A theory of unicorns

There’s a conversation in the design community about the existence of unicorns. “Unicorns” are designers that can expertly cross disciplines and take on all the design and front-end coding skills needed to deliver a project. They are either mythical or legendary depending on which camp you are in. The “unicorns are mythical” camp say “it takes at least 10 years to be expert in a discipline – how can someone be expert in all of them?”. The “unicorns are legendary” camp point to a designer of a great product and say “they created a wonderful product that shows mastery of all design disciplines.”

At it’s core it’s a discussion about specialisation versus generalisation and it seemed to me that digital design is probably not the first industry to have face this problem and there must be “rules and theories and stuff” from elsewhere that we could learn from. Luckily my girlfriend, Ify, has a degree in economics and works as a management consultant—she’s clever at the kind of things that designers are dumb at. So I explained the unicorn discussion to her and she patiently pointed me towards “basic” economic principles.

I should point out that all mistakes, misunderstandings or nonsense that follows are a product of my limited understanding of economics not Ify’s.

Comparative advantage and what it means to design teams

The gist of comparative advantage is summed up in this quote from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations:

“If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it of them with some part of the produce of our own industry, employed in a way in which we have some advantage.”

Or restated for design teams:

“If a designer can add more value to the project than I can by doing [discipline X], better let them focus on the [discipline X] while I take care of more of the [discipline Y].”

The maths is a bit more complicated but it explains why it’s efficient to specialise. Let’s assume for simplicity that there are only two design disciplines: visual design and experience design and we have a team of two designers working on an endless design project. They each work ten hours a day.

If they are both exactly as good at visual design and experience design then it doesn’t matter how they split their workload. Or to put it another way: if in each hour of work they can produce 1 unit of visual design or 1 unit experience design then however they split their work the two designers will have produced 20 units of design work at the end of their 10 hour day. (1 unit of visual design and 1 unit of experience design add exactly the same value to the project). In this situation they can become unicorns.

But what if, due to inevitable variations in nature or nurture, Designer A can produce 1.1 unit of visual design an hour and only 0.9 unit of experience design and Designer B is vice versa? If Designer A does all the visual design he can produce 1.1 x 10 = 11 units of design work in a day while Designer B working on the experience design produces another 11 units. So by specialising they have now created 22 units of design work.

When applied to trade the comparative advantage due to specialisation is only effective if the inefficiencies made are greater than the costs of the trade you now have to engage with (transport, taxes etc.). For design teams this cost manifests itself in increased levels of communication needed between the specialists – instead a unicorn designing one feature in its entirety they must now collaborate. As long as the costs of collaborating are kept bellow the 2 units extra it’s still sensible to specialise. If for whatever reason they have problems communicating—one of them might be replaced by an offshore company in different time zone— then it might make sense for them to revert to being unicorns.

Designers are more dynamic than production lines; we get better at disciplines we practice and worse at the ones we don’t. So lets say that for each hour our designers work on a discipline they get 0.01 units more efficient and each hour they are not working on a discipline they get 0.01 units less efficient. Having worked 10 hours on the previous day, the next day Designer A can produce 1.2 units of visual design and 0.8 units of experience design. Likewise Designer B can produce 1.2 units of experience design and 0.8 units of visual design. By focusing on their strengths they now produce 24 units of design work as opposed to the 22 units they would have produced on the second day had they split their work equally on both days.

If on the second day they decided to split their time 50/50 between the two disciplines their output would be just 20 units. So the cost of returning to being unicorns is 4 units of design. This cost will increase every hour they work as specialists and explains why it’s so hard for designers to stop becoming specialists in one design discipline.

Labour market forces and unicorns

Comparative advantage explains why it’s most efficient for design teams to be split into specialists. Lets continue to assume that all demand for design work is split equally between visual design and experience design. A design team of 10 should have 5 visual designer and 5 experience designers, a team of two should have one of each. But what happens when a team of two has enough design work to occupy a team of three? As the demand for design work is still 50/50 between the two disciplines, the team needs to hire a unicorn with equal skills in visual and experience design.

For small teams having an imbalance of specialists would be a big problem so they place a high value on the flexibility of unicorns who they can deploy effectively despite their slightly lower productivity in each discipline. This provides an incentive for some designers to position themselves in the job market as unicorns. Additionally working with small teams across disciplines can be very attractive to designers, so unicorns will continue to exist.

Unicorns vs specialists recap

Product unicorns

Specialists can be mistaken for unicorns. This isn’t some kind of weird animal cosplay but a more mundane case of mistaken perspectives.

If there’s a small company with a design team of one that is very good at making a particular product then the designer will become very good at designing all aspects of that products. He can develop a deep understanding of the domains he works in. From the perspective of the product he is the archetypal unicorn; his skill set looks something like this:


From an the perspective of the wider design industry his skill set looks like this:


It turns out he’s really specialist but a specialist in a product not a design discipline. He’s an expert at designing in the domain of his product.

Product specialism adds an extra dimension to the model of comparative design advantage but the principles still apply. A specialist experience designer might further specialise in a product area, say ecommerce design. They would then be able add most value to the commercial part of project but would ideally be better leaving any content-driven part of the site to another experience designer.

Summing up

Our skills and expertise are limited by the time we spend learning and practising design. How we choose to spread our “10,000 hours” will affect the shape of our skills. A unicorn will have split those hours equally between design disciplines, a specialist will have spent nearly all their 10,000 hours on one discipline.

Comparative advantage illustrates why it’s advantageous for teams to be constructed of specialists and the economic forces that make it hard for designers in teams to resist specialisation. The labour market around small teams shows why generalist designers with a wide range of skills will continue to be in demand despite specialist’s advantages.

This isn’t career advice. Or an attempt to say one style of designer is better than the other—I hope that this is a perspective that helps us understand the different types of designers that exist and how design teams can use them to their strengths. Instead of seeing unicorns as impossible beings with super-human expertise we should understand  how their skill have evolved to fit the economics of their work situation.

Comments (2)

  1. Jan Srutek

    Great post Ed. I did some economics in the past and have to say I’ve been thinking about this subject in a similar way. After all, economics can be applied everywhere where there is demand and supply, and where exists scarcity.

    It might be useful to also incorporate the concept of Diminishing Marginal Returns – designers don’t get infinitely better at any given discipline; at certain point their growth slows down despite doing more of it.

    I’d also say that as long as all individual disciplines remain in high demand, there won’t be many ‘true unicorns’ – the incentive to become one simply won’t outweigh the required effort (behavioural economics apply here).

  2. edeverett

    Hi Jan, thanks for your comment.

    You’re definitely right about the diminishing returns. And at that point many people will get bored of working in the same specialism for a long time so look to add new skills – it’s definitely not a model that can be complete with just abstract economics. (Or maybe at the point of diminishing return it makes economic sense to invest your energy in new skills that will add new value, so the boredom is just a rational response to the economics of the situation and we have no free will! ;-)

    “as long as all individual disciplines remain in high demand, there won’t be many ‘true unicorns’” I’d go further and suggest that it’s as long as there are design teams, not individuals, it’ll be more efficient to tend towards specialisms. It’s this that drives the market demand for the the individual disciplines.