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Sep 17, 2012

Design Pro Roundtable: Design Specialization

With design's disciplinary evolution, the topic of specialists vs. generalists is getting more and more play in the design community. Our digital industry is maturing and niches are being carved out by skilled designers according to both opportunity and apparent need; but sometimes, perhaps, merely because of professed need. What does this mean for our profession? Does this trend toward categorical specialization follow wisdom or whim? By Andy Rutledge


I put the matter to a few seasoned and accomplished design professionals. What follows are the pithy responses from Stephen Boudreau, Sean McCabe, Jason VanLue, and Jeffrey Zeldman to the following questions:

As digital design matures, categorical design disciplines seem to be getting more firmly established and pronounced (e.g. information architecture, wireframing, UX design, interaction design, interface design, etc.). Do you believe a responsible designer can specialize and then collaborate, or do you believe he/she should possess competence in all of these facets to be able to properly engage in any of them? Why?

From Stephen Boudreau

Really enjoyed thinking through this one—it really is a profound question. The big problem in my estimation is so-called specialists vs. actual specialists. It's one thing for me to print a title on my business card and hand it to someone. It's another thing all together to be the one they call when they need a solution.

A responsible designer can specialize and then collaborate in the various facets of the design process. The condition on this being that the designer is, in fact, responsible. A responsible professional who has a specialized skill set will make it their priority to understand the context in which their specialization exists. Otherwise, their specialization is fictitious and merely a bullet point on a frequently updated resume.

A specialist, by definition (or at least my definition), has explored the depths of their field. This type of experience provides more than knowledge; it instills wisdom and shapes the ability to make right decisions. To put it another way: depth in a field is not merely a skill; it is a forging process that the generalist should aspire toward.

Here's my bottom line: in the short term both the generalist and the specialist can deliver value. But in the long term, only the specialist can create and expand value.

Stephen Boudreau
Co-Founder, Ascendio

From Sean McCabe

I believe there is a fine line between specialization and fragmentation. On one extreme, we have the jack-of-all-trades designer who not only handles everything from IA to interface, but also handles the development of the final product. This is not an uncommon occurrence as there are many freelancers wearing a great number of hats that currently operate this way.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have unnecessarily narrow specializations—a conglomerate of very segregated departments throwing into the pile their $0.02 in hopes that the project manager is able to salvage and piece together a functional project out of the materials.

From my work as both a freelancer and small firm owner, in interactions with firms of medium to larger sizes, it has been my observation that the narrowing of specializations appears to increase proportionally with the size of the firm. The larger the company, the more fragmented the positions.

I've found effectiveness to be maximized in a realm that is between the two extremes. In my experience, I would submit that a designer who has spent the majority of his career focusing on design, along with a developer who has done similarly with his complement of skills, working together in the close-knit collaboration produces effective results. While our firm holds that there should ultimately be one person responsible for a given aspect of a project, a healthy overlap in expertise is very beneficial, if not necessary. A designer who has a solid understanding of code along with its limitations and capabilities paired with a developer who possesses a formidable background in design principles makes for a strong weave that enables successful projects.

Sean McCabe
Co-Founder, Bold Perspective

From Jason VanLue

I believe all designers should have a solid foundation of design knowledge—call it a "stable of skills" that includes (but is certainly not limited to) IA, UX, visual design, front-end development, interaction design, user flow, etc… This is more related to the digital world. In order to be a professional designer in the digital space, you must have core competencies, and must always be building on these core competencies.

But once that foundation is built, I think it is reasonable and perhaps necessary for designers to specialize (a proper definition is required here I think). I don't mean pigeonhole themselves into one area at the expense of the rest of their core competencies; I see it more as an "addition to." Different designers will be passionate about and may have different aptitudes for certain design tracks. If one wants to pursue, say, front-end development and wants to live on the bleeding edge of that field (again, not at the expense of the core), then I say go for it. This is how we push the bleeding edge further, refine new techniques and best practices, and continue to grow.

That is also more theoretical. I can only speak from my own practical experience. At Envy Labs I lead a team of 6 designers, all of whom have a core foundation of design knowledge and skill. That is vital; I wouldn't have hired them otherwise. But Nick has chosen to specialize more in front-end development—that's not to say he doesn't have the skill to practice visual design, or that Tim or myself don't have the capacity to practice front-end development. It's to say that my goal as a team leader is to discover where each person's strengths are and how they can best contribute to the project at hand, and then make sure that I am empowering them to operate at the highest level possible within those strengths. As a result, we have a wonderfully collaborative work environment in which we all contribute based on our core level of competence and our additional specialized skills. You could call us "specialized generalists," and it seems to be working quite well for us.

Jason VanLue
Design Lead, Envy Labs

From Jeffrey Zeldman

I've always liked the word "designer." It covers a lot of ground. I remember feeling slightly sickened in 1997 when a creative director at Razorfish showed me their plethora of head-of-a-pin job titles. Later, at an AIGA conference in Miami, this same creative director exulted that they had managed to streamline their design department's org chart down to a mere 14 titles. As far as I could tell, every one of those people designed websites.

I'm a generalist at heart, so that's my bias, and I came up doing all the jobs. In my opinion, competency in all areas of strategy and production, or at least serious knowledge of all areas, makes you a more empathetic and thus a better designer. It also makes you a better steward of the user's needs—including the specialized and separate needs of the user who hired you (i.e. your client). No one would deny that there are differences between, say, the UX phase of a project and the front-end coding phase. Likewise, we all know that people excel at (and enjoy) different skill areas: some of us love doing research, others just want to be left alone to contemplate the semantics of adaptive content chunks. In our studio, Happy Cog, we've come full circle. We started as multi-talented, multi-disciplinary generalists in an age when clients preferred to hire agencies with complex org charts. Three years ago we had separate professionals handling UX, interface design, front-end and back-end code—although a project manager and a creative director supervised every project, and all team members were involved strategically and creatively in all phases of the job, via meetings, discussions, and Basecamp. Today we're honing back in on a more agile practice where a designer works on UX by coding a prototype: a fire-hose instead of a waterfall.

I'm not beating an ideological drum, here. This is what's working for our process, our jobs, and our clients now. Waterfall by separate worker categories can work, too—as I say, it worked fine for us in the more stately recent past. Different designers and studios choose different paths, and choices change as a practice evolves. This is design, not religion. I know I should be more appreciative and less judgmental, but I feel that we waste too much time defining when we should be doing. Responsive web design came out of a project Ethan Marcotte worked on at Happy Cog; it didn't start as theory. The web standards movement was the sound of a thousand web designers throwing up their hands over browser differences. I'm practical, not academic, which might make me the wrong person to even attempt answering this question. Alfred Hitchcock learned art direction, lighting, cinematography, and screenwriting before he became a film director. I like that model.

Jeffrey Zeldman
Founder, Chairman, Happy Cog™
Author, Designing With Web Standards

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