A generalist designer, axiomatically, is someone who doesn’t specialize in any particular area of design. They’re not UX designers, UI designers, content strategists, illustrators, product designers, copywriters, graphic designers, front-end developers, or animators, even though their work may touch every single one of those roles. The proverbial “jack of all trades, master of none”.
That’s part of the reason why the industry mantra for decades has been “SPECIALIZE!, SPECIALIZE!, SPECIALIZE! THE MORE SPECIALIZED THE BETTER! YOUR CAREER IS DOOMED OTHERWISE!”
I’ve spent years hand-wringing over this. Worrying that I was spreading myself too thin. Worrying that my love for all forms of designing and building and making and creating would make me irrelevant in an industry that’s charging headlong towards specialization.
But then I realized something; the industry… is wrong.
Well, two things actually; the industry is wrong, and generalists are, paradoxically, a kind of specialist. It just so happens that the specialty isn’t categorical, it’s situational. Generalists excel at helping smaller or newer companies leverage design faster, cheaper, and easier than an equivalent team of specialists. How?
Generalists live and breathe the Pareto principle (80% of the benefit comes from 20% of the effort). By focusing on 80-90% good, generalists can deliver work that that moves business goals forward in a tiny fraction of the time that it might otherwise take. Sometimes you actually need to get to 100% and hey, great time to call in a specialist. That last 20% is quite literally their expertise.
Generalists cut through organizational bloat like butter. Teams of specialists have to coordinate, confer, write specs, and/or have meetings at each handoff. That takes time. A lot of time. Oh, and let’s not forget the extra layers of people management you need to wrangle a larger staff. Generalists eliminate all of that because they’re doing it all themselves. It’s an order of magnitude more efficient.
The work of a generalist is seamless, by default. The product of one mind, one vision. With a team of specialists, everyone is focused on their own domain and it’s easy for the end product to feel like what it is; a bunch of disjointed parts glued together. High-functioning teams are great at avoiding this, but it takes work to really pull it off (and usually another specialist).
Generalists view work from a multitude of perspectives, where specialists tend to fall victim to Maslow’s hammer (if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail). A specialist brand designer probably isn’t considering how their design explorations might or might not translate to efficient web assets, for instance. Generalists see the entire forest, and the work is better for it.
That’s all to say; most companies that aren’t Google or Apple-scale would be far better served by hiring generalists instead of specialists. If you’re starting a company, generalists are your best friend. If you’re trying to get more done without working longer hours, generalists are your jam. If you’re trying to stay lean, generalists are what’s cookin’.
The best part? Working as a generalist is satisfying. Variety is the spice of life, and working as a generalist is very, very spicy. The idea of a job that’s nothing but drawing boxes in Figma interspersed with meetings about the boxes you draw in Figma fills me with dread. Humans are hardwired for novelty. We wither when we emulate robots. Working as a generalist is the more human way to work.
P.S. I’m not the only one who’s realized all of this: