The Unicorn Designer

The Unicorn Designer Dilemma, and How to Avoid It

You’re running a startup. You ask the developers who the next hire should be.

“We need a unicorn.”

“What’s that?”

“You know, someone who can code, design graphics, design user experience, write copy, and do all the HTML and CSS for us. They’re cheap and easy to find. They should be able to take out the trash. Oh, and wash our cars wearing a bikini.”

And unicorns can fly.

The unicorn designer is the most in demand and rarest of product team members — someone with excellent interaction design skills, visual design skills, and coding ability. Unobtanium.

Unicorn designers exist, but they’re expensive, overworked, and generally can’t cover all the bases as well as advertised.

Unicorn designers exist, but they’re expensive, overworked, and generally can’t cover all the bases as well as advertised. The better ones have over 10 years of experience and the consulting rate to show it. If you get a good one, you’re going to be paying a lot.

Despite the efforts of some schools to train them, it’s unreasonable to think that the supply will grow anytime soon.

Most unicorns I know run their own agencies or build their own startups because they can. Their skills are in such demand that they can drive their own destiny. Braden Kowitz, a partner at Google Ventures, laments that hiring a designer is hard enough — but looking for a unicorn might be a fruitless pursuit. Additionally, since most startups don’t know how to hire a good designer,  your unrealistic expectations might turn off designers.

Your job is to properly select resources and avoid needing a unicorn. If you have to hire someone to cover that many skill sets, you have failed at building the right team. Working with a great interaction designer is the most important decision you can make for the success of your startup. Design-led organizations succeed.

If you’re looking for a unicorn, many designers will pass because the request will show a lack of knowledge about building a team.

Here’s a few suggestions to avoid the “we need a unicorn” conversation.

Hire someone with at least two of the skills

It’s all about the “need three, pick two” rule. Interaction design, visual design, and write code. Pick two.

It’s all about the “need three, pick two” rule. Interaction design, visual design, and write code. Pick two.

I would hire an interaction designer that can build almost production-ready prototypes in HTML and CSS. They can build something that gets you to version one, and integrate outsourced elements if need be. They should also train the developers how to do front end development so they won’t have to later.

The other valuable and common combination is interaction plus visual design, because they can be utilized for producing marketing materials. If this is the skillset hired, the developers have to pick up the HTML and CSS.

Implement the “need three, pick two” rule for the rest of your team

Avoid stay-at-home defensemen: people that can perform only one role.

The reason most developers avoid doing front-end development is because it is time consuming and tedious. Developers are a precious commodity, but coddled developers lead to failed startups. If you’re working on a smaller team, its up to everyone to pull their weight. It’s part of the job.

Avoid stay-at-home defensemen: people that can perform only one role. If they are straight javascript developers, for example, they would be the first candidate for that second skill since they are already working on the front end.

If you have a team of at least two developers, one of them should be able to develop in HTML, CSS and jQuery. If they are missing those skills, or think it’s “someone else’s job,” seriously consider which one is worth replacing and find another one that fits your needs.

Also, consider other team members and their contribution: If you have hired a product manager than only wants to develop features, but doesn’t wireframe, write copy, do marketing or have other skills, they might be a liability. The same goes for the visual designer that is someone’s cousin: If all they know is Photoshop and can’t do HTML, they shouldn’t be a full time resource.

The most common reason why unicorns are needed is because initial team staffing wasn’t done right. It’s up to you to correct it.

Outsource certain tasks

The best thing about the web is that there are a tremendous number of resources to help you find part-time people.

The best thing about the web is that there are a tremendous number of resources to help you find part-time people. Will it be restaurant quality? No, but it will get you to an MVP.

Places where it is ideal to outsource (and where you can do it cheap!) are logo and visual design. Come up with rough layouts, and at the very least you can put it on 99 Designs for a few hundred dollars. The drag on that is there will be more overhead on your part to review submissions.

Front end developers can also be found through online resources like freelancer.com. They’ll take a photoshop file, slice and dice it, and give the final code to your main development team. There will still be integration time, but this may be a solution to this problem.

You can also bring in consultants to review your interaction design if you are doing it yourself. They’ll cost more via a day rate than you would pay them hourly, but in the long run the advice they give you may make or break your product.

Use templates and frameworks

Every startup that I’ve seen spend a lot of money on visual design early on ended up wasting most of it.

Your first design is not going to be the design you go with long term. You’re going to pivot, change designs, rejigger ideas. Every startup that I’ve seen spend a lot of money on visual design early on ended up wasting most of it.

The solution is to use Template Monster and other sites that have a ton of Photoshop and HTML templates that are pre-built, ready to go, and cheap — sometimes under $50. They are good enough so that your site appears professional when you go out to do usability testing with your interaction designer.

Included in the mix is Twitter Bootstrap, Foundation and other frameworks. While the initial iterations might look like hundreds of other sites, the frameworks are easy enough for most back end developers to use and will get you to something functional.

There are also a ton of templates for them, so you can skin another look and feel. I have an extensive list of resources that should get you to launch.

Keep it basic

Repeat after me — it’s not about the shiny, it’s not about the shiny, it’s not about the shiny.

It’s about shipping so you can test and pivot.

As much as you want your first version to be perfect, you’ll change your idea several times until you find market fit. The most important thing is to have the right guidance to help you find market fit, and that is most likely to happen with a great interaction designer.