On design generalists and specialists

Recently I was asked by a junior designer the following: “As I am looking for my next opportunity, I think about how should I plan my career path. Would you suggest a designer at the beginning of the career to dedicate to one domain, or, to try out different stuff?”.

This question was circling around the case of a profile made out of short-term project engagements with different, diverse responsibilities and asks, a generalist experience of sorts.

Like mine, you see. I responded:

Dear “Junior Generalist of Sorts”,

With that question, you hit the motherlode: me. I have exactly the profile and experience that design director would have not liked. Luckily, that is only his opinion, and others have given me good jobs to do and problems to solve, as you can see from my portfolio.

This would not be advice, but my perspective, as it is the only thing I can share with you. There is no way I can know better than you what’s best for you, so I’ll share my perspective and hope it would inform you towards your own better decision.

I’ve always have had a very high bar for the work that I do. Unfortunately, the industry and the world itself does not hold to the same standards or plays in the same league. My approach to design is people first, whereas the industry (and every single industry in the planet) tends to “your boss first”. Fair enough, as work is more than the end product of it, it is a way to advance society in many levels beyond what’s produced. However, I still want to do the best I can do to the betterment of the end user.

There are two camps of expertise for designers: generalists and specialists, and most designers fall in between them, tending towards one more than the other. In my case I’m very much on the generalist side, and so might be you. In my experience, generalists are sought after on recessive markets and specialists are sought after in expanding markets. But markets are not the same for all companies. That said, I’d speculate that companies that are cash strapped (thus in a recessive market) like Angel, Series A or B startups would prefer to put their money in someone that can give them as much back on anything they need as possible, most probable a generalist. Other companies that are in better cash flow situations would benefit from a specialist, one that can give them the most from exactly what they know they want to produce. It all comes back to process: the more a company knows what they get revenue from, the more they’ll tend towards specialists; the less they know wheat they’re doing, the more they might want to rely on generalists.

So as a generalist, I tend to look for opportunities within projects that are new enough, or in teams young (in time, not in age) or small enough, that might require someone that could do several things at once, that can wear many hats, a “jack of all trades” sort of speaking. I feel that if you want to continue to cultivate you as a generalist (if you’re as curious as I am, you might not even have a choice to do otherwise), then you test this approach to job seeking and see if it suits you.

If I had to do it all again, I’d do it the same way, I’d become a generalist all the same again. That does not mean there’s not plenty of space for specialists, and if you end up liking something in particular enough to delve and deepen into it enough, and you enjoy it, most probably there will be a (narrow, perhaps) market for it.

To end this diatribe, there’s also the case of people: while looking for jobs you’d have to deal with people, and people are everything, from weird to intense, from opinionated to straightforward. The more you interview the more you’ll learn that interviews are flawed and there’s a rhyme and reason to good interviewing that has to do with measuring and weighing the interviewer, their answers and their approach to know what they are looking for, and not, almost never, what your practice of design is about. That is for you to discover in your own way, at your own pace, from your own experience.