Defending The Generalists In The Web Design Industry

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In recent years there has been a move away from generalist Web designers to specialists such as content strategists, user experience architects and front-end coders. Where once there was a single job, there are now many, with ever-narrower spheres of responsibility.

While my peers are becoming more specialized, I have stoically refused to do so, remaining a generalist. If anything, my interests have broadened, encompassing subjects such as marketing, psychology and business strategy.

This has drawn criticism from some who view generalists negatively, which is in line with some of what I am reading in the blogosphere.

Where has this negativity come from, and is it justified?

Why Is Being A Generalist Considered Bad?

Part of the criticism is based on how complex the Web has become. Knowing everything about Web design was once possible, but is now unrealistic.

This is certainly a valid criticism. But the very fact that Web design has become so complex means that we need generalists to look beyond the silos of specialists.

The danger is that, without generalists, specialists become so wrapped up in their silos that they find it difficult to work with specialists in other disciplines. The generalist is needed to encourage cross-collaboration and to look beyond the silos at emerging developments on the Web.

Still, I suspect this is only part of the cause of the “snobbery” against generalists.

Don’t Confuse Being a Generalist With Lacking Skills

The perception is that generalists are common and relatively unskilled, because we all began as one when we learned Web design. But I would argue that such people are not true generalists.

A generalist is someone who is knowledgable across a range of subjects. This does not describe most Web designers out there and certainly not those starting out. It is important not to confuse being a generalist with being unskilled.

Perhaps a more apt description is jack of all trades. But this too is problematic. The phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none” has negative connotations. However, as you will see, I am proud of my ability to apply my hand at many “trades.” I don’t see it as a bad thing.

Specializing Isn’t the Only Way to Win Great Jobs

Finally, I think there is a perception that specializing is a good way to differentiate oneself in a sea of generalists, and that it often leads to bigger and better jobs.

Certainly, specializing is one way to differentiate yourself. But not the only way. One could also rely on quality work, knowledge of certain sectors and even breadth of experience and knowledge.

As for specialists being more qualified to work on larger projects, this is not true either. Large projects involve big teams, and a generalist is often needed to bring together the different specialists and get them working together effectively.

Does this mean we should all reject specialization and become generalists? Not at all. But in many situations, a generalist is required.

Not everybody agrees with Paul Boag.1
Not everybody agrees with Paul Boag. Anita Hart is convinced that well-rounded individuals have a depth in at least 1 area of expertise. Do you agree? Image source2

Should You Be A Generalist?

To be clear, nothing’s wrong with specializing. My point is that, in certain circumstances, being a generalist has its advantages. Here are some circumstances that spring to mind:

  • You thrive on variety.
    The Web is a great place for anyone with a short attention span. But the generalist has more opportunities than others to explore new developments, techniques and technologies. If you’re driven to constantly learn things and face new challenges, then the constant variety of disciplines on the Web may well suit you.
  • Your Web team is small.
    Small teams in large organizations, as well as small agencies, need generalists. Such teams require everyone to pitch in and do whatever needs to get done. Which in turn requires you to tend to many tasks.
  • You’re a freelancer.
    Working on your own often requires that you be a jack of all trades. Most clients will need you to help them with everything “Web-related,” from SEO to copy. Specializing as a freelancer is possible but certainly not the norm.
  • You are responsible for R&D.
    In larger organizations and agencies, someone needs to keep an eye on emerging technologies. While specialists will do this within their niches, some trends will emerge that don’t fall into these silos. The generalist will be the one who identifies these new opportunities and assesses when to invest in them.
  • You own your own business.
    As the owner of an agency myself, I can attest to the benefits of being a generalist. It not only enables me to stay informed on a range of topics and sell them to our clients, but helps me to understand what the people in my company do and to make sure the disciplines work well together.

While some of us must become generalists because of temperament or career choices, there are also good reasons to choose this path over another.

Why Become A Generalist?

Becoming a generalist is in many ways a superb career path. For starters, it keeps your options open. A generalist is always seeking new areas to explore and so is ideally positioned to move into new fields, such as mobile or HTML5.

Stay Agile, and Adapt to Changes in the Industry

The danger is that, as a specialist, you become so blinkered by your area of expertise that you can’t spot new opportunities or, worse still, can’t anticipate the slow demise of your niche. Take those who know how to program in nothing but ColdFusion or (dare I say?) Flash. Am I saying that these technologies are dead? Not yet, but the signs are not in their favor. And when all your eggs are in one basket, adapting is hard.

The Potential for More Work

By being able to adapt quickly to new circumstances, a generalist rarely lacks work. What’s more, they can create most products from start to finish, without having to rely on others. Not only do many generalists find this rewarding, but it also maximizes profitability, because they rarely need to outsource.

This aligns with client expectations, which are that you deliver most of their Web needs. Of course, there may be occasions when you need to turn to specialists. But a generalist should still be knowledgable enough to manage those projects, so that the client is not required to coordinate multiple contractors (which many clients hate).

But before you abandon the specialist path, it is only right to share the dangers of going the generalist route.

