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The death of designer unicorns

The death of designer unicorns

March 7, 2020

It's no longer possible to be a "designer unicorn." It used to be the case that if you were good at visual design, interaction design, and frontend coding, you were elevated to the mythical "unicorn" status. But each of these skills – among the other skills required to build successful products – has become too broad and too nuanced for any individual to contribute meaningfully across the entire spectrum.

I suppose there's still value in having a term for a multidisciplinary designer. Maybe it's just that: multidisciplinary – someone with a deep understanding of their role in building products, but has the ability to collaborate meaningfully with cross-functional peers, with a shared language and unifying goal.

But if I step back and think about what's really important in building products, design and engineering are just two small pieces of the puzzle. Consider: user research, copywriting, marketing, sales, data science, QA, security, and dev ops.

And within each of these areas, consider the depth. In design alone, you might think about visual, interaction, systems, and product design as all different modes of creating a final artifact. Within engineering, consider the frontend, backend, data model, performance, responsiveness, time to interactive, internationalization, and on and on.

The caricature of a "designer who codes" being the final evolution in a designer's career isn't enough anymore. Modern designers should strive to be multidisciplinary, and design teams should seek to build a team of overlapping multidisciplinary designers. Team construction then becomes about balancing skill coverage and skill depth, guided by upstream business needs.

So should designers code? Or should designers write copy, understand the sales pipeline, interview customers, read the data, and think performance-first? Yes. It's just that it's not realistic, nor particularly compelling, to try to be the one person who does all of these things day to day in any meaningful capacity.

Exceptions abound. But in my experience, I've been able to run the furthest, the fastest, when collaborating with people in complimentary roles where we each took the time and effort to speak each other's language and build a shared understanding of what we're really working towards.