There seems to be a lot of sensationalism behind the polarizing idea that you should either be a generalist or a specialist. One side advocates that you have to be doing things their way, all while another side swears by their methods. Somewhere in the middle, there are the designers who seem to be getting by just fine pulling tactics from both sides.
Generalist vs Specialist: The debate
What we went over in a previous article are the potential pros and cons of going the extreme of either becoming a specialist in a field of design or to only focus on your broad range of skills. Essentially going either horizontal or vertical.
Here is what makes either side so appealing or appalling. But it is true that the more you specialize and become a domain expert, the more you become fulfilled by the work you do.
Horizontal designers are the generalists of the design world
They work on learning new skills to add to their tool belt. Though they may not be an expert in one singular skill, they tend to be able to do a lot of different work. It is easy to learn these new skills and keep growing the width of what skills you have available.
- You can take on all types of clients
- Your target market is vast. Anyone requesting design work can work with you
- You can choose to take on whatever project comes to your direction because of the volume of requests
- You can pivot to any area of Design you want just as long as you have skills to do it
- Competition for projects is so dense that can be difficult to stand out
- Competition also brings your prices down; you’ll have to bid for work very aggressively
- Your projects might seem random or not congruent when looking at your portfolio
- A client or employer might find it difficult to know what your strengths are and what you can bring to the table
Vertical designers have expertise in one field or skill
There’s the designer who only focuses at getting better at their one specialty. They don’t focus on skills that don’t relate to what they are trying to be known for. They drive down the line working towards mastery of this one skill.
- Your work is valuable to a client/employer because you specifically solve problems and offer specialized solutions.
- Your projects look consistent (or consistently improving)
- You can position yourself as an expert or as a consultant and charge more for your work
- More things may be referred to you as a result of people who can’t do your job as effectively
- There’s not a lot of work unrelated to your niche that you can put in your portfolio
- You may have to turn down or outsource work that’s unrelated to what you do
- It can be the only thing you are known for, making it harder to switch on the future
- It takes a lot of ongoing education, practice, and time to do one thing specifically
Though each has their usefulness in specific scenarios, these two options are at the extreme of either end.
A pure specialist may realize that finding work is very difficult unless they become a domain expert for a problem that is easier to identify.
A pure generalist may find that it’s harder to make a living doing their work because they are replaceable with others who can do the same services just as well since we never mastered the skill.
Where we have an opportunity to improve our standing from either side is by realizing that there are still other skills we currently have that contribute to the success of your project, and to your design career.
We all have specific skills to contribute, outside of our specialty
Your skills as a designer are not singular; you’re not a one-trick pony. As we learn and research design, we are exposed to other design disciplines or other skills as we move further along.
These start to influence the ways we design and the ways we approach problem-solving, execution, and display of the work we do. This fresh perspective is most of the time a combination of several skills.
Though the skills themselves don’t mean anything special, the specific combination of skills that you have used together is what gives us the unique advantage over both sides. But only if we can embrace the fact that these are complimentary and not primary to the work we do.
Why we talk about empathy as designers
Design has adopted Empathy as a skill for designers, and though it doesn’t sound like a strong trait, it’s one of the most reliable skills we can have as a designer.
Empathy builds itself from the ability to understand what another person is or has been going through to get where they are now.
With design, knowing and understanding enough of another design discipline (or other skill) that helps to craft your project the right way to help other areas and facilitate their end goal.
Having a few arrows in the quiver is key to survival
We have a lot more skills than we give ourselves credit for. All of these skills that we acquire help inform the decisions we make as a designer.
Knowing things like how to edit your website, how to choose the right printing method, what parts of UX design inform your UI designs, all help you get further and further to your goal as a specialist for X type of design.
So find what you know already or have picked up along the way to give you a unique angle on solving problems you face in your field of design.
You’d be surprised how much I’ve been able to do as a brand identity designer with my knowledge of having done websites and print work.
Don’t work on everything at once
It’s important to become good at what you do. And you will never get too far trying to chase every skill at the same time. It’s just too much strain on your education.
Imagine having a hand on three wild rabbits at the same time.
I tell you to let go, and your goal is to go and grab all three rabbits again.
If you were to chase all three at the same time, you might only ever get one rabbit.
However, if you focus on catching one rabbit, you then can focus on the next and the next after that, grabbing them in a much quicker time frame than trying to gather all three at the same time.
The growth curve and compound effect
Learning skills like this means that as you learn a new skill, you get to know a little more about what progress you were looking for and what areas you got hung up on a certain area. Essentially you’re learning how to learn.
As you continue to hone in on that skill, you then become better at learning another skill, making the learning of that skill take a lot less time. This repeats until you hit peak efficiency to learning something.
These skills compound the time it takes to learn something new and add it to your toolbelt.
To stand out, you have to drive that T downwards, bringing other skills as you go
I would say that this is an accurate description of where I’m going as a designer.
I’m carrying a certain skill as my specialty and bringing along other skills that compliment what I do. The more I work at my craft as a branding designer, the more skills I need to compliment how I present the work, host the work, talk to clients about it, etc.
Some of the best designers we know stand out because of this. They do a certain thing, and they do it exceptionally well. What sets them apart is that they sneak other skills in along with it.
Curate what you share
Think of some of the greatest names that you know in design right now.
Give a description of what is the main thing they do (probably best simplified like logo design, character animation)
Now pull apart exactly what makes their work theirs. (you might notice certain colors, thickness in strokes, animations, types of clients, a certain effect or typeface, etc)
Repeat this with other names you came up with.
Names that I came up with for this were people like Jessica Hische(lettering), Aaron Draplin (industrial style logo design), Austin Saylor(animated logo design), Rogie King (goopy alt-tatoo illustrated ui awesomeness), and Meg Robichaud (diversity illustration)
Each one of these people have made an impression because there’s something that they “do” that they have merged with others skills and experiences that make that work unique.
They are all curating the things that they share.
They are probably sharing things that they want to be known for. And better yet, what they are experts at. Rarely will you see something come across their portfolio page that is outside of what skill they are currently working on.
They may also have the skills to build their website from scratch, market and focus on SEO, and have impeccable writing. But what they choose to show is the skill that they are looking to do, that they love, and want to be paid for.
By curating what you share, you start to shape what people know you for. And that is probably the best way for people to recommend you to others. By having something that is so “you,” should someone ever say I need X done for my business, that person says “call my designer friend, [FIRST NAME GOES HERE] they’re really good at doing [X]”
As both you and them continue to grow your skills in one area, the rest of your skills start to grow along side that.
Hope this is helpful in getting an idea of why you should be focusing on one skill while not neglecting the other skills you have now or will learn on the way.