Web Industry. What’s my job title? Becoming a Generalist
Web Designer / Interactive Designer (flash days) / Art Director / User Interface (UI) Designer / User Experience (UX) Designer. Ok this is getting out of hand…oh wait, what if I develop too?
I’ve had each of these titles at one point or another over the course of my career. None of them fully described my role; each title related to a portion of what did, but never the whole thing. There are many job titles in the web industry, with various definitions. Here is a good list of job titles in our industry.
So, am I asking for a title that describes everything I do for a living? No, because that would be unrealistic—well at least for me—but I do want to discuss my experience with titles, labels, and responsibilities. I’d like to examine the debate between being a generalist or specialist; whether or not it is wise to be a “jack of all trades, master of none”.
The Web Generalist vs. Specialist
If you don’t understand what I’m referring to let me explain a little. A generalist’s skills revolve around a broader set (design, html, css, interaction patterns, user psychology, information architecture, story telling, etc). A specialist’s skills are specific (icon designer). There are pros and cons to each when building a team. I’d like to represent both sides objectively, but all I can really offer is my experience from a Visual Arts graduate to where I am now.
My Career History in “Official” Job Titles
Job 1: Interactive Designer
Job 2: Web Designer / Developer
Job 3: Art Director
Job 4: On my own. Changed depending on who asked. :)
Job 5 v1: Web Designer
Job 5 v2: UI Developer
Job 5 v3: UI Engineer
Job 5 v4: UX Designer
Job 5 v5: UX Strategist
Each job built upon my previous learning, making me more well-rounded, more versatile.
My Journey To Becoming A Generalist
At the start of my career, I don’t think it was my intention to become a generalist. That’s just the way things evolved, and honestly it has served me better to become proficient in multiple areas, rather than to perfect one specialized skill. Now this may not apply to those who work or want to work for a large scale fortune 500/1000 level company but my experience has been with companies with less that 250 employees (most had less than 10). The smaller companies I’ve worked for need each employee to wear a variety of hats. The best way that I can illustrate my definition of a generalist is through my personal experiences. Lets start at the beginning.
(Other responsibilities: Web Designer, Developer)
Hired for design skills, Taught to code
I started my career with a good sense of design and years of visual art experience. Those skills got me hired, along with the expectation that I would learn to code HTML and CSS. It’s not what I expected straight out of college, but I was willing to grow. I was part of a small team within the interactive department, comprised of an Associate Creative Director, a Copywriter, a Project Manager, and an Interactive Designer (me). I learned to design a piece with my right brain (like an email, landing page, or microsite) then code it with my left. It was a good balance for me, and I had great people around to support me when I couldn’t figure it out on my own. Right out of the gate, I learned the value of knowing design and coding, one skill pushed the other, and I became capable of taking things to the next level.
“Web Designer / Developer”
(Other responsibilites: Web Designer, Front End Developer, Project Manager, Copywriter, Account Manager)
Hired for design and coding skills, taught to manage (small) clients
That first job got me poached by a small web design studio of three; they showed interest in my ability to develop what I designed. Their process began with the salesman, who would gain a client, get a downpayment on their project and then hand it over to one of us to manage it from beginning to end. We worked like a group of freelancers with our own assigned clients under one company name. I felt inexperienced, and they threw me in feet first. As difficult as it was, this position taught me how to present my work, accept feedback, and decide which criticism was useful and which wasn’t.
I had that opportunity to create a voice for myself and learn that there is a lot more to running a successful business than just making pretty pictures and being a type snob.
(Other responsibilities: Art Director, Web Designer, Strategist,Salesman)
Hired for design skills, taught to manage (large) clients, proposed alternate business strategies to executives.
I then moved to a company with a long history of large clients with large budgets. I was excited to be part of something that was on a different level than my past experiences. But it didn’t quite turn out that way, as I realized bit by bit that the company was struggling. The economy was rough, cash flow was low, and our director was forced to compete for smaller scale projects. It was discouraging, but I decided to use it as an opportunity to become a leader: I would try to help turn the company around. I worked with the owner to create a strategy that would show the value of our business process and potential success results for our clients. It worked well for a little while, we helped a few clients, but the company was too far upside down to continue. So we all moved on.
“CEO of Bent Design”
(Other responsibilities: Business Owner, Designer, Salesman, Consultant) Hired myself, learned the importance of being a personal brand
After looking around for other opportunities and coming up with little to nothing, I decided to give it go on my own. I found clients, built my own brand, and split my time between client work and agency outsource work. I loved the work I did and the time went by quickly, but I’ll admit that this wasn’t an easy time in my life. It was a stretch to support my family, and I experienced a lot of stress. I’m grateful, though, that I had that opportunity to create a voice for myself and learn that there is a lot more to running a successful business than just making pretty pictures and being a type snob.
“Web Designer / UI Developer / UI Engineer / UX Designer and Strategist”
(Other responsibilities: Web Application Developer, Usability, Information Architect, Business Analyst)
Hired for development skills, wireframing, persona development, design skills, taught application level thought processes, agile development, and how to establish a user centered culture
This is were I am today. I’ve been working here three years now and I’ve watched the company grow from 45 employees to 100+. And it has been so transforming for me. I’m in a position here to influence the company in a big way. I’ve learned about the importance of standardized design and code, so that we don’t end up with a franken-app. One of the most exciting things for me has been seeing actual users of our application try out what I’ve designed/developed; I get to see if they use the product the way that I expected them to. This has been an opportunity for me to get deep into the weeds of business goals/needs, how to find a balance between profits and user experience. My positions and responsibilities have evolved over the years and has made it interesting and exciting.
Being a Generalist
It took me a while to admit to myself that I’m a generalist—that I enjoy being able to design, code, present, and sell like the best of them. I used to avoid being known as a “jack of all trades,” but I’m proud of it now. Looking over my past, and everything I’ve learned through my various experiences, I’ve come to realize that I was naturally drawn to softer skills along with the harder ones. Each job built upon my previous learning, making me more well-rounded, more versatile. Don’t get me wrong, I still love the feeling of a person watching over my shoulder as I do my thing in Photoshop or Indesign, or as I use that foreign language called code. It’s nice to hear them say, “Man, you really know your stuff.” I’ve learned so much in my career, my generalist career, and I am truly passionate about this industry. I get excited when I can show data that supports my aesthetic, and my drive for a better web keeps me going everyday.
“The thing with specialists is that specialists can only survive when an economy can support it.” — Jared Spool