The Design Engineer
The unicorn is dead, long live the unicorn
Note: the tweet that started this off. Also note, I've been a Design Engineer across most organisations I've worked at—sometimes with the title, sometimes without, but always operating in the middle.
The role of a Design Engineer, formerly known as a Design Unicorn™, is still not fully understood by most organizations. About ten years ago, when Facebook, Google and all the other big Product orgs started shipping like crazy and defining our design landscape, the idea of a designer who could do engineering too was seen as the only choice.
These teams had already morphed a graphic designer into a UI designer and then merged this with UX designers into the famed Product Designer role we now see everywhere. So we’ve already merged a lot of skills, why then should we also tack on the ability to build things ready for production?
Well, because when a company recognizes the value of this, it can make a significant impact on the success of a project.
Should Designers Code™
The great debate of the late 2010’s. This did the rounds for too long to remember, and everyone had insanely strong opinions on both sides. In reality, some designers should code and some shouldn’t. And the level to which they contribute shipping code is also available on a sliding scale.
See, I’ve noticed across the web, that we get particularly fired up about what’s expected of a role at a general level. I know why, we want to benchmark across the industry, ensure pay is equitable and fair, and make it easier to go from nothing to Product Designer. But, creating this segmentation of Design—or Engineering, depending on how you look at it—enables organisations to create an additional role that adds value in the middle.
Not all companies need it, not all teams will be able to make it work, and not all designers should code. But when the right org, with the right needs introduces the idea of Design Engineering, the product is vastly better in many ways.
The great freeing up
By empowering the idea of the Design Engineer, we enable designers to ship their idea from concept to delivery. This gives greater ownership over an idea, and frees up an engineer to focus on other tasks that are potentially more critical or more technical.
A Design Engineer (DE) could have varying degrees of skill in either Design or Engineering, taking that strength forwards to empower the opposite team to do more. A strong DE who’s more designer brings the quality of the delivered engineering work up significantly, often upskilling engineers on important UX or UI principles. On the other hand, a strong DE who’s more engineer brings the technical limitations or knowledge of the APIs closer to design, better reducing unbuildable designs.
The Design Engineer acts as a bridge between the design and engineering teams, which often have the same end goal but different approaches to achieving it. By being the glue that aligns these teams, the Design Engineer can ensure that everyone is on the same page and working towards the same objective.
In organisations that truly understand the value of a Design Engineer, this role is not limited to a specific team or task. Instead, the Design Engineer is deployed to support design or engineering tasks as needed, depending on what requires the most attention at that moment. This flexibility allows the Design Engineer to be more effective in their role and to have a greater impact on the project's success.
As projects unfold and ideas start to take shape, the initial vision provided by the design team undergoes an evolution, growing in complexity and depth. This is the moment when the Design Engineer steps in, bringing a wealth of technical knowledge to the creative table. Their acute understanding of the underlying engineering principles allows them to take the visionary concepts and transform them into tangible and functional solutions.
The DE's role is not confined to just converting designs into technical specifications; it extends far beyond. They act as the interpreters of both languages, seamlessly communicating between designers and engineers, ensuring that the intricacies of each aspect are comprehended by the other. In this fluid exchange of ideas, the design team becomes more technically aware, appreciating the possibilities and limitations that lie within the realm of engineering. Likewise, the engineering team begins to acquire a more profound appreciation for the artistic and creative elements that underscore the design process.
As projects progress, the engineering team gains invaluable hands-on experience, honing their skills in implementing the solutions crafted by the DE in collaboration with the design team. With every successful iteration, the engineering team's expertise expands, and their focus shifts towards perfecting the practical aspects of the project. The DE's involvement remains instrumental throughout this journey, providing the much-needed liaison between the evolving design vision and the maturing engineering execution.
Whether brought in temporarily to address specific project requirements or integrated as a permanent member of the team, the presence of a Design Engineer is undeniably critical to the overall success of any venture. Their ability to navigate between the creative world of design and the technical realm of engineering not only accelerates the development process but also ensures that the end product the best possible solution.
When searching for a similar blend, the merging of UX and UI again came to mind. Just as UX and UI are two sides of the same coin, design and engineering are two critical components of software development. The Design Engineer brings these two components together, ensuring that the end product is not only visually appealing but also functional and efficient.
In organizations that truly understand the value of a Design Engineer, this role is given the autonomy to see a project through from concept to delivery. This level of involvement allows the Design Engineer to have a greater impact on the quality of the software being developed. Importantly, the Design Engineer doesn’t replace the need for a Designer or an Engineer, they simply provide a hybrid skillset that makes things better for everyone.
You’ll often find that startups or organisations with less functional structuring are more open to these ideas. When you split requirements down by function, rather than objective, you care more deeply about what someone’s “role” is. When you focus on delivering objectives, you care more about the how and what, and less about who.
The role of a Design Engineer is critical to the success of any software development project, and in my opinion we will see it increase significantly in the next 5 years. Watch this space.