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?


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

  1. I have to think there are UXers who design & UXers who code (in some instances I wonder what they were doing to get into the field if they didn’t practice one or the other), but they’re highly compensated doing work on their own or in a partnership of some kind where they’re getting a cut of the action. nnSimply put, most of the people claiming they can’t find a unicorn aren’t willing to shell out the cash for a unicorn. nnIf a bunch of companies were shelling out $200 an hour for UXers who could professionally execute whatever that particular company defines as “UX & design” or “UX & code”, then wouldn’t capitalist economics suggest more people would make damn sure they can develop the skills to deposit those checks? Instead, these companies aren’t paying a premium for the skills, they’re paying what every other shop wants to pay a UXer, or a developer, or a designer. And you just don’t get good skills in 2 of those 3 for only $125k a year (in NYC, a couple years of experience, yadda yadda yadda). nnSo it seems natural that when more companies buck up, more people will hone their skills. But until then the people who do have those skills are going to continue doing what they’re doing at the rates they charge, without a second thought at the usual 40 hour a week jobs that are, to some people, a dime a dozen. nn

    1. Excellent points. I think in particular, people looking for so-called design/code/UX unicorns simply don’t want to pay the going rate for 2-3 separate people.

  2. I remember seeing Allan Chochinov some amazing service design concepts done by final year graphic design students, and I’d argue that new grads are increasingly being exposed to design beyond ‘making cool stuff’. However, they’re the junior designers rather than the senior ones. nnI think you also have to take into account why people go into graphic design. If I had known as a student that graphic design could lend itself to user experience, I might have done it (rather than product design, which was interesting, but obviously means I don’t have the visual chops that I would have from a graphic design degree), but at the time, it seemed to be all about print and style. It’ll only be as the change in perception filters through the system than the vis-UXer becomes less unicorn and more real.

  3. I am such a unicorn, but completely self-taught / work-experienced. I got my start in print design (phototypesetting, no less), but my actual education was classical liberal arts (communications) / art history. I think that kind of background – and beyond that, encouraging a general curiosity about the world – is missing from most design programs that focus solely on technique. nnI see plenty of people come out of design school with a headful of ideas but no grounding in visual culture and really weak execution (in a commercial sense, anyway) – they’re encouraged to do abstract explorational work (in Flash), or layouts with unreadable type, and you have to guide them away from design-as-self-expression and towards design-as-craft, or better, design-as-public-service.nnAs applied to UX, I see a lot of the same thing – a lot of “academic” UXers with no grounding in the craft of visual culture, design, typography, art history, or (practically speaking) entrepreneurship or plain old advertising / marketing. So they might give your site an A+ for usability but they can’t tell you that your ideas are hackneyed, the writing overlong or clichu00e9d, and your logo is yet another swoosh – all of which add up to the subjective experience / trust in a brand.

  4. I think you should check out freelance designers. If it were up to agency experience, I would’ve fallen under the category of designers without time or resources to learn UX or basic interaction design.nnAs a freelancer, I didn’t have a choice if I wanted to design better interactive products than my competitors; I learned UX to the best of my ability, conducted tests with Silverback, learned cardsorting, read a ton of Jakob Nielsen, and made friends with HCI degrees. nnIt’s kind of scary though how many people can sell their knowledge of usability or UX design and know little more than how to wireframe in Omnigraffle and saturate a conversation with buzzwords. nnIt happened with web design during the beginning where the problem is how do you see past the gimmicks if you, yourself, aren’t familiar with figuring out who’s not a snake-oil salesman?

