Every year, large batches of design students graduate and launch their careers in the market. Some of them land at proper places, which groom them professionally and set a solid career path for a successful future. Then there are designers who are not so lucky, who do not find the kind of professional approach they were looking for.
To help these designers cope with their career decisions, there has been much literal support through books, websites and blogs, and even debates on issues like to be a freelancer or not, to start with a smaller organization or a bigger enterprise and where and how to start professional networking etc.
However, one aspect of professional indecisiveness, which has been observed in many fresh designers, has not been discussed upon very frequently, i.e. to be a jack of all trades and be a generalist designer with multiple skillsets, or to be a master of one specific field of design career.
We will spin our article around this very topic and will discuss its different aspects in detail.
The Root of Argument
Designing, nowadays, is an extremely voluminous concept with hundreds of branches and sub-branches springing up from its core. When asking about your profession, even the most irrelevant of minds would ask “what kind of designer are you?” rather than be content with "I’m a designer".
There are two kinds of trends seen in a designer’s professional life cycle. Some designers learn a specific skill and once their learning reaches a saturated level, they develop a curiosity to learn its associated skills too.
On the other hand, some designers learn a number of design skills at the start of their career and as they move up the professional ladder, they tend to layer of the extra skills and focus themselves onto one specific skill for the rest of their professional life.
But what about newbie designers? There is bound to be about of confusion as to which professional approach to opt for. Here is some food for thought.
The Benefits of Being a Generalist
When you are a "Jack of All Trades", you are:
I. Highly Sellable
The biggest advantage of having multiple skillsets is that it makes your profile highly sellable in the market. When you storm into the market with a diverse set of skills, there are chances that your different skills attract clients both individually as well as collectively, and will land a good bunch of projects on your desk.
Moreover, there are a number of clients who prefer to have a ‘one-window solution’. Therefore, it may happen that rather than getting only a part of it, you get the entire project on the basis of your diversified skills which will probably bring in bigger profit margins.
II. A Professional Chameleon
A chameleon has a natural mechanism of changing the color of its skin to blend in with its surroundings in order to deal with a situation. ‘Jack of all’ designers have the ability to be a professional chameleon and modify their profile to suit the needs of the project being offered. Having multiple skills enables them to play any card from their deck of skills and win a project.
III. More Productive
Being highly productive is the biggest concern of a designer from any field or sub-field. For designers, productivity not only means financial gains but is a matter of mental and moral satisfaction. In case of a design generalist, productivity almost never ends. Their multiple skills keep a steady flow of projects coming inwards, and they stay busy for most of their career.
What Could Go Wrong?
Being multi-skilled has its downsides, which includes:
I. Too Much to Handle
As I have mentioned before, although professionals get projects in bulks, everyone has a maximum workload that they can handle. These designers will reach their full work capacity at a very early stage. This situation sometimes results in a serious work burnout leading to a chain of non-productive days.
II. No Exclusive Projects
Exclusive projects are every designer’s dream. Exclusive projects relate to a specific field of design, require much focus, are generally paid higher than usual projects and are a gem for a successful design portfolio. However, it happens that the clients usually do not opt for a generalist designer mainly due to the fact they already have multiple projects and might not be able to focus and work exclusively for their project.
III. Weak Project Management
Project management is one of the few add-ons that are required for a smooth flow of design business. Although project management is itself a skill (good to learn for both types of designer being discussed in this article), nevertheless, a ‘jack of all trades’ type of designer, mostly due to the pile of tasks in his plate, cuts a sorry figure in this respect.
Such designers amass design projects (those too with a variance in the scope of work), usually end up messing everything up and ultimately eat into their own profit by spending money on outsourcing.
The Benefits of Being a Specialist
Now, let’s take a look at what good there is to be a specialist designer.
I. The depth of Experience
In any field of work, the experience is the biggest feather in the cap of a professional. As a matter of fact, professional life is one of the few places where ‘being old’ is a compliment. In the professional life of a specialist designer, working in the same field for years and years, the experience becomes his greatest asset. And so when a client is leafing through profiles and portfolios of designers for some project, the ones with more experience readily catch their eye.
Moreover, when a designer works in the same field for a long time, he becomes fluent in it and so, working on a new task becomes less challenging for him.
II. Streamlined Approach
Being a specialized designer helps you in developing a streamlined approach in the workflow. As a specialist designer works on projects with the same or similar scope of work, new tasks easily get adjusted in his workflow enabling him to stay focused without losing his productivity.
III. Charge Higher
Whenever you add the title ‘specialist’ in your professional profile, this immediately puts a positive impact on the other person’s mind and adds a lot to your value. This is the same case with a ‘master of one’ designer.
When you offer your services to a client by saying that you are a ‘specialist’ in this certain field, it automatically gives you a reason to charge higher than a generalist designer. Also, most clients do not argue on this as well and consider it justified to pay you handsomely for your expertise.
Master of One – Cons
Now don’t get too carried away on being a ‘master of one’ because there are some disadvantages associated with it as well.
I. Lack of Alternatives
The most basic disadvantage of being a specialist is that you do not have a lot to offer your client. For instance, a client works with a web designer and both develop a very good professional chemistry with each other, however as the web designing task ends, the client asks you if you can provide him with further services like web development or CMS so that he may not have to deal with people he is not comfortable with, you end up disappointing him as you do not have any such skill.
Therefore, being a specialist designer may result in a relatively shorter business relationship with your clients.
II. Much Outsourcing
The designers who work in a single field of design sometimes get projects that require skills more than their own. In such a situation (and somewhat the kind of situation mentioned above), these designers have to outsource part of their projects.
Although outsourcing facilitates them and fills in the aspects they lack, however, the profits get divided, sometimes quite unevenly. Also, with outsourcing, you lose control of the overall quality of the project which affects your market reputation.
III. Lower Chances of Business Expansion
In design business, like all other fields, business expansion is the ultimate goal. Particularly from the perspective of a freelancer, there is always a stage when he wants to increase the circumference of his business to keep up with the competitors.
However, with a specialized approach towards design career, this may seem difficult. For instance, if a person with multiple skills would consider business expansion, he will most probably rely on his own skills to offer a variety of services to the client. On the contrary, when a specialist designer would plan for business expansion, they would not be able to do it without external help.
I have tried my best to give a balanced picture of the choice between being a specialist or generalist from the perspective of a designer. This may give you some points to convince yourself to adopt whichever approach suits you. Nevertheless, I also understand the fact that every person has his own situation and circumstances that will mold his career approach preference.
So do share your personal experiences in this regard and let me know if this piece of writing has helped you in any way.