The Unnecessary Fragmentation of Design Jobs

Posted 2 months ago by Jonas Downey

Hey there, tech designer person. Have you noticed the increasing number of vague specializations we’ve invented for ourselves?

Here are a few I grabbed from a job board 10 minutes ago.

UX Designer
UX/UI Designer
UI Designer
Graphic Designer (UX & UI focus)
Visual Designer
Digital Designer
Product Designer
Presentation Designer
Front End Designer
Web Designer

Bleh. What’s the difference between UX and UX/UI and UI? Isn’t Product also UX/UI? Isn’t a Front End a UI? What’s a Graphic Designer with UX & UI Focus? And isn’t all of this Visual/Digital design?

For an outsider, the differences are extremely subtle. I’ve been talking to a lot of industry newcomers lately, and they’re almost unanimously confused. They’re struggling to gain the right experience and make portfolios to match our foggy job definitions.

Even worse, the companies hiring seem equally puzzled. One designer told me he took a UX job at a startup, and then his new boss asked him to explain what UX is about — after he had already been hired to do it!

UX AND UI, WHY OH WHY

This must be happening because everyone can barely keep up with the demand for design work. Companies are racing to fill seats and execute hastily-defined design processes without bothering to question if it’s all necessary for their particular business.

If your company does that, you might find yourself in a game of Designer Hot Potato like this one:

This is surely good for 3M’s office supplies revenue, but as a creative process it sounds painful to me.

1wJOrgydqDD_8ou0NlAzMNw

I’ve never had a job quite like that.

Before I joined Basecamp, I was always a lone wolf — the only designery person at a small business or government org—so I had to figure everything out myself. I had to talk to people, learn about the problems they were having, come up with ideas, create a good-looking solution, write words, and build the UI piece of the final product.

It was tough, and it took years of practice to become competent at any of it. But I loved the diversity of the work and the exciting potential for new discoveries.

Recently John Maeda’s Design in Tech Report for 2017 suggested a name for my kind of role: Computational Designer.

These computational designers exist in a hazy middle ground — not quite pure engineers, not quite pure designers — but their hybrid status is increasingly attractive to technology companies. …The most successful designers will be those who can work with intangible materials — code, words, and voice.
(via WIRED)

I dig this idea, but I don’t think we even need the word “Computational.” I think the software industry has been overthinking this, and what John describes is just Design.

Design (with a capital D)

I believe Design requires a holistic grasp of problems, potential, and materials.

If you’re only focused on examining problems, you’re not empowered to dream up the proper solutions.

If you’re only dreaming up what you could do, you’re not close enough to the ground-level truth.

If you’re only working on the nitty gritty implementation, you know about the what but not a lot about the why.

A capital-D Designer is comfortable working organically across all of that, without needing to slice it up into separate little steps and responsibilities.

This is possible in the real world

That’s exactly how we work at Basecamp. We skip most of the formal process stuff, and our Designers do everything: writing, visuals, code, project management, whatever it takes.

We’re living proof that this approach works well. We support hundreds of thousands of customers, plus multiple platforms and products, with a design team of 10 people.

We pull that off specifically because we don’t assign one designer to UX, and another to UI, and another to writing, and another to code.

Think this sounds too hard? Like there’s no way you could possibly be good at all of that?

Take a step back for a second. We’re only talking about making software.

Yes it’s hard…but in the grand scheme of things it’s not THAT hard.

If you’re not convinced, take a look at Art. Lebedev Studio:

Founded in Moscow in 1995, Art. Lebedev Studio is the only design company in the world offering product design, city and environmental design, graphic design, websites, interfaces, packaging, typeface design, custom patterns and book publishing under one roof.

Damn, that’s a lot of stuff! Projects across mediums, genres, industries, you name it. No artificial limits on anything. Inventing things using whatever materials and means necessary.

And that’s not even a new idea. Now look at master Designer Raymond Loewy, born in 1893:

Raymond Loewy (November 5, 1893 —July 14, 1986) was an industrial designer who achieved fame for the magnitude of his design efforts across a variety of industries.

Among his designs were the Shell, Exxon, TWA and BP logos, the Greyhound bus, the Coca-Cola bottle, the Lucky Strike package, Coldspot refrigerators, Studebaker cars, and the Air Force One airplane. He was involved with numerous railroad and locomotive designs. His career spanned seven decades.

Some of Raymond’s logos

Some of Raymond’s logos

A seven decade career making not just logos and products, but planes, trains, and automobiles too! Here’s Raymond, by the way:

Raymond Loewy, one hell of a cool Designer.

Raymond Loewy, one hell of a cool Designer.


So if Art Lebedev’s shop can do all that, and Raymond Loewy could do what he did, why are we so insufferably particular about boxing ourselves into tiny little specialties just to make websites and apps?

Imagine if we stopped doing that, and tossed out our process assumptions and self-defeating arguments about what should be one person’s responsibility versus someone else’s.

Maybe we could all gain that magical holistic understanding, and grow to become Computational Designers. Or even just Designers.

You can make it happen

If you like this notion, try treating your career like your most important project. Be curious and restless. Aim to be constantly learning and trying new stuff without limits. Find a company or a work environment that lets you take a shot at everything you want to do (they’re out there!)…or invent your own little niche if you can’t find that.

This may not be the easiest career path to travel. It’s almost certainly not. But I guarantee you’ll enjoy the ride—especially since you’ve designed it yourself.

Hat tip to Jason Fried for turning me on to Raymond Loewy’s work. And a second hat tip to Dustin SenosOut of Office Hours project—such a fantastic idea that’s connected me with many wonderful young designers.

If you liked this post, let me know on Twitter

This article was originally published on Jonas’s Medium page.

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Product Designer at Basecamp. Also made Hello Weather. Follow me on Twitter.

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