Design Engineering Handbook

Introducing Design Engineering

The unicorn myth

Listen to Chapter

by Natalya Shelburne

Are unicorns real?

Odds are you’ve heard the myth of the tech unicorn: The hybrid designer slash developer who is as comfortable with kerning type as they are with sorting functions. This prized collaborator can magically leap across the boundary between design and engineering to deliver business-critical solutions.

You have probably worked with a unicorn. Maybe you’ve even been called one yourself. If so, have you ever thought to question it? Names are important because they convey meaning and shape attitudes. Why has an entire industry embraced referring to people as mythical beings when the work they do is not only very real, but actually quite common? Is it because we recognize the existence of the role, but can’t quite articulate its definition? Or do we misunderstand the very nature of the role—as somehow being magical and innate rather than a skill set that can be learned and performed by anyone with enough curiosity and drive? Whatever the reason, the fact is that a proper name for the discipline and a definition of the roles it encompasses are long overdue.

The name of the discipline is design engineering, and a design engineer is someone who specializes in the intersection of the disciplines of design and engineering. Formal job titles, which can vary from company to company and even from individual to individual, are starting to emerge and become standardized. Titles for the people working at the intersection of design and engineering include design engineer, design technologist, front-end designer, and user interface (UI) engineer. For the purposes of this book, and for the sake of simplicity, we will refer to this role under the umbrella term of design engineer. Words matter. Calling someone who serves to connect two disciplines a rare and mysterious mythical creature has a profound impact. If the work is named, it becomes both visible and valued. After all, we don’t call full-stack engineers unicorns, do we?

Unfortunately, the notion of a “gap between design and engineering” is almost as common as the myth of the tech unicorn. Although a gap in understanding may exist between specific design and engineering teams, no gap exists where the two disciplines intersect. Instead there is an overlap, and design engineers are experts in the complexities that arise in that space. Design engineers are skilled at both design and front-end development, and they are able to contribute wireframes and mockups as well as front-end code. Prototyping at all levels of fidelity, whether via pen-and-paper sketch or live code, lets design engineers quickly grow their idea and shepherd it through the development process.

The work of design engineering

As the tech industry matures, and as organizations scale to unprecedented levels of impact, new specializations are emerging across all disciplines. The work of design engineering is quickly joining the ranks of functions demonstrating real business value.

But what is this work, exactly? Well, it involves setting up individual workflows and organizational structures that facilitate collaboration and communication across the intersection of design and engineering, as well as across product, marketing, and stakeholders. The work also entails understanding a team’s product and process, and bringing it up to speed with front-end and design best practices. A design engineer might focus on setting up a design system, documenting patterns, performing workflow audits and updates, building UI components, writing usage documentation, or working with stakeholders spread across an organization. Additional tasks could include establishing and maintaining a local development environment, setting up testing, and release management.

Ire Aderinokun, design engineer and co-founder of BuyCoins, talks about the efficiency gains from having someone on the team who can speak both design and engineering.

Because design engineers are bilingual, they can facilitate better collaboration between highly specialized designers and engineers. They build and refine connections between form and function. They help designers see new technological solutions to design problems, and they help engineers better understand the power of design. Whatever the specifics may be for your organization, one thing is clear: Design engineering is an important cultural shift that allows organizations to scale their efforts through collaboration.

Whether you’re an individual contributor playing the part of the unicorn who is struggling to define your path or someone in a leadership role who realizes you need more than luck to attract, retain, and empower multi-disciplinary collaborators, this book is for you.


Don’t get left behind

The ability to quickly innovate, experiment, and iterate can mean the difference between success and failure. Simply sitting a designer and an engineer next to each other and leaving it up to them to figure out how to collaborate is a recipe for disaster. Sure, you might get lucky and see some success at first, but the passive approach neither lasts nor scales. If you don’t invest in the people doing design engineering at your organization or support them by creating the organizational structures to facilitate their work, you will be left in the dust by the companies that do.

Investing in design engineering

In this book, we’ll look at prototyping techniques and collaborative workflows, weigh the balance between soft and hard skills in design engineers, and hear practical advice from industry leaders.

What are the right questions to ask when creating a focus on design engineering? What are the first steps to take? How do you scale this effort? Everyone can agree that improving speed to market and having the ability to validate product ideas early is important, but what does investing in those capabilities really entail?

