On the benefits and pitfalls of being a Unicorn Designer

A unicorn designer is defined as someone skilled in design, visual design, and coding. While they’re very sought after, they are usually looked down upon by other designers because they’re seen as avoiding being a specialist in anything. Here’s why that shouldn’t be the case.

a unicorn emoji on a blue background with the text "about being a unicorn designer"

I recently discussed the nature of Unicorn Designers with some peers. And I could see pretty quickly that the consensus among Interaction and Product designers is still that being a unicorn designer is a bad thing. This surprised me as loving design just as much as I love coding is a big part of my career.

Some background on unicorn designers

As previously mentioned, “unicorns” in design are people who are not only able to design and prototype interfaces, but can build them as well. While this might sound like a positive, in some situations it’s understandable why it would be considered a bad thing.

For example: knowing both design and programming doesn’t necessarily mean said designer is good at both. So, naturally, some stricter designers might assume that either skill is being added to the mix to make up for lack of knowledge in the other. A unicorn designer is, in short, at risk of being seen as a hack.

On the other hand, it’s natural for purists to turn their nose up at someone who has become more hireable than them by mastering more varied skills. In other words, jealousy definitely plays a part.

Design and programming are not as separate as they used to be

Back in the early-web days, most designers would create interfaces in Photoshop (yes, it was just as bad as it sounds). Then they’d ship them off to developers who would build them and make them functional.

This worked for that era in which tools were scarce and professional knowledge was gained through rigorous study and qualifications. You either knew Photoshop or you didn’t. You either knew how to use PHP or all you could do were static html templates.

How the new web has changed things

In the era of modern web-design there are so many tools one can use for design and programming. It’s likely you’ll be able to find at least one you can both afford and understand.

Figma, for example, has made interface prototyping accessible to anyone. Compare this to when a couple of years back Sketch was limited to those who could afford a $2000 Apple PC.

Even Node.js has made backend development accessible to a whole group of people that knew Javascript from front-end development. You can even build a full application with relative ease by just knowing Python!

These big and small projects, along with a whole host of open source solutions, have made it much easier to experiment, learn and create anything you could think of without requiring you to study for a decade.

And that’s amazing for anyone that wants to learn!

The bad side of the new web

It would be a massive oversight to assume that since making things is much easier everyone can have the same level of skill. The downside of tools being accessible is that, well, anyone can claim to be an expert. Be it because of a Dunning-Kruger Effect or simply due to a willingness to lie.

So it’s only natural that people might scoff at the idea of a designer having more interdisciplinary skills, but the reality of it is that it’s absolutely possible!

Why designers should strive to expand their skillsets

As I studied and worked on my design skills one thing became more and more apparent: the more cross-discipline skills you understand, the more effective a communicator you can be. This is important because design is all about communication.

For example, a front-end team can much more effectively discuss what a product needs with the back-end team if there is an overlap of knowledge.

I didn’t become interested in programming because it was a goal of mine. It was ultimately because it made it easier to know what programmers could and could not do. This made me a more effective designer because the back and forth of “this can’t be done” was significantly reduced.

This is true for most disciplines, in fact. For instance, I had the same realisations when working in industries such as woodworking, electronics and physical prototyping.

It just happened that as I was learning to design more effectively I found out I actually really enjoyed coding my designs which lead me to want to improve as much as possible.

If you enjoy it, do it.

That’s the one point I really want to get across here. Of course as a designer or programmer you don’t have to learn the other skill, but here are some pros and cons of trying:

  • ✔️ Become a better collaborator
  • ✔️ Learn new perspectives
  • ✔️ Might find a new passion / help you find your next job
  • ❌ Use up some of your free time

Okay, I might be biased (being a unicorn designer myself), but as far as I see it there’s very few downsides to learning new skills. Worst comes to worst you don’t get very far and never mention it to anyone. End of.

My perspective on the matter

When I started designing websites in the late 2000s there was one thing that upset me more than anything. I’d look at some big, complex projects and I’d curse myself for not understanding how to make them. For lack of a better word, I sucked at PHP, and MySQL looked very complex. (It still does, but now I just go with it). And so for years I was stuck on making themes or simple websites.

I hated that. I must’ve tried a dozen times to learn how to build full-stack applications without any results. It took me about a decade to actually get back into trying with new tools. However, eventually I got there and learned enough to create very simple applications.

That solid foundation was enough to keep trying and improve to the point where now building a whole application doesn’t even look that complex.

I love being able to prototype an interface and then actually follow its development from inception to a finished product. It’s a fantastic feeling that I wouldn’t give up for anything else.

A call to stop gate-keeping design

Something to keep in mind for established designers, employers and beginners alike: value designers by the quality of their work.

It makes no sense to be suspicious of a co-worker, student, tutor or employee simply because their skill-set covers more than one or two disciplines. Most of the time, this simply means that they want to go the extra mile. So before you judge a unicorn designer, ask yourself if your suspicion is justified.

Of course there’s also no need to feel bad because you don’t have the time to expand your skill-set further, the beauty of working in design is that there’s space for anyone, be they unicorns or not.

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