What is a full-stack designer, and should you be one?

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June 23, 2015
What is a full-stack designer, and should you be one?.
Being able to quickly and efficiently one-line our skills and the focus of our professional life has a lot of value. The title that we use can effectively tell others what we do, and where our career is heading. Despite this importance, titles are something many of us have trouble with. [pullquote]designers who understand code, produce more realistic mockups[/pullquote] It's definitely hard to find a title that clearly explains our skills and limitations as a professional. Understanding the full-stack terminology isn’t only beneficial to help give ourselves a title though. It’s also immensely valuable to become that team member who can step in at any phase of a project to help out. Or just to use the skills in planning ahead of what our main job focus may be (It’s common knowledge that designers who understand code, produce more realistic mockups). So, how do we get started?

What is a full-stack designer?

In the “old” days, it was fairly straightforward. There was very clear separation between the design and development groups, with very few people doing both. Now though, it’s fairly uncommon to find a web designer that doesn’t also do some sort of development or UX work as well. With many of us branching into more skills within our industry, we’re becoming increasingly more resourceful. The problem is that now a “web designer” could mean someone who only does design, does design and some code, or may even handle the full design to development process! We’ve become an industry of renaissance workers not content with learning just what we need to get by, and that’s a great thing. [pullquote]“web designer” could mean someone who only does design, does design and some code, or may even handle the full design to development process![/pullquote] Enter the full-stack designer. Being full-stack simply refers to someone who is cross-disciplinary and able to take a project through to completion. In this case, it’s referring to an individual who has the skills to carry a project through the first few major project phases. Full-stack developers have been around for years now, handling everything from front-end dev, back-end dev, back-end server management, and more. I know what you’re thinking: “Great, another marketing phrase is just what this industry needs!” But I can assure you this one is sticking around, and it has more value than a hip moniker. Take a look at a large selection of job openings and you'll undoubtedly find many "Product Designer" and "Full-Stack Designer" listings.

Fringe benefits of being full-stack

The benefits of expanding our skill sets are quite nice. Full-stack designers often end up with a more thorough understanding of their work, making it more consistent from research to production phases. Knowing the limitations and what to expect in development, while planning UX/UI wireframes, can keep concepts realistic. So not only are full-stack designers more knowledgeable about what can and cannot work elegantly in design, but they also have more realistic expectations before we even start pushing pixels or coding. Having an expansive skill set is exceedingly beneficial to the people who employ us as well! Our employers are afforded a team member who can jump in and help even outside their area of focus. This means keeping teams lean and diversified with less people, and everyone having more of a grasp of the whole-picture. There are countless good qualities about having such an expansive skill set, but the most important being you just learn more. Even having a basic foundation in development or another skill can increase the likelihood of learning more in that area. With that small nugget of knowledge already in place, pursuing further education is made easier as the content is already slightly more relatable. So next time you see that article about the skill you've been meaning to learn for ages, just go for it. You don't have to be an expert by the end of it, you just have to remember enough to make next time easier.

The pitfalls of expansive skill sets

It’s taken us quite a while to even get where we are today in terms of education. Being able to instantly look something up and “accidentally” spend the next four hours learning about it is the fantastic future we live in. But, when you have dozens of technologies, practices, and skills to keep up to date, that process can easily result in a long “to-read” list. With so much to keep up with, it’s easy to simply not have enough time. That doesn’t mean we lose lose the skill altogether, it merely means that skill isn’t one of our highlights, so to speak. It's very common that someone could be an expert with CSS/HTML, yet only have a basic working knowledge of JavaScript. It’s not only hard to keep up with everything, but it’s also hard to pinpoint which technologies to invest our time with as well. With the industry growing at such a fast rate, there’s a new language, library, and use pattern by the end of each day. Anyone remember the days of jQuery vs MooTools vs JavaScript debates? Pinpointing which skills to learn, and which are merely passing fads can easily make or break a time investment. Employers aren’t exempt from these pitfalls either. Being a much more skilled team member typically comes along with a higher salary. While most full-stack designers won’t cost the same as multiple designers and developers, they certainly cost a premium to be just as skillful.

Why are full-stack designers important?

Becoming a full-stack anything is special in and of itself. It's investing quite a lot of time and effort into oneself professionally, most often outside the workplace. So what makes full-stack designers so important? Primarily, it’s the skills in their spectrum. Typically, designers are the ones organizing research, creating wireframes, checking out UX patterns, organizing UI design, and generally making sure we aren’t ending up with stunningly beautiful websites and apps that simply don’t have a purpose. [pullquote]Being more than just a cog in the machine is what being full-stack is all about[/pullquote] Being more than just a cog in the machine is what being full-stack is all about. When it comes to design, that means defining what a project’s purpose and goals are in the planning phases while also keeping design and development limitations and goals in mind. Someone who can thoroughly manage and understand a project from its conception all the way to its first steps into development makes for a much more consistent experience. Some of the best websites, apps, and even products you’ve used were likely created or overseen by a manager with such a vast skill set to ensure such high quality.

The making of a renaissance worker

Expanding our skills and knowledge to become full-stack can be invaluable on a team, and an absolute necessity as a lone freelancer. With quality education becoming exceptionally easy to find, it’s become an enjoyable experience to learn more these days. The hard part it seems, comes with understanding which skills we should learn. Each person’s skill set is unique, and that’s what makes everyone uniquely valuable. A few years ago, for example, having a hobbyist’s interest in social media almost instantly became an exceptionally valuable asset when the social media boom took off. Companies and agencies were looking left and right for people to help them manage their presence on such platforms. So how do we maximize our value by choosing the right skills? The best way to pursue education is to always ask yourself what would make you more valuable at what you already do. For most designers, that means learning to code or pursuing a deeper understanding of the science and psychology behind UX design. But for other designers, the answer may mean focusing on print and branding design. It’s really hard to say which particular languages, assets, and skills are critical to have, especially in an industry as fast paced and diverse as ours. If you’re still stumped, take a look at job openings in positions you would enjoy filling. See what they’re requiring and, more importantly hoping for, in a candidate.


Titles are important, there’s no doubt about it. But only because they represent (albeit, poorly) the skills we possess. When it comes down to it, investing the time to further ourselves professionally by expanding those skills only benefits everyone involved. Continued education has always been a part of our fast paced industry, so let’s use that to our advantage and become the best full-stack workers out there. Featured image, multi-task image via Shutterstock.

Dustin Cartwright

Dustin Cartwright is a UI/Web Designer & Front-End Developer from Baltimore, Maryland. He spends the majority of his time focusing on user experience research and is passionate about building things for the web.

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