Becoming a Specialist Generalist: The Multidisciplinary Digital Creative

Editor’s Note: Becoming a jack-of-all-trades may seem unfocused, but it may actually be beneficial to your career in the digital creative industry. In fact, the key to future-proofing your career as a digital creative is to be flexible and become a specialist generalist—a digital creative who can diversify. In this excerpt from The Digital Creative’s Survival Guide, author Paul Wyatt explains why.

“What would you like to be when you grow up?”

w5970_500px_72dpiWhen you were asked that question as a child, chances are you’d have said an astronaut or racing car driver or maybe a ballet dancer or a guitar player. Your young mind would have thought of a very clear singular and quite specialist route for a career, and later your educational route may also have encouraged that focus. The idea of being a jack-of-all-trades would have seemed very much like being a dabbling amateur.

Change is the name of the game in the digital world. Digital creative skill sets constantly need refreshing, and the platforms work is seen on by users changes at an astonishing rate. Keeping up with all the tech advances is a job in itself. This is certainly the wrong industry to be in if you can’t embrace change both in and around you. The key to success is to understand that you need to be flexible and become a specialist generalist—in other words, a digital creative who can diversify. Painting yourself into a corner by sticking with one niche, specialist skill is a dangerous choice when it comes to future-proofing your career as a digital creative. Core skills combined with a more generalist approach to digital make you a much more attractive proposition to an employer. It makes sense for an agency to want to put together a team of digital creatives with core competencies who can branch out rather than a team of one-trick ponies who work in a siloed fashion. This “silo” or “pipeline” way of working is where one individual does their specialist bit and then passes it onto another who in turn passes it onto somewhere else. It’s a specialist creative conveyor and one that misses out on two essential ingredients for creative working: collaboration and understanding.

Award-winning creative director, writer and filmmaker Paul Wyatt

Award-winning creative director, writer and filmmaker Paul Wyatt

If you’re a designer working on an interface layout, then having a working knowledge of how it needs to be built and fluidly designed to work on different devices and platforms will save time when it goes into development. You’ll also be able to work collaboratively with the developer, as you’ll understand his concerns and he’ll be able to see where you’re trying to get to with the layout. Okay, this might sound a little bit idealized for the real world, but at least you’ll both have enough knowledge of what the other does in order to create a level playing field so you can thrash out a solution together.

The convergence of relatable skills between these two areas—design and development—is evident in the new breed of creative technologists, where developers and creative come together. It’s a perfect pairing when you come to think of it, as coding is as creative a pursuit as pixel pushing but is rarely thought of as such because it’s notoriously hard to show a client that a coder has been creative with code. It’s much easier to engage them with a well-designed interface that they can see and mutter over.

It’s important for creatives not to see creativity and technology as two separate things. Programmers, coders and creatives need to come together at the initial project kickoff meeting and ask, “What can we do together?” At this point, it becomes truly creative and unrestricted by the knowledge of just one person.

Not so very long ago, designers could produce a Photoshop design and throw it over to a developer who would then be tasked to make all the “magic buttons” work. And more often than not, it would be bounced back to the designer because the function or a tech spec hadn’t been figured out before the design was completed. These days because of budget and time restrictions, the creative tech needs to be figured out right from the get-go. This is where the new wave of creative technologists are coming from, which is pretty much a fancy term (and probably a cooler one) than a specialist-generalist.

What we shouldn’t forget is that dipping your toes into different media and skill sets is also fun. Yes, fun. It’s not a dirty word. If you’re not of the opinion that your creative education ceased when you left university, then learning new stuff can be the best part of the job.

Relatable skills

Being a specialist-generalist in the digital creative world is about having an understanding and working knowledge of key areas that relate to your core skills. If you’re a designer of interfaces, then knowing how a user interacts by touch compared to a pointing device and what that means to your design is a relatable skill. If you’re a motion graphics designer, it would make sense to understand how your animations could also be formatted to be seen on television rather than just the web, should the need arise to port them across from one medium to another.

Learning on the job

Education doesn’t end on the last day of university or college. It’s only the start. There are so many learning opportunities in the creative industry, you’ll find that even if you’ve completely specialized at university you’ll be acquiring new skills as soon as you become involved in projects. You could go from being somebody who was graphics oriented to becoming involved in conceptualizing, storyboarding and animating. As soon as you start collaborating, you begin to understand what another creative does and the processes they follow. If you’re savvy, you’ll also ask lots of questions—not too many to be annoying but enough to learn how your fellow creative works. This is where flexibility is so important. Sticking your hand up and saying, “Hey, I’m the graphics guy. I do graphics and that’s that” won’t earn you any favors.

Working in creative isn’t like being an accountant or a butcher. You don’t stop doing it when you go home. It’s a career that’s a little obsessive. It’s with you all the time as you make connections between shape and form and ideas. Everything can inspire you, and that creative restlessness will encourage you to want to learn to make things out of digital nothingness. It’s the absolute joy of the job that at the start of the day there’s a blank page and by day’s end there’s an idea on the page in words, code or visuals. You’ll naturally become more of an all-rounder the longer you work in the industry, which in turn makes you and your creative talents more marketable.

w5970_500px_72dpiLearn more about fostering a successful career in web, app, multimedia and broadcast design in The Digital Creative’s Survival Guide by Paul Wyatt, available now from HOW Books.

One thought on “Becoming a Specialist Generalist: The Multidisciplinary Digital Creative

  1. imac73

    Great article Paul,

    As a recently graduated student in BA Internet Communications with Honours and a current student enrolled in Certificate III Graphic Pre-press I can relate to much of what you have written and will be needing to put your advice into practice at the end of this coming year.


    – Michelle