HOW TO HUNT A UNICORN:
As a professional network, we get the request a lot for "unicorns." This elusive bunch, unicorns are typically thought of as left and right brainers, uber talented people who straddle the seemingly separate worlds of art and tech. Justin Cone, founder of Motionographer and the F5 festival, traffics in unicorns. Given his focus on motion designers (where code is craft), Justin is well versed in the do's and don'ts of how to approach this rarified breed. He shares with us a little tutorial on how to identify unicorns in the wild and best practices in appealing to them.
Hint: Don't call them unicorns.
If you were hunting a mythical unicorn — the kind that Lisa Frank made famous on Trapper Keepers — you’d know there are some handy guidelines that’ll help you nab the prize. Everyone knows, for example, that unicorns will only allow chaste (read: virgin) ladies to touch them.
But did you know that said virgin should also be naked? And seated beneath a tree?
(Unicorns suddenly seem more like a creepy billionaires, no?)
SO WHAT EXACTLY IS A UNICORN?
In the context of digital agencies, a unicorn is a person who can use both halves of their brain — the analytic left and the creative right — with equal ease. They might take the form of a project manager who can craft advanced Excel formulae in one breath and extol the virtues of responsive web design to a bewildered client the next. Or maybe they’re a CEO who’s virtuosic grasp of UX design is outshined only by her penchant for corporate finance.
Sounds pretty bad ass, right?
Working Not Working has an unusually high number of unicorns grazing its digital meadows. People like Michelle Higa Fox, Sougwen Chen, Mike Bodge, Jonnie Hallman, Shane Mielke and Alex Kaminsky probably shop for horseshoes and horn polish regularly.
3 TIPS FOR HUNTING UNICORNS
Tip 1: A true unicorn will never refer to itself as a unicorn.
True unicorns seem blithely unaware of their unicorniness. The likely explanation for this is that, as children of two worlds (design and code), they naturally understand that they could spend an entire lifetime trying to maintain a solid foothold in either world, let alone both. This humility makes it difficult for them to proclaim mastery over both spheres of knowledge, and so they humbly dodge tidy aggrandizements like “unicorn.” (This humility is also what makes many unicorns likable.)
Also: Describing oneself as a unicorn is just tacky. It’s the professional equivalent of calling yourself a guru or a ninja. A title like that must be implicitly conferred by one’s peers, not worn like a bedazzled nametag. Anyone who lists “experienced unicorn” as a bullet point on their résumé should be regarded with extreme suspicion (unless, of course, you’re hiring furries).
Common titles unicorns may use:
1. Front-end developer
2. Creative developer
2. Interactive designer
3. Creative technologist
4. (Interactive) art director
Take note! Only a small portion of people using these titles is, in fact, unicorn-worthy. Not all front-end developers, for example, are unicorns. (And not all unicorns are front-end developers.)
Tip 2: Do you really need a unicorn?
When I start digging into employers’ expectations for unicorns, I almost always find the same nugget of truth buried beneath alternating layers of ignorance and self-delusion: the real reason people want a unicorn is because they can’t afford two (or three) people to do the same work.
That’s a pretty terrible reason to go hunting for a unicorn. Even if you do find a unicorn and somehow cajole them into working for you, you will likely burn them out and tarnish your reputation in the process. You will be a unicorn slayer. Do you really want that hanging over your head?
So what’s a noble reason for pursuing a unicorn? Unicorns are not managers, but their inherently hybrid approach to technical and creative problems means they can naturally bring teams together, given the right conditions. If you’re hoping that a unicorn can function as a corpus callosum, organically binding the two halves of your organization’s collective brain, you might be on the right path.
Unicorns are also fantastic at making stuff quickly. Prototyping, product development, and focused experimentation come naturally to unicorns. It’s what they live for.
If you’re really not sure about all this, and you just want someone who can magically do everything for you without making your life so damned complicated, what you need is a wizard, not a unicorn.
Wizards, unfortunately, don’t exist.
Tip 3: Stop calling them unicorns.
(Yes, this tip contradicts the entire post. But if you weren’t comfortable with a little contradiction, you wouldn’t be hunting unicorns, right?)
Possibly the only thing worse than directly addressing someone as a unicorn is calling them a “ninja.” It’s embarrassing, and it feels like you’re trying too hard. In your mind, feel free to think, “I’m talking to a unicorn!” But with your mouth, use the person’s human name or, if you’re old college buddies, their mildly derogatory nickname.
Unicorns are people, too.
As rare, magical creatures, unicorns have the right to be a little persnickety and very selective. Regard them with the respect they deserve, and you just might find yourself galloping into the sunset astride one.
Wait, that didn’t come out right.
Justin Cone is the Founder of Motionographer, a leading source of inspiration and news for motion designers, animators and filmmakers. In addition, Justin co-founded F5, a cutting-edge creativity festival exploring the intersection of art, design and entertainment. He's also one of the nicest guys we know.