The chapters to come contain practical, actionable guidance from industry experts on:

  • The impact of design engineering on the product-development process
  • Methods for examining user needs and connecting them to business goals
  • Validation of ideas through prototyping
  • Practical processes to integrate into existing design and developer workflows
  • Building systems to facilitate collaboration
  • Collaborative failures: rookie mistakes, skill siloing, and gatekeeping
  • Rethinking organizational structures to support cross-functional collaboration
  • Attracting, hiring, supporting, and growing design engineers
  • Considerations for building a design engineering discipline from the ground up


As you read the following chapters, I recommend you take a good hard look at your own beliefs and assumptions about what the work of design engineering can be. Keep in mind that people love to think in binaries: right brain versus left brain. Creative versus logical. Emotional versus rational. Design versus engineering. Generalizations aren’t necessarily bad in and of themselves; simplifications and abstractions enable us to make sense of the world around us. Both designers and engineers excel at identifying patterns, assigning meaning, and categorizing. If generalizations and stereotypes are left unexamined, though, the superpower of pattern-matching can get us in trouble and hold us back. For example, the stereotype that logic is the domain of the engineer and creativity that of the designer is harmful. Both disciplines require logic and creativity. Does anyone really believe that designers create without any logic? Or that engineers are incapable of creativity as they invent systems and architect solutions? Of course not. Yet these stereotypes persist and continue to shape the way we interact; some people really do believe that design and engineering are opposites. Unfortunately, believing that design and engineering are at odds represents a failure to grasp the profound opportunity of collaboration between disciplines in pursuit of a common goal.

Brenda Storer, an independent design engineer, talks about the hybrid nature of her profession and how it helps bridge gaps in cross-functional teams.

In fact, concentrating exclusively on the perceived friction between design and engineering excludes the many other disciplines that collaborate in an organization. Design engineering not only unblocks engineers and designers, but serves to facilitate collaboration and communication between design, product, engineering, and marketing. Investing in design engineering results in improvements for everyone contributing their skills and ideas towards achieving a business goal.

In other words, as you continue to learn about design engineering, reject simplified binary thinking. Actively embrace the collaborative and multidisciplinary nature of the work we do. It’s a feature, not a bug.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

Whether you are an individual contributor or an industry leader, your first priority is to establish your own belief in the work ahead. It’s easy to feel cynical about the plethora of terms and different roles that are emerging in the industry. I’ve seen talented people grow discouraged by failed attempts or false starts in the race to set up design systems, establish collaborative workflows, or unblock lines of communication. It is critical that you ask yourself if you really believe in the work and the people doing it.

Most educators can tell you that the Pygmalion effect, named after the Greek myth of a sculptor who fell in love with a statue he had carved, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Psychologist Robert Rosenthal and educator Lenore Jacobson created an assessment that could spot academic potential, identifying which students would intellectually blossom during a given school year. Rosenthal and Jacobson had classrooms of children take a battery of tests and measures. They then gave their teachers a list of the students whom the tests identified as “having potential,” even if some of that potential was considered latent. The researchers assured the teachers that the identified students would make the biggest improvements throughout the school year. The teachers agreed not to reveal the students’ status or treat them any differently. At the end of the year, the high-potential children identified by Rosenthal and Jacobson did indeed show the greatest academic improvements. Amazing, right? It would be, if Rosenthal hadn’t selected the children at random. There was no real assessment, no measure of potential; the real experiment was to observe the effect of teacher expectations on student achievement. As the researchers suspected, teacher expectations informed student outcomes. Without realizing it, teachers had adjusted their own behaviors in small ways, and the students benefited. Belief can shape reality.

This study has since been recreated and verified many times in the intervening decades. The Pygmalion effect has been observed not only in the classroom, but also in the workplace. What does this mean for design engineering? Simply put, it means that your belief about people and their work can impact their potential for success. This is especially true for those in positions of leadership. People can tell when someone understands the value of their work and believes in their potential. We also recognize when we are not valued. Design engineering creates a space and a structure where the multidisciplinary talent that connects design and engineering is valued.

The work ahead

Brenda Storer shares some of the pros and cons of working in house vs. at an agency or consultancy.

