21 June 2022

12 Mins Read

DearDesigner

DearDesigner

Generalists vs Specialists

Being a Generalist or a Specialist is a perennial discourse in the design industry. Should a designer specialize in a specific design methodology or offer a broad range of design skills? These are the questions some design experts unpacked in this episode of Crunch Talk.
Coker Oluwafemi, Fungi Dube, and Samuel Fabayo talked about the difference between a Generalist and a Specialist, the pros and cons, and their influence on the future of design.

Photo by Thanzi Thanzeer

Who is a Generalist? Who is a Specialist?

There’s an obvious similarity in the definition of these terms by the three designers. To them, a generalist is someone with broad knowledge and competence across many design practices and fields while a specialist is someone who concentrates primarily on a particular design skill.

Coker says a generalist is someone who can do wide-varying things that can eventually connect. While a specialist is someone who has mastered a particular skill and who continually gains proficiency in it.

In Fungi’s words, a design generalist is a person who can pivot several disciplines because they are competent in various design disciplines. While a specialist has targeted expertise; they have deeper and more streamlined knowledge relating to a particular discipline.

To Samuel, a specialist is someone who’s been focused on specific design practices for a long period, while a generalist dabbles in all types of design practices without necessarily focusing on one.

What are the pros and cons of each?

Fungi mention that the advantage of generalizing as a designer is making you a more confident and adaptable designer; you can pivot to any area of design for as long as you have the necessary skill set. It also gives you access to a bigger market and more volume of work. One disadvantage she states is how being a generalist may essentially drive your market share down due to competition for projects as you are serving the bigger population.

She also mentions some pros of being a specialist. According to her;

Specialising allows for you to elevate your offering as your work is valuable to a prospective client or employer because you can offer specialized creative solutions. Your work looks more consistent and it follows that because you have mastered that specific skill, you are in a position to command a higher price for it.”

One of the downfalls of being a specialist is that you would have to turn down or outsource inquiries that fall outside of your niche. He also mentions that it takes a lot of ongoing practice and time to truly master one thing.

From Coker’s standpoint, the pros of being a Generalist designer are enormous. As a generalist, one tends to have broad knowledge and diverse skills; this allows for more creative thinking when reaching for a solution to a particular problem. He opines that knowledge is power, and that ability gives one the power to see things differently.

“You can individually work to complete end-to-end projects, you can serve clients and employers more efficiently, and you entirely understand and can take ownership of the final solution” he concludes.

Coker shares the same sentiment with Fungi on the con of being a Generalist. He agrees that one may have to outsource specialized work.

He further delves into the advantages of being a specialist. He explains that a specialist is a master of their skill, and they have a deeper understanding of it. A specialist is known for their skill and has adapted a unique and defined working process for defining it.

The con of being a specialist according to Coker is that your ability to expand over time may be affected, also your specialty runs the risk of becoming obsolete as the world advances.

Which advantage does one have over the other? And which circumstance makes one more adviseable than the other?

Samuel believes that the advantage of one practice over the other is dependent on the type of work environment that each type of designer finds themselves in. According to him; a generalist tends to thrive more in an agency where there’s more opportunity to be creative and expressive. Specialists, on the other hand, are better suited to work as consultants or as in-house designers focused on a specific design discipline.

He states that it also depends on the personality of the designer. “A lot of designers become generalists because switching from one design practice to another helps to break the monotony that comes with specializing.”

He summarizes that factors like work environment, personality type and general interests make designers choose one over the other.

Coker gave a rather direct approach to this question. He says the advantage of being a generalist over being a specialist is

the ability to combine different skills towards solving a problem. While the advantage of being a specialist over being a generalist is the ability to deeply understand a particular skill.

Fungi, however, gave a different perspective on this question. She believes there is merit to both and this can be debated as such. Applying substantial knowledge over a breadth of design disciplines can just be as beneficial as streamlining and applying more targeted expertise. The value of a specialist who delivers and the broad application of a generalist cannot be ignored.

She adds this;

I believe that effective and credible design thinking requires that you can strategize like a generalist and deliver like a specialist. It all comes down to subjectivity; which path fulfills you most, the type of work you prefer to do, and identifying a niche in your market.

Circumstantially – generalism would be ideal if you are still starting in your creative journey or you intend on being part of a design team.

Specialism would be the preferable route if you intend on following a personal passion and ultimately becoming an expert/industry leader.”

Another point of consideration she mentions is that with time, designers get better and build a more quality client base. The best time for them to consider specializing is when they start to step more into their own as they may want to work fewer hours, whilst still retaining value, both in the work that they do and the demographic that they cater for.

Is being a generalist/specialist related to being a beginner or pro?

Coker does not believe there is a relatability between being a generalist/specialist to being a beginner or pro. He opines that specialism and generalism are more or less abstract concepts. He further explains that beginners can choose to specialize or generalize and he uses UX design as a concrete analogy. A beginner can choose to generalize to better understand the discipline — that beginner can learn UI design, prototyping, user flow development, UX design, etc. Another beginner can alternatively choose to specialize, to master just one aspect e.g prototyping.

