The Purple Unicorn in the Digital Design Industry

Quick note: This post was originally written and published on my Svbtles blog on July 29, 2014. Below is the adapted and republished version that was published on November 7, 2016 on my Medium publication

“Always be yourself. Unless you can be a unicorn, then always be a unicorn.” — unknown

What exactly does it mean to be a purple unicorn? Well, your average white unicorn is seen as magical and rare in the publics’ eyes (kind of like having a weather service predict a three day forecast correctly, or the leftover milk after you have eaten a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch). So, to find a purpleunicorn is crazy town!

In the digital design industry, the purple unicorn translates into a designer that can equally code and do visual design. The term “purple unicorn” in relationship to the industry was coined by Bill Welense, my prototyping class professor, when discussing all the different roles and responsibilities of a project team (Disclaimer: I have no idea if he stole this term from someone else; It seemed pretty authentically original when he used the term).

“And then there are the designers that can code, but you never see that. Finding them is like finding a purple unicorn.” — Bill Welense

Although this is easier said than done, I thought the only way I would be accepted and survive in this industry was to become one (or at the very least a white horse with a fake horn strapped to its head like a cheap 3-year-old’s birthday hat). Well, that was before I started my first real “UI/UX” job at a digital agency.

After a year immersed into the Human Computer Interaction master’s program at DePaul University I felt my portfolio had enough visual design and coding projects to land a job (or that I would pass for at least a “unicorn-in-training”). Before that, I was doing a lot of design freelance-sometimes website design, but mainly print. Simultaneously, I was practicing my coding skills, especially when creating my online portfolio. What I have come realize after working for a couple of different agencies is that you don’t need to be a Jedi at everything. In fact, they want you to find that one niche thing — research, information architecture, user interface design, development, etc. — that you are really passionate about, and do that — really well. Yes, it is important to understand how all the parts work together, and be able to wear other hats when your team is needing another hand in an area that might not be your forte. But, having diversely talented people is what makes the teams at these digital agencies so strong. All of these talented, creative individuals add to the potion that creates one, magically fluffy creature. So, having an individual purple unicorn is not really a necessity (unless you are a team of one, but that is a whole other beast). However, that does not mean they are not welcome, they are just rare; So, stop putting that kind of unnecessary pressure on yourself to become one.