The Dangers of Being a Generalist

One more time: I am not suggesting that being a generalist is right for everyone, or that anything is wrong with specializing. Being a true generalist is no a garden of roses.

The Struggle to Show Your Value

In my opinion, the biggest challenge to being a generalist is establishing yourself as an expert and standing out from the crowd. Generalists are often seen as a dime a dozen. But true generalists, ones with extensive knowledge of a broad range of subjects, are much rarer. But few see it that way. Clients understand that they have to pay more for highly specialized skills, but do not recognize the need to pay as much for a broad skill set.

Also, if you care about such things, generalists are rarely the innovators. They don’t get the glory of developing new CSS techniques or establishing new design styles. Generalists instead march behind the vanguard, selecting those elements worth adopting in the mainstream.

The Constant Race to Learn

Generalists continually have to digest content from a massive variety of sources and decide what is of value and what to ignore. This is incredibly demanding, and more than once I have dismissed something only to play catch-up later when I discovered it was worth my attention.

If you are not a lifelong learner, then being a generalist is not for you. I spend a lot of time each day reading the blogs of specialists who innovate so that I can stay current. I also need to assimilate what I learn, which often involves trying these techniques for myself.

Of course, some of these new techniques may simply be beyond the skills of a generalist.

The Limits of the Generalist

Falling into the trap of wanting to “have a go” at pretty much anything that crosses your path is easy for the generalist. While admirable, this quality may be a detriment. Generalists can waste hours trying to do what a specialist could do in minutes. Worse still, the result could be substandard and damaging to their reputation.

Generalists need to know their limits, whether this means knowing when to call in a specialist or simply accepting that they cannot be involved in certain tasks.

The Reason For This Post

I have already explained why I have written this post; it is important that there is a counter-balance to the ever-increasing drive towards specialization. But it’s more than that. I am also keen to see a new-found respect for the generalists among us, a recognition that developing a broad understanding of the increasingly complex aspects of Web design takes just as much skill and effort as becoming an expert in one area.

Finally, this post is a call to action to those who consider themselves generalists to take their role seriously. Being truly effective generalists who can offer valuable services to their clients and colleagues will take commitment and a lot of work.

(al) (il) (vf)

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Paul Boag has been working with the web since 1994. He is now co-founder of the web design agency Headscape, where he works closely with clients to establish their web strategy. Paul is a prolific writer having written the Website Owners Manual, Building Websites for Return on Investment, Client Centric Web Design, Digital Adaptation and numerous articles for publications such as .net magazine, Smashing Magazine and the Web Designers Depot. Paul also speaks extensively on various aspects of web design both at conferences across the world and on his award winning Web design podcast boagworld.

  1. 1

    I agree with most of the post… except for the “Dangers of being a generalist” part. I am an excellent generalist myself and the points raised there are just ridiculous.

    “The Struggle to Show Your Value” – as a generalist you’re used to showing your value in multiple domains, thus putting you at the same level as the expert. If you’re a generalist you will have no struggle showing your value in my experience… if you do you’re not a good enough generalist.

    “The Constant Race to Learn” – again your arguments seem pretty invalid. As a generalist you’ve seen more and learn more and faster than experts around you.
    I’ve not experienced this to be a struggle or particularly hard – being a generalist makes things much easier.

    “The Limits of the Generalist” – this is where you got most of it wrong. Generalists often solve problems *much* faster than experts due to their rich experience on other fields. I’ve yet to come across a problem where I would struggle more than twice the time as an expert.

    All in all, well written, but a bit too critical on the excellent generalists like myself.

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    • 2

      I’ve been a Generalist for my entire career, and I found his dangers section to be spot on.

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    • 3

      Glad to see you see being a generalist so positively! Obviously I was only writing from my own experiences and so cannot speak for you. To be honest, I perhaps overstated those points a little (although I do think they are true) in order to create a sense of balance in the article. I didn’t want to come across as wholeheartedly in favour of the generalist route :-) However, its great that you have done it for me in the comments :p

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      • 4

        My business card says “Web-oriented Bootstrap engineer.”

        It’s a conversation starter. It leads to the question, “What is a bootstrap engineer?” at which point I can give the elevator pitch: “I’m the guy you hire to get your web-based startup off the ground. You need someone who can do everything from code your CSS to administer your cloud-based deployment scheme, who can recommend, deploy, and integrate a continual integration, bug-tracking and agile/XP management plan, while also implementing the necessary peripherals of any web-based scheme, like social networking integration, remote purchasing, authentication, administration panels, analytics, and encryption. I can do this in python, perl, ruby, or node, with Django, Catalyst, Rails, Express, or Zappa. I’m the one-man band that keeps your start-up’s game of musical chairs going long enough, strong enough, for you to get the funding needed to afford more chairs.”

        1
    • 5

      I’ve been a generalist for 3years, besides websites I am working on 3D animations and visualizations as well as other DTP and still my skills are good enough for my clients.

