The Unicorn Hybrid Designer


Lately I’ve been noticing an explosion of job posts that start like this:

“We’re working with an exciting company that is looking for a designer/developer hybrid….” or “we’re looking for someone who can design and code responsive emails”.

2 years ago, when I got out of school people said employers ask for basic HTML/CSS knowledge but they don’t expect you to code, (after all that’s what the developers are for) Now it seems as though in two short years more and more companies are trying to find what we called “a unicorn”- someone who was equally great at design and development.

A part of me of me feels as though this is still unwise to ask for one person to do the work of two people (or a whole team). Just last week I had an inquiry by an agency for a senior web designer who would do the design and the site building in CMS. That means the research, concepts, wire frames, user interface design, CMS installation, theme installation, theme customization (with code), trouble shooting and content strategy would be all on one person. I couldn’t believe that they were serious.

It causes me to wonder though, how many people have become “hybrids” or “unicorns”. Maybe it’s not so far-fetched for someone to be able to do it all.

I think if you are interested in web design work and like me, haven’t been formally educated in the subject, you need to take it upon yourself to get up to speed.


A book a part has a ton of awesome short books about a bunch of great subjects. What I love about them is that the books are 1) packed full of great knowledge, but they aren’t DENSE with it. It’s just the bare bones what you need to know and no fluff. 2) I love how beautifully clean the design is. Yes they are mostly words with a few pictures, so they aren’t reference material for inspiration, but rather a cliff notes version of a subject. I’ve already read HTML 5 for Web Designers, CSS3 for Web Designers, Responsive Web Design, Mobile First, and I’m halfway through The Elements of Content Strategy (warning.. this one is a little dry even for me) and Content Strategy For Mobile. I also have plans to purchase Just Enough Research, the newest addition to the library. Books range from $9 for a digital copy – $23 for both digital and physical copy.

There are so many books on web design, that you really just have to find what works for you. Some books are way too dense for me to get through. I suggest contacting a designer you admire and asking them to suggest a book or two or Tweet to your network and see what comes up.


There are plenty of free tutorials out there, but to be honest they can be tricky to track down. Sure you could go on YouTube and try to find a tutorial on how to install WordPress, but I’ve found that because these people aren’t usually qualified instructors, they miss a step or assume too much and I usually get lost.

Instead I turn to sites like, because you know the tutorials are quality made and very extensive. They also provide working files if you pay more a month. They have a whole section on CMS sites that you could learn from. I’ve already learned a little about Drupal and want to continue with it.


There are a ton of meet up groups, one day seminars, and conferences for web design, ux design. These are also doubly great because you get to make friends and build your network at the same time.

While at Moxie Con, I learned about a great new program called Girl Develop it: a program dedicated to educating women on web development, a field that has been dominated by men for a long time. They have meetup groups and classes all over the US.

Just this past year I went to the UX thursday even here in Chicago. It is a one day event, conducted by Jared Spool about User Experience design. There were a few lectures that were a little over my head, but I did learn a lot that day about good user experience practices. The best part? It was only $80!

In November I’m going to the How Interactive Design Conference also here in Chicago. It isn’t cheap ($995 until September 13th! Then it goes up $200!), but I couldn’t pass up a chance to learn about web design and not have to pay for a plane ticket. The topics are spot on for people in my situation who don’t have any formal training in UI/UX. I’m especially excited about:

1) Print to web primer with Patrick McNeil,

2) The keynote by James Victoire about: Re-Inventing Yourself, Or How to Go Back and Be Who You’re Supposed to Be

3) And Interactive Prototyping & Introduction to Standard Prototyping Tools by Todd Zaki WarfelCo-Founder, Nimbly Apps

Even checking out what your chapter of AIGA is doing will most likely turn up an event about web design, ux design or interactive design.

Lastly, sites like can help you find an event in your area to go to.


Once you pick a method of learning that works with your time and budget, apply what you’ve learned to a personal project. Having the knowledge is great, but showing that you can do it in your portfolio will get you that job. Make sure you can talk about every aspect of the design, and make sure you understand and can speak to the lingo that goes with it.


The point is that if we want to work in the web world, in order to stay current, we might have to get our hands dirty and be multi talented. I don’t recommend we all become fluent enough to replace our developers, but we should make an effort to know enough to meet the demands of the people doing the hiring. If that means picking up a few new skills, finally getting around to learning JavaScript, or honing your user interface skills, DO IT. You’ll thank yourself later when you land that awesome job.


  • The Unicorn Hybrid Designer

    13 September, 2013 at 8:41 am
  • Terry Lea Willard liked this on Facebook.

    13 September, 2013 at 10:00 am
  • how many people have seen job requests for “the unicorn” position: design/developer. >>

    13 September, 2013 at 12:41 pm
  • Lucy

    Loretta, thank you for your encouraging post and practical advice. I am fairly new to this field but I have discovered that I love doing both design and development. Your unicorn analogy is great! I will check back again soon and continue the converation.

    4 October, 2013 at 12:03 am
  • Hi Loretta,

    I just came across your article about unicorn developers. Funny, I just had a conversation about unicorns this afternoon with some colleagues. I love your positive outlook on being proactive and taking learning into your own hands. There’s a lot of great information on the web, just waiting to be put to use.

    I am a unicorn developer. Quite accidentally of course. I earned a multimedia degree in 1999. With an initial interest in 3D animation, I also studied everything from print, to web, to video, to CD-Rom production. After all that I found that design was extremely important to me but so was functionality. I wanted to know how to make the things I designed work rather than leaving it up to a programmer to finish.

    I believe that the bridge between the front-end developer and back-end developer is closing. Especially when you look at start-ups who need a small team make a lot happen in a short amount of time. Unicorns are very valuable. The designer/developer hybrid will become more and more normal in the future.

    All this to say, we have started a new website called where we hope help creative professionals to learn how to code. We teach through sep-by-step guided projects. We look at projects from a designer’s perspective with a final product to work from. Our first guided project teaches HTML5 and CSS3. Next month, we’re teaching how to get started with Ruby on Rails.

    PS. I’m not really trying to promote, I just wanted other readers to know that unicorns are out there and it is achievable to get there yourself. You just need to build up new skills, one at a time. What can you do with 6-months or a year of focused learning?


    20 February, 2014 at 1:16 am
  • Hi, thanks for a great article. I wish you luck and hope you will find coding to be as much fun as designing.

    I believe that designers can write better HTML and CSS. I have seen some bad HTML and CSS written by great programers, who would be better off writing Java, C++, etc . Writing good HTML and CSS requires different approach to coding vs software development, and they often really miss that. So, I am so happy to see that finally the companies starting to realize that actually Web Design has to be done by Web Designer, who can code front-end.

    I am a hybrid designer/developer and love coding HTML/CSS. I can’t imagine designing any site only in Photoshop, I think that being able to see it in a browser and tryout/tweak things in Firebug is a big advantage vs doing those things in static psd files. Also, I find that hybrid process of combining design and coding makes the site building process much faster.

    5 June, 2014 at 9:25 pm