in Startups

Desingineer – the mythical person every Startups are looking for

Of course, many a founders who have also asked me, keep saying, “we need a designer who can code in HTML5, CSS3, Javascript and Python/Ruby.” My usual answer is, “you’re looking for a genius, you should try splitting it into (i) a designer who does HTML, CSS (ii) a programmer and (iii) perhaps even a separate Javascript coder.”



As Chris mentioned, someone who is good (let’s not even consider awesome) in both worlds of design and development are either mythical or very rare. They’re doing something on their own, are already kicking ass and are not available.

I had the privilege to have worked with few of such geniuses and they’re doing very good on their own. I’ve tried my hands on both worlds but never came close to being that good, leave alone being a genius.

If you find someone, who is even close to, or comfortable striding in these two world of designing and development, give them everything they need and have them on your side. They’re some of the rarest breed.

So, what do you say? How many “Desingineer” do you know?


  1. "Thinkers are rare, doers are rarer, and thinker-doers are the rarest of all" - paraphrasing Fred Brooks from 'The Mythical Man Month'. 

  2. I know 1 desingineer, and he happens to be my co-founder for 2 start ups. Working with him is pretty amazing. You can follow him on Twitter @antm:disqus  

  3. Wish Employers would listen to that advice -.-

  4. I knew there was a reason:
    1. I wanted to learn ROR
    2. I have an unreasonable affinity for unicorns

  5. HTML and CSS are not difficult at all for a designer. The point is that who's looking for these professionals is looking not only for talented people but also for someone that has 50 hours available per day. A good design job requires time and focus on aspects that have an opposite point of view than the technical side. Having designer and coders in an organization is not only a matter of skills, it is also about create an equilibrium between different points of view. (Yes, I'm a pure UX designer)

    • I "liked" this before responding, but only partially agree. I got my degree in graphic design right before the height of the dot com boom (design? check). After that, I went to work at a ERM and real-time pricing software company in Austin to do graphics work. I got SO SICK of engineers ruining my designs that I taught myself CSS and HTML so I could give them ready-built templates to code the back-end logic (and this was in '99). Then I realized that the dynamic interfaces I was imagining STILL weren't coming to life, so I taught myself Javascript and ASP (like I said: it was '99) so I could create the right scripts and integration points in my templates to make the back-end work processing even easier. Since then, I've dabbled in UX/UI, Perl/CGI, PHP and RoR. Long story short, the biggest problem wasn't a disconnect between my left and right brain--it was getting people to challenge themselves to make better work. That means TALKING to each other and LISTENING to people who can teach you how to think differently. I'm no genius. I'm just committed to making beautiful work.  If I can do it, anybody who's willing can too.

    • HTML/CSS != design. It's just a language. A good designer knows design. That's a fact.

      If you need a designer/coder, I'm one of those. :)

      • Hi Diego. I agree. HTML and CSS are design. They are not programming languages but editing languages. This difference makes us different than coders that are able to manage the back end and so on. There is a design in the coding too. Fact is that it is just different from the 'creative' design that involves UX (which is not UI), a GOOD graphic, marketing and communication strategy and so on. I am not saying that it is not possible to be both. I am saying that being designers and coders on the same project CAN affect the whole quality of the job because it lacks of points of view.

  6. They are also difficult to keep in your organization. They'll get bored if they can only work on one front.

    • very true.  I had an awesome designineer workaholic and he was difficult to keep happy.  He wanted to do everything.  Design/front end code/backend code/product owner/project manager.  They are pretty great but don't work great as part of a team IMO.

  7. I'm a graduate student in a program you should be interested in: Integrated Product Design at the University of Pennsylvania. While not all the engineers in the program are CS, there are a few.

    What's ironic, is that trying to market yourself as a "desingineer" is _extremely hard_. How many job openings do you see for these positions (outside of just-beginning startups)? This may be a game of chicken and egg: because these people are rare there are few positions, but also because these jobs don't exist, people rarely market themselves this way.

    • I agree with the chicken and egg problem. I consider myself a desingineer (not of the genius variety) and have a problem when looking for jobs because they are either for only design or only programming. Last interview I had they ended up making a role for me that was kind of "jack-of-all-trades" so I could work front end, backend, design, etc. But, as you mentioned, I ended up just working for myself.

