How many design hats can you wear?

Are you Product Designer? Or a UX/UI Designer?

According to this article on Medium these happen to be the most popular job titles in the design community today. And apparently there is a difference between the two roles. It goes on to state that there are a number of articles that explain the nuances of each role.

I for one don’t know the difference. Maybe I’m not educated enough to understand the nuances. Or maybe there is no practical difference. At least, not from a software product development point of view.

The article, in its defence, is a survey, not a comment. But it happens to be a survey of the Dribble job board. Which is to say it uses a rather skewed pool of recruits. Don’t get me wrong. I love Dribbble. But it does have its shortcomings. That said, then there are not many boards that do a good job of giving hiring managers access to a pool of quality designers.

We also happen to be in a job market that respects design (for whatever reasons.) So, good designers rarely have to look beyond the usual suspects to find a respectable job. With a fancy job title.

However apart from the title and the prestige of a big firm, what are the other factors that make a job satisfying? Maybe you have a job that pays well. And despite the long hours you are expected to provide a predictable set of deliverables. But is that enough? Ask a few more questions.

  • Do you find your job challenging?
  • Do you feel your skills will remain future proof?
  • Is your current role pushing you further towards the role you want to be playing?

And, by the way, what is the role you want to be playing?

Do you want to be a Specialist or a Generalist?

This has been the traditional way job roles have been looked at. It is a little dated but useful. But what does specialization and generalization mean to designers?


Most people have a simple answer. If you want to be an individual contributor, you remain a specialist. If you want to manage teams you veer towards being a generalist. But is that the right approach? Let’s look at some of the job roles and decide.


First the specialist roles.

You could be a Specialist Visual Designer. This is probably the most common understanding of what a designer does. You could take on interactions that are defined by somebody in the organization and make it beautiful. A pixel pusher. And a typical move up the ladder would be as an Art Director or a Creative Director. You would work well in an organization that has fewer unknowns and a lot more support for other creative and product disciplines. Including copywriters, product managers and researchers.

While the art direction may be an individual contribution role, as a Creative Director, you may have management responsibilities. So the earlier assumption of what it means to be a specialist and generalist does not completely hold true.

As a Specialist Interaction Designer, you will be moving on to take responsibility of the structure and presentation of the elements of design. You would have to be involved in make information architecture maps, wireframes, defining interaction behavior and working closely with a visual designer to brings the products designs into reality. You could work to become a Principal and could even go on to lead UX teams.

A Specialist User Researcher may have the choice between a qualitative and quantitative study. Sometimes there could be a contextual inquiry. However a bulk of the work may be usability testing. You could move up and become a Principal or even lead the research team.

These are the main fields that designers tend to occupy.

However there are many more fields like UI development, prototyping and project management that designers can move into. All these career ladders have respectable zeniths, but lately there is more emphasis designers who can do more.

This brings us to the generalist designer. As a generalist you are capable of taking on multiple roles, but may or may not be an expert in any of them. I’ve seen many designers use this as way to move into a people management role.

However as a design manager, you need to manage design. Not people.

But then a lot of startups have a need for people who can genuinely multitask. This leads to the search for the Unicorn Designer.


As a unicorn designer, you are expected to live up to the following description:

If you’re looking for a designer who can come up with your identity, design your site, create UIs with great user experience for your web and mobile apps, and on top of that code his or her work in HTML/CSS (and why not throw in Javascript in the mix!), then I’m sorry to inform you that you’re hunting unicorns.

This is a daunting responsibility. And I’m sure you feel it would be a challenge to fit into these shoes.

But this is a need that you will see cropping up from time to time. It may not present itself in the job description. But once you land the job, you will be placed in a situation that expects you to handle all the above functions effectively. It will be a trial by fire and the most likely outcome is a burnt-out designer.

However despite the above disadvantages, I still tend to prefer somebody who can at least aspire to meet the above requirements.

There is however one difference. I think of unicorns as wearing different hats. And nobody wears more than one hat the same time.

I don’t think a designer should either.

However depending upon the team composition and stage of the project a designer should be able to slip into multiple hats. It’s a useful capability to have in your arsenal.


So how do you slip into a hat that does not fit?

The answer is not easy. And, sometimes, you cannot. There is nothing wrong with that. However once in a while you will find a hat that doesn’t YET fit you right, but with the help of the right mentor, you would be able to fit in much better.

It may be coding. Or user research. Or prototyping.

A good mentor can show you all the important stuff and point you to the right resources so when the need comes, you will be prepared to try on the new hat.

You should understand that this is not something that you fit in right away. It takes time. But unless you make an attempt you would not even know if that is a role you can play.

The advantage you have with being able to wear different hats is that you are temporarily able to fill voids. It’s an incredible value that you bring to the team. And as a result your climb up the career ladder may take a very different direction.

Eventually, it will be a lot more satisfying.

So, are you in a role that allows you to wear different hats? Let me know. I would love to hear from you. I also know of a few places that will allow you to wear different hats. I would be more than happy to share them with you.


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