Pros & Cons of Being a “Unicorn”
There are things I love and don't love about design as there are things I love and don't love about development/coding. I'm certainly not saying one is better than the other or trying to answer the ever-present question: "Should designers know how to code?" What we're about to get into is simply my take on what it's been like doing both design and web development for the past three and a half years as a freelancer, a full-time contractor, and now as an in-house employee.
The Good Stuff
Increased Job Security
The fact that I can code has landed me most, if not all, of the jobs I've gotten since I started creating websites. At small companies, having someone fill multiple roles and wear more than one hat is usually ideal. This makes me more valuable to the company and offers an increased sense of security (though working in startups, I wouldn't advise anyone to get too comfy). As a “unicorn” designer/developer, I also know that if anything were to happen to my job, I'd more easily be able to find another one or fairly quickly jump back into freelancing with the skills I've acquired.
Traditionally, designers work with developers to bring their mockups to life—often talking through technical challenges and making compromises along the way. In my hybrid "unicorn" designer/developer role, I end up working more independently. While I'm designing, I can better anticipate potential technical limitations and when decisions need to be made, I'm typically not navigating those or looking for a middle ground with someone else. I decide what matters most and problem solve accordingly.
This allows me to move more quickly. There's also something very satisfying about working on a project from rough sketches all the way through a responsive website that you built. If/when I move into a role that's purely design-based, I think that moving away from this way of working will be the biggest adjustment I'll need to make.
Understanding development makes me a stronger designer just as understanding design makes me a better developer. When I'm sketching something out or brainstorming feature improvements with other designers, I always keep in mind the technical difficulty of my suggestions, taking into consideration how much time it would take me or another developer to build. And if I spot anything visually amiss on a company website, I can quickly find and tweak the code to fix it to uphold a certain level of aesthetic polish.
The Not-So-Good Stuff
Slower, Diluted Learning
In the tech field, where things move fast, keeping up the pace can be a demanding pursuit that takes a lot of self-motivation. And when you're trying to learn about and stay current in two fields simultaneously, it takes either double the work or double the time. The rewards are great, but you certainly have to earn them.
Luckily for me, my #1 strength (each time I've taken the StrengthsFinder test) is "Learner," meaning I happily spend hours upon hours studying and developing my skills and love every minute of it... well, maybe more like most minutes of it. Yet even I struggle with how much there is to learn in the separate fields of design and development, let alone when trying to tackle them at the same time. To sustain this, you really have to be in it for the long haul.
On the flip side of working in a role that allows for a lot of creative independence, is the fact that "unicorn" designer/developers may spend less time working as part of a team. And while I enjoy bringing my designs to life by coding them myself, I also really love collaborating with other people. I often find myself seeking feedback or initiating joint projects to keep that sense of being part of a team. This helps to offset the fact that my skillset means I could more easily end up doing most things on my own.
Imbalance of Skills
What makes true "unicorn" designer/developers so rare is the notion that they enjoy and excel in both areas. While many designers understand at least some code and developers are encouraged to learn the basics of design—and there are certainly those who change from one path to the other—someone who has enough interest in both fields to hone the two skill sets simultaneously can be unusual. And at any point, they may come to prefer one field over the other.
This is what happened in my case. While preparing to interview for a pure development role, I realized that I wasn't interested in building someone else's designs; I only wanted to code as a way to bring my own work to life. I found out that I'd be willing to design something without coding it but had no interest in coding something without designing it.
So I decided to double-down on my design education. I'm still landing hybrid roles and enjoying the work I do but anticipating that as my skills become more specialized and I continue to develop in my career, I'll eventually shift into a position that allows me to focus on design. There are certain things I'll miss about coding, but I'm open to this eventual change.
Overall, being a "unicorn" designer/developer got me to where I am today and I'm so grateful for that. And I loved the process! If you're interested in pursuing roles like this, I highly recommend it but encourage you to understand the pros and cons.
While I may have chosen to focus on design and to eventually shift out of hybrid roles, I'll bring with me a much deeper understanding of digital technology and I know I've become a better designer because of it.