Jasper Stephenson

UX engineer, friendly ghost.
Header image – The Spectrum of Digital Design Roles

The Spectrum of Digital Design Roles

Recently, a colleague of mine named Mariko Sugita needed to hire a designer for a website she was creating. She’s an urbanist, and not particularly involved in the digital design field, so she asked the closest designer who happened to be on hand (me), “what kind of designers should I be looking for?”

I thought for a moment and realized that I had several possible answers, none of which quite summed up the full scope of roles that are present in our field today and what each designer’s assumed title really says about their abilities.

That started me thinking about what exactly the spectrum of digital design roles really looks like these days. I started sketching out my ideas. When Mariko saw my notes for this article, she said, “yes, that’s exactly what I wanted to know beforehand!” I hope that this overview can be just as useful for you, too. Let’s begin!

Foreword: The Paint Stroke Concept of Design Skills

It would be irresponsible to casually lump designers into groups without qualifying that no two designers are the same. I’m taking a moment here to borrow an idea from a great post by Sam Jarman on dev.to, who in turn got the idea from The Soft Skills Engineering Podcast. The basic concept is that rather than thinking that any person’s skills are just T-shaped — the idea that they have a broad understanding of many things and a deep understanding of one thing — their skills are instead better understood as a line of wet paint drawn across canvas.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash. Not a perfect image, but I didn’t have any fresh canvas on hand. Dang.
Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash. Not a perfect image, but I didn’t have any fresh canvas on hand. Dang.

The paint forms a broad line across the top layer of the canvas, signifying a base level of understanding of many fields, but it also drips down in many places, in different depths, which represent the varying depths of different skills that a designer has. The point is that every designer has varying degrees of ability in different skills based on their experience, whether that’s vector design, digital prototyping, user research, coding, motion graphics, or anything across the entire creative spectrum. Therefore, the title they call themselves on paper can’t possibly hope to define their philosophy and scope of experience.

“All right, that’s great, but I just want to know what type of designer to hire!”

I hear you loud and clear. So, with the knowledge that we will never truly represent the full scope of any one human with a single deterministic title, let’s try to define some singular, deterministic titles.

All sarcasm aside, here begins an honest look (in my own, personal opinion) at what kind of design roles are generally being seen out there in the wild.

1. Single-Focus Design Roles

“But Jasper, you just finished saying that T-shaped designers don’t exist!” Yes, I did. And they don’t. But if you want to laser focus in on hiring a person to do a specific thing for you, you might as well find someone who describes themselves as a specialist. You can usually count on someone who goes by one of these titles to do that specific task at a very high level of quality.

Also, yes, I put front-end developers on a chart about designers. There’s enough blurring of the line between designer and developer these days that I feel like it’s important to have a baseline of where the full-time devs stand on the spectrum.

One note on reading these charts: the upper line of a role represents the common breadth of that role, while the shade beneath represents varying depths of ability along the spectrum.

2. Cross-Discipline Design Roles

Here we start to blur some lines into generalized roles, especially the role of UX Designer which I’ve seen take on an incredible breadth of definitions in the past few years. These tend to serve more as catch-all terms, and it’s not always easy to be sure what a designer going by this title is skilled in. This is where portfolios and interviews can back up a vague title with solid examples of what exactly this designer brings to the table and how strong their skills are on visuals, implementation, and ideation.

3. Full-Spectrum Design Roles

These are the ones who can do it all, but they have to spread their knowledge and expertise across multiple fields in order to do it. Often people in this category got there by necessity — maybe they worked at startups that demanded they perform roles outside their expertise, or they had personal projects where they had to cover all the bases themselves.

Some designers are quick to naysay the possibility of one person being a master in several fields simultaneously. I tend to think that those with exceptional experience or talent can tackle the challenge, especially because they tend to understand the full scope of the roles around them better than other designers. It’s a matter of understanding that this designer brings breadth over specificity to the table, and helping them succeed accordingly.

So, if we put all three of those together, what does it look like?

Kind of a mess. But an understandable one, hopefully.

Thanks for reading!