Why You Should Consider Being a Generalist

design career argument for generalization

Grace and I were chatting last week about ways I might contribute to the HOW Interactive Design site, and before long we got pretty deep into a discussion about what it means to be a forward-thinking designer. In particular, about the view designers should take of their future, from the ideas that will endure to the kind of work that they’ll be doing five or 10 years from now. This is something that I—along with plenty of other designers, I imagine—have been thinking about quite a bit lately.

I don’t have THE answer, of course; I have one answer. This is an issue far larger than just one perspective. So, take mine with a grain of salt—or with a tiny chunk of ones and zeros, seeing as we’re on the ‘net and all.

I believe the key to thinking well about the future as a designer is in understanding the balance between generalization and specialization. A balance is necessary because, given the right perspective, I’m an advocate for both. This will take some explaining, so bear with me. I think it will be worth it.

As a manager of an interactive firm, I’m a devotee of David Baker‘s philosophy on specialist positioning. For most creative firms, specialization is necessary. If you don’t focus on something unique and clearly position yourself with that focus, you’ll have a very difficult time differentiating yourself from the competition, not to mention successfully (and profitably) reproducing your approach over the course of many engagements. For example, a firm specializing in healthcare marketing that illustrates their track record with compelling content and solid case studies will be able to win business in that area far more easily than a generalist firm.

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Of course, this is a significant challenge because many principals are reluctant to specialize. They enjoy having the diversity of a generalist’s approach and see focusing in on one area as the antithesis of all they’d hoped for in their design careers. Specialization is boring and too limiting! Perhaps. But measurable repetition is an essential component of a well-run business. If novelty is a priority for you, you might want to pursue it outside of your business.

But while specialization is necessary for businesses, it’s not always necessary for individuals (or even individuals who work for specialized firms). In fact, I believe employing individuals who are generalists can bring immense value to a creative firm. A serious, disciplined generalist will savvily navigate many fields to understand the big picture. They’ll see influencing factors that may come down the road and may otherwise be hidden in the blind spots of your firm’s narrow focus. They are human synthesizers. They see the unseen connections between things and act as the trimtab of your ship—sensing even the subtlest shifts in the current and adjusting your trajectory accordingly. They may not be comfortable with commanding the big, heroic reactions necessary to survive the rogue waves that come up every now and then—but they’ll probably have had a sense that something was up.

This doesn’t mean that generalists—and I’d consider myself one—can’t also be experts in certain things. On the contrary, many experts are generalists. But they’re disciplined and patient, willing to slowly develop their expertise over years while continually prioritizing it among the other interests and practices that fall under their general purview.

I’ll admit that my appetite at the proverbial banquet of ideas is partly responsible for my being a generalist. I like a wide spread and the freedom to fill my plate with a smorgasbord—even if a gourmet would turn up his nose at the pairings. But there’s also some legitimate intellectual rationale behind generalization: the fear of missing something important because of the blind spots of specialization. Those blind spots don’t keep experts from having a deep understanding of all kinds of issues relevant to their finely tuned area of expertise, but the spots are likely to obscure plenty—the stuff that’s perhaps not immediately relevant to what we do but could become essential at any time.

That’s why parsing the differences between specialization and generalization for firms and individuals is so important. Specialization is strategically smart for firms, but for individuals it seems strangely contradictory to the nature of our modern world, which is (and has been for decades) in a constant state of change, arguably more unpredictable and volatile than ever before. Given that landscape, it makes sense for us to maintain a broader view of things, to not bury our heads deep into the sand of our small pocket of the world—profitable as that may be today—but to take in a variety of ideas, experiences and skills so we may better sense the changes just around the corner.

So far, this has been a very general, philosophical look at things. The issue of specialization vs. generalization is a common one in the sciences and academia, but it’s especially relevant to designers. Now that we’ve gotten that distinction out of the way, I’d like to sell you on the idea of being a generalist. Since people tend to associate that word wide breadth but not much depth, I’m going to substitute “multidisciplinary,” which sounds much more intellectually satisfying, doesn’t it?

So in my next post, more on forward-thinking, multidisciplinary design. Stay tuned…

2 thoughts on “Why You Should Consider Being a Generalist

  1. Blockbeta

    Preferring to be a generalist, I’ve dealt with this issue my whole career. My feet are firmly planted in the idea that in order to be a good marketing strategist, you need to be disciplined in the field, but have a broad point of view and an interest in, well, just about everything.

    There are so many industry pundits who get traction as generalists for being successful in one specialty area. Take for example, that wine guy who does videos claiming to be a marketing expert now. It gets my back up. So hear, hear for all the generalists out there and the call to support them in this article. Thank you.

  2. Christopher Butler Post author

    Blockbeta: That’s a good point. There’s a tendency—and a temptation, I think—to assume that whatever approach garnered you success will work for others, so you can transition into “consulting” by selling your approach to others. In some cases, that works, but in plenty of other situations, it doesn’t. But what’s more problematic, I think, is in the cases where the approach is not a good fit, the client is often more than happy to pay for the advice since the consultant’s success is so evident. In other words, if it worked for him, he must know what he’s talking about. Anyway, a good consultant will eventually learn that the real expertise is in properly diagnosing situations and prescribing unique solutions. But that’s hard to put in a video 😉