      I think that all of these different areas have a lot in common and in fact it just widens my view about the goal of www/3d/dtp -> marketing the products and services. What’s even more important I like to do what I do, I am hardly ever bored because one day working on e-commerce and another on interior design is good variety.

      I agree that one disadvantage of being a generalist is “the struggle to show your value”, because it multiplies the time you need to create an impressive portfolio.
      You must watch out not to burn-out as it is hard work to be generalist.

      1
    • 6

      I wish I had your kind of clients

      1
    • 7

      @John C: Ego much?

      3
    • 8

      It reads a bit like you fall under the category “Don’t Confuse Being a Generalist With Lacking Skills”.

      You just can’t be a real expert in every field. So either you’re working on super easy projects only or you just think it’s all that easy – which would also be one of the dangers probably.

      And if you are that super genius in all areas, you comment is bit arrogant.

      Being a generalist, too, I feel Paul got it exactly right. Of course he can’t speak for every individual but in my opinion the topic is very well chosen for this blog and the article itself is brilliant!

      Thanks Paul!

      1
  2. 9

    “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
    — Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

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    • 10

      excellent.

      1
    • 11

      re: Generalists
      Ditch’s quote from Robert Heinlein’s “Time Enough For Love” reminds me of that time in high school when all his books made for glorious reading. And he made a heck of a lot of sense.

      2
    • 12

      What a superb quote! I would have included that in my post if I had known about it.

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      • 13

        …thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.

        -Karl Marx

        1
    • 14

      Yeah dude – specialization is for insects.

      2
  3. 15

    I truly loved this one Paul!

    As I consider myself more a generalist mind, I do agree with you when it comes time to know your limit. For some people, it can take a long time ;)

    Freelancing was really what I needed. Taking different projects requiring different skills always kept me up-to-date.

    Thanks for that great post.

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  4. 16

    As a generalist, who also is a one and a half man team, I found this blog very reassuring, thanks Paul. Sometimes I feel my head will explode if I try and absorb all the necessary information, not to mention not getting any sleep. So now I feel better, it is ok to be the way I am.

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  5. 17

    Great article as always Paul. It is part of the growing pains of our industry. Gaming went through the same thing. Back in the NES says the dev teams were so small sometimes the programmer would create the graphics and the music. Now the industry has become so specialized with texture artists, level designers, Modelers, etc.

    In my job as a web project manager, I am very much a generalist. When I first took on this role (coming from a web designer/developer background), I did feel a little uneasy because I had to willingly detach myself from the pure technical, and hands on. However in doing this I gained a great appreciation for the entire web package, and the power of collaborating between the different disciplines.

    I also believe the tools we use play a huge role in this. As the tool grow with the industry, it will allow us to work more efficiently, and focus more on the product we are building.

    4
  6. 18

    Such a post as this suggests that you have your own reservations about being a generalist.

    “The lady doth protest too strongly” -Shakespeare

    designing half the time and developing the other half of the time means that you are spending half as much time designing or developing as your specializing peers.
    In such cases you will definitely fall behind within a few years.

    Of course, knowing as much as you can about your industry is super important but you need to master one aspect and have a strong working knowledge of the rest.

    Do you really think you can write copy like a copywriter who has been writing his or her entire life? Why dilute your strongest skills by taking this on?

    It is futile to be a jack of all trades. You can only keep it up for so long before the enormity of our developing industry overwhelms you.

    So it goes…

    -dp

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    • 19

      However, if your client is on a limited budget, your request to also hire a copywriter, and a front end developer, and a DBA will more than likely get you a walk to the door. Being able to offer a menu of services all in one package ( and so handsome! ) is a solution many folks can appreciate.

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      • 20

        Personally, a client with a “limited budget” is not the type of client I’m looking for.

        -14
      • 23

        The other thing is, how many front-end developers are even proper graphic designers? Just being able to create good design (and not just ape css galleries’ trends) and code it up as well is quite the combination of skills – thank goodness for Javascript libraries and CMS’s like WordPress to save us some more generalizing!

        2
    • 25

      I disagree explain to me how the many historical Renaissance Men have coped with this problem then?

      0
    • 26

      dude, look at it this way: a generalist will do most of what you’re doing, but you wont be able to do what he does. when push comes to shove, the generalist will always win, because of his wide spread set of skills and big picture understanding.

      3
  7. 27

    Nice post. I myself am one, and I can honestly say that if it weren’t for my generalist skill set, I would never have reached the position where I am today in my company within only one year. Not only is there nothing wrong with being a generalist, but in my opinion it also the preferred direction to take. There is no “Master of … x …” anymore, because X itself can be split up into a dozen more disciplines almost always. It’s almost like there’s no way to become anything BUT a “Jack of all trades…”.

    10
  8. 28

    Thank you. I needed this. I’m a generalist in more than just web – as a part time church musician as well as a mom of teenagers. I have understood the value of having my fingers in lots of pies, but have struggled with the snobs in their specialized silos not to mention being overwhelmed trying to keep up. Thanks for the encouragement!

