Californian by birth and Dutchman by choice, Stephen is an art director, designer-who-codes, and writer. He designed and built his first website in 1995 while art directing for a design firm. He left print behind and never looked back. He is currently Creative Director at Rabobank. Stephen wrote the book Responsive Design Workflow, an opinionated look at design processes and deliverables for a device-agnostic web.
In this interview we wanted to discuss the argument between the pros and cons of specialist and generalist designers, and help you to work out which is the right path for you.
Is being a ‘unicorn’ designer as desirable as it seems?
The “unicorn” designer is as its name implies: it doesn’t exist. The unicorn or “rock star” designer is often defined as someone who is equally fantastic in a wide range of design skills. There are a few designers who are exceedingly talented at many facets of design, but they’re rare. And you wouldn’t even notice it in many cases unless their job exposed enough of these abilities. From what I’ve seen, most of the unicorns exist in the minds of people writing very wishful job vacancy descriptions. Often, the terms “unicorn” and “T-shaped designer” are conflated. But they shouldn’t be: the unicorn is good at everything. The T-shaped designer is very good at a small number of things, yet has a broad working knowledge of other (often related) design skills.
Is there a greater need/benefit for specialist designers or T-shaped designers?
Both needs are there, but it depends on the organisation. There are very specialised fields, such as animation or illustration. But these can live in a kind of vacuum, since there’s often a designer or art director making sure things fit as a whole. You’ll always need these types of specialists, and usually in a project-dependent way, which is why many of them work in small studios or independently; they’re not always needed for every single project, and many of these specialists have signature styles.
In most other cases, I would say generalists-and by that I mean T-shaped designers-should be the default. You’ll choose them for their areas of deep expertise, but they’ll be more able to overlap with other parts of the design process, and are hopefully skilled collaborators who can zoom out a bit to see the bigger picture.
Don’t get me wrong: most real specialists, like the ones I mentioned above, are skilled collaborators and make it part of their job to understand the big picture. However in large organisations, design is still often treated as an assembly line process, with fairly hard lines between disciplines. This creates an undesirable type of “specialist”, for example the service designer who only facilitates workshops and draws flowcharts, and the interaction designers who create wireframes that the visual designer is invited to “colour in”. Each of them is focused on their own intermediate deliverables instead of co-owning the entire project. “My design was good, but the developer messed it up” should be properly translated as “I fantasised about a design in my favourite design tool without collaborating, and I consider my work to be done.” When many people speak of specialists, they’re speaking of these types of designers. Go with the generalists.
How does one choose whether to prefer a generalist over a specialist, or vice versa?
As I mentioned before, the real specialists either work in massive organisations, or they’re doing something that people don’t always need. I think you’ll always do well to generalise. By that I mean choose your area (or areas) of deep expertise, go deep, but then look at all the things that expertise touches. All the areas adjacent to your expertise that can help you become more effective. Learn about those things, just enough that it makes your main work better, even though it might seem tangential. People don’t see just the work; they see a complete package. If you are prototyping, documentation might be very important. So working on your writing skills isn’t boosting your core hard skills, but it is making your complete package way more marketable.
What are the pros and cons of each?
Pros of specialisation? You get to focus on what you like to do. Well, at least I hope you like doing it, because switching specialisations basically means starting over. Also, I think it might be easier to make a name for yourself and command a higher income if you find the right niche where there aren’t many players. That’s harder to do as a generalist. Generalists, and I’m speaking for myself here, might be prone to periodic identity crises, where they wonder what they’re really good at, and maybe even how they got here. Although, what generalists sometimes fail to see is that the more experience they have, the more they become aware of all the things they do not yet know. So while they might doubt themselves because they don’t have a laser focus on one thing, they’re extremely employable and they have lots of open doors to many disciplines if at some point they do decide to specialise. Highly skilled specialists will often get plenty of unsolicited feedback about their work. (“Wow, that animation is amazing!”) Generalists might have to solicit feedback themselves, since their work on a project might be less defined for others. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve done work that no one knew I was responsible for, I’d be doing this interview from my own private beach in the Bahamas.
That doesn’t seem like an advertisement for generalists, but you have to look beyond the surface. There’s a reason some great design leaders don’t have much of a design background. They’re generalists with very transferable skills. And generalists with a design background find opportunities in many different places. Some generalists discover that they’re good people managers. Some discover that they’re strategic greats or that they really love UI design but only found out by accident.
I do tend to think that if you’re at all unsure about what you want, you can’t go wrong by generalising first. In a sense, specialisation is a path of strong passion for one thing and a conviction that one has found their direction. Generalisation might be more a path of discovery based on a passion for many things (or perhaps a useful path when one isn’t ready to choose). Both are valid. And as we’ve seen, both have advantages and drawbacks.
How can your soft skills affect your next design role?
Take two designers: Designer A and Designer B. Designer A is highly skilled and delivers great work, but you can’t put them in a room with stakeholders because they crumble under any kind of feedback. Designer B is skilled but perhaps just slightly less so. But she’s able to clearly communicate about her work, actively seeks out feedback, presents well, collaborates, and is a good writer. As a design leader, you have a role that’s opening up. To whom will you give the role? Please tell me you’d give it to Designer B. Soft skills often have to do with people, and at the end of the day, it’s all about people.
Thanks a lot for taking the time out to have a read through this piece. If you have any additional questions or seek further career advice please feel free to contact me. 💛