemblance. Learning Photoshop was a chore. It was then and still is now a power tool, a cascade of windows, toolbars, filters and histograms. How many designers and developers were kept off the “respectable” internet because they didn’t have a valid license key for a product that initially retailed for $699?

Likewise, Photoshop reinforced the gap between designer and developer and added substantially to the myth of their rivalry. Most developers only learned enough about Photoshop to chop up a design into HTML and CSS. Photoshop is also much to blame for the myth of a pixel-perfect implementation.

Now, the culture has evolved and the expectation of stakeholders has shifted. Website stakeholders want to hold the prototype in their hand, on a phone, and the tools have evolved to meet that need. Adobe has tools for that, too, of course, but their tools are not nearly as popular in our corner of the internet as Sketch, whose popularity has grown steadily since its launch in 2010, and which our designers have used since 2014 in combination with Zeplin, which gives our development team a boost in implementing designs. We have since begun a shift into Figma, which allows for even more natural transitions between design and implementation.

If the myth of the star-crossed designer and developer was flawed from the start, the myth of the “unicorn” designer/developer, who could drive design software as well as they could ship code, only ever made sense in the warped world of Adobe. Today, because the available tools support their efforts, any designer willing to learn Sketch or Figma can deliver a design that a stakeholder can preview in a true-to-life environment and a developer can quickly incorporate into a production system. 

At Alley, we value authentic collaboration over industry expectations, and our teams work closely together to ship the right software for our customers. An agile approach to software design and delivery requires our teams to work closely and demands that they set aside egos in favor of frequently shipping a valuable increment.


This is the first of a multi-week series on the changing face of web design, particularly as it relates to remote work and scrum. Next up, Susan Finkelpearl, our Chief Experience Officer, talks about keeping designers connected in a remote world. Check it out here

Interested in learning more, or have a deeper question? Let us know!