(Originally posted on Medium on October 22, 2015)
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen made by designers looking for jobs is trying to be everything for everyone. It’s so tempting in today’s market to sell yourself as the Unicorn — UX / UI / Visual / Prototyping / Front-end / User researcher / Product / Interaction hybrid designer of mythic proportions. That’s what everyone’s looking for, right?
Last week I mentioned that companies and startups are finally starting to realize the value of design in their process, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they understand it. At startups especially, they’re bootstrapped, they only have 3 open seats before they run out of spending power. What they think they want is the Unicorn designer, the one who can do it all. Why hire just a designer when you can get a Developer, a Designer, and a Researcher! — 3 for the price a one! It sounds like a steal, but what they don’t realize when they hire someone with that diverse skill set (they’re rare, but yes, they do exist) is that they’re actually hiring 1/3 a Developer, 1/3 a Designer, and 1/3 a User researcher.
Doesn’t the fact that one person can do everything end to end mean that they save on coordination costs?
Yeah, that’s true. However, when one person is constantly jumping around from task to task like that, they’re actually wasting a lot of time and cognitive overhead. I’m sure everyone has had the experience of getting into flow — that euphoric state when the world melts around you and time stands still. In this state, you’re a machine of productivity. And I’m also sure that everyone has had the experience of spending all day switching from task to task, window to window, spending tons of time a brain power just trying to remember “what was I doing again?” At the end of these kinds of days, you often feel like you were busy all day but didn’t really get anything done. That is both not a good feeling and not particularly efficient.
Startups who hire the unicorn soon learn that they need to hire another person to support them, often another unicorn or a person who does just one thing really well, essentially relegating the original unicorn to the other. This is totally okay. Sometimes that’s what you need to do in the beginning. But it’s important to understand that when you hire 1 person, you get one person’s worth of work no matter how you slice it.
So what does that have to do with you, the designer? If they think they want the unicorn, shouldn’t you be the unicorn?
Not necessarily. I don’t code. I can code. A little. But I don’t enjoy it, and I’ve vowed never to do it again. However, early in my career, I thought I needed to be the hybrid developer/designer in order to get a job at a startup. And that’s bullshit.
Don’t get me wrong — if that’s you and that’s what you like to do, then by all means, go for it! You are best suited to work at a very small startup, which needs scrappy people who can pick up the slack wherever it is. But if you’re not the unicorn, you shouldn’t sell yourself as one. That’s the perfect way to get stuck in a job you hate, one where you can’t possibly perform well, or worse, never get a job at all.
What’s the solution?
Figure out what you’re good at, what you enjoy doing, and lean into it. Hard.
This might not happen overnight. You will need to be exposed to many disciplines, working styles, and company types to figure out what works for you and what really, really doesn’t. This doesn’t mean you need to work at many jobs before you figure out what works — reading voraciously, talking to people, and a little self-reflection works just as well, and it’s much faster!
Once you’ve determined the type of designer you are, make sure everyone else knows it, too. Instead of trying to show a wide range of skills, pick a few and let them shine. It should be obvious to anyone looking at your portfolio projects, bio, and social media what you do. Sure, you wont be attractive to those companies who aren’t looking for what you do. And that’s great! Talking to them would be a waste of both your time. What’s better? Mildly attracting lots of people, many of whom aren’t a good fit, or really magnetizing the select few for whom your skills are the perfect match?
On the other end, you should be exclusively looking for these roles. This can be tricker because, as mentioned, a lot of companies don’t know exactly what they’re looking for or they don’t know the exact job title to use. Have you ever seen a startup post looking for an Interactive Designer? Yeah, that was written by someone who doesn’t have a clue what they’re looking for.
So, you might be wondering, if the company doesn’t even know what they’re looking for, how can I possibly figure it out?! They don’t it, but they often leave clues. Here are a few:
1) Read the job description.
Even if the job title doesn’t sound like you, the description might reveal that what they’re looking for is exactly what you do! Be sure to look at the written description for clues, the responsibilities, and the expected experience level. Of those, the most weight should be paid to responsibilities, followed by written description, and take the previous experience with a grain of salt. Now, sometimes those postings are vague or, worse, expect a unicorn designer of mythic proportions. These are often a waste of time, to be honest, but if the company really interests you, then it might be worth trying to find more.
2) Read about them.
Many companies, even some startups, will have internal design or product blogs. These are often specifically for the purpose of recruiting, which means they’re designed to attract the exact type of people they want to hire. So if reading about their most recent redesign makes your heart go pitter patter, this might be an organizational fit. But if it instead induces eye rolls, it’s probably not the right place for you. You can also read articles from news outlets and other sources to get a sense of their values (what do they emphasize?) and culture.
3) Talk to someone.
With LinkedIn, Twitter, Angel list, and other online communities, it’s often easy to find a connection to a company you’re interested in. Try to get an intro to a designer who already works there or someone close to the design function (developers or product managers are good). Ask to have coffee and chat about what it’s like to work there. You can gain valuable insights to their current design process, how design is viewed internally (super important!), and more about what they’re looking for.
Ultimately, it’s more worthwhile to put your time and effort finding the right place for you rather that changing yourself to fit in a place. Both of you will be happier and more successful in the end. So do your research and trust your gut.
Next week we’ll discuss the exact steps you can take to figure out what you’re good at, what you like doing, and how to use that to find the perfect company.