What does it mean to be a “full stack” designer? Is it worth the effort?
A full stack designer is a designer who can execute along the entire design process from strategy to research to final UI, and sometimes even code.
It’s impressive to become a full stack designer, but is it a realistic goal? And what do companies expect out of such design unicorns? We’ll answer these questions and more, including the origins of this curious term full stack.
UX design is a broad field. At the beginning of my design bootcamp, I had a hard time differentiating between UX, UI, and visual design because it all seemed like some sort of glorified version of graphic design.
Since my bootcamp, the job market has continued to evolve with the demands of designers who can perform research, create design systems, understand code, AND know a bunch of industry tools such as Sketch, InVision, Adobe InDesign, Adobe XD, Figma, Illustrator, Zeplin, etc.
Enter the full stack designer. This is a designer who can cover the entire gamut of design, from strategy to research to the final implementation of the design. This person knows UX, UI, visual design, and perhaps even can create designs with front-end code. If that sounds like a lot… that’s because it is. What type of employer expects a full stack skillset? And more importantly, is it necessary or worth it to become one?
Spoiler: you don’t need to become a design and development department in most roles.
A quick history of “full stack”
When most people think of “full stack”, a developer typically comes to mind. The stack refers to a development stack, which simply means the set of languages, libraries, integrated development environment (IDE), and tools (like operating systems, database servers, and application servers) used for app development. Some common tech stacks include:
The current meaning of full stack development was established in the late 2000s. From then on, a full stack developer became known as a web developer or engineer who can work on both the front and back ends of a website or application. This means that a single person could tackle projects that involved databases and building UIs. Here’s an example of what a full stack developer might do if they worked serverless.
With the growing demands of the digital world, the tech industry has co-opted the term “full stack” and applied it to other domains: full stack designer, full stack writer, full stack researcher… At times the industry critics refer to “full stack” as a professional-sounding synonym for “unicorn.”
This expansion makes “full stack” to become a misnomer. It insinuates that if you’re not full stack…then are you half stack? Are you less talented or valued if you concentrate on certain parts of the stack and ignore others?
Here’s an easy way to think about it: degrees of specialization. It’s helpful to think about the job in terms of a generalist to specialist spectrum. This way, you can consider which skills you want to add to your toolkit as you progress in your career.
What is the “full stack” of design?
Taking the idea of a full stack developer and applying it to a designer means something completely different. A full stack designer, otherwise known as web designers, product designers, or just designers, can be involved in every stage of the UX design process, from research to implementation.
To simplify, this is someone who can research, design, and code. Let’s take a look at some of the roles within design and development.
- UX Researcher: research, wireframing, sketching (Google Docs, Miro, pencil+paper)
- Interaction Designer: prototypes, animation, (human-machine) interactions (proto.io, Framer.js, UXPin, Origami, Marvel)
- Visual Designer: fonts, colors, layout
- Back-end Developer: Java, PHP, Ruby, etc.
- Back-end Database Engineer: SQL, etc.
- UX Designer: research, wireframing, prototypes (Axure, Google Docs, Illustrator, Sketch)
- UI Designer — visuals, high-fidelity comps, click-throughs (Photoshop, Sketch, InVision, Adobe XD, Figma)
- Full Stack Developer: aka Software Engineer, codes in the development stack of the company which include frontend and backend
- UX/UI Designer: sometimes referred to as Product Designer, owns the UX process from research, ideation, to design
- UI Animator: similar to Interaction Designer but focuses on the transitions and animations that appear when actions are done by users
- “Unicorn”: a mythical creature in the UX world that does a lot of things (similarly there are foxes and hedgehogs too)
- UX “Team of One”: a budget design department composed of 1 person owning the process from research to implementation
- UX Engineer: a code-savvy designer who can not only design but also code like a frontend or full stack developer
- Full Stack Designer: a code-savvy designer who can prototype and mock-up their designs with frontend code
Given the ambiguity and inconsistencies among companies as to how they define various design roles, I’d say if you want to become a full stack designer, you’ll want to start with the ultimate list of topics UX beginners should know.
Owning the whole process from research to implementation will include UX strategy, user research, information architecture, interaction design, usability testing, visual design, content strategy, SEO, and coding.
But just when you think you’ve mastered it all and evolved to dominate the UX field, think about soft skills: curiosity, empathy, communication, collaboration, and flexibility.
You could argue that curiosity, empathy, and flexibility are doable on your own but what about communication and collaboration? Suddenly, the only people you’re communicating with are non-designers such as engineers and project managers.
Full stack design from a UX job market perspective
Should product teams work with generalist designers or UX specialists? Let’s look at a job description for Meetup.com’s Senior Product Designer.
Meetup is a company founded in 2002 that was acquired by WeWork in 2017. They’re a pretty big company with almost 700 reported employees on LinkedIn and about 250 indicating that they work in design, UX, or product. This is a typical job description for a product designer — they collaborate, design, and own a part of the process. What they are not doing is all of the research by themselves, coding the prototype, creating the design system, etc.
Here’s another job posting from Cidi Labs, a suite of instructional design tools. They’re a small startup team of about 15 people who wear multiple hats.
This job description is looking for someone who can code, understands UX, applies instructional design pedagogy, and have Canvas as LMS knowledge, along with being able to provide and support for users. I’d probably consider this an ed-tech full stack designer job posting.
Company environment plays a huge part in how a team is structured. UX jobs at agencies vs startups vs big companies work at different speeds. The more mature a design organization (e.g. large companies) the more specialized roles are available whereas less mature design organizations (startups) would want to squeeze out as many skills from a single designer to optimize the understanding of product and knowledge of the process.
Small companies and start-ups would have a greater need for generalists over specialists to ship value faster in the earlier stage possible to validate ideas. Once those ideas have hit the ground running, the iteration process can allow for specialists to come in and tease out finer details.
Who should consider full stack designers?
There’s no requirement for a full stack designer to master everything perfectly. Because we’ve referred to full stack designers as generalists, you can also think about them as being t-shaped (as opposed to I-shaped specialists and X-shaped unicorns) with a versatile skillset. Perhaps you’re already a UX or UI designer who’s looking to expand your skillset. Becoming a full stack designer is totally feasible given that it opens up more learning opportunities. Being a current designer in the field is naturally a huge plus, as it’s easier to become a full-stack designer if you’re building on a pre-existing skill set. And, after you dabble into all the different areas of UX more, you will be able to decide what the next step for you would look like — where do you want to dive deeper into?
The next step would be to understand the development process — frontend and backend as well as server management. People who want to become a solo freelancer or are interested in learning a skill set to start their design agency could benefit from transitioning to full stack.
Those who love touching all parts of the design process from beginning to end, especially in startups, also, also make great full stack designer candidates. In a fast-paced environment, some people thrive on juggling more skills and responsibilities to keep their day-to-day from not becoming stagnant from either always designing or always developing.
What’s your take on the idea of the full stack designer? If you consider yourself one, please comment with your experience!