Unicorns Exist: A Good Designer Can Do A Lot Of Things.

To be a good designer, you need to be able to design things. That wouldn’t seem controversial, except when you start to poke at “able”, “design”, and “things”, you encounter the unicorn problem. A unicorn is, of course, a magical and non-existent creature, and the metaphor implies that a designer who can research, sketch, code, crank out wireframes, put on a public song and dance, take out global executives to delicious sushi without saying something stupid, and wear a black turtleneck without looking absurd is also a magical and non-existent creature.

I think the unicorn problem is actually intertwined with the problem of failure, which – in order to continue the mystical animal metaphor – I will call and hereby claim copyright over as the Duckbill Platypus Problem. Design is iterative, and we need to continually learn in order to improve a design. Most of us have realized that one of the richest forms of learning comes from experiencing and reflecting on personal failure, and since we’ve all seen that silly shopping cart video a hundred times, the idea of “fail early and often” has become embedded in our brain as a Good Thing To Do. We should all be the Duckbill Platypus, a failure of an animal if ever there was one. I could have selected Camel, but I feel like the Camel already realizes it’s a bit obtuse, while the Platypus is hopefully naïve.


Not everyone believes that unicorns are fake, and not everyone believes that failure should be our goal. Andy Budd, who ran the recent conference I attended called UX London, set off a small Twitter firestorm by first stating that “I’m staring to get annoyed by all the design pundits championing failure. There’s something to be said for doing it right first time round” and then qualifying this with “Failure is a form of waste, so Lean start-ups should really try to minimize failure if possible rather than use learning as a handy excuse.”

And about a month ago, Cennydd Bowles described that the Unicorn label “reinforces silos, and gives designers an excuse to abdicate responsibility for issues that nevertheless have a hefty impact on user experience.”


Design ability means something, and increasingly, it means a broad something, because we’re both codifying existing practices and constantly identifying new medium in which to manifest this process. The rough process looks like this:

I realize it’s overly reductive, because there’s really no clear delineation between phases. But I would expect anyone calling themselves a designer to have competency in this process.

When you compare the process with the medium, you begin to see a lot of complexity:

This is where our unicorn shows up: should we have expertise in all mediums? That would be hard, but “hard” isn’t necessarily a good reason not to do it. We could look at how science is applied in medicine as a precedent, but I’m not sure I like looking for precedent from areas that are so completely broken. If all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail, and if all you have is competency in print design, everything becomes a brochure and a campaign.

As an aside, I think the most exciting part of design is not in gaining expertise in these axis, but instead, realizing what happens when this is applied against the external subject matter:

One of the things that, I think, intimidates new designers is that they feel an expectation to know all of these things, too. Which is, of course, ridiculous, because all of these things means all technology humans have ever created, as the discipline of design is about humanizing technological culture.

And so back to Andy’s post about failure. It seems to me that a failure from which we can learn is when we apply a competency in process [x axis], and a competency in medium [y-axis], to a new and novel context [z-axis]. If we fail, it should be because of our inability to fully understand the new context, but not because of our inability or inexperience with our process or medium. When you have people in senior and director roles with four and five years’ experience, there’s no doubt that you’ll end up with failure in these areas, and that’s unfortunate, because that really does indicate the “bad kind of failing.”

Ultimately, you can have ability as a designer, in sort of a flat, broad, and generic sense, and you can have ability in a medium, in a rich and deep sense, and to be able to design things, you need both. You need to be a unicorn, and the bigger your horn, the better your work will become.

Incidentally, as I drew this, I couldn’t help but feel like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, when he encounters his students plotting the “greatness” of a poem on an x and y axis. Seriously? A chart of design? Maybe I’m the Camel..


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