The legend of the design unicorn

Patrick Shannon

Patrick Shannon

May 1, 2017

Sit down poppets, grab some warm cider and let me regale you with a story about unicorns.

What do I know about unicorns? If we’re talking about the magical creatures with a horn on their head, I know more now than ever thanks to this whimsical gentleman I saw at Burning Man.

However, there is another type of unicorn that I was listening to a tech company’s marketing manager go on about recently. As it’s a topic not discussed often enough in the creative business, that inspired me to write this post to share more about this mysterious breed that some claim exist and others completely doubt.

The modern climate of creative – especially digital and interactive – is ever-changing, and as a result demands much more from talent beyond their base skills in order to keep up and collaborate more closely with others. Like it or not, the lines between job roles are becoming blurred and consolidated in many ways. This is a fact that not all companies have accepted…but one that they simply cannot ignore.

In response, individuals who are multifaceted may be sought out, and one such example is designers with development knowledge and vice-versa. I’ve heard these roles called all sorts of ridiculous portmanteaus like “devigner” and “deseloper,” but probably the most common term (of which I’m no more a fan of) is the “unicorn.”

Classifying a unicorn

A “unicorn” refers to a professional skilled in multiple areas, called as such as they are supposedly rare and very hard to find. It’s no surprise this term is seen alongside other silly industry nomenclature like “rock stars” and “ninjas.”

Unicorn designers in particular can vary from creatives who are also savvy with anything from front-end markup skills all the way to back-end programming. Not common (but not THAT uncommon), the unicorn may be valued by those who find appeal in the idea of paying just one person to do multiple roles rather than several people with one role, but I think that’s not the best reason to hire them. In fact, unicorns can be one of the strongest specialists in their field.

Unlike those used to working with static comps, designers with digital production experience generally understands how the media they design for behaves and works in actual practice. Understanding it’s limitations and able to spot dilemmas much earlier, they are able to adapt (or overcome) these constraints rather than simply call it a design and chuck it over the fence to production to figure out.

Hiring a unicorn is not about getting one person to do multiple jobs: rather it’s about hiring someone with expanded knowledge who is able to communicate with resources in other areas and ultimately work towards a more effective and expedited solution, as well as saving valuable time to experiment with new ideas.

From startups to mature companies, any business remotely serious about their digital departments would do well to take a look at these kinds of candidates. Unfortunately, those who do acquire a unicorn often overlook these benefits and regard their acquisition as little more than a novelty hire or surrogate for other roles the business has trouble filling.

The perception of unicorns

If it not that easy being green according to a famous frog, then being regarded as mythical creature in the professional world has to fit underneath that somewhere.

It varies by market where they may be in hot demand (like the tech industry), but generally in the design business I’ve found that unicorns simply do not garner the respect that other creative peers do. Though capable, they can largely be overlooked for top creative work by creative directors and limited to development only (especially where developer demand is desperate), working on side projects, or as a catch-all for everything else (requiring them to be better at Googling things than others).

In scenarios where organizations are forced to downsize, unicorns would be the no-brainer to retain as resources are severely strained in the tough times ahead and roles are more tightly consolidated, but oddly they are usually the first ones out the door.

I think unicorn designers have trouble getting respect because they are unable to be labeled or classified by those with an old-fashioned approach to digital work. There’s the mindset that creative and technology fields are segregated into two camps, that the art and copy people translates into “creativity” while anyone who has so much as one finger on technology are automatically deemed production and coders.

The idea of any cross-over whatsoever is simply too radical to some, and I’ve even been told by a creative director that he absolutely couldn’t grasp the concept. Sometimes it’s just easier to fall back on old and familiar labels rather than try something new.

Not helping is other black-and-white thinking like the generalists vs. specialists argument, or the notion that focusing on one skill compromises another (something Prince would have laughed off). More grasps at straws by doubters are tropes like “left-brain and right-brain thinking” and the ol’ favorite….”jack of all, master of none” (commonly misquoted).

The irony of those philosophies is that it’s not becoming of an industry that trumpets disruptive thinking, risk and experimentation.  All traits well suited for those who are deemed unconventional by the same critics, I dare say.

Concluding the tale

Regardless of anyone’s stance on unicorns, I still think we need to throw old perceptions out and quit calling the role by cute and fuzzy terms. My problem with the labeling is that it regards the idea of being multifaceted as unusual, when in reality it’s quickly becoming the new normal in today’s climate. “Unicorns” needs to be put to rest along with “rock stars” and “ninjas”; the only buzzword that matters in talent going forward is ADAPTABILITY.

As for multifaceted designers who are selling themselves as everything and all, I speak from my own experiences (mistakes) when I say that is absolutely not the story you want to weave. I think the following quote from Uma Thurman in a deleted Pulp Fiction scene is pertinent…

“…there’s only two kinds of people in the world…Beatles people and Elvis people. Now Beatles people can like Elvis and Elvis people can like Beatles, but nobody likes them both equally. Somewhere you have to make a choice. And that choice, tells you who you are.

It’s absolutely not impossible to enjoy and do good work in multiple fields if you truly thirst for knowledge, and it is especially of benefit when working for yourself. But whether an entrepreneur or in an environment of specialists, I still think all professionals have one area in particular that they find themselves gravitating more towards. When you’ve determined exactly what you are, then it’s up to you to figure out how your knowledge outside that area can help that path forward…and draw the line on everything else. 

If you aren’t able to define yourself, then others will do that for you. And when they get it wrong…there is nothing remotely magical about being classified as a unicorn.

About Patrick Shannon

As a user experience (UX) designer / researcher based in St. Louis, I've worked with technology partners across the country to study end-users and create fictionless products and solutions that today's audiences connect with. In my spare time, I enjoy photography and building ideas out of anything from electronics to wood...still determined to build a life-sized replica of Optimus Prime someday.