Over the years, I’ve leaned one way or another with my focus. There have been periods where I would focus on practicing a specific skill. When the winds of change blew, I would switch. Sometimes it was out of necessity. Sometimes it was born of curiosity. Other times I had gone down a rabbit hole and gotten interested in details I didn't even know were career fields. A great example of this was my love for letters. I’ve always loved setting type. Over time, I got more interested in details about finessing type in many environments from print to digital platforms. That grew into learning about hand lettering and the creating of fonts. Many were building blocks, so I hesitate to say that being curious is the same thing as being a generalist. The conversation about specializing versus being a generalist is less about right or wrong. I'd like to share some considerations to help think it through.
Being an expert in one area can fun. There is less pressure to know everything else. You get great at your thing, and you build your audience around that. It can help you if you're entrepreneurial because business may be easier to come by if you are competing in a smaller pool. This could result in more opportunity to hire out the things you don't want to focus on. Over time you will build networks and know just where to go for your needs, allowing you to master your craft. This means a few things:
- You can charge more for being the best, fastest and have a smooth process.
- It can become easier to become known as the go-to person for your craft. This helps with word-of-mouth and spending less on marketing. If you're looking for a job this could make you stand out from others and make it easier for others to recommend you. This can especially be try for others who specialize in a complimentary field (for example: content creators and site architect partnerships).
- You portfolio will be easier to explain and create
The main down side I see for specializing, it that you might need to be more aware of adapting as markets change. Also, you will need to learn up front who can help you with anything outside of your competence.
This article touches on some of the hidden, hard parts of working on the web. It gives some great examples of things that could be specializations for a developer. It also points out that if you are creative you can find something to focus on that makes you unique – even if it’s not born from talent.
There are often many details to design projects that you may love or hate doing. Think about what you love, and what you never want to bother with. Find others who love to do that, and partner. Grow your audience and share what you learn.
Possessing a broader set of knowledge can have advantages too. It really depends on what you want out of your career. Knowing a little bit about many things related to your crafts can help you in the following ways:
- It may help you if you are entrepreneurial, because you will be able to handle many facets of your business on your own.
- It can help you take on other responsibilities in your job to help keep things moving (less dependencies on others). This is a valuable asset especially when you are in a salary position. It can also have drawbacks when others start to expect you to pick up more than you should be and have an impact on the quality of your main job.
- Your portfolio will be broad, leaving you open for a bigger pool of jobs/projects you could be hired for
- Sometimes being more generalized gives you the confidence to try new things because you don't feel boxed in. I find that I hesitate to go down a rabbit hole at times because I know that it will take time away from my focus. This can be good and bad.
I think if your goal is more independence then specializing the way to go right now. I am not saying they are not well-paying jobs that need a more broad set of skills, but I do think they are becoming harder to come by. Further, because it's not as hard to learn a little about a lot they aren't paid as well. As the landscape of design grows with tools and expectations I see specialists becoming more valued.
Great work takes thought and practice. I think if you want to excel you need to specialize to spend the time your craft deserves to become a master.
It can be scary to choose a specialization. It's had to ignore FOMO (fear of missing out) on other things that seem cool, interesting or even related to your craft. As a curious person, I struggle with this the most. One thing I have learned over the years that has helped me is not to let a specialization keep you from understanding related pieces.
For example: if your specialization is coding responsive websites, you still need to understand different image types. Even though you aren't creating them, you need to know how to collaborate with designers. This is how a good solution comes together. Conversely, if you're specialization is interface design, you will benefit greatly from understanding markup and CSS. This does not mean that you should be able to code every line of your system. You should look at related code as part of your craft even if you aren't memorizing the syntax.
Maybe that is the real conversation. What is specialization versus generalization? How much knowledge counts as a generalist or a specialist? It's all in perception, how you market yourself and your work, how you spend your time, and how you want to spend it.
Do you consider yourself a specialist or a generalist? Do you want to change your focus? I would love to hear from you.