Not Just Unicorns: A Designer Bestiary

Illustration of a unicorn hunt; detail of a miniature from the Rochester Bestiary, BL Royal 12 F xiii, f. 10v. Held and digitised by the British Library.

Let’s talk unicorns.

And I’m not thinking of Twilight Sparkle. Legends about the unicorn differ, as is typical with mythical beasts. Some tales describe interaction designers who are also talented visual designers. Others carry news of the rare designer who can also code. And the wildest tales of all describe a designer who is supernaturally capable of anything. These conflicting tales confuse those seeking to hire designers. And of course designers may be asking themselves: “Am I a unicorn, or not?” And since all designers consider themselves magical, if not actually sparkly, the potential for an identity crisis is acute.

A Designer Bestiary

But fret not! Found in a dusty library in a long-forgotten corner of the Bay Area, a tome once thought lost to the centuries has now been found. (It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of The Leopard”.) Within it’s pages lie descriptions of a vast assortment of legendary creatures. In a Medieval Bestiary, each entry would describe the characteristics, habits, and nature of a type of creature. Creatures were understood to be both real (if you sailed far enough you might meet one) and allegorical (the story of the Pelican echoes the Bible). Whether the descriptions within A Designer Bestiary are similarly allegorical is disputed by historians and Human Resources professionals alike.

Unicorn: the Visual & Interaction Designer

The Unicorn
Einhorn (Monoceros). Conrad Gesner, Historiae Animalium; liber primus, qui est de quadrupedibus viviparis, Zürich, 1551.

First, of course, the unicorn. Despite some accounts to the contrary, a unicorn is not a designer/coder–instead, a unicorn is the rare and elusive designer who understands both visual and interaction design. Difficult to find or hire, the unicorn is capable of healing the worst of a products ills–whether aesthetic or functional–with a touch of his horn. (Is the horn a metaphor for a stylus? Difficult to say.) Legends recounting the capture of unicorns by means of maidens are just fables–but they may indicate that unicorns prefer designing new products from scratch to incremental or redesign work.

Pegasus: the Designer & Coder

Cordoba Pegasus
Mosaïque romaine du IIe siècle représentant Pégase. Museo Arqueológico y Etnológico de Córdoba, Spain

Designers who code (and coders who design) are known as pegasi for their ability to soar above others in the technology world. Due to her design and coding abilities, a pegasus can travel to more distant lands and realize her product visions more swiftly than other designers. A friend of the muses, the pegasus is known to assist heroes in the slaying of monsters, particularly the fearsome chimera. Where the hooves of a pegasus touch the ground, springs of water are created. These fountains are known to inspire poetry, or the creation of a new javascript framework.

Griffin: the Design & User Researcher

A griffin
A griffin, Wenceslaus Hollar (1607–1677)

The griffin (or gryphon) has the forepart of an eagle and the body of a lion. Similarly, the analytical skills of a user researcher and the creative skills of a designer are combined to fearful effect. Recalcitrant stakeholders have been known to cower in terror when a griffin presents his work. Griffins are the enemy of horses, and the feather of a gryphon is said to cure blindness.

Centaur: Designer & Copywriter

Centaur – Martyrologium of Usuardus

“Decide no suit until you have heard both sides speak” – Precepts of Chiron, Hesiod While some centaurs were reputed to be wild, violent, and uncivilized, designers who can write clearly and vividly follow the example of Chiron, known for his civilized manner, knowledge of medicine and the stars, oracular abilities, and teaching.

Manticore: Design & Product Management

Illustration of a manticore; detail of a miniature from the Rochester Bestiary

With a triple row of teeth, the manticore was said to have the head of a man and the body of a lion and was vermilion or blood red in color… It also had a long, scopion-like tail with spines that could shoot out in all directions. Aristotle said that its voice was a cross between a reed pipe and a trumpet. – Questionable Creatures, A Bestiary

Designing and managing a product simultaneously requires a certain ferocity. And a spiky tail, to keep a team focused on a single goal and on task. The word manticore comes from a Persian word meaning man-eater.

Salamander: Design & Marketing

Salamander, Bern, Burgerbibliothex, Codex Bongarsianus 318

It resists fire and alone among creatures can put fires out. For it can exist in the midst of flames without pain and without being consumed by them, not only because it does not burn but because it puts the fire out. – The Aberdeen Bestiary

The salamander is a powerful creature capable of not only designing but marketing a product. Salamanders, because of their affinity with fire, can withstand the flames of negative publicity. Reports that the skin of salamanders can cause hallucinations are probably exaggerations.

Yale: Design & Information Architecture

Cambridge (England), St. John’s College, Main Gate, detail

The yale is a lesser-known creature, combining aspects of interaction design and Information Architecture. Rarely found far from the Schools of Information that are their natural habitat, yales have the ability to point their horns in different directions during combat, forward when threatened from the front, backward when threatened from behind. This is seen by some as representing semantic search. Or possibly faceted search. It’s not entirely clear.

Phoenix: Designer / Founder

Phoenix detail from Aberdeen Bestiary
Phoenix illumination miniature from the Aberdeen Bestiary

It lives for upwards of five hundred years, and when it observes that it has grown old, it erects a funeral pyre for itself from small branches of aromatic plants, and having turned to face the rays of the sun, beating its wings, it deliberately fans the flames for itself and is consumed in the fire. – The Aberdeen Bestiary

Designers who found companies (or founders who also design) are the rarest creatures of all. They burn brightly, so brightly that the companies they found are destroyed, but they rise again from the ashes to create once more.

Chimaera: All of the Above

Chimera. Apulian red-figure dish, ca. 350-340 BC

Chimaera who breathed raging fire, a creature fearful, great, swift footed and strong, who had three heads, one of a grim-eyed lion, another of a goat, and another of a snake, a fierce dragon; in her forepart she was a lion; in her hinderpart, a dragon; and in her middle, a goat, breathing forth a fearful blast of blazing fire –Hesiod

Chimaera are terrifying creatures combining all possible varieties of designer in one supremely able user experience professional. The chimaera has been hunted to extinction. Luckily.