Specialisation is overrated: why 5 skills are better than one

D&AD president Laura Jordan-Bambach explains how to become a born-again polymath, and why.

When I started designing for the web in 1994, I did everything. From Perl and HTML to animating in Director and Flash. From
Photoshopping to producing and picking up the phone. I was a true one-woman band (with a bit of help from my brother). But I also made art, took photos, built electronics and was partial to writing a bit of (really bad) poetry.

I guess you could have called me a polymath. If you look around at most other digital pioneers of the time you'll see we all were. That excitement for learning new things that polymaths crave was one of the qualities that drew us to digital.

Even in the early 2000s being a polymath was par for the course in digital media. But as we grew up, our projects became more complex and we moved closer to more traditional advertising we started to specialise.

Polymath comeback

I saw my first specialist 'planner' at a digital agency in 2006. And my first creative team. The first time the thinking and making had been separated out. Design became just about design and time for designers to think was cut to make space for 'connecting'. Coding became a distant memory. Fast-forward to 2014 and it seems like we're turning back on ourselves, and in a good way. The polymath is making a comeback.

Take Kate Moross, for example: artist, illustrator, filmmaker, art director, studio owner, book publisher, businesswoman, and teacher. Her DIY approach, which she shares in her book Make Your Own Luck, covers all of these facets of her work.

Or look at The Kingpins, a Sydney-based collective that is designing the cover for my upcoming D&AD Annual. The members are each artists, performers, graphic and costume designers for the likes of Beth Ditto and Lady Gaga; but they are also professional teachers, shop and bar owners, cultural curators, illustrators and film-makers. They are prolific, experimental and perfectly capable of running multiple projects at once.

Escaping creativity

It feels as though creativity is escaping from the grey box of advertising at last. Firstly because in this new world, the answer to a brief is as likely to be a new product as it is a poster. To respond to that takes a different kind of person, with broader skills and life experiences. And secondly because social media is giving young creatives exposure to those who do things differently, meaning that there is more exploration and confidence.

Creative teams I meet out of college are now no longer made up of an art director and copywriter, but might include film-makers, designers and even economics graduates. Or all of the above. Or not even in a team. At Mr President every member of the agency has multiple skills in other areas – it's what makes us nimble. I, for one, am pleased to stretch those polymath muscles again – even if it means picking up the phone from time to time.

Words: Laura Jordan-Bambach

Current D&AD president and creative partner at Mr President, Laura Jordan-Bambach has won numerous awards for her work. She also co-founded SheSays, which supports women in digital creative careers. This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 228.