Should designers be generalists or specialists? Part 2 / by Gavin Lau

This question is a common source of angst among both veteran and novice designers — maybe more for those hurrying to define themselves before annual job fairs and graduation ceremonies. And myriad pressures to pick one come from multiple directions: HR recruiters, hiring managers, or non-design teammates demanding multidisciplinary innovation one second and pixel-perfect assets the next.

Argh! So what should a designer be?

Let’s step back a moment. I’ve learned choices such as this, set up in the somewhat artificially fatalistic duality of either X or Y, aren’t genuinely responding to the wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s not about one versus the other, with jacked-up consequences of risks and losses (most of which are in our heads anyway). It’s usually never that dire of a choice when framed as either/or.

Sure, the savvy, effective designer who strives for leadership backed by valuable street cred knows how to strike a balance between this “generalist or specialist” choice. And, by the way, this is typical of most design choices, whether it’s setting the max-height for a popover tooltip that bumps against the browser edge, or estimating the need for another round of user studies with incomplete understanding of the user profile.

Yet everyone around you expects a quick, easy X or Y choice to be made. Hey, it’s simplified and distilled to a decision, and that yields action! After all, we’ve got tickets to file, blockers to unblock, and apps to ship — everything is on a deadline. Chop, chop. What’s it gonna be?

“Designers should strike a balance between generalist and specialist.”

If you aspire to be a design leader with legitimacy and credibility among non-designers, then you must seek an optimal middle path: Think (strategize) like a generalist, and make (deliver) like a specialist.

This represents the best possible blend — and you can adjust the ratios of that blend as you evolve further in your career path. A choice towards one but not the other may set you upon a particular purpose with palpable conviction, but it weakens you in the long run — you’re only half as valuable as a designer.

It’s the mediated intersection of generalist and specialist that empowers a designer to have influence, impact, and ultimately respect. Not to mention, the ability to command a top-dollar rate.

 Image from  Inside Design: GoPro .

How to strike this balance:

  • Apply a breadth of knowledge across a range of UX-related topics, situations, or modalities: mobile, web, services, wearables, etc.
  • Confidently and flexibly dive into any problem tossed at you, with a set of insightful frameworks to help dissect that problem into its constituent issues (e.g., assumptions and dependencies, contexts and emotions).
  • Think like a generalist in your dealings with product management and engineering, grokking the ways to strategically foresee opportunities as you break apart a problem into its key pieces (and segment/triage/prioritize the architecture, interactions, and flow accordingly)
  • Draw upon inspirations from a multitude of sources: history, politics, philosophy, even science fiction and cinema

From there, you’ll be able to provoke, inspire, challenge, and ultimately enable deep analysis of the problem and potential solutions to help the team move forward towards innovation that improves the human condition.

So think like a generalist. They’ll thank you later.

“Think (strategize) like a generalist, and make (deliver) like a specialist.”

And yet, the value of a deep specialist who delivers can’t be ignored. At the end of the day, product managers and developers don’t care about your poetic philosophies of design. They just need to know if you can make with superb tactical diligence key assets by the end of the sprint so everyone can hit the ship date (with a nicely annotated spec). This is where you build up the tangible specialized skills, truly getting deep into how to build what you can foresee.

Yes, it’s all about craft — at a deep level, your ability to specialize in the IA, or UI, or visual production, or even coding prototypes, is what cultivates the daily, aggregative respect from teammates. Proving that you can deliver what you’re paid to do (in the superficial, unknowing eyes of non-designers) is the key to your success at a basic level, and it serves as a stepping stone towards greater influence and impact down the road. Especially when it’s blended with thinking like a generalist about the essence of the problem space.

I suggest all designers strive to strike an ongoing balance of thinking strategically like a generalist who can explore many spaces, while also delivering well-crafted artifacts that speak to a specialist’s focused expertise, going deep in the nooks and crannies of the problem. That’s the only way to build up much needed credibility and respect, which helps you towards becoming an influential force for design for a team and within an organization.