Unicorn Quest - Part 1

The debate rages on. To what extent should a designer be able to implement their own designs? Does it depend on the platform? Does it depend on the team makeup? Does it depend on the company, the job description, or the degree? Are the junior designers fresh out of school going to push us old dogs aside with their coding prowess, or are educational institutions already stretched thin trying to prepare students with the skills required for professional practice?

Shake, shake, shake. Reply hazy, try again.

Follow me, if you will, on a quest for the legendary unicorn. We’ll begin with a post by Wayne Greenwood, VP of Product Design & UX at Striiv: Unicorn, Shmunicorn—Be A Pegasus.

Wayne puts the smack-down on the legend right from the start, warning that “aspiring to be a unicorn could be the biggest mistake of your career.” And why is that? He provides a couple reasons, the same ones I’ve read and refuted in the past.

Conflict of Interest

It’s a trap! This is the argument that finds the designer enslaved to his technical know-how, unable to see past the known limitations of the technology to new possibilities. I’m rather tired of this almost denigrating point of view. As a designer that does do front end development, I dare anyone to accuse me of losing sight of the user trying to satisfy ease of implementation or other technical constraints. There is a balance, and I’m quite comfortable making informed trade-offs when necessary, but when I’m sketching, I don’t concern myself with the “hows” of implementation. Unless you are a lazy designer that doesn’t care about the integrity of your design, I expect you can keep yourself from falling into the conflict of interest trap.

Checking the UX Box

Here we find the designer forced to code instead of designing because their coding skills are perceived as more valuable and there isn’t enough time to do both. i’m not going to try to claim that this doesn’t happen. Certainly it does, and it is unfortunate. However, the problem here isn’t a multiplicity of skills. The problem is that the leadership of the company at which this occurs is either uninformed or uncaring. If the former, there is a chance of improving the situation through education. It may not be easy, but it can be done if you care enough to stick around and go to the effort. If you are dealing with the latter situation, you should probably just get out of Dodge. There are a lot of opportunities out there right now unicorns. Don’t put up with a management team that disrespects you.

Be a Pegasus

Wayne concludes by encouraging us to think more strategically about our careers. Rather than spending our time learning to code, we should aspire to management roles, learning the business. I won’t argue against such proselytizing, because I agree that this is an important area for designers to be moving and shaking. That said, I don’t consider it to be an either/or proposition. Thinking about code doesn’t preclude thinking strategically. There is nothing to stop a designer that works on production code from becoming a product or project manager, and I would argue they would be all the better prepared for such a position.

Design Issues

There’s one week left in the masters-level class I’ve been teaching. It is mainly a seminar-style course with a few complimentary projects. The semester was organized into seven units. These are the readings that my students were required to write responses to and then discuss in class. This is a good survey of the current state of design theory.

Defining Design
Beautiful Diversion - NextD Journal
Are Designers The Enemy Of Design? - BusinessWeek
In which design is subjected to Lakovian analysis - greenonions.com
Defining Design - jamin.org

Design Leadership
Design Vision
Managing is Designing? Exploring the Reinvention of Management - NextD
Design Vs. Design Thinking. - BusinessWeek
Leadership Is THE Strategic Issue - AIGA

The Design Landscape
What is graphic design? - AIGA
What is Industrial Design? - IDSA
What is IA? - IAI
Definition of IxD - IxDA
Designing for Interaction - Dan Saffer (pages 2-8 and 20-22)
Ladder of Fire: Unpacking Advocacies - NextD
IA Summit 09 - Plenary - Jesse James Garrett
What is Design? (Yes, all 10 definitions!) - Demystifying Usability
Why Does Interaction Design Matter? Let’s Look At The Evolving Subway Experience - FastCompany
10 Most Common Misconceptions About User Experience Design - Mashable
What is service design? - Design Council
Engine Service Design
Richard Buchanan Keynote – Emergence 2007 « Design for Service
An Evolving Map of Design Practice and Design Research - Dubberly

Design Methods
The students researched specific methods individually and presented them to the class, rather than having assigned readings, but I did provide the following resources as starting points.
Stories - Boxes and Arrows
NASA - Process: User Centered Design Methods
Use our methods - Stanford d.school 
Design methods - Design Council

Design & Business
AIGA Center for Practice Management - Trademark Basics for Graphic Designers
AIGA | Aquent Survey of Design Salaries
Intellectual Property: What does “Work for Hire” mean for designers? - AIGA
Why Does My Firm Own Everything I Do? Intellectual Property & You - Core77
The State of our Contracts - AIGA
American Firms Now Embrace Design, But They’re Aging Fast. What’s Next? - Co. Design
The Cost of Frustration - UIE
No Accounting For Design? - Fast Company
Dos and Don’ts for Designers Dealing with Business - Core77
On Being T-Shaped - Core77
Ten Ways to Measure Design’s Success - BusinessWeek

Social & Organizational Change
Hourschool: Learn from your network, one hour at a time. - AC4D
AIGA | Design for Good
Redesigning America’s Future
Introduction: Design and Organizational Change - Richard Buchanan
Marc Rettig - How to Change Complicated Stuff - IxDA Library
RED Paper 02: Transformation Design
The Designers Accord
Navigating a Sea Change - Lauralee Alben

Design Ethics
AIGA | Ethics and Social Responsibility 
AIGA | Logo Warehouses, Crowdsourcing, and a Lack of Understanding 
AIGA | What’s the harm in crowdsourcing? 
AIGA | AIGA position on spec work 
AIGA | Design Business and Ethics 
AIGA | AIGA urges the Obama 2012 campaign to reconsider its jobs poster contest 
What is AIGA’s position on spec work? And how are ethical standards determined?
AIGA Standards of professional practice
Ethics in the Design Field - Webdesigner Depot
The Politics of Desire and Looting - Design Observer
"This is what I have learned" by Milton Glaser
First Things First 2000
First Things First 1964
In Search of Ethics in Graphic Design — AIGA

Design Education
Design Research and Education: A Failure of Imagination? - Core77 
Why Design Education Must Change - Core77 
Teaching Social Innovation - Austin Center for Design
What this Country Needs is a Good Five-Year Design Program - AIGA


Perhaps one drawback of my career is that I have never had a senior designer as my boss. My only true design mentors have been my professors, whom I’ve had limited contact with in the past ten years, and so little direction. I’ve primarily worked under the supervision of software engineers. For this reason, I’ve had to rely on my own motivation to continue to grow as a designer. My participation in the IxDA is a significant part of that, as is my teaching and this blog. I’ll never know what I’ve missed. That does not mean, however, that I have not learned from my managers.

In fact, it may be that I’ve expanded my breadth of knowledge more by having managers from non-design backgrounds than I would have otherwise. For example, I’ve learned quite a bit about project management on the technical side. I’ve learned some small amount of the hiring process for technical positions. I’ve been exposed to a number of issues related to personnel. Some of this experience could certainly be chalked up to the fact that I’m in a small company, but I expect much of it would have been shielded from me had I reported to a senior designer, rather than the same manager that most of the technical staff was under.

It is somewhat ironic that I was once told by my manager that my skills were very deep but without much breadth. He was under the opinion that this severely limited my value as an employee. Actually, my breadth just didn’t include some specific skills that he considered to be very important, and he either devalued or simply wasn’t aware of many of the skills that I did have. And yet I have increased my breadth by working with him and others, gaining experience in areas outside my own expertise.

This occurred to me today as I was explaining to my intern how information would be stored in a database and why that was important to consider in the design of the UI. When he asked me why we should care about the technical details, I had to smile and remember that it wasn’t too awfully long ago that I was asking the same question.