Rockstars, Ninjas, Gurus and Other Hipsters

You’ve seen it before – perhaps you’ve even dabbled in it yourself. There are all kinds of designers, developers and other freelancers out there in the community who like to refer to themselves as rockstars, ninjas and other such fanciful names.

The reasons, I think, are obvious. People are looking to set themselves apart, or to find some means of establishing their own authority in their particular field, and likely feel that these kinds of names might actually help accomplish this goal.

Of course, with the number of rockstars and ninjas out there, the stage is getting crowded enough that I wonder how people can possibly imagine that they’re actually standing out anymore.

I’m not one for telling people how to brand or market themselves, though, and the terms rockstar and ninja might actually work for some people. What I want to do in this article, however, is to just have some fun, by looking at some of the connotations that are presupposed about and the associations that are suggested by the most cliched and stereotypical forms of the more common metaphors that I’ve seen kicking around – the rockstar, the ninja, the guru and the diva.

Before getting started, however, I want to note the the character sketches that follow are generalized and not based on any individuals that I actually know. Moreover, they are also written with more than just a bit of irony, so take them with a grain of salt.

Rockstar

Rockstar Designer
The rockstar (not to be confused with the master musician) leads a life of style and luxury, but also craves the spotlight. They thrive on the praise and adoration of their screaming fans, and everything they do is surrounded by hype and pageantry. They are good at what they do, certainly, but may also rely on theatrics and showmanship to carefully suggest to their audience that they might be better than they really are.

As a designer, using this term for yourself basically suggests that your work rocks. But, while that is certainly something to be desired, I think that there are probably some other presuppositions that go right along with this.

A rockstar designer is likely to be showy and ostentatious. Their designs will probably be Photoshop-heavy, with all kinds of really intense graphics that will blow the viewer away with all the power of a brain-melting guitar solo. Even simple projects that require simple solutions are likely to be blown up for the purpose of showmanship that is necessary for the rockstar to maintain their persona.

The Problem: The rockstar designer craves the spotlight. They need all of the attention to be on them all of the time, and they go to any imaginable length just to ensure that it is. They create flashy designs that are aimed more at winning awards and accolades than at actually solving problems. Unfortunately, just like their musical counterparts, many will shine bright and then completely burn out.

Ninja

Design Ninjas
Any good ninja will have mad skills, developed through years of disciplined training. Whether designer, developer or something else, ninjas will deploy these skills with remarkable, almost deadly precision. They are brutal, efficient and do their best work on their own.

Calling yourself a ninja certainly attempts to call on many of these desirable qualities. You are basically trying to tell prospective employers or clients that you are a highly talented designer or developer with, with valuable skills honed from either years and years of experience or hours and hours of practice and training. You’re also perfectly capable of working independently.

That’s all well and good, but let’s face it, ninja’s are basically just assassins. They sneak around at night, wearing black, covering their face and looking for an exposed back to stick a knife into. And if they can’t find that, they’ll content themselves with throwing razor sharp ninja stars from the shadows or slipping a nasty bit of poison into your Big Mac.

Simply summarized, ninjas aren’t nice people. In fact, they are very much the opposite of nice, and I bet you wouldn’t want to run into a real ninja in a dark alley.

The Problem: Being a ninja is a lonely business. It’s all about being the solitary design warrior. You have amazing skills, but you also feel the need to have a ruthless and cutthroat attitude just to survive. As a ninja, the people around you will certainly respect you, but they won’t exactly trust you, because they just never know when you might stick that insanely sharp pencil of yours in their back.

Guru

Guru Designer
The Guru is the very personification of wisdom. His knowledge runs deeper than the deepest well, and he is widely accepted to be an all but infallible master of his particular discipline. Students and would-be-learners flock to him with the hope of being asking just a signle question and partaking of his remarkable wisdom.

The design guru obviously has a vast knowledge of all things design. He can talk about leading, tracking and kerning from sunrise to sunset. Not only can he identify virtually every major and minor typeface ever created, he can also tell name the designer and the year it was released. And don’t even get him started on colour theory, or he’ll walk you methodically through the entire colour spectrum – twice.

When you get right down to it, though, the Guru is also a snob. He sits on his high perch or in his ivory tower, telling anybody who’ll listen about what’s wrong with this design’s typography or that design’s layout. Really, though, he just loves the sound of his own voice, and for all the time he spends talking about design, he hardly spends any time actually designing.