    5
  9. 29

    I would even argue that specializing too narrow is quite dangerous for your career.
    1. You become a tool for others to use, since you are extremely good at one thing, but you don’t see the big picture, you cannot connect the dots, etc.
    2. You are becoming more rigid / less agile over time, and risk having knowledge about something that might become obsolete in the future. Things change all the time, especially in IT, and you have to roll with it.
    3. Any individual in a management position must, to some extent, be a generalist. Specializing too strongly will make it impossible for you to climb up the ladder, or to be able to start your own business.

    23
  10. 30

    Great post!
    It’s good to know there’re others out there that think a-like me. :-)

    3
  11. 31

    I totally agree with your points both for and against the generalist. Being one myself, i constantly feel the weight of my choice. Just today i had to try to convince some back-end python guy i could do the coding for a page I designed instead of waiting for his front end guy to come and slice the psd I made. Im into everything: web, motion graphics, 3d and i keep licking my lips everytime i think of mobile apps and sites.

    I’m loving every minute of it, although it does take its toll, my eyes seriously ache right now from trying to read everything i find from stuff on ‘techcrunch’ to stuff happening at ’3DWorldMag’ and back here. lols. and that’s what I do for most of the day when i’m not working.

    I feel we are the “middle-brain’ guys, not totally left or right just in-between; where the sun shines… *smile*. And check this out, we usually end up in the top directorial or creative roles because we have the right mix of knowledge and usually can help everyone else see the big picture.

    7
  12. 32

    Great article! Outside of the web scene, in ad agency land for example, you have Designers, Copywriters, and Art Directors all reporting up to a Creative Director. Wouldn’t you say a Creative Director is a generalist of sorts? Yet, they don’t have the stigma of “Jack of All Trades, Master of None.”

    Point is, if you’re good at what you do it doesn’t matter what you call yourself.

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    • 33

      …thinking the exact same thing!

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    • 34

      That’s a very good point. It seems that the more experienced and “in-charge” you become, whether it’s as a creative director at an agency or as a business of one, you must either be a very good generalist or a very excellent people person. :)

      1
    • 35

      The background of the Creative Director is organization specific. Some have a creative background, others are just great project managers, with an eye for aesthetics. I’ve met creative directors who were never graphic designers, but were good at managing workflow.

      0
  13. 36

    Great article,

    thank you for the insight!

    1
  14. 37

    Whatever you do, do it as best as humanly possible.

    ‘Nuff said.

    5
  15. 38

    As someone who kinda fits into the “generalist camp”, I don’t much like the term.
    I mean, it sucks to have to pigeonhole yourself in any way, general or otherwise…but when we’re talking about landing freelance/consulting work, it’s a bit of an easier sell to explain myself as a “Hybrid.”

    In my case, I’m a hybrid UX/Creative Director.
    The longer-winded translation is this: I’m an experienced interactive art director with a lot of project and team management experience, who approaches design through a user experience methodology. Typically when introducing myself to a new client, I’ll follow this up with some storytelling and actual work examples (yes, I do make stuff).

    By choosing to label myself a Hybid, I’m able to focus my story on the two dominant skills that balance me as a valuable contributor. I still share my background in digital music production, Flash, illustration…all that and more. But people have work to do, and your focused story will help them figure out how to plug you in.

    7
  16. 40

    Mike Maddaloni - @thehotiron

    July 26, 2011 6:52 am

    No truer words spoken Paul, and thank you for putting this out there.

    Years ago I worked for a small consulting firm, and the president of the company, in justifying not giving me a raise or bonus, said I was too much of a generalist and he couldn’t sell me as an expert in one thing. I said, “thank you” and reminded him that a generalist was what was needed on the project I was on for the previous 1.5 years. Interestingly, the firm shut down about 6 months later.

    I’d add to your list of dangers “re-entering the working world and working for someone else” which, for many reasons, I have decided to do. It is a challenge explaining to people (mainly recruiters and some hiring managers) what I have been doing for the past years and why I have deeper skills in some areas and more broad in others. When they say, “so, you’re a generalist” I always respond with, “yes!” and the conversation goes rocky from there.

    This challenge to matching me up is the typical technical match of skills to “the grid” as I call it – where you line up a resume/CV against the grid of requirements and if there is not a perfect match the candidate is discarded. I have seen this with large firms as well as with smaller ones. I have also been told that the work I have done for “mom and pop” businesses is not as relevant as what I have done for large corporations, even if all I did was a landing page for the corp. and a full eCommerce Web site with a blog and community for the “mom and pop!”

    I welcome people thoughts on my dilemma, and my guess is it is one I am not the only one experiencing… unless people have stayed on their own.

    mp/m

    3
    • 41

      I totally agree. Good point. I would be stuffed if I ever had to work for somebody else again ;-S

      0
    • 42

      @Mike Maddaloni – maybe we should stop admitting to being “generalists” then, and reply to such questions with something like, “No, I’m multi-skilled.” That still leaves them with a comfortable label for you, but prompts them to question the difference, and creates an opportunity to educate. :-)

      2
  17. 43

    Generalists are much more fun. They think outside the usual paterns making innovation possible. I consider myself proudly as a generalist in programing, most experienced in web development. However I’m fine with developing any kind of needed software. so far I convinced even huge players in the industry and made them happy. presenting myself as a generalist sure helped me to get good positions.