Product design has reached maturity. As UX organizations scale, companies are adding functions that lead core capabilities. Design engineering is the name for the discipline that finesses the overlap between design and engineering to speed delivery and idea validation. From prototyping to production-ready code, this function fast-tracks design decisions, mitigates risk, and establishes UI code quality. The design engineer’s work encapsulates the systems, workflows, and technology that empower designers and engineers to collaborate most effectively to optimize product development and innovation.

About the Authors

Natalya Shelburne
Senior Software Engineer Tech Lead / The New York Times

Natalya Shelburne is a designer, developer, writer, educator, speaker, and artist. She is a senior software engineer at the New York Times and an occasional instructor at Harvard Extension School. Previously, she taught design at a nonprofit. Natalya holds bachelor’s degrees in studio art and psychology, and a master’s in creativity and talent development. Bridging mental models and building collaborative tools and workflows for design and engineering is at the foundation of much of her work.

Currently listening to: Ison by Sevdaliza. I discovered this artist while writing in a coffee shop in Berlin. This album has been my go-to playlist for overthinking and writing ever since.

Currently inspired by: My kind, resilient, and curious daughter. She reminds me to be creative and patient every single day. 

Cultural thing I’m lovin’: There’s a lot happening in 2020, but today, I feel hopeful seeing community, creativity, and energy returning to New York City after months of shutdowns, quarantine, and loss.

Adekunle Oduye
Senior UX Engineer / Mailchimp

Adekunle Oduye (Add-eh-koon-lay Oh-due-yay) is a UX engineer born and raised in the great city of New York. Currently, he helps build a design system that serves millions of users at Mailchimp. He has previously built products for companies like Memorial Sloan Kettering, Justworks, and NASDAQ. Outside of work, he is a board member for the Code Cooperative, an organization that teaches digital literacy and programming skills to individuals impacted by incarceration. He is also a mentor and coach for next-generation designers and front-end engineers.

Currently listening to: My current rotation is the Creed 2 soundtrack and Afrobeats.

Currently inspired by: My family, my culture, minimalism, and the late Milton Glaser.

Cultural thing I’m lovin’: I’ve been reading a lot about Stoicism lately and figuring out how I can implement its principles in my life and work.

Kim Williams
Head of Product Design / Minted

Kim Williams is head of product design at Minted. Kim’s an expert at threading together and synthesizing the vision of brand, product, and technology. She leads design to craft experiences that are human, hopeful, trusted, and performant. Prior to Minted, Kim led UX for the job-seeker organization at Indeed, working with design technologists and UI engineers on search, native apps, and job seeker journeys. At eBay, Kim was head of design systems and collaborated with design technologists. Kim knows firsthand that design engineering is a critical discipline for accelerating product innovation.     

Currently listening to: Koffee and Tobe Nwigwe. I’m obsessed with the conscious and uplifting lyrics and incredibly beautiful artistic expression in their music videos. 

Currently inspired by: I’m forever inspired by my daughter whose creativity and curiosity knows no bounds.

Cultural thing I’m lovin’: Everything Black. Everything that celebrates Black culture; especially Black women.

Eddie Lou
Senior Director of Design Engineering / Indeed

Eddie Lou is the senior UX director and head of the design system team at Indeed, where he leads designers, engineers, and design technologists. Eddie initially started Indeed’s Design Technology team with the focus of providing critical technical capabilities to the UX organization. The team later evolved into design engineering organizations which include UI engineers who focus on creating quality user experience to production. Previously he held various UX and engineering leadership roles at BigCommerce, Visa, Apple, PayPal, and Cisco.

Currently listening to: Bastille, an English indie pop band that formed in 2010. The name of the band derives from Bastille Day, which is celebrated on July 14. It’s also the date of the lead vocalist Dan Smith’s birthday.

Currently inspired by: Cynthia Chu, who’s been my mentor and manager since we first worked together in 2000. She encourages me to lead with a focus on my team’s passions and career paths. I believe that passionate individuals will always be capable of solving any problem.

Cultural thing I’m lovin’: Simple things in life make me happy: Finding time to travel, visiting old friends, and exploring different cities and countries. Even just enjoying a cup of coffee helps me relax and reenergize.