Q: Would you recommend specialising in a particular design skill-set or is it best to be versatile?
A: Master of none, eh? Spoken like a true specialist.
Broadly speaking, the world of work (and not just the field of design) is broken up into two camps — specialists and generalists. Sometimes they see eye-to-eye, but often-times they don’t.
Generalists and specialists each approach the world from opposing viewpoints. Specialists often think of generalists as focus-free dilettantes, while generalists can’t think of anything more boring than going through a career with a single area of interest.
They’re both right and, of course, they’re both wrong. The world absolutely must have people who know a little bit about everything and people who know a lot about particularities..
Here’s a tip for you — ‘autodidact’ sounds a lot better than ‘self-taught’.
I’ve been a magazine art director, then a newspaper art director. I was the designer of one of the country’s first big news websites. I started working for myself — hell, around the time you were potty-trained, dear Design Student. — and since then, I’ve worked on skyscrapers, race cars, safe injecting kits for IV drug users, furniture, and iOS apps. If someone asks me to design something I ask myself if the problem is challenging, if it will make a positive contribution, and if I’ll get paid. If all three are answered in the affirmative, I’ll take the project. I work on some amazing projects, and I am almost never bored.
I, dear Design Student, am a generalist.
“Generalists change the world; specialists perfect it.”
The seismic cultural and technological shifts in the world are generally made by people or teams with broad (but perhaps shallow) experience. They try things. They smash them together. They adapt concepts they learned on unrelated projects, and they don’t ask if that’s ok. But then they move on to the next thing, which is always beckoning.
This is where the specialists come in. They use the experience they have accumulated from their time in their chosen domain to fix all the problems left half-solved by the generalists. Generalists will get you to Kitty-hawk, but they’ll take a back seat to the hundreds of specialists who will get two more specialists to the moon. A generalist’s knowledge is a mile wide and an inch deep, while the specialist’s inch of width goes down to molten rock.
This is not to say specialists don’t work on the newest and most exciting projects — they do, but their specific focus simply won’t be as broad as it would be for the generalist. Which is best?
That’s up to you.
Does the idea of becoming an expert appeal to you? Do you enjoy (and thrive) in detail-oriented environments? Do you want to chip away at the world’s rough edges?
Do you want to work on different projects and project-types all your career, knowing you’ll never be The Best at any one thing but that you’ll make things change? Then, friend, be a generalist.
Also, generalists are snappy dressers and great fun at parties. 💋
Ross Floate is the creative director of Floate Design Partners, a firm that creates digital products and processes that help to provide lasting benefits to clients and their customers. He’s also co-host of The Nudge, a podcast about being better designers.