  5. Relatively few of these people exist because “unicorns” are the product of startups assuming they can find someone who can cover more than one job by writing borderline insane job reqs expecting to hire a myth rather than a real, focused, skilled person. The long term ramifications of setting such unrealistic expectations is the over-all watering down of all of these individual skills and creating less focused experts, as the startup world makes budding designers believe they need to be great at everything, which often results in being wholly mediocre due to lack of focus.nnThe more I hear this topic come up over and over, the more frustrated it makes me because the results are clear: there is a designer drought going on all over the place. It’s not that there’s a lack of “designers” u2013 there’s a lack of hirable talent. For every one unicorn, there’s 100 un-hire-able designer/front-end engineer/uxpert/user researcher/ninja warrior/makes-great-grilled-cheese-type people who have been tricked into thinking that having a wide and amorphous “skill set,” they’re at an advantage to getting a job. It’s just not true. nnUnicorns aren’t real. There are *very few* multi-talented folks out there who could get hired on the merits of their individual talents, but are utilized for all of them at one job. Startups need to stop holding out for these people and simply accept that hiring design talent isn’t about finding someone who can do everything. Your creative department isn’t a shortcut to keeping your burn down. In the same way that you don’t hire one engineer to do front-end, back-end, ops, and all of the other granular engineering tasks that exist that most companies hire the appropriate people for, it’s naive to think that a company can always (or ever) find the silver-bullet “designer” who can do everything.

    1. Fairly unrelated to your comment, Jeffrey, but do you think it’s a problem that if you post a job for “Interaction Designer” you get 100:1 resumes for ad school creatives who want to do interactive marketing?nnThat’s probably been the most frustrating thing for me. I feel like IxD is relatively narrow (especially if you compare it to the monstrous UX clusterf of skills) thing to ask for but it’s been damn near impossible for me to find someone.

    2. I see where you’re coming from, and I certainly think it happens a lot – companies look for a budget way to get a wide range of services – and this is a problem.nnHowever, I think there is something extra that such multi-skilled people bring, which makes them desirable in their own right. It’s to do with the gaps between the different disciplines. Even with very close collaboration, if the person writing the UI code has no visual design sense, then things get very difficult. How do you get them to keep the integrity of all the subtle aspects of typography and margins, etc? They would need to be micro-managed by the visual designer. Same goes for a visual designer who has no knowledge of usability. The more a visual designer understands about usability and how people use UIs, the more their visual design will take this into account.nnIn my experience with web projects, quality lies in the detail. And one efficient way to get the detail right is to have people on your team who are able to work cross-discipline, because it helps to ensure that stuff doesn’t fall through the cracks.

  6. ‘UX skills’ is a vague requirement. Are we taking about buying pizza and taking notes during a usability session? Coding out js prototypes? Box-and-arrowing a team of engineering grumps and program managers until you see their heads nod? All of it? It seems to me that ‘chops’ in this case means being a true blue self-starter, and those types of people have always gone for a premium. nnAlso, personal aesthetics are very low on the list of priorities for interaction design and UXD. In order for someone to see the opportunities that UXD provides, and move their career in that direction they need to have some faith and vision. nnIn a few years the role will be more defined and commodified and UXers will be getting the $25/hr that a decent brochure designer commandsu2026 let’s just enjoy it while we can.

  7. I wonder if it has something to do with how different brains are wired and the motivations for choosing certain areas of study. For many people who decide to go to art school (and end up studying design), they may be motivated to create. People who are motivated to organize are a different sort — they may go to school for library sciences. Some people are motivated by making things better for people and possibly study psychology…maybe human factors. Most everyone I meet in our field have strung together a life-long, self-guided study that takes them well beyond the single focus they started with. You need to find people who have great talent in one area and interest in learning/potential to master the others and then give them every bit of guidance (and reward) for growing in those other directions. Build your own unicorn factory 😉

    1. this this this

      ux / ixd is part of experience architecture

      content strategy is part of experience architecture

      art/creative/visual is part of experience architecture

      we all can be 1 + 1

    2. This is the best comment i’ve read. it’s nice idea that building your own unicorn factory. Comminucating with a lot of unicorns is the best way to grow yourself!

