Specialist vs generalist: What's the best route?

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It's a perennial question in the web industry. Should you specialise in one specific language, discipline, web design tool or methodology or offer a broad range of design and development skills? 

There's no simple answer that applies to everyone. But there are some clues as to which route might suit you better personally. In this article, we speak to experts across the sector to get their advice on how to choose the best path for you.

Legwork is a small studio working with big clients. Due to its size, it employs only generalists and brings in specialists as freelancers 

Legwork is a small studio working with big clients. Due to its size, it employs only generalists and brings in specialists as freelancers 

There are many obvious benefits to being a specialist, believes designer and developer Matt Wiggins. "You get to master the skills you love and, if you're good enough, people will seek you out for these abilities," he says. But there's also a downside. "Frankly, it's going to be harder to get a full-time job," he explains. 

Wiggins offers up himself as an example. "I own a small creative studio, Legwork, in Denver, Colorado, and I use specialists all the time… but only as freelancers," he says. "I'm certainly not looking to hire someone who isn't well-rounded, especially when times are tight. I always look for generalists in the people that I hire."

There will, of course, be more full-time opportunities for specialists in larger firms. "There are certain roles that require a high degree of technical aptitude or design capability, where it's vital to remain a specialist," says Maggie McKosky, head of UX and product design at Shutterstock in New York. 

"For instance, some organisations have dedicated visual designers or frontend UI engineers dedicated to a singular focus, such as working on a design system, specialising in visual design or frontend CSS styling. Information architecture, localisation and copywriting are other examples of areas where specialists are in demand."

Get hired

It's not just about what jobs are available. It's also about how you get hired, something else that can differ wildly depending on whether you're a generalist or specialist.

"What you often find when recruitment is left to a company's HR department or a recruitment agent is that they search based on the widest range of buzzwords they know," says Leon Brown, developer and owner of Nextpoint, an educational content company that's based in Liverpool. "So if your CV doesn't mention all of the keywords they can think of, there's a high chance they will skip past it without speaking to you. In these circles, being a generalist definitely pays off."

[As an established specialist] reputation allows you to get direct recommendations, bypassing the barrier that is HR and recruitment agents

Leon Brown,

Being a specialist, however, pays off once you build up a reputation for yourself. "People who require specialist skills tend to be the department managers, who speak to other people in those circles," explains Brown. "Reputation allows you to get direct recommendations, bypassing the barrier that is HR and recruitment agents. You also benefit from the credibility of people who recommend you; it's assumed you must be good if you're recommended by someone the hiring manager trusts."

What about when you've actually got the job? What does the cost/benefit analysis look like then, when choosing between a generalist and specialist path?

Undoubtedly, depth of focus is a definite boon for the specialist. "The main benefits of being a specialist are being able to complete specific tasks at a very high level of quality, being seen as a master in your domain and a go-to individual within your organisation," believes McKosky. "On the downside, there is the potential loss of context on projects, since you're only being brought in at specific points throughout the product development cycle."

Stock image library and creative platform Shutterstock aims to strike a balance between hiring generalists and specialists, depending on the needs of the organisation at the time 

Stock image library and creative platform Shutterstock aims to strike a balance between hiring generalists and specialists, depending on the needs of the organisation at the time 

Conversely, she sees the main positive to being a generalist as being able to bring perspective from a range of other disciplines. "You're able to handle a variety of tasks, while having the experience to see a problem from different and unique perspectives," she says. Meanwhile, the obvious downside is being less well-versed in each area you apply yourself to. 

"The risk is that you're good at many things but rarely truly exceptional at one thing and potentially have lower velocity, due to juggling multiple areas at once."

The risk is that you're good at many things but rarely truly exceptional at one thing, and potentially have lower velocity

Maggie McKosky, Shutterstock

It all comes down to that age-old phrase ‘jack of all trades, master of none' – the idea that as a generalist you'll never be particularly amazing at any one area, just competent at best. 

"Whether we call them generalists, unicorns, full-spectrum designers, triple-threat designers or whatever, some would argue that no, it's not possible to master several areas at once," says McKosky. "I tend to agree but I also know designers with exceptional experience or skill who can master the generalist role because they have a strong understanding of the other roles around them and what is required. 

