Katie Langerman will never forget the day someone told her she couldn’t be both a designer and an engineer. She was being interviewed for a product design role and asked if she would have the opportunity to code and build out some of her own designs.
“They were like, absolutely not. You cannot do that. You can’t do both well. You have to choose one and specialize in it,” Katie tells me over the phone from Boston, where she lives and works as a self-described hybrid designer. “That really stuck with me for a while and was hard to deal with.”
Katie didn’t want to choose one or the other, a sentiment many generalist UX designers share. She had experience in both design and coding, teaching herself the popular open source framework Bootstrap on the recommendation of her first client out of school, an engineer who encouraged her to learn how to code her own web designs and applications. As she began working with more clients, many of whom were local small businesses, she found that having both skills was not only necessary, but kept her work interesting.
“I’ve decided that no, I’m not going to pick one. I’m going to keep doing both and get better at both as needed,” Katie said.
It’s a skillset she’s found to be increasingly important in her career in UX design. Although her title is UI engineer at a company called CarGurus, her role is more diverse than that.
“What I do is bridge the gap that I see and recognize between design and engineering,” she said.
Working as a generalist, it’s Katie’s goal to contribute to both the design teams and engineering teams. She’s able to provide perspective to designers in terms of what functionality already exists and what would need to be built in order to bring a design to life, while also working with the engineers to ensure the intention of the design experience is carried through.
“I can look at a design and decipher how it might be broken out into components,” she said. “I like to find the middle ground in terms of what’s possible, what should be possible, and how we can find that balance.”
A crucial skill of design generalists: communication
To be a successful design generalist you have to be a good communicator. As an introvert, this is something Katie had to learn. Once she realized she didn’t want to specialize, she had to figure out how to make her goals known in order to land the job she wanted.
Thankfully, she had a lot to draw from. Working in a tiny bookstore in her hometown, Katie discovered a passion for visual merchandising that eventually brought her to Simmons College in Boston, where she studied communications, fine arts, and graphic design.
This retail environment helped her come out of her shell. Katie excelled at creating visual displays that captured imagination and emotion. When she started working more in the digital realm, her experience in visual merchandising carried over into her graphic design and web work, as it had shown her what it took to create delightful experiences for customers.
“Totally nervous and anxious” to put herself out there, Katie attended her first Ladies That UX meetup. Ladies That UX is an organization with chapters across the world that connects women working in user experience design. The Boston chapter is perhaps the largest in America and holds regular networking events for women (and men) in the industry, and it has been the perfect place to for Katie to showcase her many design and professional skills.
“It’s really changed me on a personal level,” Katie said. “Getting out there and networking is something that hadn’t really occurred to me until last year. I was job hunting, but I was also trying to figure out what it is I wanted to do and what kind of company I wanted to work for.”
At her very first Ladies That UX meetup, Katie met Boston chapter co-organizer Olga V. Perfilieva. The two hit it off, and after attending a few more meetups, Olga asked Katie if she was interested in helping to plan Talk UX, an annual design and technology conference that takes place in a different city each year, with 2018’s conference taking place in Boston. Katie jumped at the opportunity (“always say yes to opportunities,” she says) and spent the next eight months helping Olga and co-organizer Lara Cavezza get everything organized.
As part of Katie’s role, she designed the website and design collateral, including all the signage that was displayed throughout the conference. By the time the conference wrapped, Katie was officially the third co-organizer of the Ladies That UX Boston chapter. If it hadn’t been for networking, Katie never would have had this opportunity to truly flex her design generalist muscles.
Katie’s best advice for UX design generalists
While Katie has been fortunate to have found a role that allows her to grow as a generalist, she knows not all companies think this way. Still, she encourages other hybrid designers and aspiring design generalists to get out there until they too find a like-minded company that embraces their unique passions. She wants other hybrid designers to know that they shouldn’t feel like they have to specialize in order to find success in UX design.
“Get comfortable being a generalist and stick to your guns. Find a role that allows you to flex both muscles and celebrates your dynamic skill set,” Katie said.
“Hybrid designers are valuable assets now that many companies are finally starting to build out large design teams and take UX seriously. We need more ‘engineers’ who understand all the nuances of design and are dedicated to implementing beautiful front-end code.”
For Katie, networking at events like Ladies That UX was crucial for her because it gave her the confidence to figure out what she wanted and stick to her own guns. Being able to do both was a non-negotiable part of her job search.
“Part of the reason I couldn’t just pick design or code is that once I start mocking something up in Adobe XD, I immediately find the need to start working in code,” Katie said. “This is especially true if I’m designing something new for an existing code-base. If I hop into the code I have a lot of the tools I need (CSS or components) to quickly sketch up what I want. I could definitely do the same thing within a design tool, but my brain kind of designs in code at this point.”