    1
  18. 44

    Great article! I myself fall into this category, and at times I wonder if it’s a problem for me. At my current employer, I’ve seen many of my peers get promoted to higher positions, because they’ve specialized in management, or certain distinct areas of development, and, indeed, I’m currently being forced into a specialized role of a systems admin. My general knowledge is acknowledged, and sometimes appreciated, but alas, my company doesn’t know what to do with me, and thus, I’m sort of left behind. I definitely feel that my generalist nature is valuable, and gives me insight to the larger picture, and part of me also fears specializing in something that ends up the next dead technology. Maybe I can approach my employer about officially recognizing me in this light and not penalize me.

    3
  19. 45

    “I am an expert to make trendy cufon canva things but I am totally useless if the trend changes” I would add. Generalists are efficient because they don’t need to give they project to many other experts and loosing time by doing so. In addition they are very very good at driving projects. In my opinion expert a just people who lack skills and say “As I dont know how to code CSS3 HTML5 or even PHP I say that I am the best for ideation and photoshoping.”

    Generalists can evolve and move more quickly than experts and do you remember what Darwin said about species and evolution ?

    1
  20. 46

    This post and discussion (close to my heart as a designer who’s not only a web generalist, but also does *gasp* print design) reminds me of a great quote by G.K. Chesterton from his book “Heretics”…

    “Whistler could produce art; and in so far he was a great man. But he could not forget art; and in so far he was only a man with the artistic temperament. There can be no stronger manifestation of the man who is a really great artist than the fact that he can dismiss the subject of art; that he can, upon due occasion, wish art at the bottom of the sea. Similarly, we should always be much more inclined to trust a solicitor who did not talk about conveyancing over the nuts and wine. What we really desire of any man conducting any business is that the full force of an ordinary man should be put into that particular study. We do not desire that the full force of that study should be put into an ordinary man. We do not in the least wish that our particular law-suit should pour its energy into our barrister’s games with his children, or rides on his bicycle, or meditations on the morning star. But we do, as a matter of fact, desire that his games with his children, and his rides on his bicycle, and his meditations on the morning star should pour something of their energy into our law-suit. We do desire that if he has gained any especial lung development from the bicycle, or any bright and pleasing metaphors from the morning star, that they should be placed at our disposal in that particular forensic controversy. In a word, we are very glad that he is an ordinary man, since that may help him to be an exceptional lawyer.”

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  21. 47

    What i don’t understand is why people associate generalists with a lack of expertise?

    If it is possible for a man to be expert across as diverse set of subjects as indeed Leonardo Di Vinci a well known Polymath was i am sure it is easily possible for someone to be expert across the limited subject areas of content strategy, user experience architecture and front-end coding.

    4
    • 48

      Good point – would terms like ‘IT Polymath’ and ‘Internet Renaissance Man’ be more apt for many true ‘web generalists’?

      0
  22. 49

    my business depends on generalists and I’d have to say my clients love how we can take them from identity design to print collateral to front end web design and website development . A lot of designers (i believe) have made a natural progression to the web quite easily and i don’t think it’s too much to keep up with. I think it actually helps a project when the head creative on the project can put their hands to all elements involved.

    4
  23. 50

    In the end, generalists will get the jobs in a collapsing economy.

    Look at the stonecutters who specialized in decorating Mayan victory obelisks. Where are they now?

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  24. 51

    Who would you rather hire. A good web designer that develops or a great web designer?

    -2
    • 52

      Depends if I have enough money in my budget to also hire a great developer to go along with the great designer.

      2
  25. 53

    Paul, you hit the nail on the head. As a generalist, I’ve felt the tug to specialize in order to validate my work. Your post has liberated me from feeling that way!

    2
  26. 54

    Interesting post… Especially the bit about skills and development. I have a good grounding in Flash and thinking about what skills to learn next – html5? But what of it to learn? Silverlight? Any future? Ideally I think it needs to be cross platform, but still undecided. Mainly for large full screen interface?

    1
  27. 55

    Tom, NewEvolution

    July 26, 2011 10:38 am

    Awesome read!

    0
  28. 56

    Love this article and couldn’t agree more.

    One more argument for the Generalist:
    Being knowledgeable across a range of subjects gives you an edge when being considered for a management position. Managing a team with many skill sets requires a wide range of experience.

    1
  29. 57

    all arounder: – a versatile person who is expert at many things; “she’s the best all-rounder they’ve seen in years”

    0
  30. 58

    Specialization is a great thing if you are chasing cubical jobs. In a large corporation you are at the top of the food chain, insulated from the world at large and able to focus on your chosen discipline. The dangers of this are obvious. Technology has a habit of changing and your chosen field can be eliminated just as quickly. Working for a big company is like being on a cruise ship. You do not feel the waves of change and you feel safe and secure until a steward from HR comes along and throws you overboard. Having been tossed over the railing myself I tend to keep my skills broad and my options diverse just for the sake of self-preservation.

