I’m a unicorn. Yeah, one of those people who can design and code. And I have a confession:
Man, is it exhausting.
I make it even worse by adding additional skills to the unicorn equation like writing, audio and video production, animation, marketing, and more. Gah it’s ridiculous.
A friend once said about me “Jarrod is one of those people who is infuriatingly good at everything.”
Do you even know how much pressure that puts on me? Man, I need a drink.
But I think this feeling is pretty common amongst designers.
Designers these days are under tons of pressure. To be a designer, you pretty much have to at least try to be a unicorn designer-coder. Don’t tell me you don’t feel that pressure. Everyone says you have to. But it doesn’t stop at coding. Every client and employer expects you to be able to do anything they could possibly imagine needing.
We even invent new catch-all titles for our expanding responsibilities as designers: UX Designers and now the ever-important “Product Designer”—capitalized, dammit! The definition is: we fix anything for everyone. It’s designer as polymath and no one thinks it’s even slightly unrealistic.
Now it’s not enough just to be good at design. You have to know how to code. Oh, and there’s more! Product designers need to be business experts too. And they need to be great writers. And good at doing customer interviews. And researchers. And marketers. And, and, and, and, and…
It can be pretty exhausting. Why can’t designers just be designers anymore?
I’ve always been a huge advocate of the idea that designers do more than make pretty pictures—that our work is more meaningful and valuable than just aesthetics. But it seems like the rest of the world is catching on to this and now they’re saying:
“If you wanna be a designer, you have to do everyone else’s job for them.”
It’s insane. It’s unfair. And, did I mention it’s exhausting?
I personally like being a generalist and getting to do all kinds of different work. It’s exhausting sometimes, and when I do get to really focus on my core specialty of design, it’s nice. But on the other hand I do enjoy being a problem solver for my clients. It can be very fulfilling. So I personally want to keep being a generalist unicorn cool guy.
But not everyone wants to be a unicorn, and that should be ok.
While there is a big cultural problem in the design industry where we pressure people into doing work they don’t enjoy (and the disastrous consequences), it’s also an issue of the tools we use—especially when it comes to bridging the gap between design and code.
To design websites, there are only two options for tools:
There’s nothing in between. You can’t just dip your toes into code enough to do your job as a designer—you have to dive in, or just stay out of the pool completely.
Every design tool acts like designers are either terrified of the idea of writing code or that we’re trying to become developers.
And perhaps because development tools are becoming more abstract and complex, it’s harder than ever to work with developers and contribute something to the team unless you can get up and running with all those advanced tools.
A designer who freelances or works on numerous projects might have to get up and running with all kinds of different technology stacks and be expected to contribute to them all.
As a web designer I’m expected to know and use more programming tools than some developers might know.
This paints the “designers should code” argument in a totally different light. And, it starts to sound unreasonable, to say the least.
This is a problem I care about—and in some ways I have personally added to the pressure that designers do more non-design tasks—so I’ve decided to start working on this problem.
I want to create a more moderate way to bridge the gap between design and code. To ensure designers can provide their full value and perspective without having to master a second profession of coding.
And I think this new approach requires drawing a line: “Design stops here.”
We’ve gotten carried away with what we include under the umbrella of design. It’s a damn big umbrella, and I think we’re seeing signs it’s starting to fold back up right on top of our heads.
We are losing our identities as designers. Design concerns are being diluted and replaced by other things.
User research is not design.
Programming is not design.
Marketing is not design.
Writing is not design.
All of these are separate professions. They are all extremely important, but they are not design.
Design is creating the form and function. How it looks and how it works. Not researching how people want it to look and work. Not making it work. Not selling it. Not explaining it. Just defining how it looks and works.
All of that information from all those other fields should absolutely inform the designer’s work. And it’s reasonable that a designer should understand those other fields a little bit in order to use the information to make an even better design. Maybe even do a little bit of each.
But being a great designer shouldn’t require being an expert developer, researcher, marketer, and writer too.
You shouldn’t have to do other people’s jobs just to do your job as a designer.
So, I think it’s time to draw that line. Design stops here.
I am making a new design tool that will help us designers draw that line. To design websites, you don’t need to be an expert developer.
This new design tool will help designers skip past all the complex coding tools we have to use just to change the font size on a website, for example.
I want to help designers get back to being designers again. Not everyone wants to be a unicorn like me, and I want to help those people show their full value as designers.
Introducing Mod&Dot, a new design tool I’m creating.
Design's Iron Fist is a collection of essays with advice for both design learners and professional designers. It's been featured as one of the best free design books by the Creative Bloq and the AIGA.
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