A design specialist or generalist?

A career path becomes apparent when we reach a particular stage in our careers. Following that stage, I expected to have a better understanding. After switching positions over the years, I’ve become more uncertain. My head was filled with mist until I spoke with a few seasoned designers, and their candid sharing and guidance cleared that up.

The Chinese version of the article is available on my Medium.

Being a specialist or generalist?

I find myself in a dilemma concerning my position as a designer. As a “multidisciplinary designer,” I often read widely about various topics or even share my learning on Instagram and Medium. Recent criticisms, however, have left me wondering if I am professional enough. Are there still markets for design generalists in the wake of the increasing specialisation of the field?

What do seasoned designers think?

I had some discussions with seasoned designers about the future demand for design and UX jobs and whether generalists or specialists would be phased out.

Some are sceptical of generalists because the market is becoming more specialised. Designers need exceptional skills in professional areas to be competitive. On the other hand, some designers are not optimistic about specialists because of their limited expertise and techniques. Thus, they believe that a multi-skilled generalist is unlikely to be replaced and always in demand.

The design job market in Hong Kong

Both arguments are plausible. Let’s take a look at the current design job market.

There is a growing specialisation in the UX design job market. More companies are hiring UX researchers and service designers these days, which means there will be a more precise division of labour and qualification requirements for UI/UX designers. It is likely that they are less involved in user research but require more specialised design experience. It seems like an extra T in the vertical T-shaped skills or going from secondary to tertiary job classes in RPG. This specialisation is common in large traditional companies with the capacity to hire a wide range of specialists to maintain an elite hierarchy.

However, specialisation is only a part of the story. Many firms have undergone digital transformations in recent years. Some new departments, startups, and small companies have adopted a flat structure, following the practices of other startups and international technology firms, with no specific hierarchy of designers. As a result, they hire experienced designers with a wide range of skills, such as product designers. This gives them more flexibility to staff. However, the lack of hierarchy may allow employers to underpay designers.

Expertise and skills

Expertise and skills are other factors to consider. Hard skills that are easily replaced could be the deciding factor in the game.

Software skills

Some argue that the market will phase out specialists because their software skills are easily replaced. True, when software’s learning curve is getting lower, even beginners can quickly master it. Therefore, software skills are not so valuable. Thus, mid and senior designers delegate design tasks to their subordinates. It is critical for senior designers to understand the software’s usage and value rather than to operate it.

Apart from technical

However, a professional’s abilities are not limited to technical knowledge. For example, a graphic designer’s creativity, visual style, and artistic sense are usually one-of-a-kind. Even with today’s advanced artificial intelligence technology, human beings’ infinite creativity, years of knowledge and insight into their profession, and technical mastery do not come easily.

Besides the hard and soft skills listed in job ads, one’s abilities should include personal strengths. UX researchers from various academic backgrounds will generate wildly different research approaches. An engineer who holds an insurance licence might significantly impact product development for an insurance company. These various academic disciplines, work experiences, and strengths contribute to the personal characteristics that set you apart.

Strategic thinking

Soft skills are more essential for middle and senior positions. Strategic thinking, in addition to leadership and business thinking, is vital for design generalists and specialists in developing strategies and solving problems for clients and products. Knowing how to calculate and use data is the most challenging part of mastering it. However, it all boils down to using critical thinking to analyse, reflect, review the current situation, accept and analyse opinions, and plan using theory, data, facts, or other scientific methods.

After hearing both sides of the argument, I believe either design generalists or specialists should be respected as long as they are dedicated to the work. There’s no need to compare them or figure out who came first.

The nature of design is to solve problems. A full-stack engineer is not superior to a front-end engineer, just as you would not compare a general medical practitioner to a specialist. Designers all look the same. Specialists and generalists are competent in their field as long as they can solve problems.

Of course, each company’s foundation, positioning, and service provided will influence its preference for certain types of talent. Some senior positions prefer specialists, while others prefer generalists. When I used to hire designers, I would look at the job nature and the team’s existing skills before hiring. It was unfortunate not to hire someone with exceptional skills. Still, as a recruiter, I knew exactly which card was missing from the deck. Sometimes you don’t get the job, maybe you are not the person they need.

Team structure

Whether a team comprises specialists or generalists, I believe they all produce the same level of work. If you refer to a radar chart, a team of specialists will have a higher level of proficiency on one axis and a clear division of labour. A group of generalists will have equal ability on each axis. People will overcome their differences and grow. Both team structures will eventually have more comprehensive capabilities to enable a wider range of designs.

Final words

These dialogues and reflections have shown me that being a generalist should not make me feel annoyed or guilty.

I’ve learnt a lot that isn’t linked to my profession by nature. I am curious about everything about a product or project and want to give it a shot. There were more cases where I had to learn more to improve the situation because of limited human resources. Unfortunately, I was criticised for being unprofessional or attempting to impose influence on the team. I was questioning whether I was doing things wrong until someone reminded me that being a generalist can help clients and make things happen, so I began to feel relieved.

Maybe I’m too aware of how much I have, and I chose jobs based on my skill sets and learn to adapt to the market. In fact, it is unnecessary to be so serious. A day is only 24 hours long, with around 8 hours spent at work. If the world’s knowledge is distributed over multiple farmlands, you already focus on one at the university. Pursuing a master’s degree, a PhD, or being a specialist, like carefully cultivating a few plants in that field while giving up more knowledge outside of your profession. Is being more specialised a gain or a loss? Unicorns and full-stack were trendy a few years ago, but now it turns into specialisation.

Why not get your thoughts straight in the face of the times?

You can make a difference wherever you go if you have the true talent and confidence. Simply be curious and keep your enthusiasm alive to learn whatever you want. This knowledge accumulates and finally enriches work and life that comprises your talents and traits.