In the broader view, a pro can decide to also generalize or specialize in different design disciplines — that pro can learn UI design, graphic design, web design, game design, etc, or can alternatively choose to specialize to master one aspect; e.g graphic design. Generalization and specialization should be informed by one’s career path, and varying interests or lack thereof, He concludes.

Fungi share a different stance on the subject matter. She affirms that being a generalist means you are a beginner and being a specialist means you are a pro.

By definition, being a specialist implies that you have a certain degree, and over time with dedication, mastered a skill and are highly proficient in it. We all are beginners at one point and have to build up from a blank canvas. As such, we tend to absorb a lot more information and explore more, making us, to a degree, generalists. From my experience and observation, especially if we also consider influential world design leaders and educators, an increase in overall experience paves way for a more streamlined approach, whereby generalism naturally shifts toward specialism

– Fungi Dube

For Samuel, he shares the perspectives of both Coker and Fungi. While he believes that being a generalist/specialist does not necessarily relate to being a beginner or pro, he mentions that a lot of designers start their careers as generalists as it is an essential part of the discovery process. In his words;

“Dabbling into different design practices helps with understanding where our interests lie. So, most times when a designer becomes a specialist, it is because they have dabbled in different practices and have finally settled on a sweet spot. Majorly, this sweet spot is a combination of at least two design practices that provides a strong foundation for specialization. For example, a product design specialist should have great UX design and visual/graphic design skills.”

He also bases his argument on the stance of his experience. He believes that specialists that have been generalists at the early stage of their careers make better design leaders because they can guide younger colleagues that are still in the discovery stage.

Which one are you and why?

Coker is a generalist. Being a generalist allows him to serve his clients by focusing on the problems they wish to solve in a project. It allows him to bring forth his wealth of experience and explore it substantially. He works to imagine the best way to approach the problem, and the most suited skills to bring on board the project.

Samuel shares an interesting approach to this question, he believes himself to be a specialist with a generalist mindset. What this means for him as a User Experience Designer is the ability to tap into other design practices when he needs them to meet objectives that make the User Experience better. “On my journey to being a UX designer, I have been engaged in almost all kinds of design practices from Architecture, to brand and editorial design and these skills still come in handy when solving problems as a UX designer,” he says.

Fungi, however, has tasted both worlds. She was a generalist for the first two years of her design career, she is now a specialist and has been for 5 years. Years of applied experimentation, research and experience with other various design disciplines led her to a place whereby she had a full discovery of the kind of work and the kind of projects that excite her and push her creatively. She says this;

“Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favourite books; he talks about the 10,000h rule. This is a principle that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” are needed to become world-class in any field and “deliberate practicing” speaks of practicing in a way that pushes your skill set as much as possible.

I narrowed my scope down to solely brand design, including packaging (which I absolutely love), and have been deliberate about sharpening this particular skill set because this is the kind of creative work that fulfills me.”

Photo by Balázs Kétyi

Which is the future of design? Generalist or specialist?

Interestingly, the three designers firmly believe that both roles have significant relevance in the future of design.

Coker thinks both kinds of designers will thrive in the future. Generalists and specialists both have a role to play, he explains. generalists can see the overview; the entire picture and specialists can understand a particular thing deeply. “I see a future where generalists and specialists get to work together, allowing for broader thinking around problems and masterful executions.” he inputs.

Samuel holds a stance that both roles are important in the future of design. He gives different reasons for his stance.

We need the generalist’s wide approach to problem-solving because recently generalists have been very valuable to early-stage startups where speed is very important and the lines in job descriptions are blurred. We also need the specialist’s depth of knowledge in solving niche problems like brand strategy or service design.

– Samuel Fabayo

Fungi also agree that the future of design comprises both generalists and specialists. She preaches this belief because it becomes essential to have a cross-functional and well-distributed team if a startup or firm is considering having structured design teams. “You essentially would want designers that can do a bit of everything to collaborate with more specialized designers to produce a more robust design outcome,” she concludes.

Other things worthy of note on this subject matter

Coker advises that designers should generalize before specializing. Generalizing allows you to try things out, it makes you understand how different aspects work together and allows you the freedom to pick your interests when you may eventually decide to specialize.

He also adds that there are no absolute generalists or specialists. “We are hybrids that tilt that scale to a degree, we have a bit of both if we look closely enough,” he mentions.

A key take-home is to always take the time to learn about and do the things that fascinate us, or work with those who can do those fascinating things masterfully well. There is the benefit of compounded experience as a generalist, and there is the benefit of masterful competence as a specialist.”

– Coker Oluwafemi

Fungi sets herself as an example. She shares insight on how the beginning of her design career was purely experimental and extremely chaotic because she tried out and worked on anything and everything as long as it did not compromise her value system.

“I was curious and open to learning; the pressure of wanting to and possibly not having the choice to decline work as I was at the very start of my journey took me to a place of self-actualization. Amid all the chaos, I naturally gravitated towards the design discipline that fulfilled me the most; and I haven’t looked back since.”

Staying curious, open-minded and experimenting allows you to discover where your interest lies and thus allows you to streamline, should you desire to do so. She concludes that without the “chaos”, one can never be truly exposed to how vast the design space is and what it can offer us.

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