Is it better to be a specialist or a generalist designer?

The starter of a new year makes us reflect on what we plan to do next, personally and professionally. 
In my case, I decided to go back to school and to find a new job. My previous contract wasn’t renewed, so I need to get back out there and sell myself as a designer. But how do I do that exactly? Should I keep pushing towards being the best generalist designer that I can be or do I need to specialize in a particular field?
What’s the difference between a generalist and a specialist designer and how do we chose between them?

Generalist vs Specialist Designer

I found out that there are several terms when it comes to differentiating these two concepts. There are generalists — specialists, specialists-generalists and even found a post about unicorns. But for the sake of simplification, let’s just focus on the main ones.

A generalist is typically someone that knows a bit of everything while a specialist, on the other hand, is someone that has a lot of knowledge on a particular area of study.

Thinking about design, a generalist is someone that can do a bit of graphic, some web design and maybe can even give a hand in UX/UI. I belong to this category, even though I strive better into some fields than in others.

A specialist, on the other hand, is someone that has focused on working in only one of the fields; for example as a graphic designer.

One thing that is important to refer is that just because you’re a generalist, doesn’t mean that you like to do all things, you can prefer some areas and naturally, end up practicing and working more on those particular areas. The same goes for specialists. Just because they work as a UX/UI and have become a specialist in that area, doesn’t mean that they don’t know (and like) other areas. It’s just a broad way of identifying and separating generalists from specialists.

Pros and Cons of being a Generalist Designer

This designer is someone with T shape skills. Is someone that will easily be able to work with experts of other areas and across multiple disciplines. So as long as the designer has the skills, there’s a ton of project possibilities, and he can take on a lot of clients as well.

On the other hand, it can be harder to compete for a fair work fee as well as standing out from the several generalists out there. 
Additionally, and I’ve experienced this first hand, your portfolio doesn’t look as polished and cohesive as the one of a specialist. So most of the times, you can across as more amateur and companies aren’t sure about where to place you.

Pros and Cons of being a Specialist Designer

A specialist is generally seen as someone of high value because he can solve specific problems with high-quality outcomes. As a result, the designer is someone that is well known for doing a better job and as a consequence, earn more money than a generalist.
 The portfolio of a specialist frequently looks more consistent and put together than the generalist.

As far as cons go, being specialized into a specific field requires a lot of time, constant effort and sometimes money to improve and stay up to date.
 It can also mean that there isn’t a lot of variety of work to show and that you might need to decline or outsource some work.
Additionally, if they need (or want) a career change, it may be harder for them to adapt to something else other than their field.

Employers prefer specialists or generalists?

There isn’t a direct answer to this question, but I can tell you what I think it’s happening in Lisbon: Employers favor specialists. Web designers, UX, and UI experts are the most requested designers right now.

In some instances, it makes sense to favor a specialist. Some companies work in specific areas of design or have many projects in that field. So it’s best to hire someone that will do great work in the least amount of time and therefore, add more value to the company.

However, most of the times, employers believe that having a specialist is something that will bring the company more visibility because, among other things, they’re keeping up with the latest trends. This results into job descriptions that ask for a specialist but in reality, are meant for a generalist designer. For example, one that requires a web designer that in fact will be doing flyers, powerpoint presentations and everything that the company might need design wise.

Who wins the battle after all?

I would call it a tie. It depends on the type of company that you intend to work for and what you envision yourself doing.

In cases such as startups, it’s better to have generalist designers that can work across several teams and contribute to improving the company’s design on a greater scope. If, on the other hand, you intend to work for a software house, then it’s better to be specialized in UX or UI.

As for me, I tend to gravitate more to graphic and illustration, but I also see User Experience as a vast field. So, at least for now, I don’t think I’ll narrow my options, and I’ll keep on working my skills in general.

What about you? Do you have a specialty or are you a generalist that, like me, gravitates more towards certain areas?


Originally published at Melted.