    • Couldn't agree more. I also consider myself a desingineer (also not a genius, but adequate enough), but like shadyhill said, most job openings are looking for a software engineer or a designer. That being said, that's why I'm transitioning to the startup world, where early stage startups need a desingineer in order to get off the ground running. 

      My first production project was here, something I did entirely myself: 
      I'm still working on it, but also looking for another project/position with an existing startup team. If anyone wants to chat, just let me know!

  8. If you think Desingineers are difficult to find, try finding a Designineerops.

    • My company has one of those guys. I won't say the name of the company and I certainly won't say the name of the guy ;)

      • We had one years ago.  Strange fellow.  No respect for authority.  Wore dreadlocks.  Did not wear shoes.  Took his sweet time with every task.  Disregarded policy and wrote systems software in lisp.  Yes, lisp.

        For all his warts, this fellow just had a knack for clean design.  When he finally emerged with a product, it was always robust.  It was always fast.  It was always somehow simpler than expected.  Clean.

        A+ would hire again.

  9. I'm a artist/designer and a programmer. I'm not a genius. I just got used to use computer instead of pencil and paper. And to gain the maximum from a computer you should able to program. So I use not only usual painting/drawing programs for designers, but also I code a lot in haskell, python, perl, bash and javascript.

  10. I think the bigger problem is that most incompetent designers/engineers think they are an "desingineer."

  11. Not that hard. I'm one. I design and code everything I make, and do the ops too. I like the variety. The trouble you'll run into is finding someone who is 100% awesome in all categories. I would never claim to be anything more than a mediocre backend coder, but I know enough to get stuff done and know what is possible. 

    • Just looked at your site, and you're a definitely what Jeremy was referring to, you're a mediocre designer at best, can't comment on your coding.

  12. I can do a bit of everything except those things (electronic design, assembly, machining, firmware, backend stuff). What does that make me? Or does nobody actually, you know, build stuff anymore :)

  13. So true.  I cannot tell you how many times I have had this conversation with recruiters.

  14. I'm one of these, so they're definitely not mythical. I'm not awesome at design, but I can do pretty well, and FrontEnd/Backend programming I think I'm in the top percentile.

    • I've been a developer for over 15 years and I have never been able to do the design work.  I think designer and developer just think differently...   I REALLY wish I could do design work as well but I just can't seem to do it.  oh well I guess I'm stuck in the back end with the data... 

  15. I dont know about being a "Desingineer" but I am a "Programming Mother-fucker" and thats good enough for me.

  16. I'm designer, and also a front-end coder with a strong knowledge of web architecture... the only difference is that I dislike back-end engineering (I do more PHP and Java than Ruby though).

    I started as designer (graffiti) at 14 years old, for fun I coded websites in PHP, then I started to learn Flash. And I at 20 I started a degree in UX (more than design), and another in code.

    So it does exist, I guess, but the main problem I have is to continue working on projects that require all my skills. It's more and more just UX or just css/js.

  17. Coding back-end and front-end isn't the hard part. Even being fluent in python, javascript, html5, css3 and then some isn't the hard part.

    The hard part is being able to actually design visual stuff, while also having the chops to be an engineer.

  18. I have the other problem. I'm awesome and mythical, but that's all. I haven't learned design or programming yet.

  19. “Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” – Steve Jobs

  20. Because the truly genius desigineer is so rare, I think it's worth developing the capacity to do what she or he does in terms of team composition and culture.

    I know I'm a throughly mediocre designer with strong development and architecture skills and I keep up on the latest and greatest in HTML + CSS. But a mediocre designer like me can still work with a real designer or use a well-considered UX QA process (with a smart user or three) and still come up with something good.

    It's all about good collaboration and the right mix of people.

  21. Visual design chops or not, the much-sought-for talent in my opinion is the talented frontend web dev with extremely good product sense.

  22. This will undoubtedly come across as offensive, but hard realities need to be faced. Most of the people claiming that the Weaponized Pony (Unicorn) of Desingneer exists (and they are one! no less) are likely suffering from the good ole Dunning-Kruger effect. This comes up a lot in discussions of "T-shaped" individuals, or "jack of all trades" types. It seems a group especially prone to the D-K effect are those who are self-taught. I suppose a benefit of formal education is exposure to the humbling vastness of even seemingly hyper-specialized areas and the impossibility of genuine competence in even a handful of them.

    It's a simple matter of time distribution and a consequence of specialization. Someone who is educated in design, spends every waking moment learning about design, working on design and being a designer will, ceteris paribus, outperform someone else. So too with engineering.