  8. I am a UX/visual designer. I do wireframes, motion graphics and graphic design. I learned to be a graphic designer in school. The rest I picked up out of necessity working as a UI designer at product design firms. (I currently manage “Experience Design” at one such product design firm in San Francisco.)nnI was stubborn about doing UX at first. It didn’t give me opportunity for creative expression that drew me to design. I bet this is the reason there aren’t more visual designers doing UX. We’re taught to be expressive, personal and bold, but the best UX is none of those things. It’s undetectable, invisible. It’s the opposite of visual design, really. For a visual designer looking to put his or her creative fingerprint on a project, UX is not only challenging, it’s unfulfilling.nnWhat happened to me was that I realized no amount of visual design could save a project deprived of proper UX. Put bluntly, I got tired of polishing turds and I thought I could improve the outcomes of my projects if I learned to make wireframes and task flows and state machines. So I did. :)nnI know a few other “unicorns” and generally I sense an increase in the designers who get UX. (Honestly I’m not sure about the other way around.) I wish there were more of us though. For now though the unicorn remains mysterious, elusive.

  9. The worst part of being one is the treatment you receive from clients: being expected to complete the tasks of multiple people in the same amount of hours as if you were completing a sole portion of the project (Early project UX and visual design in the time it would take to just do early project UX for instance).nnAfter a run-in with this at a start-up as a contractor (I was also expected to use my front-end production skills when the front-end dev jumped ship early on), I loathe the idea of working for a wet-behind-the-ears startup.nnPart of the problem is the lack of understanding by those in the role of employeru2014for the same reason they write ridiculous skill requirements in job descriptions.

  10. I don’t think these people are unicorns. I think they do exist. I’ve met many in my travels.nnI do think they are rare. I also think they are extremely valuable to the organizations they work for. (And, in many cases, those organizations don’t realize just how valuable they are and end up squandering the value.)nnI think the biggest issue is that demand for these folks are growing, but we don’t have a good way in our practices to produce them quickly.nnAs I’ve said elsewhere, this is an issue of skills. You’re looking for people who have a variety of skills and enough experience behind them to get good at those skills. nnPeople show, for the most part, and endless capacity to learn new skills. But time and opportunities are the constraint that prevent folks from getting the practice opportunities.nnAs a manager, what are you doing to grow the skills of the people on your team? Are you conducting regular assessments of the skills they have, comparing them to the skills you need? nnAre you giving the team time, opportunity, and methods for practicing their skills? (I don’t mean assigning production level projects. I mean true practicing. Think the way a baseball coach of a pro team gets every player into batting practice every day of every week. What is your team’s “batting practice?”)nnWe sit hit and complain that we can’t get people who have the skills we need. What are we doing to generate people with those skills?nnJared

    1. Jared,nnI think largely this has occurred because traditionally UX specialists and creative people have battled it out for dominance. So we have creative resources who bemoan the fact that the UX and IxD guys are diluting creative, and we have the UX high priests talking about how you don’t need creative just good structure and flow to optimize the experience.nnWe have to stop seeing the world in black and white or creative versus UX and understand that great ‘design’ comes from the melding of these two arts into a great customer experience. At the end of the day, just because something is usable, doesn’t make it desirable. Just because something looks great, doesn’t mean it works great.nnIf we focus on the customer experience, we will find unicorns become a lot more common.nnBK

      1. agreed

        in ye olden days, in agency world, the creative director sat on top of the art directors and production artists, and copy writers were the step children

        in the future, and starting now, i’m seeing the hierarchy looking like this

        — experience director
        > ux director / ux staff
        > art director / production artists
        > content strategy director / editorial staff

