No one wants to be a code monkey or a pixel pusher. We want to solve problems, and do great work.
What’s all this talk about Unicorns? Beautiful, sparkling, Golden Unicorns. This is a story about how to become the unicorn.
My beginnings in Web Design and Development surfaced out of a love for technology an art. I was an artist and print designer with a thirst for something more. Because I wanted to be relevant and engaged, I ended up diving head first into the fast moving waters of web design and development. To get things done, I hunkered down, studied, imitated, and learned. To be completely self-sustainable, you end up learning bits of everything. I strived to become a renaissance woman. I wanted to build and create, without needing to rely on others to achieve my goals.
A few years later, I was hired by a small agency that really needed a one woman show. They did not want to need to rely multiple departments and titles to get the job done.
They needed a Golden Unicorn
They wanted someone who could not only always solve the technical problems at hand, but had an eye for design and user experience. Someone who could say “yes that can happen” without hesitation and then google it right after making the promise. Since then, I decided to strive to be the unicorn.
In the industry now, there seems to be a long standing tension between designers and developers. This tension is manifested in the workplace, in social settings, but it is also within ourselves – with how we think. It is the longstanding battle of the left brain and right brain. The left side of the brain is known to be logical, analytical, and objective (hello technical directors!) while the right side is known to be intuitive, thoughtful, and subjective (creative thinkers). But the one thing both sides of our brains have in common is Problem Solving. Even though both sides are radically different, there is a common thread there. No one wants to be a code monkey or a pixel pusher. We want to solve problems, and do great work.
Developers and Designers have certain traditional characteristics and roles. On the far end of the spectrum there are some unique gifts and skills that we have: technical refinement and visual refinement. Left brain-dominant people tend to be developers – our Technical Directors if you will. Right-brainers trend toward the design and user experience (intuitive) side – our Creative Directors. There are obvious benefits to sticking to one extreme. You can craft your abilities. You can become an expert in a particular subject in a field. You can work with what you find to be comfortable.
Why are we only using half our brain?
Before I entered tech, I was a Montessori preschool art teacher. We taught “Whole Brain Learning” art classes to children. It was very interesting as the methods combined shapes and color sequences with freehand art. There was a focus on visual patterning. Red green blue, red green blue. It combined creative, right brain activity using a left brain sequential methodology: in turn working out the whole brain at once. Whole brain learning has been proven to help children get a head start on problem solving skills. They are able to put to use all of their brain, both creative and logical, when encountering issues. We’ve already established that we’re all trying to solve problems. So it begs the question: Why Aren’t we striving to be more Brainbedexterous*? *made up word
The Logic of Intuition
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink,” he speaks about intuition and latent abilities. We all have an innate intuition built right in, but our conscious brain suppresses our unconscious brain. In the end, we second guess ourselves. For example, a developer might look at a design and think “there’s something not right about the spacing here.” But instead of exploring that intuition, he/she just shrugs it off because of self-stereotyping. “I’m left brain – theres no way I could know what’s wrong.” Because we’re second guessing our intuition, we’re causing ourselves to have abilities that remain latent and hidden, never put into practice.
I learned about a study of Autism and extraordinary giftedness*: Figuring out the mystery of “savants” and how some seeming “normal” thought is difficult and other thoughts are easy. An easy example of this is Rainman – extremely gifted in memory but lacking in basic life skills. In the study they made a electric helmet that inhibited certain parts of the brain. It would send a pulse to a region to make that person function “autistically” in a select skill.
They asked a subject to draw a dog before putting the helmet on.. and again with the helmet on. The results found that with the “autism” hat on they drew a much more detailed and creative version of a dog. There was great attention to detail, hair texture, and form that was lacking in the previous drawing. The subjects were astonished that the drawing even came from them. Our brains need to group information into meaningful packets, or else we become overwhelmed. We really do have latent abilities within us that are untapped. Imagine the possibilities!
We have more capabilities than we give ourselves credit for. Why are we Stereotyping ourselves?
What are some reasons that we say we’re not a designer?
