A design specialist or generalist?

When we reach a certain stage in our career, the career path becomes clearer. Over time, however, I felt more uncertain. I was in a fog until I spoke to a couple of experienced designers. Their honest advice and guidance opened my eyes.

The Chinese version of the article is on my Medium.

Be a specialist or generalist?

I was in a quandary about my role as a designer. As an “interdisciplinary designer,” I often read extensively on various topics and post my findings on Instagram and Medium. However, recent criticism has made me question if I am competent enough. In this increasingly specialized industry, is there a place for design generalists?

What do experienced designers think?

I’ve discussed with experienced designers the need for design and UX roles in the future and whether generalists or specialists will become obsolete.

Some are doubtful of generalists due to the increasing specialization of the market and the need for designers to have exceptional abilities to remain competitive. On the other hand, some designers are not hopeful about specialists because of their limited knowledge and techniques. They think multi-skilled generalists are unlikely to be replaced and will always be in demand.

The 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 increasing specialization in the UX design job market. Companies are hiring UX researchers and service designers, which means UI/UX designers must have more specific roles and qualifications. Designers may need more specialized experience, like an extra T in a T-shaped skill or going from secondary to tertiary job classes in RPG. This kind of specialization is common in large, traditional companies that can afford to hire various 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. This structure does not have a specific hierarchy of designers, allowing employers to hire professionals with a wide range of skills, making hiring more flexible. However, the lack of hierarchy can also be used to justify underpaying designers.

Expertise and skills

Additionally, there are many other elements, such as expertise and abilities. Easily replaceable hard skills could be the deciding factor.

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 quickly gain proficiency. Therefore, software skills are not as valuable. As a result, mid-level and senior designers often delegate design tasks to their subordinates. It is, therefore, critical for them to understand the value of software, not just how to operate it.

Apart from technical

Professional 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 cannot be easily obtained.

In addition to the hard and soft skills listed in job ads, one’s competencies should include relevant personal strengths. For example, UX researchers from different academic backgrounds will generate diverse research approaches. An engineer with an insurance licence can significantly impact an insurance company’s product development. These diverse academic disciplines, work experience, and strengths contribute to forming the personal characteristics that make you stand out.

Strategic thinking

Soft skills are essential for middle and senior positions. Leaders must possess business acumen and strategic thinking to develop strategies and solve customer and product problems. Data analysis is the most difficult part of mastering it. Critical thinking is key to analysing, reflecting, and reviewing the current situation.

After considering both sides of the argument, design generalists and specialists should be given respect as long as they are dedicated to their work. Comparing them or determining who came first is unnecessary.

The core of the design is to address issues. Full-stack engineers are not superior to front-end engineers, nor should general practitioners be compared to specialists. Designers all have the same purpose. Specialists and generalists are capable in their respective areas as long as they can solve problems.

Of course, each company’s foundation, positioning, and services will affect its preference for certain types of talent. Some companies prefer specialists, while others may prefer generalists. Before I hire, I used to look at the nature of the job and the team’s existing skills. 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’re not the person they need.

Team structure

Whether the team comprises specialists or generalists, I believe they will produce the same quality of work. Imagine a radar chart where a team of specialists will have a high level of proficiency in each area, with a distinct division of labour. A group of generalists, on the other hand, will have equal ability in each area. Despite their differences, people will grow and develop. Ultimately, both team structures will contribute to a broader range of capabilities.

Final words

Conversations and reflections made me realize that being a generalist shouldn’t cause me to feel annoyed or guilty. Out of curiosity, I’ve learned many things unrelated to my profession. In addition, with limited human resources, I had to learn more to improve the situation. Unfortunately, I was criticized for influencing the team, so I wondered 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 could move on.

I’m also aware of my capabilities. I select jobs based on my abilities and adjust to the market. There’s no need to be so serious. We only have 24 hours daily. If knowledge of the world is spread across many areas, you’ve already focused on one in university. Pursuing a master’s degree, or PhD, or becoming a specialist is like carefully nurturing those few plants in that field, while giving up knowledge outside of your profession. Is specialisation a benefit or a drawback? On the other hand, unicorns were popular a few years ago, but do people still discuss them?

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

If you have true talent and confidence, you can make a difference no matter where you go. Be curious and enthusiastic, and learn whatever you want. This knowledge will accumulate, enriching your work and life, and ultimately contributing to your talents and traits.

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