Must All Designers be Polymaths? Perspectives from a Design Student

I am completely enchanted by the term UX Unicorn, defined on Quora by Jeff Gothelf as “a designer who understands workflow, interaction design, usability (and related research fields), prototyping etc. and marries that with strong visual design skills. Extra sparkles if they can code.” But it seems that to be a great designer today, we must be even more than all that. There are extra-extra sparkles for those who can not only code (in multiple languages, mind you), but who can also capture brilliant photographs, produce creative content for copy, and conduct and interpret user-generated research. And this demand for a multidisciplinary, or unicorn-like, background certainly isn’t limited to the UX arena.

According to Wikipedia, a polymath is “a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas.” I’m currently a graphic design student at Algonquin College, and am immensely proud of the cutting-edge quality and variety of subject areas that comprise our curriculum; in addition to classic graphic design classes such as illustration, typography and colour theory, we are also trained in photography, coding, motion graphics and interaction design–and are encouraged not only to research and write our own body copy, but to rationalize and present our ideas. I would argue that the novelty of finding a UX Unicorn will soon wear off–as each year hundreds of design students graduate armed with a multitude of skills.

Thus the great debate, especially strong among design students: To specialize or not to specialize. Is it really possible to be a true design polymath–the design equivalent of the Renaissance Man? Or does striving for this goal reduce us to the less grandiose synonym: Jack of All (a.k.a Master of None)? I would argue that developing a broad skillset today is, not only beneficial, but critical to designers’ survival.

In his article Polymath Interpolators: The Next Generation of Designers (Napier University, 2007), Paul A. Rodgers argues that “a new emerging generation of designers is needed to tackle the many different challenges facing the design profession,” and he describes this designer as the “hybrid designer.” He goes on, referencing D. West, to explain that “designers no longer fit neatly into categories such as product, furniture and graphics; rather they are a mixture of artists, engineers, designers, entrepreneurs and anthropologists.” Today, eight years after Rodgers’ article was published, I think it’s safe to say that this generation of designers is no longer emerging–it’s taking over. In order to compete with the quality and diversity of skillsets, designers today either have to be an outlier savant that specializes in one discipline, or a polymath/hybrid/unicorn/jack-of-all–and especially as the scope of the design industry extends into the realms of 3D printing, augmented reality and wearable technology (iWatch and Google Glass).

I would also argue that, though much of these skills and abilities can come from classes in design school, a true polymath designer takes decades to develop (and a great many of the lessons happen outside the classroom). The beauty of the concept of a universal education–the basis for university education–is the exposure to a range of disciplines. Though this can be overwhelming, for those striving towards the goal of becoming a multidisciplinary designer, here’s some advice from one of history’s most famous polymath: Benjamin Franklin. In his autobiography (which you can read here for free on Project Gutenberg), Franklin shares his Plan for Attaining Moral Perfection, and offers this wisdom: “I judg’d it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time; and, when I should be master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on.”

And so it seems that, for design students and professionals alike, we must continue to broaden our scope and steadily master new skills in an attempt to strike that fine line between the polymath and specialist; in other words it seems today that we must all strive to become a jack of all, master of some.

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