You’ll Never Be a Design Specialist by Generalizing Your Skills

I’m going to talk about something controversial today. Everyone strap in and brace yourselves. Freelance designers like to encourage newbies entering the industry to learn as many skills as they can to make themselves attractive as a job candidate. This is well-meaning advice that undoubtedly comes from a good place.

But generally speaking, these ‘generalists’ who try to design, code, write copy, take photographs, do SEO, and anything else they think their clients might need with an equal amount of success are inferior to design specialists in every way.

Today, we’re going to look at why that is, and what freelance designers can do instead to boost their desirability to potential clients.

Jack Of All Trades, Master Of One

You can’t do everything, and pretending that you can is just a waste of time. You have to be honest about your abilities and stick to what you’re really good at. Multitasking usually only lowers your overall performance. Sure, you might get hired, but if it quickly becomes apparent that you have no idea what you’re doing, you’ll be found out and most likely out of work.

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For example, It’s very hard to find someone who can do both visual design and coding extremely well, not to mention copywriting or photography, which are their own separate skills that people study individually for years before mastering. Usually one suffers and there is a noticeable disparity in quality.

Regardless of popular opinion, multitasking can actually be damaging to both your productivity and your career success. If you’re too busy with your hands in too many pots on the stove, you’ll never have time to focus in on the one thing that can propel you ahead of your competition.

I’m not saying that you need to do one thing and one thing only (that would be hypocritical of me, being both a designer and a writer). But remember that potential clients often have more peace of mind – not less – when they see that you have years of experience focusing in on a single area.

If You’re Good Enough, You Won’t Need To Fake It

Many people are afraid that their niche isn’t going to be big enough to sustain their business. But that’s complete bunk (usually – I’ll get to the exception in a minute). Even products and services you might think are completely ridiculous and no one would ever be looking for have gone on to become million dollar businesses.

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A certain type of beanbag chair, an album of nothing but songs about sailing, even specialty olives for making dirty martinis – all of these ideas have made their owners a lot of money and earned them a die hard fanbase of people who were looking for just what they were selling.

People will come seek you out for that one, particular, special thing that you’re the absolute best at. For the movie Coraline, the producers hired a woman to make tiny knit sweaters for the stop motion dolls used in filming… and that was all. Seriously, that was all she was hired to do. That’s all she does, period. If that lady can make a tidy living knitting little sweaters, you can rest assured that your niche, whatever it is, can allow you to soar within the design world.

Don’t Be Too Special

I’ll end with a caveat that may seem counter-intuitive to everything I’ve just said, even though it really isn’t. Be careful not to get “too” specialized – that is, catering to a niche that’s too specific and that will never yield you the kind of results you need to truly grow your freelancing business.

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Specialists have a tendency to die off if their skills are no longer needed. Just like in the wild, if a sudden disease kills off the single food source of a specialist, well, those specialists won’t be around much longer.

So make sure you zero in on something universal and that will have evergreen appeal, rather than focusing on a particular technology or method of information exchange (e.g. copywriting for tech industry startups rather than copywriting for Facebook ads).

What Do You Think?

Has generalizing hurt your career as a freelancer? Is there such a thing as specializing too much? We’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comments.

Comments

  • Great article, and I also think this applies in the permanent market. I’ve been to interviews that are specific about being able to “design and code”, but when it comes down to it, “We really want more of a designer and your portfolio seems quite developer focused.” or “You have good design skills, but we’re looking for someone with more back end experience.” Can be frustrating as my portfolio and CV are quite detailed in terms of experience. I feel recruiters tend to focus on making up the numbers instead of acurately matching skills.

  • Steven Trask

    An interesting read. In part I agree but also disagree, there are two ways to specialise; in skill and in market. So you could be great at web design, coding, seo and email design and builds but be specialised in the travel industry located in a certain country. Or you could only design and have a broad market of anyone.

    I do think you have to reassess every so often to make sure you evaluate if you are very competitive in certain areas and focus on what you are great at not what you can get by with. Although in certain circumstances like working for an early startup you could find yourself doing lots of different roles.

