Design Chat: Stephen Hay, Rabobank

Is being a ‘unicorn’ designer as desirable as it seems?

The “unicorn” designer is as its name implies: it doesn’t exist. The unicorn or “rock star” designer is often defined as someone who is equally fantastic in a wide range of design skills. There are a few designers who are exceedingly talented at many facets of design, but they’re rare. And you wouldn’t even notice it in many cases unless their job exposed enough of these abilities. From what I’ve seen, most of the unicorns exist in the minds of people writing very wishful job vacancy descriptions. Often, the terms “unicorn” and “T-shaped designer” are conflated. But they shouldn’t be: the unicorn is good at everything. The T-shaped designer is very good at a small number of things, yet has a broad working knowledge of other (often related) design skills.

Is there a greater need/benefit for specialist designers or T-shaped designers?

Both needs are there, but it depends on the organisation. There are very specialised fields, such as animation or illustration. But these can live in a kind of vacuum, since there’s often a designer or art director making sure things fit as a whole. You’ll always need these types of specialists, and usually in a project-dependent way, which is why many of them work in small studios or independently; they’re not always needed for every single project, and many of these specialists have signature styles.

How does one choose whether to prefer a generalist over a specialist, or vice versa?

As I mentioned before, the real specialists either work in massive organisations, or they’re doing something that people don’t always need. I think you’ll always do well to generalise. By that I mean choose your area (or areas) of deep expertise, go deep, but then look at all the things that expertise touches. All the areas adjacent to your expertise that can help you become more effective. Learn about those things, just enough that it makes your main work better, even though it might seem tangential. People don’t see just the work; they see a complete package. If you are prototyping, documentation might be very important. So working on your writing skills isn’t boosting your core hard skills, but it is making your complete package way more marketable.

What are the pros and cons of each?

Pros of specialisation? You get to focus on what you like to do. Well, at least I hope you like doing it, because switching specialisations basically means starting over. Also, I think it might be easier to make a name for yourself and command a higher income if you find the right niche where there aren’t many players. That’s harder to do as a generalist. Generalists, and I’m speaking for myself here, might be prone to periodic identity crises, where they wonder what they’re really good at, and maybe even how they got here. Although, what generalists sometimes fail to see is that the more experience they have, the more they become aware of all the things they do not yet know. So while they might doubt themselves because they don’t have a laser focus on one thing, they’re extremely employable and they have lots of open doors to many disciplines if at some point they do decide to specialise. Highly skilled specialists will often get plenty of unsolicited feedback about their work. (“Wow, that animation is amazing!”) Generalists might have to solicit feedback themselves, since their work on a project might be less defined for others. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve done work that no one knew I was responsible for, I’d be doing this interview from my own private beach in the Bahamas.

How can your soft skills affect your next design role?

Take two designers: Designer A and Designer B. Designer A is highly skilled and delivers great work, but you can’t put them in a room with stakeholders because they crumble under any kind of feedback. Designer B is skilled but perhaps just slightly less so. But she’s able to clearly communicate about her work, actively seeks out feedback, presents well, collaborates, and is a good writer. As a design leader, you have a role that’s opening up. To whom will you give the role? Please tell me you’d give it to Designer B. Soft skills often have to do with people, and at the end of the day, it’s all about people.

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