    2. “I do think they are rare. I also think they are extremely valuable to the organizations they work for. (And, in many cases, those organizations don’t realize just how valuable they are and end up squandering the value.)”nnThis is so true – this week I’ve had my fourth Job Interview where the people on the other side of the desk stated that they see how valuable someone like me would be for their company. BUT that this function isn’t created yet and they need to discuss this internally.. well maybe my intuition is wrong but the previous 3 interviews made the 4th possible :)nnI am not claiming that I am the best of the best but -like Jared stated- I do own ‘a variety of skills and enough experience’ to be able to get better and better everyday. nnMaybe it’s just the industry in The Netherlands but it seems that companies are afraid to change the way they approach website/application design. These companies understand what I mean with the ROI of Usability and this UCD approach an such. They claim they should take these steps but also state they can’t sell it (taking a User Centered Approach at least) to enough customers for it to be profitable.. quite frustrating !n n”Will IxD or UX for money” .. now only the (Dutch) companies who are willing to hire me..nn@rgenietersnn

  11. As someone who’s referred to himself as a unicorn, I find this post very salient and spot on.nnI’ve worn the hat of visual designer and the hat UX professional, but mostly I’ve worn both, because I’ve worked in smaller shops where that was required. I also started out 15 years ago, when roles were less clearly defined and everyone chipped in on some level.nnI personally find it liberating to work on a project from the earliest conceptual, research, and strategy phases, to conduct the user research, develop the uses cases and user flows, site maps, wireframes, and then the actual branded visual designs. When necessary, I’m comfortable directing others, but always because I feel I understand what UX means.nnThe problem is that as UX gains traction as a defined specialty, people will expect UX professionals to be more and more narrow in focus. That’s a mistake. nnI will add one caveat: a great creative can learn the skills necessary to be a seasoned UX pro, but I’m not convinced the other way around is always possible.nn

  12. Great debate here. I’m in agreement that a lot of the questions should be asked of our schools and universities. 12 years ago I was in a situation where my only course choices were graphic design, psychology or computer science. What I wanted to do was a mix of all three. nnIf I had chosen design, I’d more than likely be a print/graphic designer. Psychology w0uld have left me without strong visual skills. And computer science would have pushed me down a programming route. More than likely.nnI decided that my best option was to practise all three and get my education from the great minds on the web u2013 the people actually doing it. As a result I feel that I have great visual skills built on a solid UX understanding and can do a decent job of front end coding too. It’s by no means been the easy option, and I can’t say I have no regrets. But 12 years of solid experience without being pigeon-holed gives me confidence to know what works. nnI was one of those who have been doing UX for years, without ever specifically calling it UX. Now that we have a clear (albeit overused) term for the process, more schools will lean towards filling the needs and giving proper direction.

  13. “a great creative can learn the skills necessary to be a seasoned UX pro, but I’m not convinced the other way around is always possible.”nnInteresting comment. I think it really depends on the individual. Someone who is good at user research or IA needs a set of attributes that some creatives may lack in some cases. They need to be able to empathise and they need to be good at structuring and sorting information. Perhaps you think that creative ability is a rarer talent (I’ve no idea if this is true or not) but that doesn’t mean that being a really good information architect (for example) doesn’t require a specific talent.

  14. I believe it is rare to find someone who is balanced, or very close to balanced, between the two cerebral hemispheres of the brain. Finding someone who is creative, yet analytical would be a valuable asset to any company. nnI’m not to sure I agree we can teach some as Mr. Jared suggests as they are innately more right or left brain thinkers. That is not to say I don’t believe someone who is an software engineer would be able to understand the concepts and manner of thinking of a visual designer. I absolutely believe we are all smarter than we lead on to others.nnA Unicorn UXer is someone that is a great asset to an organization because they can relate, talk and provide insight to their audience, whether it be an account manager, graphic designer or front-end developer. nnNot sure I agree entirely with your second point, from my experience. I have worked as a UX Team of One (Thanks Leah) in a huge mega organization, a startup, a UX focused company and am currently at an agency. My belief is that one must educate the agency world in the benefit of UX by showing those that call the shots the true value in testing. Discount Usability Testing is a perfect fit for the agency UX unicorn.nnI think I’m a unicorn, but I’m not sure, can’t tell what my mental model is. I can make pretty interfaces in Photoshop, code HTML and CSS and think logically about content organization and IxD, but I work in an agency.