"That said, although they are able to ‘do it all', they also need to spread their knowledge across multiple fields and remain focused on a few areas in particular. Otherwise they may fall into a trap of being really good at everything but not truly excelling at anything."

Not a binary choice

Right now, though, we should probably take a time out. Up to this point, we've treated the choice between being a generalist and a specialist as a simple, binary decision. But actually it's wrong to think too strictly in terms of pure generalists and specialists. In reality, most web designers and developers exist somewhere on a spectrum between the two.

Even so-called generalists usually still have specialist skills and interests. "Most generalists I've come across have one area they're better at and more passionate about than others," McKosky points out. 

"For example, some designers have excellent qualitative research, moderator or coding skills. And that's a good thing: it allows them to be more rounded, sharing their specialities to mentor their teammates, level any gaps and maintain a level of expertise that sets them apart from others. So it's all a matter of striking a balance and understanding that generalists bring breadth over specificity." 

Armadillo recruits both generalists and specialists, but knows the importance of good communication between people in all areas

Armadillo recruits both generalists and specialists, but knows the importance of good communication between people in all areas

Conversely, most specialists have knowledge and understanding in more than one area and commonly benefit from what's known as a second-string specialism. "So even if you're an amazing Perl developer, it helps to have some good understanding of other languages or work on your management, communication or project management skills," says Rob Pellow, digital design director at Bristol CRM agency Armadillo. "That way, you are offering yourself as more than just a specific type of developer."

"Being a proper specialist is hugely valuable," he continues. "But the wider you can cast your net with secondary skillsets, the greater your chances of making yourself invaluable in the long term and the more you will stand out in the crowd."

Choosing a specialism 

So if you do decide to specialise, how do you decide what to specialise in? "In my experience, people naturally gravitate towards a specialism when it's something they are good at and that inspires them," says Nadia Turan, executive creative director at DAM Digital, a London user-experience agency. "In other words, if you enjoy a particular discipline and you've got a knack for it, you'll work at it and it will become your specialism."

Rather than looking specifically for generalists or specialists, DAM Digital focuses on hiring people who can adapt quickly

Rather than looking specifically for generalists or specialists, DAM Digital focuses on hiring people who can adapt quickly

Pellow agrees that the decision should not be about cold-hearted business logic but about following a personal passion. "You can chase the big pay cheque of a creative director or a senior JavaScript developer… but if that's all you're interested in, you're in for a slog," he says. "It's important to find the bit that you love doing. The more you enjoy it, the better work you will produce." 

Philadelphia-based designer, author and speaker Kevin M. Hoffman, currently VP design at Capital One, offers some similar advice. "Ask yourself what kind of role gives you confidence and a sense of psychological safety," he recommends. "What kinds of work can you have endless conversations about with people who do that work? That's what you should choose."

What if you don't have a particular passion? There's no need to stress. Often the urge to specialise will come later on in your career. 

"Designers and developers who specialise tend to either follow or find their path," says Brown. "Those who follow the path to their specialism are people who've had a specific idea of what they wanted to do from early in their career. Those that find the path to their specialism, conversely, are products of the opportunities they've come across."

Specialising was a natural progression. I've always been someone who rolls with opportunities, rather than setting out specific goals

Rob Pellow, Armadillo

For Pellow, it was the latter. "For me, specialising was a natural progression," he says. "I've always been someone who rolls with opportunities, rather than setting out specific goals to achieve. I never thought that email would be the thing I specialised in. But essentially, it is just a new medium to apply creative thought to."

It's been a long journey from his beginnings as a generalist. "When I took my first few steps into the world of web, I assumed I was going to be amazing at everything from design through to database development," he recalls. "That was clearly naive and I found my own sweet spot covering the middle ground of UX, frontend code and being able to work with the people at different ends of that spectrum. That doesn't make me a generalist though: it means my specialism is acting as a conduit between those personality types."