    So really have a range of skills and do not be afraid to take on new challenges and learn core skills in depth but remain focused on what you want to do long term.

  • Kelly Johnson

    I agree with most of this article and the sentiment behind. However, what’s also important to realize is that once you reach a point in your career where you want to advance to managing where the ditch is to be dug rather than being the one digging the ditch, you’re going to have to have a broad knowledge in order to be effective in the current landscape. Or netscape if you prefer. (no pun intended.)

    The argument that all you need to do is hire competent people and let them flourish where their specialites are doesn’t hold up like it used to. If one is working anywhere where interactivity is required, whether in the gaming industry, mobile, web, trade-shows, presentations, kiosks etc, if your task is to manage a project in any of those areas, you should have at least a general knowledge of the area you’re working in because if you rely on your UX expert to know the differences between a user experience on a small phone screen (all phones are small in comparision to all other screens) and an interactive exhibit in the Smithsonian..and they don’t, you might lose some real money.

    The web and mobile are not the only game in town, even though, like Pokemon, you can find one anywhere. Of course, that’s why a typical web job or app job isn’t that lucrative. (Speaking the average folks) which may be a relative point on the word “lucrative”, but in the end, to advance to bigger paychecks, more responsibility and self-fulfillment in an ever-changing industry, reading a new book or article on close tangents to your focus is never going to hurt.

  • while i understand what you’re trying to say, i also disagree about 98.99%

    first off, yes, just by definition, generalizing your focus from design to dev (etc) won’t make you a design specialist. (obviously) but that doesn’t make you any less of a designer.

    hear me out.

    1) yes, some / many people are great at details and they should absolutely focus on their speciality and become a master at that. good for them.

    2) for the rest of us, to “declare a specialty” is like fitting a square peg in a round hole (i.e. doesn’t work). some of us are “big picture” people and like to fit puzzle pieces together. sure, sometimes we have to outsource or call on the expertise of those whom are good specialists. but with the design / web / technology field changing so fast, lines are becoming more and more blurred between design. and development, and content, and interaction/UX design, and strategy, and messaging… etc etc etc.

    sometimes having a wider knowledge will help create a more successful solution… which is what design is all about. and i find with my work, this becomes more and more of a benefit than a hinderance. (and i actually kinda take offense to the “you have no idea what you’re doing” comment. because i’m pretty damn good at the services i provide. otherwise i wouldn’t be successfully doing this for over 15 years)

    so yes, there is absolutely a place for specialists. but there is also a growing place for the generalists. and BOTH can kick ass in providing great design solutions.

  • In some cases, I can definitely see why being a generalist can cause problems. But here’s the reality: when you know many areas intuitively, you can often make connections that others cannot.

    As someone who’s worked heavily with the Internet for almost two decades, I can honestly say I’ve mastered many crafts (and I am not an egotistical person).

    By understanding different aspects of the same industry, like design, coding, SEO, etc, I’m actually able to work more efficiently. And through (a LOT of) experience, I know what works and what doesn’t.

    That very well might be different if I were practicing web development and archeology, for example.

  • Samson Vowles

    You don’t want to be a generalist or a specialist it’s a combination that works best. The classic T shape. You need depth, mastery and expertise in one or two areas but a breadth of understanding and appreciation across a range of skills.

  • I’m more a fan of having a range of skills. Some you do extremely well, and others you’re “familiar with” for the sake of some knowledge when working with a specialist.

    For me especially, working in web design/development, I’ve found that only large agencies and large clients are desiring a “just design” person, while many smaller companies, startups, and lone freelance clients want a range of skills over deep specialization, mainly so they get more for the money they are spending.

    I would only advise someone to keep within a range where the skills can work with one another, but you’re not stretching your wings so much that you do become quite mediocre in all you touch. In the world of web design, I’d tell professionals to look at design and possibly front-end development, or design and perhaps UX. Items like writing and photography I’d only toss up as potential amateur skills for when you need a small amount of copy or a simple photo, but I’d push clients to go specialized when they need larger-scale solutions…like quality stock photos or loads of copy.