  15. I think you’ve summed this up pretty well. As someone who started out as an IA and then went to visual design (only to eventually come back to IA/IxD), I’ve seen some of the challenges of integrating visual designers into the UX process without simply relegating them to skinning wireframes at the end of the process.nnOne issue is that we are clumping visual designers into one group. (and the schools they go to are responsible for this in no small way). The type of visual designer that would excel in a UX environment isn’t necessarily the type that would want to excel at an ad agency.nnProduct/Service design and UX needs to learn how to both find these designers and/or grow them themselves. nnAn ideal world, of course, is a collaborative one, and often a ux role and design role can work together in tandem – almost like the art director and copywriter in the old traditional advertising model. But, as you said, it’s rare. nnI think another issue is that we seek to fill the role of Visual Designer when we should be looking for and foster Communication Designers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communication_design). Inherently multi-disciplinary designers with more broadly applied skills. Again, ideally you have schools that are *producing* communication designers, not just graphic designers.nnJust by the title – ‘visual designer’ we limit the range we expect from them, when so much of designing for an experience or a service may not be visual, or may be visual, but not aesthetically based (say, the states of a cursor and it’s targets during a drag and drop interaction).nnThis problem is ours to solve (which I think Jared properly points out). But not ours alone – part of the problem is with the schools and their curriculum (first off, dump any class that is designed to teach software, such as photoshop, and replace it with a psychology class), but some of the problem is for the designers to solve. Are they visual designers ‘only’ – do they *want* to learn and practice (to even just a support role extent) research and information architecture and interaction design?

  16. There’s a similar discussion going on Quora – http://www.quora.com/Design/Should-you-hire-a-separate-visual-designer-and-interaction-designernnIn the end I think it’s all about how to best support your team. As someone mentioned earlier, a UX designer with highly competent visual skills can be sort of the binding ‘glue’ for your team as their interdisciplinary credibility can alleviate disciplinary friction and boundaries. However, if your UX designers and visual designers work really well together, then maybe a ‘unicorn’ designer might not be that valuable.nnI’ll quote Adrian’s answer on Quora here:nn”What you need is a team that has the skills to do all of the things your product needs. I personally wouldn’t care that much about how that maps to job titles like interaction designer or visual designer.”nnThis sort of leads into some great thoughts in this article:nnhttp://www.cooper.com/journal/2009/04/is_ixd_a_dead_end_job.html

    1. great way to say it

      i say it this way: a project needs these hats (ux, visual design, content stratey, dev) but the number of hats doesn’t have a 1:1 correspondence to the number of people, depending on your team

      you must have all the hats worn by someone

      someone can wear more than one hat

  17. Hybrids do exist in all fields, but they are not the norm. I’ve have crossed path’s with editors that are great visual effects artists, but they are not the norm. I’ve crossed paths with talented Art Directors that are also great copy writers… but they are not the norm. And yes there are great designers that I’m sure are UX hero’s… but they are not the norm.nnThey are two different skill sets. Left brain right brain. Creative thinking/Analytical thinking. Most people with a design background (my self not excluded) got into design to avoid science, math and computer programming. The mere mention of numbers makes our heads spin. And most computer science people avoid the arts for a similar reason. Of course there are people who excel at both… but they are not the norm.nnMost Design programs teach a little bit of everything. And no education in the world trumps experience.nnSolution. Hire them as a team. Musician/Producer, Copywriter Art Director, Crockett and Tubs. Collaboration=growth. You want a UX specialist to grow creatively, pair them with a Designer. You want a Creative to expand their knowledge in the area of UX, pair them with UX designer. Before you know it you’ve created your own hybrid… maybe even two.nn_daven

  18. 1) Every good interactive graphic designer that I know have good IxD skills u2013 how else would you be able to do your job? There’s unicorns everywhere if you mean that UX = IxD.nn2) If you take a look at what focussed UX designers do (ethnographic studies, personas, IA, etc), it’s a different thing. Doing pretty things in Photoshop and building mental models require two completely different skill sets. These unicorns are really rare.

