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The origins of design engineering

My career for the past 10 years has always combined design and development. I've either been responsible for both design and coding in the same role, or acted as the bridging role between designers and engineers. For me, code is the most effective way to realize designs.

We've never settled on how to classify this work, as evidenced by all the evolving titles over time. Some of my past titles are Senior Web Designer, UX Lead, UX Developer, Lead Developer, etc. During this same time period, industry titles have evolved with Product Designer, UX Designer, Full-Stack Designer, UI Engineer, UX Engineer, etc.

Recently I've come across several posts on design engineering and noticed some convergence in new roles with the title of Design Engineer. The responsibilities of these roles aligns with the work I've done for my whole web career, so I was curious where the title came from.


In January 2019, Chris Coyier wrote a landmark post, The Great Divide, that surveyed the industry and identified the gap between design and engineering. Chris refers to himself as a web craftsman, which I dig.

From what I've found, the earliest resources on design engineering were created by Natalya Shelburne in her fall 2019 Beyond Tellerrand talk, CSS at the intersection.

Some highlights of the talk:

Why tell designers to learn code when we can create tools that serve as bridges between mental models?

Hire people who are good at different things...Enable them to contribute their best way

Roles are arbitrary things we decided

Natalya's website is called Artist-Developer, which is such a great term to encapsulate the dual nature of this work.


In 2020, Natalya Shelburne, Adekunle Oduye, Kim Williams, and Eddie Lou created the Design Engineer Handbook, published by Design Better Co.

Adelkunle Oduye uses the title UX Engineer. Kim Williams has led teams of product designers, UX designers, and UX researchers. And Eddie Lou had UI development and UI engineering roles before forming a design engineering team at Indeed. This is one of the earliest instances I've found of an actual design engineering team at a company.

In October of 2020, Natalya Shelburne discussed design engineering on episode 434 of Shop Talk Show. In this interview, Natalya discusses coming up with the term with Aarron Walter at Design Exchange in Sydney.


In February 2021, Brad Frost coined the term "front-of-the-front-end web development", building on the idea of a "frontend designer" that he wrote about in 2016. Brad has unwaveringly used the title of web designer over the years, which I respect.

A day later, Trys Mudford published a series of blog posts on design engineering:

These posts were followed by a Tweet that summarizes design engineering perfectly:

What I *love* about the name "Design Engineer", is that it's entirely focused on the handshake between those two other roles.

There's no mention of UI, CSS, front-end, design systems, documentation, prototyping, tooling or any 'hard' skills that could be used in the role itself.


In true design engineering fashion, Trys is a cofounder with James Gilyead of Utopia, which generates fluid type and spacing scales.

James Gilyead is a product designer at Clearleft, the design consultancy co-founded by Jeremy Keith.

Jeremy Keith wrote a post on design engineering in response to Trys' posts soon after. Jeremy Keith describes his work as a web developer, or even more directly, as "making websites".

In September 2021, Jeremy Keith published an episode of the Clearleft podcast on design engineering that featured Tobias Ahlin, Adekunle Oduye, Jon Aizlewood, and Trys Mudford.

Tobias is a design engineer at GitHub and Jon Aizlewood is a design leader. Tobias is another instance of design engineer in a formal role.


In May 2022, Jim Nielsen wrote a post on The Case for Design Engineers. This post links to Jeremy Keith's 2021 post and Jim's post on Declarative Design from April 2022.

The term declarative design really captures the emerging design and engineering opportunities of modern CSS. It builds on the concept of intrinsic web design from Jen Simmons, Andy Bell and Heydon Pickering's work with Every Layout, and Trys Mudford and James Gilyead's work with Utopia.

At this point, design engineering is building on a lot of the most exciting work in the space.


I haven't found as many resources in design engineering that were published in 2023, but I started noticing actual job listings with Design Engineer as the title.

After the industry panic in 2023 with mass layoffs, it's interesting that as companies being hiring again, they are identifying this new role as one to hire for.


When I'm interested in how companies operate, I often poke around their blogs and job listings to get a pulse on their team and direction. We're just a couple months into 2024, and I've already noticed a significant increase in job listings with the title of Design Engineer.

This same month, Jim Nielsen wrote a follow up to his 2022 post: The Case for Design Engineers, Pt. II.

A single quote illustrates the strength of this discipline:

design work with code

The future

It's interesting to trace how early ideas around our roles can spread and eventually shape the titles companies hire for.

2 years after Natalya's Beyond Tellerrand talk, there's an initial surge in content around design engineering, and 2 to 3 years later, noticeably more jobs are using the term.

With CSS continuing to rapidly evolve, we have so many new patterns to explore and refine. Container queries, CSS subgrid, CSS layers, and more are going to push our design opportunities further. It's crucial that we combine design and engineering, or at least eliminate handoff in favor of collaborating, to make the most of these capabilities.

Over the past 10 years, we've had so many different titles, but one thing remains constant: the essential work of bridging design and development. It's uncertain whether design engineering will last as a title, but any momentum that further legitimizes this valuable role is worth supporting.

If I've missed any important people, resources, or milestones in this history, let me know.

If you or your team need help with design engineering and establishing more effective processes, let's talk: