Elisabeth Irgens

Thinking about job titles

Titles are hard. They all seem to fail miserably at describing our skill set, the work we do — or want to be doing. I’ve been through a range of titles lately, constantly changing which words I use to explain what I do. And now… new job means new title!

My only formal education is from a two year course in graphic design. But what I originally signed up to study, was called *drum roll* …Mac Operator. This fabulous term stems from a separation between the designers and art directors on one hand — and the more technical folks who wield the graphics software. You can still find the title used in the print industry today.

The year was 2003 and I was very excited about the prospect of working with computers. But the school didn’t get enough applicants for the class that year, and I switched courses just before the semester started. Today I’m relieved I dodged having to list Mac Operator under education on my resumé.

This has been my default title for a decade. Sometimes I’ve used different add-ons in attempts to be more descriptive for potential clients. Web designer. Or writing that I do “design for web”, or that “I design and build websites”. Designer mostly works fine when meeting new people too. You just occasionally have to clarify that: “Djiz no, not fashion. Nope, not interior design either.”

A natural career progression for me over the years, could have been to earn one of these acronyms. But the roles and everyday tasks that go with them never appealed to me. And I would rather do laundry than read another article about the vast differences between these fields. Please note: I happily cheer for other people’s enthusiasm here. Honestly, knock yourselves out.

But it’s not for me — I just want to build stuff on the internet.

Being self-employed for 6 years has let me be a generalist who draws zombies one day — and writes CSS the next. While keeping at bay the fear of becoming a specialized cog in a large machinery, unable to function on it’s own.

I’ve always struggled to communicate that I code. Designers don’t code and when they do anyway, the elevator pitch gets more complicated. This is also a balancing act. As I don’t know any programming languages, I’ve been careful to not oversell. Probably too careful, when I end up with others assuming I can make shiny webish PSDs. I don’t even know how to use Photoshop like that, my process has always just involved sketching before CSS.

If you’re telling small business owners that you can make them a website, there are words that don’t make sense to use. When I started focusing more on clients in tech, this became easier. “Independent designer for hire on front end projects!”

“A designer and front end person” is the description Guy Meyer has on the Codekit site. I totally borrowed this after reading it.

Some weeks ago, @bysusanlin tweeted about calling herself a “pretend developer”, but then dropping the pretend after being corrected on it. Other comments have been lingering in my mind all summer. The first from @muanchiou tweeting: “Pro tip on how to be better at programming – never tell people you’re also a designer.” This was followed by @jongold commented on using “just a designer” as a shield. Hm…

In the past I have never considered calling myself a developer. Because that might make me a crappy, half-baked one. No matter the amount of web development I have been doing — it has been more comfortable saying that I am a designer, with bonus coding skills and surprise tech savvy.

But I’m ready to depart this safe harbour and go be a developer. I’ve accepted a permanent position starting September — and the title on my contract quite clearly says developer. With that start, I’d say this new adventure is going splendidly so far.