  19. Can anyone recommend a good program/course to take in NYC that won’t break the bank? I’m a graphic/web designer who deals with ux issues in my projects, but I’ve never had the proper education/experience or mentoring from anyone who’s a specialist or expert in this field. I’m interested in learning the process.

  20. I guess I qualify as a unicorn, I am a visual designer, UX designer, IxD, and IA as well as a front end dev. And no, I’m not also spread so thin that I don’t do them well. But I also have a decade and a half of experience under my belt in a number of different environments that required me to wear different hats, including some freelance, which really makes you aware of all the web related disciplines if you want to do right by your clients.nnSo post has me thinking – how does one become a unicorn? I think in my own life a few different things have to come into play. nnOne, really is experience. I’m doubtful you’ll find a good visual designer and UX/IxD/IA with only a few years under their belts (I’m sure their are exceptions, but not many). And just like when I was younger, I doubted that people existed that could fill all the roles in some of the crazier job descriptions, years later I am one. nnTwo – an honest-to-god love of the craft and their careers – For myself, I spend a huge amount of time working to improve my skills and learn more, much of it outside the workplace. Those of my peers that do the same are on the same path. Others, those that don’t work to constantly improve themselves or reach outside their comfort zone, don’t ever get that far.nnThree – an employer that believes in their employees and encourages them to grow and to do all the things that go along with creating not just another interesting design but taking the time to wireframe, prototype, test, etc . . .nnFour – the mind for it. I’ve always walked the line between artistic and technical, and sadly, I know some people that just lean one way or the other, and don’t seem to be able to bridge that gap. Not that either side, visual design or UX can’t be learned, but someone that doesn’t have an intrinsic balance between those mental states aren’t going to do as well, and more importantly, are not going to love both side enough to want to get good at it.nnBut the one thing about “unicorns” is that people many people don’t believe they exist – I’ve actually had people doubt all the work in my portfolio was mine because it shows such a wide range of skills. And many employers don’t care or don’t have the budget to either employ someone with those skills or just the cost of doing real UX. In fact, I’d say that many times, its the visual designer with an interest in providing the best user experience possible that does “gorilla” UX that leads them on the path to unicornism.

  21. im a unicorn! masters in interaction design, bfa in graphic designnadjoaopoku.com

  22. I am your unicorn. But my price is so high that i prefer to work on my own projects, and no way to give to “someone” my hard earned knowledge on long journey from painting through graphic design, through ux research, through front-end development for some stupid and overvalued thing like salary or commission. nnWhen your entire life is devoted to something you are one with it, it has value for you and you keep the best parts for your self. Value for me is in controlling my own products and ideas. I prefer to loose money with my own product rather to give someone presents that he will never value enough.nnTrue is that no one employer or client in my professional life ever understands how much value is UX,UI,GUI. They look at apple and they dont realize that everything in their success is UX. nSo stop your search, if someone is really good at something he uses is wisely.

  23. I see and know that good people exists, but they always working on good companies and enjoying it. And most of they is hard to find cause they donu00b4t have folios sites or they donu00b4t wanu00b4t to exit the current job.nnAt other side we have so much people trying to do a great work and trying to get a job in startup, so they can live more of they wanu00b4t to do in future… the tradicional web agency canu00b4t offer what the user need to learn and even pratice about UI and UX principles…

  24. it depends

    what i always say about ux is that practitioners have the core skills but we also have our other skills.

    in my case, i’m a ux lead who is originally a communicator

    others are developers or visual designers

    where you stand depends on where you sit

  25. 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/

  26. 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..

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

  28. 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.

  29. 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?

  30. 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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