    "But what about the very smart people?" - There are lots of very smart people who specialize, they will be better at that thing than people who do not. 

    • I agree with you, and some posts here prove you right. Quite a few people are good and maybe great at developing in a particular field and good enough at adapting a design/template without completely effing it up, but to find a really outstanding designer who is also a great developer is like looking for the next Mozart.

      The key for people who work and like to work in multiple roles is to know when they are good enough for a task, and when they need a specialist, and whom to ask.
      Besides, development alone is such a vast field where things move so fast that even leaving one area for a month (say iOS vs node.js) means that you have an insane amount of catching up to do. 

      PS: Love the term weaponized pony. I think I will steal that from you : -)

  23. I grew up coding since I was 8...logic wasn't the problem. But I always wanted to be a designer. Honestly, my early attempts were completely embarrassing in retrospect. In '92 I was a geek with a scanner and Photoshop, and I think fell victim to what happens to most people when they start using an Adobe program for the first time (or get a fancy new camera) -- I thought I was an artist.
    But I wanted it badly. I went to work when I was 15 for an ad agency, laying out print ads in Quark and Illustrator. I illustrated a children's book with Infini-D. I did a little web work and a lot of pre-press...and virtually didn't code again for six years. I checked myself in and out of Pratt and later Art Center, just to learn how to draw and compose and lay type the right way. And *then* I went back to code, and learned how to kick ass and make do what I wanted it to visually. All the art training basically taught me was not to let the constraints of the code dictate how something's going to look. I still comp things first, and I'll use whatever tools I need to -- be it old-school image tables or OO JS/CSS3, or Flash -- to put the visuals first.
    But yeah, like someone mentioned, I don't have 50 hours a week to give to a fulltime position.

  24. @antonella sassu HTML/CSS are not "difficult"? Why do people keep saying this? What does it mean? Do you mean "learn HTML from the bogus W3Schools"? And build a dinky non-SASS/Compass, non-templating language app to best your grandmother's frontend skillz? The difficulty of these languages has absolutely nothing to do with learning them in isolation. Of course HTML is "difficult" in the context of developing an AJAX app (which is all anyone wants now). And I'll slap you if you put HTML inside your JS, building s like a mad-villain who never thought twice about seeing cryptic terms like "separation of concerns" and ignores the Gang of Four. Anyone who says "HTML and CSS" are easy, I believe, is saying something just as meaningful as "I know HTML" with less than 1 year of actual production experience. And debugging HTML is important; whereas most fledgling "designeeers" don't know anything about profiling, break points, tracebacks, or what have you. Just because HTML is "easy," whatever that means, it doesn't change the fact that "when you change code, any code, you're likely introducing a bug.

    And oh my god, stop saying CSS is "easy." What does that even mean? Why would you say it. There are 5 major browsers -- stop saying this. Please, you're absolutely mucking up the perception people have of the market itself. You tell me it's easy? I just spent 6 hours debugging one issue for IE6 because _the client_ is locked inside an outmoded network security system.

    Take _that_ into account: "I have to write CSS code in a certain way to appease an outdated network system." If you understand that, what this means, why would you _ever_ say CSS is easy? You know the consequence of decisions like this: "Do I use inline hacks?" "What will my naming convention scheme be?" "How will I optimize this code?" Etc.

    AND you're expect'd to _continue_ work on these assets _after_ production launch.

    That's mental juggling. If you think managing multiple CSS files whose "names" (classes, ids, etc) logically mirror that of the structure of your HTML, across a multi-view AJAX application, given say _three_ environments (dev, stg, prod)...  if you think that is "easy," then I need to re-learn English.

  25. Look. Nobody wants a developer who knows JUST HTML5. Or JUST CSS3. Let's say they are "too low-level." Sure, not as complex as assembly, and you never have to worry about byte-code translation bugs, but in the context of making fancycoolrad and _usability-aware_ _web applications_, not leveraging a templating langauge (framework, basically), LESS/SASS/Compass/etc (more frameworkin'), and some JS library, writing "raw frontend" code does a disservice to the project, collaborative development structures, etc.

    It seems that most people are missing the point. An engineer works with raw tools and with complex tools. No one wants a designer who JUST knows CSS/HTML, because then they won't be able to play well with developers whose job it is to incorporate these greatly established tools and practices.

