Somewhere in the first days of millennials entering the workforce, a strange phenomena began in the design and web world. Companies everywhere began their quest to find the perfect designer, seeking the illusive unicorn. The stealthy ninja. The design rockstar.
Like a fever, these laudatives started to spread, and it seemed like every organization, start-up and brick and mortar, began their crusade for this design holy grail. And young, tech-savvy (yuk) designers drenched in social media sweat and hungry from the recession saw this type of job description as a new challenge to prove themselves in this ever-more competitive design world.
But let me tell you something: they are killing us. Expectations of ninjas, rockstars and unicorns are killing us as designers and killing our ability to convey our skills.
There is no unicorn
These metaphors for the perfect designer have transformed into pejoratives, and the worst of all is this growing fad of the unicorn. What started as a way to express a want for someone spectacular has turned into a condescending, unprofessional slang term used to separate the sheep from the goats. Or what clients, marketers, etc would have you believe are sheep and goats.
The quest for the unicorn is the worst because the fact is, there is no unicorn. This is no unicorn because everyone is a unicorn.
Every designer has a unique mix of skills and experience that makes them best at their job. Good or bad, each designer has their own special, colorful array of talents. Each has their own strengths and perspective on solving problems.
I worked several years with a designer who was obsessed with and fantastic at designing with color. I, on the other, find color a real challenge, but Victoria could find the perfect palette amongst the seemingly endless Pantone color book. Whereas color is a challenge, I can code and analyze data to find the story in the numbers. I can take abstract numbers and breathe meaning into them, while some can take the complex ideas of identity and build a branding system that invokes tears. Some designers break all the rules of layout and composition in an artistic flurry I can only dream of, where I can build a grid layout structure that’s almost load bearing.
Every designer is a unicorn. That’s what makes the term so dangerous.
By searching endlessly for the unicorn, there’s a sense that everyone else is not. Decision makers are out to find the one illusive creature that will solve all their problems who is truly unique. Every other designer is simply a horse, essentially the same. An expectation is created that all designers’ abilities equate, that each could produce about the same thing, meet the need in about the same way. But this is simply not true.
Believing there is one unicorn commoditizes design. It makes what we create some thing that can be bought and sold, largely with an expectation of its value before the project even begins. It creates an environment where designers are not partners in accomplishing a goal, but generator of content.
When I got to Target to buy a toothbrush, I know about what it will cost. It has a value to me that I can expect because it serves a specific function. It has one job to do, and despite what every commercial ever would have you believe, even the crappy ones get the job done. It is a commodity.
And often, clients have this same attitude about design. They have an idea of the thing they need; its cash value to them. And they are on a quest to find the person to deliver on their expectations. They are the shopper, the logo or poster or whatever is the toothbrush and you are Oral B. This attitude is also what fuels the insane amount of work demanded on spec in the design world, clients large and small.
But as every designer knows, that is not how the process works. We are not manufacturers. We are designers. Artists. Dreammakers. Interpreters. Problem solvers. And most of all, we are experts: we have honed skills learned through failure, critique, and sometimes, a lot of crying. We have been told outrageous things from the beginning: “I don’t get it,” “Your eye for color is terrible,” “I would have done it like this…” We have navigated the seas of trial and error, dusted ourselves off after falling from great heights of failure, and stood among our peers to be publicly humiliated to be where we are now.
We are not factories. We are creators.
As designers, we take abstract ideas, the vision of others and our own gut feelings to create something out of nothing. And not just something: an identity, a representation of complex ideas, a generator of feelings.
Paul Rand said it best:
Art is an idea that has found its perfect visual expression. And design is the vehicle by which this expression is made possible. Art is a noun, and design is a noun and also a verb. Art is a product and design is a process. Design is the foundation of all the arts.
We take nothing but an idea and create perfection. And what furthermore makes design different from art is that design must stand alone, without our encouragement and coaxing, and represent the other. Someone or something else: not us. We create for ourselves, but also for another. It’s creating with precision, care, and ultimately humble service to the vision of another. We relish and succeed in a world in which we serve the dreams and needs of others. We are merciful creators; we are not manufacturers.
You are a unicorn
As with web design and development, we live in an environment in constant flux, endless possibilities and a growing need for specialization. We work in a field with an unknowable future–what skills will the future demand? We can only guess.
In this, we must strive to create in ourselves skills that makes us us. Skills and specialities that make us better and more marketable, not because we strive to be the “one in the million,” but because we are passionate about our dreams, the things we can create and the methods of design we use to impact the world.
Through betterment fueled by our passions, not trends; by our want to make ourselves better, I believe we can better serve this ever-changing field. We can better serve and meet the needs of the people we love to work with. We will continue to garter respect for our skills through our passion and help to transform attitudes. That we are designers with expertise, not a manufacturer of a commodity. We can encourage trust in our magnificent ability to create without pandering to the condescending quest for a unicorn.