The Specialist and The Generalist

There is no question that turbulence of the economy can cause irregularity in the design world.  It sucks, and if you want to survive, you need as many tools as possible. In the creative industry you can cast yourself as specialist or a generalist.  There are benefits and drawbacks to each, and each role gives you a particular set of tools.

The Specialist:

Spears of the Specialist

The pros:

You can think of a specialist as an extremely sharp spear:  precise, fluid, and knowledgeable within a given niche.

You want this person on your team to fulfill a particular task because, well, they specialize in what they are doing. And given that there is an implied level of professionalism to the title of “specialist” — you can be sure the work will be (usually) good.

This is Ghost Dog, this is Léon: The Professional, this is Amelia Earhart.

The cons:

Like all overly sharp spears, they are delicate and prone to breakage. Specialists have blinders on, focused on only their narrow set of concerns. They have the curse of knowledge when working in a team.  The specialist has knowledge the others don’t and may accidentally leave out crucial information, assuming that others have the same level of familiarity.

Once the Specialists find a solution to a problem, they also tend to always steer back to that solution for future variations of that same situation. This results in a plateau of creativity, because after all, the Specialist isn’t worrying about creating new solutions, but rather getting the job done as expeditiously as possible.

A great quote from the 1995 movie Ghost In The Shell: ”Overspecialize and you breed in weakness.”

The Generalist:

The Generalist

The pros:

Like it sounds, the Generalist casts a larger net and broadens the probability of gaining opportunities.

In biology, the more diverse a ecosystem is, the more likely it can withstand the shock of catastrophic events and adapt to new circumstances. The same goes for skill sets. If for some reason the Generalist stops getting calls for graphic design help, the multi-disciplined individual can fall back on skills of rendering or illustration.

Being the Generalist is like hedging your bets. John Maeda of RISD and Tim Brown of IDEO have some great thoughts on the matter. We highly recommend the book Glimmer by Warren Berger.  Berger highlights the ideas of “T-shaped” people that start with a particular interest or specialty and wind up broadening their skills as their careers bloom. They ice a topic and explore it deeply (the lower leg of the T) and then move on to the next T.  In this way the Generalist builds an amazingly stable platform to ensure plenty of work from different areas, all the while creating a steady rhythm of new skill adoption and as the career progresses.

While it is much more difficult to tell people “what you do” when the question comes up in social or professional settings, this can be a benefit.   No one knows exactly what what the Generalists do, but bosses get the sense they provide some intangible value to the equation and might hesitate to eliminate them from the team.

The cons:

It is much more difficult to tell people “what you do” when the question comes up in social or professional settings.  The flip side of this advantage becomes a drawback when Generalists attempt to market themselves as professionals. Professional what? People tend to like a nice elevator pitch in introductions.  And they want know they are getting more than a vague notion of value when they open their wallet. This is where Generalists need to lean back on their original specialty. People cling onto titles, so give them one.

Clinging onto titles, especially ones that paint the Generalist into a corner, however, can sometimes be extremely hard to shake.  At Con Cor Design, we’ve had a client that approached us for spatial design work and we got talking about the company itself.  Questions of their infrastructure design surfaced and within a matter of minutes.  CCD was able to deduce that the company was feeling some bizarre growing pains and needed help with identity.  The client was surprised to hear CCD suggest some measure it could provide, not expecting it as part of our normal service offering. The preconceived notions of what our team did at the time created a mental hurtle that we had to overcome.

Inventing multi-syllabic made-up job titles is a very dangerous route to solve the Generalist marketing problem.  It can border on the ridiculous.

The expanding toolkit

In the end, choosing or eschewing specialties comes down to personality.  At CCD, it is in our nature to learn as much as possible and as fast as possible.  This leads us into new areas and new unexpected opportunities.

The CCD approach is to accumulate skills in a lot of contexts.  As a result, we have a broad range of offerings in the way of services.  Following this approach, you’ll come across an industry or topic that you’ll fall in love with and you’ll want (and need) to explore every niche within that niche that it has to offer. Learn more about the chain of design specialties CCD has developed here.