  26. I think that this is the future of "web designer." I call myself a "front end developer," but really, I'm a designer with solid UX intuition (from years of making award-winning comics), a basic grasp of languages like Ruby and PHP and their main CMSes/MVCs (WordPress, Rails), and mad love for markup, CSS, standards and accessibility. On a big project, you'd probably want three people doing my job, but for most smaller projects or an in-house team at a small company, I'm a financial boon, an angel who knows enough to make things work without compromising them, to make things beautiful without being obnoxious. 

    If the future of commerce, of society, is online, then the market demands a more affordable alternative to a three-person team for smaller players. Otherwise the Internet becomes a walled garden for people who can afford specialists.

    A lot of people want online and can't afford that. A lot of people want to earn a living doing things online. Being good at all these things isn't hard. It just takes a nimble, inquisitive mind. 

    I think you will find the woods are full of unicorns in five years.

  27. Hardly mythical - both programming and design are teachable skills and aren't nearly as disjoint as people believe. Design has best practices just like engineering, if you put in the time and practice to learn it's really not difficult. These people are just hard to find because most of us are happily employed.

    • You can't learn a talent, and talent is necessary to be very good in whatever you do! Sure you can "learn" design...or programming, and be paid to do both, but that doesn't make you very good or even good. Possibly you can be just "good enough" ...if even that.Very funny though, so many people here think they are great with design or programming! wow! I see you are really self confident in your skills level!!The best professionals strive for perfection... but you guys think you are "great" and there is nothing seriously to be improved in your work.I think most of the people considering them "designeers" are mediocre in both, but are not aware of it.True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing. -Socrates

  28. I agree with the statement that those who can do both are usually doing something for themselves. Fortunately, I can do both now. I started out doing Web/UI design & marketing for a few years, got fed up with iffy programmers and decided to learn it myself. Now I can make full web apps in Ruby on Rails and design, and market.

    I'm great a design, good enough at Ruby on Rails to launch an MVP product. And I can churn out ideas into actual launches pretty darn quick.

  29. On the other side of the equation... If you are a desingineer, you never learn how to work with others and then there appears a glass ceiling that is very hard to get through. While a designineer is great in a startup context, they eventually get ousted from the very companies they enable because they can't work well with others, let alone get promoted to a management position. The rare good entrepreneur see this and either mentors or silos the desingineer into a "special projects" role. 

  30. I wouldn't call myself either .. designer, engineer or "Desingineer"  Day to day work for me is constantly moving between left to right brain.. some small shops demand it.  I see myself slowly get better at both crafts unlike someone whose sole focus has been one field.
    I like to think I have an eye for good design (with over 8 years Graphic Design for Print) but recently about 3 years programming in Ruby ( the language itself not just Rails ) and learning a bit of Python and a bit of JavaScript.  I like the challenge ... I don't believe I'm alone out here.. I think its just a mindset.. Some designers I know who are strictly that are always resistant to trying to code anything even some basic jQuery - I don't understand the attitude .  I think its something they pick up in design school... but I might be wrong.

  31. I do both, actually. The real motivator behind understanding both disciplines is just the golden rule of design: understand your materials.

    For print, the materials are ink, paper, light, etc. For industrial design you can imagine wood, steel, glue, rubber, etc. On the web it's just as diverse, where markup, scripting languages, browsers and everything else become a material the designer should understand as part of his or her process. I do think it'd be good for the world if more designers saw it this way, but I know plenty of amazing designers that can't code the simplest layout. 

  32. The question is, are they willing or able to pay for that skill set. There folks out their like that, but they are not going to work startup hours for a 15% premium.

  33. Your exactly on the mark - but what about the mediocre or worse Desingineers out there...
    You're always better off going with someone who's an all-star at one or the other. Especially if they're a fantastic designer, they're smart and interested you can always invest some resources to teach them development. ( It doesn't always work the other way...sorry devs. Not always the most artistic)

  34. I am a software engineering undergrad with a good sense of design. I don't know if that's what you mean by Desingineer...

  35. Also don't forget to consider the few who were just geniuses but did not know how to make it in this competitive rat race and are striving to do something their talent is worth of. Some have been made to look mythical and impractical by channelising and manipulating opportunities since they remind other of their imperfections.