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  31. 59

    The problem I’ve had being a generalist is going on interviews and they ask you, ‘Are you a developer or a designer?’ I’ve yet to come up with the answer they are looking for. I’ve tried them all…

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    • 60

      My answer is “Both.” I know photoshop like the back of my hand and I can write XHTML and CSS from memory, rarely having to look anything up. I’m not quite as good with PHP but would describe myself as proficient and I have a ton of experience with Drupal (I started doing Drupal sites seven and a half years ago, long before most had heard of it).

      There is one really huge advantage to this that I have seen in my own career. I will never produce a design that can’t be translated into code and I know that I will always have control over the output. In fact, that latter part is the whole reason I taught myself HTML in 1996 – the WYSIWYG editors available then were such crap I thought I could do better myself and it turned out I was right. ;-)

      4
  32. 61

    I don’t buy it. You’ll need to become one thing or the other eventually. After years of being a hybrid (designer/developer) it simply got to the point where I didn’t have time to be “good enough” at both.

    I went the developer route and it takes all my time to be a good developer. For me to be as good as some of the designers and UX guys we have here I’d have to have 48 hour days.

    Maybe I’m just cynical.

    0
    • 62

      Well I started web design in 1994 and I seem to still be holding on to the generalist role. Perhaps I am just slow to realise it doesn’t work ;-)

      6
    • 63

      Possibly Wes like myself works somewhere with a lot of talent. By a lot I mean hundreds of very talented people. The creative team where I work is 50+ strong, developers the same. Web alone is 20+ Ui devs 20+ Java devs, plus digital marketing, writers, pm, UX and merchandising. Add to that print, photography, brand, set designers, product designers (shoes, clothing, leather goods, jewelry) mulitply by several in-house brands plus licensed brands. Hundreds of very talented people.

      There is simply too much. You have to choose what to spend your time on to get anything done. Collaboration can be really rewarding though with so many great people to work with.

      2
    • 65

      I find employers want the designer/developer 2-for-one package. Your right, in the end, can only be the master of one discipline and need to choose, or accept being good enough is ok for you and that’s where you’ll stay. Personally, I enjoy being the generalist and being a project middle man, working with clients, developers and writers and learning from their expertise.

      0
  33. 66

    This is a really well done article, thank you! As a lifelong learner I think I will always be a generalist.

    1
  34. 67

    Good points Paul, I can only agree with you. I wrote a few thoughts on this subject some time ago http://bit.ly/4pxiHy

    0
  35. 68

    Wonderful article Paul,

    As an independent ‘Generalist’ for more than 25 years (print, digital, web, product) I’ve witnessed first hand, both the positive and negative gyrations regarding business acceptance of the ‘Generalist’.

    Several points come to mind that I occasionally remind myself with:
    1) Freedom – To explore and push ideas and concepts further than perhaps other talented practitioners. This in itself may not sound valuable but merely self-indulgent, but if in the end, it reveals hidden clarity and insight, then its gold.
    2) Confidence in ones experience(s) – Probably the biggest hurdle when dealing with the generalist stigma. Never make excuses for knowing and being good at a lot of stuff, just know when to bring in the specialized talent.
    3) My brain is wired to be a great expanding generalist. Over the years I’ve tried more liner specialization, only to have my brain tell me “this is no fun” or “I’m bored”, and that’s where the danger lies. Being a generalist requires much greater discipline to ensure that one stays on track. Those tangential interests that continually bombard are both a blessing and a curse.
    4) I understand that I’m a better designer (in whatever capacity) due to the very fact that I’m engaged continually with many disciplines, techniques, skills and interests.

    And finally, for all of the generalists out there, comfortable in your skin, marching along to several symphonies simultaneously rather than a single drum, leveraging the full breadth of knowledge and experience that you gather as you make your way through this crazy maze of life, remember – ‘Variety IS the spice of life’

    3
  36. 69

    Great article Paul! I myself is a generalist too.

    0
  37. 70

    Fantastic and balanced article. Also being a generalist that came to the web via print and interaction design, I’m encouraged by all the generalists who are commenting.

    I agree entirely that a generalist is far more likely to come to creative solutions faster than a non-generalist and will create better solutions to boot. The generalist designs much more effectively and efficiently by understanding broadly (and with depth) the intricacies of designing for their medium. “Materials & Tools” as Jeff Croft put it in his MIX11 talk “Designer & Developer: A Case for the Hybrid”. http://channel9.msdn.com/Events/MIX/MIX11/EXT07

    Regarding the term hybrid, I like what Wilson Miner says about it in his “Design & Build” talk for Buildconf, “…this hybrid approach for me is embodied in this idea of a craftsman. Someone who works across specializations. Someone who understands how all the pieces come together and especially someone who cares about quality at every level…native to the way the web works”. http://www.vimeo.com/7835308

    I believe print designers have traditionally transitioned so well to the web largely because they are generalists. Print designers must possess a vast array of skills; aesthetic, design, technical, business, marketing, and interpersonal to name a few. However, there is something more fundamental than the profession of origin involved. Designers tend to test higher for intuition (http://uxmovement.com/thinking/myers-briggs-personality-type-of-designers/), a valuable trait for someone who must synthesize solutions from disparate parts, very often bending the rules of design and technical limitations to achieve great work. The intuitive mind doesn’t require all of the minute details to understand the value and capability of the whole (although curiosity may lead one to seek out all of the details). If you have chosen a generalist path you are likely wired to do so. I could choose to become a specialist and I know it would not be a choice that could sustain me.

