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)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.flickr.com/photos/anitakhart/4410481700/sizes/o/in/photostream/
  2. 2 http://www.flickr.com/photos/anitakhart/4410481700/sizes/o/in/photostream/

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Paul Boag is the author of Digital Adaptation and a leader in digital strategy with over 20 years experience. Through consultancy, speaking, writing, training and mentoring he passionately promotes digital best practice.

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  1. 1

    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
  2. 52

    “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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    • 103

      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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  3. 154

    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

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  4. 205

    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
  5. 256

    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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  6. 307

    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

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  7. 358

    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.

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  8. 409

    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
  9. 460

    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?

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  10. 511

    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!

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  11. 562

    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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  12. 613

    General web expert that´s what I am!

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  13. 664

    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.

    -4
  14. 715

    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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