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Defending The Generalists In The Web Design Industry

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 Link

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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.

  1. 1

    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…”.

  2. 2

    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.

  3. 3


    July 26, 2011 5:44 am

    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.

  4. 4

    Doug Cuffman

    July 26, 2011 6:23 am

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

    ‘Nuff said.

  5. 5

    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.

    • 6

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

    • 7

      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

      • 8

        Elf M. Sternberg

        August 31, 2011 10:24 am

        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.”

    • 9

      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.

    • 10

      I wish I had your kind of clients

    • 11

      Kalani Perry

      July 27, 2011 11:04 pm

      @John C: Ego much?

    • 12

      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!

  6. 13

    “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

    • 14


    • 15

      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.

    • 16

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

      • 17

        …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

    • 18

      Yeah dude – specialization is for insects.

  7. 19

    Keven Marin

    July 26, 2011 4:37 am

    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.

  8. 20

    Jane Hooper

    July 26, 2011 4:39 am

    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.

  9. 21

    Steve Bruno

    July 26, 2011 4:43 am

    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.

  10. 22

    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…


    • 23

      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.

      • 24

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

      • 27

        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!

    • 29

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

    • 30

      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.

  11. 31

    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!

  12. 32

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

  13. 33

    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.

    • 34

      …thinking the exact same thing!

    • 35

      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. :)

    • 36

      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.

  14. 37


    July 26, 2011 6:22 am

    Great article,

    thank you for the insight!

  15. 38

    Jeff Miller

    July 26, 2011 6:50 am

    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.

  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.


    • 41

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

    • 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. :-)

  17. 43

    Roman geber

    July 26, 2011 6:53 am

    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.

  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.

  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 ?

  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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