A design specialist or generalist?

When we reach a certain stage in our career, the career path becomes clearer. Over the years, however, I have become more uncertain. My mind was in a fog until I spoke to a couple of seasoned designers whose frank sharing and guidance opened my eyes.

The Chinese version of the article is on my Medium.

Be a specialist or generalist?

I found myself in a dilemma about my positioning as a designer. As an “interdisciplinary designer,” I often read widely on various topics, sharing my learning on Instagram and Medium. Recent criticism, however, has made me wonder if I am professional enough. In this increasingly specialised industry, is there a market for design generalists?

What do experienced designers think?

I’ve talked to experienced designers about the need for design and UX jobs in the future, and whether generalists or specialists will become obsolete.

Some remain skeptical of generalists because the market is becoming more specialised, and designers need exceptional skills to become competitive in the industry. On the other hand, some designers are not optimistic about specialists because of their limited expertise and techniques, and they believe that multi-skilled generalists are unlikely to be replaced and will always be in demand.

Design job market in Hong Kong

Both arguments are valid. Now, let’s take a closer look at the UI/UX design job market in Hong Kong.

There is a growing specialisation in the UX design job market. More and more companies are hiring UX researchers and service designers these days, which means that the roles and qualification of UI/UX designers will become more precise. Designers are likely to be less involved in user research, but need more specialised experience. This is like an extra T in a T-shaped skill, or going from secondary to tertiary job classes in RPG. This kind of specialisation is common in traditional large companies, which can afford to employ a wide variety of specialists to maintain an elite hierarchy.

However, this is only part of the story. In recent years, many companies have undergone a digital transformation. Some new divisions, startups, and small companies have adopted a flat structure, mirroring the practices of other startups and international technology firms, without a specific hierarchy of designers. As a result, they hire professionals, such as product designers, who have a wide range of skills, which makes them hiring more flexible. However, the lack of hierarchy may allow employers to justify underpaying designers.

Expertise and skills

In addition, there are many other factors to consider, such as expertise and skills. Hard skills that are easily replaceable 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 replaceable. Indeed, when the learning curve of software gets lower, even beginners can reap gains quickly at the start. Therefore, software skills are not as valuable. Thus, mid-level and senior designers delegate design tasks to their subordinates, so it is critical for them to understand the value of software, not just operate it.

Apart from technical

However, a professional’s ability is not limited to technical knowledge. For example, a graphic designer’s creativity, visual style, and artistic sense are often unique. Even with today’s advanced AI technology, human ingenuity, years of knowledge, professional insight, and technical mastery do not come easily.

In addition to the hard and soft skills listed in job ads, one’s competencies should also include relevant personal strengths. For example, UX researchers from different academic backgrounds will generate wildly different research approaches. An engineer with an insurance licence can have a noticeable impact on the product development of an insurance company. These diverse academic disciplines, work experience, and strengths contribute to shape the personal characteristics that set you apart.

Strategic thinking

Soft skills are more necessary for middle and senior positions. In addition to leadership and business thinking, strategic thinking is essential for designers to develop strategies and solve problems for customers and products. Knowing how to calculate and use data is the most challenging in mastering it. However, it all boils down to using critical thinking to analyse, reflect on, 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, either design generalists or specialists should be respected as long as they are committed to their work. There is no need to compare them or figure out who came first.

The essence of design is to solve problems. Just like full stack engineers are not superior to front-end engineers, or you don’t compare general practitioners to specialists. Designers all look the same. Specialists and generalists are competent in their fields as long as they can solve problems.

Of course, the foundation, positioning and services provided by each company will affect its preference for certain types of talent. Some companies prefer specialists, while others may prefer generalists. I used to look at the nature of the job and the the existing skills of the team before I hire. It is unfortunate not to hire someone with exceptional skills. Still, as a recruiter, I know exactly which cards are missing from the deck. Sometimes you don’t get the job, maybe you are not the person they need.

Team structure

Whether the team is made up of specialists or generalists, I believe they will produce the same level of work. Try to imagine with a radar chart that a team of specialists will have a high degree of proficiency in each axis, with a clear division of labour. A group of generalists has equal ability on each axis. People will overcome their differences and grow. Both team structures eventually contribute to a broader range of capabilities.

Final words

These conversations and reflections helped me see that being a generalist shouldn’t make me feel annoyed or guilty. I have been learning a lot that have nothing to do with my profession, just out of curiosity. More generally, with limited human resources, I had to learn more to improve the situation. Unfortunately, I was criticised for influencing the team, so I questioned if I was doing something wrong. It wasn‘t until someone reminded me that being a generalist can help clients and make things happen that I was able to let go.

Perhaps I know what I’m capable of. I choose jobs based on my skills and learn to adapt to the market. In fact, it is unnecessary to be so serious. There’re only 24 hours a day, and about 8 hours spent at work. If the knowledge of the world is spread over many fields, you have already focused on one in the university. Pursuing a master’s degree, a PhD, or becoming a specialist, is like carefully cultivating those few plants in that field, while giving up more knowledge outside of your profession. Is specialisation a gain or loss? Unicorns were all the rage a few years ago, but do people still talk about them now?

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

If you have true talent and confidence, you can make a difference wherever you go. As long as you are curious and enthusiastic, learn whatever you want. This knowledge will accumulate, enrich work and life, and ultimately make up your talents and traits.