The Problem: being a real guru means having an absolutely thorough understanding of your particular area of work. Are you really that much of an expert? Do you have the time to commit to remaining an expert and keeping up on all recent developments? More importantly, do you want to spend all your time talking and writing about design rather than actually designing?

Also, be aware that there are many charlatans out there – people who pass themselves of as gurus when they are anything but. Unless you have a means of backing up your claims of guru status, prepare to be met with some skepticism.

Diva

Design Diva
The diva, much like the rockstar, craves the attention of the spotlight. However, rather than basking in the light of her celebrity, the diva goes to great lengths to emphasize the fact that she is a woman. From the way she dresses to the way she talks, everything she does is specifically intended to constantly remind us of her undeniable femininity, as if we could possibly forget that simple and obvious fact.

And, of course, just like everything else that she does, the diva designer invariably infuses her designs with an unmistakable, feminine quality. Her portfolio is the same. It may be sleek and stylish or sultry and sexy, but either way it leaves absolutely no doubt that it was designed by and for a strong and talented woman.

Behind closed doors, however, many of these divas are almost painfully insecure. They may feel alone or isolated, desperately fighting for recognition in a world seemingly dominated by men, and the only way they know how to combat these feelings are to draw attention to themselves as being an amazing woman who designs, rather than just being an amazing designer who is also a woman.

The Problem: Obviously, the problem with being a diva is that it puts too much emphasis on the somewhat incidental fact of being a woman, rather than on just being a designer. Establishing your identity according to your gender invariably places part of the attention on that gender, instead of focusing on what you really are: an awesomely talented designer.

Conclusion

As I stated at the beginning of this article, the primary purpose was to have just a little bit of fun, and I do hope you found the commentary to be at least mildly entertaining. That being said, however, I also hope that it at least opened your eyes to just how silly and ridiculous some of these metaphors can actually be.

There’s really no need for you to be a rockstar designer, design ninja, design guru or design diva. Just step up, face the world head on and tell it what you really are: a skilled and talented designer whose portfolio speaks for itself!

That’s all you ever need to be.

To wrap this up, while the four types of hipsters we looked at above seem to be the most prevalent (at least in my experience), here are a few of other different “hipsters” that I think it would be hilarious to see:

  • The Design Zombie
  • The Design Pirate
  • The Design Cyborg
  • The Design Samurai
  • The Design Spy

Your Turn to Talk

What about you? Are there any other hipsters that you’re aware of? Is there anything else that you think would be interesting or entertaining to see or at least talk about? Let us know!

Comments

  1. says

    Chuck Norris doesn’t design, his website is Times New Roman on white and you will like it.

    But really, I find myself to be more of a Code Samurai than anything else and I feel that my warrior class has been greatly overlooked. Can I file a discrimination suit?

    Hudin

  2. Tetty says

    Hey Matt,

    On the whole, your article is decent, but the ‘Diva’ section pissed me off.

    Your armchair psychologizing about is insulting. You think our designs reflect that we feel ‘lonely’ and ‘painfully alone’? Perhaps you think this because the women in your professional life seem distant and aggravated. Perhaps the reasons for their aggravation might have something to do with your attitude? I know reading this article really tanked my buzz.

    Oh, one last point: I don’t know any female web developer who produces designs “specifically intended to constantly remind us of her undeniable femininity.” Perhaps this is just your way of saying you think female web developers can’t make ‘normal’ sites like the good old boys do?

    Get stuffed.

  3. says

    The article isn’t about what I think. It’s a satirical and sarcastic look at what I think these silly terms that we use to describe ourselves actually connote. The summaries are intentionally written to be horrible and inaccurate depictions in order to demonstrate just how ridiculous these “titles” are.

    I know plenty of women (like Amber, who commented right above you) who are incredibly talented designers and developers in their own right.

  4. says

    @Tetty, I think you misunderstood the article… if you’re advertising yourself as a “design diva,” there’s something wrong with that, just like there is something wrong with those who puff out their chest and say “I’m a design rockstar.” People that try to convince people that they’re better than they are wouldn’t make a good person to hire, and it doesn’t have anything to do with a specific gender. The word itself (diva) implies someone who is proud, self-centered and seeks more attention than is good for her. Don’t take it personally simply because it applies to females in particular… should I be upset because the “Guru” image portrays a man, and I feel that Matt is somehow insinuating that I am a snob? :D

    I was just thinking about this subject myself. Why would one advertise oneself as a rockstar? It doesn’t really make much sense. In fact, I was noticing that there are so many “rockstar designers” out there, that I considered putting in large type on my homepage: “I’m not a rockstar.” Maybe I will, maybe I won’t, but I have to get around to the personal redesign anyways, haha. It’s absurd to see job descriptions saying “looking for a wordpress rockstar” or whatever… it makes it clear that they don’t know what they should be looking for. Why not look for a reliable, experienced, quality designer?

