Stop Hunting for “Unicorn” Designers

Purple Unicorn – (n.) a designer who can do it all, from visual/graphic design to HTML5 to UX to interaction. Last spotted c. 2005, San Francisco, CA. Believed extinct.

Once upon a time, it was possible for an ad agency to find art directors or designers who could “do it all”—develop visually striking layouts, write great headlines and rock some copy, execute mechanical production layouts, oversee printers and vendors, art direct photo shoots… you name it. In fact, I worked with many of those “unicorns” in my day. They weren’t all that rare. In fact, the advertising and design business seemed to attract them like a magnet gathers iron filings.

The shift to computers for design work changed everything. In addition to those previous unicorn-y skills, designers had to learn pre-production, image retouching and typography skills formerly left to pre-press and typesetting houses. Over about ten years, designers adapted. But the shift to digital workflow had already begun to encourage specialization over purple winged unicorn-ness.

When the internet arrived, and the demand for interactive design increased, the division was complete. Some designers focused solely on digital. Web development became a specialized field, followed by app development, online ad creation and serving, then rapidly, social and mobile marketing, with all the attendant coding and software changes. Others reverted to the traditional design path, but still had to know some digital to stay relevant. People read less, so writing skills began to erode, making it increasingly rare to find visual or interactive designers who were also good writers.

Today, anything resembling the mythological, do-it-all art director is increasingly rare. It is outside the realm of possibility for one designer to be able to do it all.

Patrick Neeman, writing for Usability Counts, suggests applying a variant of the “pick any two” rule: Interaction design, visual design, code writing… pick two. Seeking three of these skills in one person is just not reasonable or ultimately valuable.

Instead of purple unicorns, maybe you need people who bring at least two skill sets to the table who, when partnered with another person to provide the third skill set, forms a great team.

For an ad agency, this translates into many pick-two combinations:

  • Visual designers who can also write copy
  • Visual designers with some code writing skills
  • Photoshop/ Illustrator masters who can do visual design
  • Interactive designers who understand UX
  • Copywriters with blogging and social media skills
  • Web developers who can also build apps
  • Marketing MBAs who can write

…and so on.

Compile your own combinations. The point is ad agencies and marketing firms need to hire with the goal of building multi-talented teams. What skills are you missing? Can you find candidates who fill more than one skill-set? What recruiting strategies might help you find cross-talented people?

Give careful thought to the skills you need, and as you interview job candidates, look for people who bring just a few of those skills to your agency. Over time, you can build a team who truly complement one another—and help your agency grow. And wave buh-bye to Twilight Sparkle.


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