- “I can’t draw”
- “Colors? Ugh I’m so bad at them”
- “I can’t think of original ideas”
In reality we’re just selling ourselves short and saying: “I’m not creative enough”
What are some reasons that we say we’re not developers?
- “It’s too complicated”
- “I’ll break it”
- “I’m not good at math”
- “What is GitHub?”
But really we’re selling ourselves short by saying “I’m not smart enough” – which is wrong.
Lets stop stereotyping ourselves, and expel some blockers. Our comfort zone is a huge one. As humans we really love to stay within our limits, do what is safe and reliable. Mitigate risks. But when we do that and don’t leave what we’re comfortable with, we’ll never explore new territory or try new things. We’ll never realize our own potential.
The key to the success of the Golden Unicorn is understanding. If you understand what you’re trying to accomplish both technically and visually, you will have a fantastic outcome. You don’t necessarily have to be it all, but there are reason’s why Unicorns are so valuable. They can perceive with intuition and come forth with logical execution. It’s magical.
Traits of the Unicorn
Fearless: The unicorn takes risks. We need to not be afraid to step out of our normal comfort zone, to take on something out of our league. We need to have confidence that we can accomplish our task, without worrying that we won’t make it. So many people are too scared to take the leap into uncharted territory. not the unicorn.
Driven: The unicorn never gives up. We live in an industry under constant change. the methods or styles you learn now will be obsolete in a year. we have to have the constant drive to learn, to adapt, and to discard old methods for new ones. we are constantly cleaning out our closets. we can’t be sentimental or discouraged.
Willing to fail: The worst thing we can possibly do to ourselves is have a complete and utter fear of failure. We want better opportunities, better jobs, better business. We need to be able to not be afraid to reach for our goals, to take what we want, to learn new things. To try and fail… hard. Then pick ourselves up again and try again. This is how we’re going to gain understanding.
Designers guide on how to be the Unicorn
Learn how to code: Matt Mullenweg once said that “code is the new literacy.” I know it’s hard coming from a design background, but I can’t tell you how important it is in this day to render your own designs. You don’t have to become a back end genius, but you do need to learn CSS and HTML. Throw in some php in there and you’re rocking it!
Go to codeacademy.com, codeschool.com, or treehouse.com and take lessons. Better yet, rip themes apart and start hacking away. Learn how WordPress connects. Utilize the WordPress codex and ask someone in the community for a code review. remember…don’t be scared. you’re a golden unicorn. you’re fearless and willing to fail.
Developers guide on how to be the Unicorn
There are lots of resources out there to start understanding the design side. “Web Design for Developers: A Programmer’s Guide to Design Tools and Techniques” by Brian P. Hogan, “The Elements of Typographic Style” by Robert Bringhurst is a great book about typography. But what it really comes down to is Imitation. In order to master drawing in art school we were taught to learn from the best. We literally copied famous artist’s drawings over and over in order to fine tune our hands. Design is similar. Keep a file of designs that you like, expose yourself to new things, and imitate their qualities. Like bold lettering with a large line-height? Try it out, and then subject yourself to a subjective critique by your peers. When you are in your baby unicorn stage you’re going to say “omg I’m a terrible designer…I should never have put myself through this torture. “WHY CAN’T DESIGN BE BLACK AND WHITE? Why can’t it just work and if it doesn’t it THROWS AN ERROR?” Never fear, you’re looking at it upside down. This is the process of learning. You’re only going up.
Realm of Control
We are now in the realm of control. The past is already plotted: the future possibilities are endless! You can change your future. They key is having a great understanding of all at stake. Reprogram your brain. Be Fearless not self conscious about what other people think. Live outside of your comfort zone and learn. Be driven to keep up with technology. Have a thirst for constant study and learning. Be willing to fail and to pick yourself back up and try again.
Sara Cannon has a passion for art, design, and typography. She is Partner and Creative Director for Range – A design and development shop specializing in WordPress. Based out of Birmingham, AL, Sara is a WordPress core contributor, organizes WordCamp Birmingham, loves open source, her dogs, and a good beer. You can find her on twitter @saracannon or writing on her blog sara-cannon.com.
Life is short, art is long, typography is everything, code is poetry.