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What is a Design Engineer?


I recently saw a Job Opening from Tailwind that caught my attention for the title and its description. A very good friend of mine sent it to me to show me that there are job positions related to what I want to do with my career.

It was describing a Design Engineer position. Probably the original page is not available anymore, but among the requirements it had something like this:

  • You love to design — in code. You’ve got a track record of creating beautiful experiences for the web, and code is your design tool.
  • You’re fanatical about polish. Every pixel matters, and every hand-tuned easing curve has to be just right. There’s a non-zero chance you own a loupe.
  • You dive deep. It’s important to you to really know how things work, and you’re always building prototypes and setting up experiments to reinforce your understanding.

-We're hiring Design Engineer, Tailwind Careers

I was really happy to read about a job like this. Especially because for the last 2 years I have struggled to find a way of working on things that are more related to UI without having to abandon all this years of working as a Frontend Engineer. But it seemed impossible to find a job position like this, I haven't even heard that the job title existed. It's always a UI/UX Designer or a Frontend Engineer. Nothing in between.

The Great Divide

Before knowing about this title, I remember that some while ago I read a really interesting blogpost about "The Great Divide" in Frontend Development, and once I knew what the "front-of-the-frontend" was, I started integrating this concept on the description of my profile whenever I was doing interviews. Because that's precisely what I like, working more with the process of building the UI. But I got some weird looks, letting me know that this concept is still something new, even for other Frontend Engineers.

On my experience working as a Frontend Developer, I am always expected to have deep knowledge of any Javascript framework or libraries, like React, Vue, Redux, Graphql, etc. It's the main priority for the companies, and I think I understand why, but I needed to learn about this things in order to fit onto the "Frontend Engineer" label, even if I didn't enjoy it at all. Most of my day to day activities are related to handling data, creating a global store, making requests to API's, and then use a Design System to display the data that I just retrieved. Leaving all the UI related activities behind.

Even when it was not the priority, I felt that I couldn't be a real "Frontend engineer" if I didn't know anything about the best practices of HTML, CSS and Accessibility, right? In the end we are taking care of the User Interfaces. So I started exploring more about these topics and I found out that I enjoyed a lot more working with these things. I'd love working only on this things.

There's no designer available to make some wireframes? I volunteer! Should we do some UX interviews with the users? I'd love to! Is someone struggling with CSS and cannot find a solution? I'd love to solve it! Even if it takes me hours or I need to refactor some stuff, I love digging into CSS and find the best solution. Very few colleagues (I promise I only have known like 2 people) really enjoy working on the "front-of-the-frontend" activities.

Design Engineer

What if I could be in charge of defining a CSS architecture? Or to advocate for a Design System? I'd love to spend my time creating components that other developers would use without having to worry too much about the styling. What if I could create the UI from scratch using only code? Or set some standards to make sure all developers are following the best practices while building the UI? Like setting up some CSS variables and make sure that both Designers and Developers follow the definitions to ensure consistency. All these activities resonate with me a lot. But I couldn't find a job description that matched with only this activities until I heard about the Design Engineers.

So, I entered a rabbit hole of information and started finding more people with the same feeling. Even other people have already written about it, and a tiny sparkle lighted my heart.

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 optimise product development and innovation.

-The Design Engineering Handbook, Natalya Shelburne

Sounds a lot like something I want to do. For a moment I even started considering moving to UI and start learning more about Product Design, because I was no longer enjoying working as a Frontend Engineer that only works on Javascript stuff. But, if a role like this exists, I am more than happy to learn all about it and start focusing more on becoming a Design Engineer. It's like the perfect balance.

As long as they’re making new things, solving new problems, simplifying processes for product teams, and advancing design, design engineers are on track. Their primary goal is to be helpful. They measure their success by the success of the teams they support. “Is the design system advancing? Are tools improving? Are we staying nimble? Are we moving fast? Are we fostering innovation? Are we introducing new ways of working, collaborating, testing? Are we offering a better experience to our users?” These are the questions design engineers ask themselves when gauging success and impact.

-The Design Engineering Handbook, Natalya Shelburne


There is no doubt that I want to pursue this path. I want to be a Design Engineer. I am a Design Engineer. (Or want to believe I am?). I have it on the main page of my website, it's like an statement. Fake it till you make it, right? What now?

I need to focus more on finding projects that allow me to get closer to this position (officially). And keep practicing. If I could find a full-time position for this would be amazing. Also I need to start highlighting on my portfolio all the previous "Design engineering" work that I've done before without knowing. I stopped adding these projects to my portfolio because I noticed that no one cared if I could draw crazy things with CSS. A "Frontend Engineer" is valued for other skills. But hopefully, that is going to change.