"Web design seems to be moving in the generalist’s favour because technology is growing at such a rapid rate,” says RED Academy’s Ashleigh More-Hattia

"Web design seems to be moving in the generalist’s favour because technology is growing at such a rapid rate,” says RED Academy’s Ashleigh More-Hattia

And you needn't worry too much about picking the ‘right' specialism. "There is a long-standing argument in the industry about which programming languages are the most relevant and which design software is being used," says Ashleigh More-Hattia, web developer instructor at RED Academy, a technology and design school with campuses in Vancouver, Toronto and London. 

"But the truth is that someone, somewhere out there is still using one or the other and if it is being pushed out of the economy, a specialist will surely know about it. Part of being a specialist means you should have the ability to know what and when to change or upgrade, in order to keep things relevant." 

Adapt to survive

That leads us on to another important point: choosing between generalism and specialism is not a ‘one-and-done' decision you'll be stuck with forever. As the industry continues to get more diverse, with new tech such as AR continually shaking things up, you can only benefit from staying adaptable. 

For this reason, Toby Pestridge, creative director of Bournemouth studio Createful, believes that designers and developers need to follow Bruce Lee's advice and ‘be like water'. "We should all follow the famous martial artist's advice," he says. "Because a failure to do so is to shackle oneself to the past. I don't need to remind you of the pace of technological growth, adoption and innovation. I'm sure I'm not unique in discovering this as my career has unfolded before me."

The more skills you can pick up quickly, the more you can solve problems and keep customers happy

Anton Balitsky, freelance UX designer

And being able to constantly adapt your skill set isn't just about reacting to new technologies. It's also because clients often change their minds about what they want you to do. "In my experience as a freelancer, most customers have only a vague idea of what they need," says Anton Balitsky, a freelance UX designer based in Warsaw, Poland.

Consequently, he has become what he describes as a "specialist on the outside, generalist on the inside". "Project requirements can change overnight or even after the initial call," he explains. "So the more skills you can pick up quickly, the more you can solve problems and keep customers happy."

If this all seems overly complicated, there's one thing most people we talked to agreed on. It's usually best to start your career as a generalist, even if you become a specialist later down the line. "My advice is that if you're jumping into the idea of becoming a web designer, try to form a well-rounded set of skills," says More-Hattia. "Be a generalist first and use those avenues and opportunities to discover your interests and potential specialities through that journey. You might not know what you want to do, so why not try as many as you can?"

Pellow offers some similar advice. "Start with a broad understanding of the whole process, then specialise – but don't leave everything else behind," he urges. "We all work on designing and developing stuff for humans to use. All the best people I've worked with understand that and can apply that level of thought to how they are going to approach a task or a challenge." 

There is room in any organisation for a hybrid of the two. Specialists have a tendency to turn into generalists without trying

Maggie McKosky, Shutterstock

At the end of the day, as long as you're doing fulfilling work and following your passion, it doesn't really matter whether you move backwards or forwards  on the spectrum between generalist and specialist, believes McKosky. "There is room in any organisation for a hybrid of the two," she says. "Specialists have a tendency to turn into generalists without trying and in some cases out of necessity. Perhaps a designer working at a startup is required to wear many hats or there are shifts in the organisation, requiring them to take more on and learn other skills.

"It ultimately comes down to the individual and the craft but I suggest all designers strive to strike an ongoing balance of thinking strategically, acting like a generalist who can explore many problems while also delivering designs that speak to a specialist's focused expertise," she adds.

Do both

In fact, if you're a quick enough learner and have a long enough career, it's even possible to become both a generalist and a specialist. "A generalist can incrementally grow certain skills enough to become an elite specialist," points out Shane Mielke, an award-winning creative director based in California and author of LAUNCH IT. "A specialist who is forced to change skills can become a multi-talented generalist. So you can have a fun and amazing career as a generalist, a specialist or both if you're in it for the long game." 

And he offers himself up as an example. "20-plus years into my career, I've been fortunate to achieve industry recognition for design, Flash, animation, photography, HTML, JavaScript and WebGL development because I chose to both specialise and generalise," he says. "As a result, I'm making more money, having more fun and securing better creative opportunities than ever before. So don't be afraid to specialise or try everything. Do it your way. Just have fun and stay in the game as long as possible."

This article was originally published in net, the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers. Buy issue 311 or subscribe.

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