July 20, 2019

Being a Generalist

When I went to school for graphic design, I started my journey with the simple goal of becoming a designer. The designers I looked up to at the time had a wide range of projects in their portfolios. Some were more print heavy than others, and some might have had a focus on software design, but overall I didn’t notice a clear need to specialize out of the gate.

My first job was at an agency that did a little of everything. There were no specialized roles and no rules around who could work on what. They often threw me into projects without a clear understanding of how I would make something work. I relied on the anxiety of imposter syndrome and the curiosity to learn new things to push me through each opportunity.

Fast forward to today, and a lot has changed. The teams I’ve worked on have slowly gone from being more general design” teams and have become more siloed by specialty. The two most common design roles being brand design” and product design.” Brand design often supports the marketing functions of an organization, and the product design team supports the product functions of an organization.

I don’t consider myself a brand designer or a product designer. I consider myself a designer. You might call me a generalist designer if you felt I needed a qualifying term. This label has been a source of anxiety for me in the past couple of years. The feeling that designers need to specialize has never been greater, and as I grow in my career (especially as a manager) the pressure to choose a side feels even stronger.

The unfortunate part about this is that I don’t see being a generalist as a weakness. In fact, I feel like it has equipped me with some unique strengths. When I think of the great generalists I’ve worked with, I’ve found them common strengths amongst this type of designer:

Generalists are adaptable

Generalists need to build a framework for problem-solving that allows them to solve any problem we challenge them with. Depending on the problem space and work they are working in, they might need to leverage existing frameworks for problem-solving alongside their own. For example, a generalist might need to work within a jobs to be done” framework to do product design, or work within a more brief-oriented framework to work with a team on an out-of-home marketing campaign. In either case, being confident in your past experience as a problem solver can push you into any process with confidence.

Generalists are objective

Generalists are good researchers. They can often gain specific knowledge at a fast pace. The need to understand new problems to solve them requires designers to cite evidence instead of having first-hand experience. This evidence-based approach removes bias that often comes with citing experience and allows the design process to remain objective.

Generalists are systems thinkers

Having worked on a wide range of projects, generalists can recognize patterns and approach problems at a systems level. Not every project benefits from systems thinking, but this skill is a huge asset when working within a wicked learning environment. I find this is the biggest benefit of gaining expertise as a generalist.

The great thing about these strengths is that they get better with each opportunity. The ability to learn new frameworks, dig deeper into evidence-based research methods, and approach problems at a systems level are skills that get better when we expose ourselves to new challenges.

If you’re interested in exploring this more, I would suggest reading the book Range by David Epstein or checking out this post by Airbnb Design if you’re interested in seeing how this applies to work in a more specified role.

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