    As Giles said, “Variety IS the spice of life.”

    As specialization continues to become the greater trend. I’m confident that the value of the generalist will only increase, as the natural state of the web will demand it.

    2
  38. 71

    Charles-Henri Lison

    July 26, 2011 11:13 pm

    Thank you, you well describe my new job in Australia.

    In Paris I was a defender of the “each person have a specific task”. For 3 month now I learn that to be a generalist is also excited and is definitively not degrading at all, even after 2 years of experience in a specific web role.

    0
  39. 72

    Great article. It was comprehensive and provided a great insight

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  40. 73

    Great read – the article and the comments.

    As a generalist/hybrid with around 6 years experience – I can say I AM TIRED :)

    but I will continue this path – because is interesting

    0
  41. 74

    This article maked my day!

    Most of us Generalists are talented people with passion for knowledge.

    The only thing that troubles me from time to time is that i get so depressed when i realize that there’re so many things to learn. I guess that is the hardest part, to realize that even though i’m a Generalist, i can’t do everything! Damn!

    10
  42. 75

    Srinivas Sarakanam

    July 27, 2011 12:30 am

    I like the article!!

    0
  43. 76

    This is an interesting article. I’ve found myself to be a lifetime learner. I love design, and I love to code. I like learning different languages, I dont like to be in the dark about other aspects of the web, I like to know about them and be able to use it.

    IMHO I see life as being a generalist, we go to school and learn a myriad of topics not even related to our career, we have family, friends, other hobbies that may or may not be as difficult as the web, and lets not forget intimate relationships, we all aren’t so great at that! why do careers have to be so specialized?

    1
  44. 77

    Working at a small company certainly pushes me towards being a generalist, so thanks for this post, I was starting to consider specializing in pure programming, but you’ve brought some intersting insights to the table.

    0
  45. 78

    Damilare Onajole

    July 27, 2011 2:32 am

    Thanks, great insight.

    0
  46. 79

    Thank you for this post. Being a generalist has become a natural circle for me. Because I have a broad range of skills, I get hired for jobs which involve doing a lot of different things. Because I get hired for that kind of jobs, I end up doing many different things and never specializing in a particular technique. I agree that it is very hard to keep up with everything new in every area of Web design. The other downside is that I suffer of not being a real expert at what I love, such as CSS design. Although I could easily become a specialized HTML/CSS integrator, I cannot bring myself to become an expert in only one area, otherwise I would feel like I am missing out on a lot of things…

    1
  47. 80

    Great Article, finally I get to see what other people like me truly mean to this industry. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fallen trapped into the whole: “Oh, you’re a generalist, that means you don’t have enough skills”. I hate when just because i can do a lot of different things (from design to front-end and even back-end development. While also being able to do motion graphics) doesn’t mean I don’t have enough skills for one particular area. However, I would have to respectfully disagree with the author on the dying technologies like Flash. I think Flash has evolved more than just web. I’ve seen colleagues work on amazing projects that push Flash to its limits (from touch screen representations to fully developed mobile apps that work across all boards). I think sometimes we tend to forget that Flash does more than just video. (But this is just my opinion).
    Still, an amazing expression of what being a generalist really means. Let’s have a Generalist revolution! haha jk =)

    1
  48. 81

    1.) A generalist can realize small projects or supervise big ones. No more no less.
    2.) There are not a lot of graphic designers left who can use full possibilities of current frontend techniques (ancient DHTML examples – not suitable for all modern browsers: http://www.bug-x.de, http://www.bangbangbang.de).

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  49. 82

    I love being a generalist–talking and educating clients on all aspects of web design. The more I talk freely to clients the more they trust me at initial meetings and the more I land new business. While, I’m focused on front-end design and web standards, I know what I’m not good at or need assistance with, and bring in the experts as needed. At the end of the day, clients want to bring in more business and don’t care how well formed my css is or my taxomony research for site architecture. The details is what I worry about and being a generalist I get to be involved with all aspects of building a great site for clients.

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  50. 83

    Just out of curiosity, why would one’s comment be deleted? I posted a fair but honest reply yesterday, and it’s completely gone. I genuinely do not feel as though my comment was in anyway out of line or inappropriate. And I didn’t think voting down a comment deleted it, just grayed it out or collapsed it.

