Unicorn: a visual designer with UX chops

Posted on April 25, 2011.
Unicorn: a visual designer with UX skills

I was speaking to an entrepreneur the other day when he mentioned he was looking for a “creative director with UX skills.” He added,”…someone whose aesthetic I really like.” I responded ,”Good luck.”

Having recently completed a year-long search for just such a person I’d resigned to believe this person was a in fact a unicorn. This person may exist – someone may have seen one once – but in most cases they’re simply fantastical stories of designers long-since employed elsewhere.

(Update: I was quickly reminded that I forgot to mention that my search bore fruit. I found my unicorn.)

Why is it so hard to find strong visual designers who have interaction and product design experience? In theory IxD and graphic design should go hand in hand and the market should be flooded. The reality is that a perfect storm of historical design inertia is failing to produce these much-needed hybrids.

First, design schools have traditionally not taught interaction design or user experience design skills. There is certainly sufficient material within the realm of academic Design to fill four years of curriculum. If you try to tack on the various fields of study commonly associated with UX (cognitive psychology, information architecture, research methods etc) you’d end up with 6-8 years of classes. However, providing at least foundational material sprinkled throughout a formal BFA program could be a good start.

Second, graphic designers get gobbled up quickly by the agency world. Unfortunately for those freshly minted designers, most agencies (especially the big ones) don’t value IxD or UX design. They throw the words around but when push comes to shove they sell advertising and interactive marketing. Designers are rarely offered the opportunity to witness, much less participate in, true interaction design work.

The experience designers collect through school and agency doesn’t prepare them to solve the challenges of workflow, transactional systems and information organization. This is not to say that they are incapable of this work. It’s just that when a hiring manager inside a product focused company starts assessing candidates, the most common gaping hole in those resumes is the actual design of products. Predictably this then perpetuates the cycle of visual designers going to agencies (where their lack of UX skills are not a barrier to entry) and not learning these much needed skills.

Why do you think there are relatively few of these unicorns?


102 thoughts on “Unicorn: a visual designer with UX chops

  1. Great article. My experience had been in many work places, people force designers to choose one bucket (often in unique departments), Visual or UX Design, instead of nurture (potential) hybrids. Those that wanted to practice both (like me) have really had to take our careers into our own hands and get creative with personal development.
    Ron Goldin | Principal | http://studioakko.com/

  2. While I agree with your article, people who use their both their right and left brains are not that rare. Yes visual designers mainly use their right brain and lean toward artistic creations while, say UI people lean toward analytical thinking and do technical work and it is hard to find people who can do both but I believe it can be taught. Take architecture students for example..in architecture school this was the process to do a project:

    1. Gather with the teacher and the classmates to discuss the general info about the project, the project site, where we’d begin to analyze and how to document the analysis.

    2. Go to the site to analyze the surroundings, take photos, measurements etc. then come back to the class and discuss our findings.

    3. Based on the information we collected we design a concept model to solve basic design problems and support it with simple drawings, sketches, bubble diagrams etc. then do class presentations and receive criticisms. (really HARSH criticisms)

    4. This step involves adding more and more material and design process, getting deeper into the project, re-create more complex models and drawings and keep having class presentations.

    5. Final stage: Make a final model.. either a physical model or a computer generated one or both and do complex drawings such as plans, sections, elevations so we were required to pay attention to the concept, development process, visual design and presentation, mathematical aspect of the project such as measurements and area calculations. Combine it with the other classes in which we were taught construction, building materials etc. so we could draw building details and construction documents.

    So we used both creative thinking and hard math analytical thinking while trying to finish a project before a deadline then present our work in front of a huge crowd and try not to have a nervous breakdown when the jury trashed our project. Being “artistic” is not that important in architecture, the main skill you should have is analyzing something and finding good solutions to problems with design. Yes aesthetics help but you don’t have to have incredible artistic talents.

    That’s why I find many similarities between UX and architecture,  just the tools used to create projects are different so I think everybody who is into UX can benefit from the architectural thinking process. I hope I was able to get my point across..

  3. Thanks for the article + comments. There are some great insights on how to position yourelf in the industry here.

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  5. Thank you so much for this post.

    I’ve spent the last five years thinking that I was more of a magpie – a designer too interested in how things work to have become the fabled artist, and too obsessed with function to want to produce things just because they are beautiful.

    As a result I collected various streams of skills, like coding, web ux, an obsession with client psychology, offline marketing, inbound marketing, technical printing skills, prepress qualifications, publishing. The only thing I really had in common was being interested in a client type: professional services doing time for money.

    I’d thought this hodge-podge of skills had diluted or tainted my design.

    I think unicorns are forged rather than born or educated, in the style of necessity being the mother of all invention.

    Running my own business also gave me the freedom to take on a wide range of challenging projects that required up-skilling or learning from scratch. That meant being humble enough to acknowledge I knew nothing about that field, and dedicated enough to learn it. Learning within the framework of a client’s needs, is an apprenticeship. You come out of those jobs with real world skills and experience that you already know is commercially viable and required by your market.

    My short answer to why there are not enough unicorns is that typically, employed designers have very little control or say over the projects they do. They are assigned according to their existing strengths, the ones the boss knows will make money and make the client happy. It’s the safest bet. I do the same with the contractors I use.

    Unicorns are forged in the crucibles of small business, like entrepreneurs.

  6. It is a relatively new field in name only. I think the concept of thinking about the user has been around forever — at least it has been in my brain since well before I started design. There are a ton of job ads for UX Designers in my area, but they all want someone with proven experience in UX Design (a real-world portfolio). What’s the point of teaching it (or learning it) in school, if no one is going to hire a UX Designer that has no real-world experience doing it?

  7. I always thought a “unicorn” was a back-end programmer(java/c#) with great design/ui/ux skills. Someone that could not only create the application and backend, but could make is look amazing too.

    I got a big LOL when I clicked on th link for your unicorn and got back: “Error establishing a database connection”. 😉

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