  5. says

    You are completely correct. I only want to know that people are rockstars and ninjas if they do those things in their spare time. For example, “Hi, I’m Slash, I’m a rockstar who now enjoys designing websites in my spare time”. Alternatively, “Hi I’m Bob, I’m a designer with a black belt in karate”. That’s it.

  6. says

    This is something I have tried not to think much into. I do not know any serious businessman or company that is craving to hire a design ninja, guru, spear man, archer, fisherman, rockstar, diva, whore etc…

    How to stand down in the crowd is really a big question, especially for newbies, but they have to understand, that getting your feet wet, doesn’t make you a good swimmer. To put it in other words – this is hilarious way for praying for attention. Trying to show your skills by naming yourself in some, according to me, retarded way doesn’t make you … good and especially … desirable.

    To all that have written one or two web sites with 5 sentences four images for content – You are not front end developers nor coders, and to the bunch of scum that designed this sites – You are not designers, but advanced clicking machines.

    Think about that rockstar, chimpanzee, designers

  7. says

    @Tetty,

    because you are woman, this doesn’t mean the “Diva” part of the article is against females, or you directly, so being pissed of is a problem of your own self-esteem…

  8. says

    ive designed my personal branding with a bit of an old west “outlaw” theme. i think it fits well with who i am. hope no clients think im out to rob them though lol

    i have been called a “graphics ninja” by a client though. that pretty much made my week :)

    oh, and if you’re really good at Adobe Illustrator i call you a samurAi

  9. Alexander says

    Great read, I have to say that all geeky branding (ninjas, gurus, coffeeaddicts and whatnot) is really getting on my nerves. In almost all other fields of business, professionals present themselves as skilled and reliable people, with talents within their field of work. I’d never hire and accountant who described himself as a number-ninja or some other retardesque nickname. Talent speaks for itself, no need for the goofyness!

  10. says

    I see theses terms a lot and to me it’s obviously someone whose head wouldn’t fit out the door of their office. Why would any employer (company or individual), tolerate such an ego? You may be a “rockstar”, “guru”, “ninja” or whatever playful term you have chosen, but at the end of the day does your boss really need or want to deal with that attitude?

  11. says

    Why “Diva” is insulting in any way? I know personally one Diva of Wide Area Networks and CISCO something, and she love to shine in spotlight as a Network Girl – and indeed she’s so insecure.
    As a women I’m not insulted. But I’m not a Diva.

  12. Dee says

    Attaching some random adjective to your skill of choice is kind of lame. And arrogant. I think that the general public values approachability and humility.

    But I do think it would be extremely hilarious if someone called themselves a “design pirate.” “Yar, matey, I steal designs from all ovar the intarwebs!”

  13. says

    My personal pet hate is the overuse of multitudes of skills in large graphical headers:

    “Hi, my names Joe Citizen and I’m an experienced web developer and designer, user experience master, entrepreneur, photographer, nobel peace prize winner and astronaut.”

    Look I understand about getting your skills known in the community, but geez don’t jam is down our throats.

  14. Brian P says

    Cleverly written kudos! Got me laughing.

    I think that people use these terms to make it sound like some kind of mastery. Its the digital ages self-proclaimed PHD.

    Show your stuff and if its good you won’t have to call yourself anything, people will be calling you!

  15. brainspills says

    The problem with branding yourself with fancy names is the confusion that you are marketing yourself, not what you actually do… I think clients want to know first what you can do for them then after that, who you are. A client will always think about his/her business. After all, it’s their problem you are suppose to solve so we should focus on that… instead of the fancy name.

  16. says

    Fanciful titles like these are just crutches for insecure artists trying to boost self esteem.

    Todd G
    PsychoCode Therapist.

  17. says

    Great satirical post, Matt! I’ve been referred to as a Ninja, Rockstar, and Guru in certain areas but tend to avoid the terms as much as possible for no apparent reason.

    Regardless, thanks again for the post!

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