    1
  51. 84

    Funny thing about that “jack of all trades” phrase, if you take a look at its Wikipedia entry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_of_all_trades,_master_of_none) there’s a mention of an extended rhyming couplet version:

    “Jack of all trades, master of none,
    Though often times better than master of one”

    4
  52. 85

    “Jack of all trades, master of none.” People often forget the full phrase: “Jack of all trades, master of none, Though often times better than master of one”

    I understand and generally agree with the need for specialization, but it has been my experience, both in web design and in life itself, that generalists are often far more valuable and necessary. The pendulum might swing towards specialization in the next few years, but will have to swing back to us generalists if web development is to stay cohesive and streamlined which is becoming even more important these days. Plus, when you take into consideration how various technologies are converging, it is likely that web protocols and standards are likely to get a little less complicated as some of these now proprietary and clunky technologies converge into more streamline systems.

    At least I hope.

    SimpleThirteen.com

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    • 86

      Agreed Eric. Being a generalist and finding that full quote a while back was a revelation. In the end, I made the full quote the central feature of my site.

      david.mckelveycreative.com

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  53. 87

    I agree with Alan above, as a life-long generalist it is the thirst for knowledge, new experiences and the bigger picture that’s gets me going every morning, and I suspect that’s true for all of us who identify with your article Paul.

    Getting made redundant after 27 years in narrow corporate IT roles freed me up to be what I truly am and able to create my own future – and I love it, like I’m sure we all do. We can live in the moment and adapt as we go, not fear getting side-lined, so for me, being a generalist is about freedom.

    Cheers

    2
  54. 88

    My son and I can get projects finished in a fraction of the time it takes larger design/development firms. The primary reason? Meetings. The larger the team, the more time required for meetings and the greater the chances of communication failures along the way resulting in things having to be done over. I’ve been working alone as a designer/developer/photographer for 15 years, the last 5 with my son after he graduated from college. We’re “generalists”, although I think that’s an odd term that really doesn’t describe us. We just know a lot of things about a lot of things, we don’t waste time talking about it and our projects move along quickly with customers who are happy with the results every time. If people want to criticize that, be my guest. It won’t change a thing. :)

    2
  55. 89

    Generalist and proud. It’s been my strongest selling point both as a freelancer and in employment. I’ve always liked the analogy of being the ‘glue’ or the ‘cement’ that holds teams together. It’s hard to have a designers vs developers type melt down when there’s someone in the middle who can hold their own as both, and can relate and mediate.

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  56. 90

    Kelly Ann: KA Graphic Designs

    July 28, 2011 8:50 am

    Thank you for a great and reassuring post Paul.

    I’m with you there Jane (many posts back) …I constantly read books, blogs, tutorials, etc. Sometimes I think I look at too much and absorb none of it, until I need to utilize it, and then thankfully the clouds part and lo and behold…I can do it. :-)

    Here’s to all of us who are true “Generalists”.

    Kelly Ann

    1
  57. 91

    I think it’s perfectly fine to be extremely focused on one discipline, whatever that may be, but the more well-rounded skill sets seem to have a better ‘top-down’ view of projects. of course, that’s just what I’ve found in my experience. Generalists can better draw from a diverse range of skills when decision making.

    I guess it’s horses for courses.

    0
  58. 92

    From my POV, you simply have to be a generalist in order to be an expert in “web-development”. I’m working in an agency and even started learning linux to be able to administrate our root servers and immediatly help our customers when something doesn’t work.
    I think it’s about the type of person you are… I feel like there’s something new to learn every day and I love the challenge of new stuff. Doesn’t even feel like work most of the time and it’s just pure satisfaction to get something new up and running ;)

    2
  59. 93

    As an entrepreneur, being a generalist is extremely powerful. You may not be an expert in all areas, but you have knowledge in a wide variety and are aware of when you require an expert in a certain area. In this example it also helps as you’ll know and understand the quality of work this expert can provide you. If you know nothing of the area, how do you know that the “expert” knows any better?

    1
  60. 94

    So, i’m not alone?!?! Brilliant read, thanks Paul.

    I always had this feeling that I somehow had to defend myself after I told people I was a generalist. It always sounded like i was short of something. Now I know that’s not true.

    The tasks I have during any working day are so wide and varied I would need 20 additional staff if i relied on ‘experts’. It’s just not feasible in a small agency, and frankly, I’d get extremely bored if i did exactly the same thing day in, day out. That’s a bit too ‘Laverne & Shirley’ for me. It would also be extremely bad for business if I was constantly telling clients that I’d ‘get back to them on that’ each time they asked a question.

    Generalists are extremely useful individuals. Power to us!

    2
  61. 95

    Been a generalists has taking me this far as “web guy” and I will continue to evolve into whatever the web becomes.

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  62. 96

    General web expert that´s what I am!

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  63. 97

    Hands down, Apples app store wins by a mile. Its a huge selection of all sorts of apps vs a rather sad selection of a handful for Zune. Microsoft has plans, especially within the realm of games, but Im not sure Id want to bet on the future if this aspect is important to you. The iPod is really a much better choice in that case.

    -3
  64. 98

    Very nice post. I now realized where I stand within the Web Design industry. Thanks for this lovely post!

    More power!

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