  36. So let me get this straight.... there are a fair amount of responses saying that

    A) Being a great designer, keyword "GREAT", lord knows there are some 'terribad' designers out there.
    B) Being an awesome at JavaScript and knowing HTML
    C) Having enough grasp on programming in a back end language to also be "GREAT" at it.

    is easy? if not then possible. Well I agree, it is definitely possible but easy? no and very rare, and most importantly unlikely a company (I'm sorry, startup with little to compensate this person with unless you're already well known and making money... also rare.)  will find one of these mythical creatures.

    I totally agree with the OP, nuff said.

  37. Here in Spain companies look for Harry Potter's magic, but offer a salary that would be an insult for Dudley Dursley.

  38. Nice... But there are such people. One of my friends is there... he is excellent in UI design, front end and back end development and even in electronics.

    A few months before he revamped his portfolio and it really became an inspiration for all of us.  Here is his portfolio . It explains him.

  39. I'm a classically trained designer that knows how to code PHP in OOP style, but a genius in both? I've learned that even if you are , you can't do both at the same time. Two different thought processes. Best to split up those worlds between two (at least) people that can focus on their tasks.

  40. You really can't judge his skill based on his personal site.  That is always going to be a work in progress when he has time to work on it.  It's like the mechanic's wife's car that is always breaking down.

  41. seems that fits 99% of job postings i see around here!How does one go about bringing them back to earth in a job interview?or is it better to avoid those jobs altogether?

  42. Actually I fulfill the definition of "designeer". I do design (photoshop), slicing, html5, css3, javascript, jquery and ruby. The problem is no one is actually seeking such people, because no one knows they exist :-)

  43. Very very very true. Almost impossible to find (speaking after 8 years in the web across different countries)

  44. I'm an Educated Graphics Designer, but also self learned. Been doing all kinds of design related work since i was 13(profesionally) and the tech knowledge i have though is,
    html, css, php(Framework building / Design + other cool stuff), js, mysql, mongodb, c and a litle c++. I'm currently learning objective-c and motion design(2D & 3D).
    Example of some programming:

    -js(jquery plugin for a slider that does multiple sliders at once):

    Slider example(the big image is a also a slider but since there is only one image there now. It does not slide):

    -php(framework i'm working on still in the scetching phase):

    My design work range from: illustration, typedesign, logodesign, webdesign, print design, interface design, post-production(photo -editing / -manipulation) and now motion grahics, 3D Design(modeling, lighting, rendering, texturing) 
    here's some of my design work showcased(mini-portfolio if you will):

    i love me a good challange both technically and visually, i truly belive that unifying the structual approch of doing things in both of the areas. Helps one see and solve problems quicker and easier. And make more quality work! =)

  45. A couple of years ago at the agency I was working for had a seminar with some guys from microsoft telling us that the devigners, or designeers as you call them, are the future of the industry. Of course there are some really good ones, but they are fairly rare from my experience.

  46. I feel a designer and developer. On the design side I have a minimalist approach. On the code side I have a keep it simple attitude. Here is one example of product designed and developed by me:

  47. Our startup is pursuing one right now, and it's a battle for his services. As for finding one, like obscenity, you know it when you see it.

  48. The non-existence argument might be affected by the fact that there is still an (old) predominant attitude in CEOs and CTOs which think that you can be great either at designing or at developing, but not both. So, even if these creatures exist (and I think so), they are not looked for. I am also confident that this attitude will disappear.

    • One person's great is another person's good or average designer. The needs vary, and communication is hard in an industry where most people can't even differentiate between UX and UI design. Also most people have no clue what good design is and reduce it to the visual aspect, hence they are not able to articulate what they really need.

      Most of the time they don't need the unicorn, they need someone with solid UX understanding, coding skills and the ability to modify a template. a.k.a the full stack developer.

      Consumer start-ups, in addition to that, need great visual designers (those who make it to the top at, to some extent and so on), not good ones. I doubt you will find more than 10 worldwide on that level who are also experts on machine learning... 

      They also need UX experts, which should ideally be the founder and the senior developers and the designer, if they are lucky enough to have one. Every member of a startup team has to be interested in UX, and needs to learn as much about it as possible.

      Now this is where I am accepting the broader existence of designeers (or whatever other stupid term people come up with). Someone who has a deep understanding about user experience, how everything fits together in terms of product offering and value provided, and who is able to write you a recommendation engine.

  49. I am coding Web Designer, with engineering background, but I more often find myself in the dirt of Linux server maintenance tasks like a greasy monkey, which is very much not like a unicorn in the moonlight.

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