Defending The Generalists In The Web Design Industry

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Paul is a leader in conversion rate optimisation and user experience design thinking. He has over 25 years experience working with clients such as Doctors … More about Paul ↬

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Where once there was a single job, there are now many such as content strategists, user experience architects, and front-end coders. While many are becoming more specialized, Paul Boag has stoically refused to do so, remaining a generalist interested in marketing, psychology, and business strategy. Being a truly effective generalist who offers valuable services to clients and colleagues will take commitment and a lot of work.

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 knowledgeable 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 is also 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 to 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.

An illustration showing an intersection of the disciplines of art, photography, digital illustration, visual design, writing poetry, music and CSS, HTML, and coding. On the side, there is a text saying well-rounded shaped. Individuals enjoy a breadth of knowledge in many fields but also have a depth in at least one area of expertise. Defy simple categorization.
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 credit: Anita Khart)

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 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 knowledgeable 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 not 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 had 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 for 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.

Further Reading

Smashing Editorial (al, il, vf, nl, mrn)