Specialist vs. Generalist: The Benefits of Each in Graphic Design

We’ve all heard the saying, “jack of all trades, master of none.” The common phrase – which pertains to almost any skills-based industry – sums up the age-old debate about whether it is better to be an expert in one specific skill or competent in many.

It should come as no surprise that the specialist vs. generalist debate is also alive and well in the world of graphic design. So as an aspiring designer still learning the ins and outs of the industry, sooner or later you’ll have to answer the question for yourself.

Is it more beneficial to devote your time honing one particular skill or are you better off developing a broad knowledge of many? The answer, it seems, is not a simple one.

“After you’ve nailed the basics, you can decide to move into specialization,” says Jodee Goodwin, creative services manager at The Creative Alliance. “The problem is folks try to run before they can walk and leave a trail of amateur mistakes because they didn’t learn the basics.”

So as a student, it’s important to get the most out of your graphic design courses and get a good grasp on the fundamentals. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can start thinking about whether you’d prefer to be a specialist or a generalist in your career.

After speaking to various graphic design professionals, it’s clear there are definite advantages to each. But before deciding for yourself on whether to specialize or generalize as a graphic designer, have a look at their advice.

Benefits of generalization

1. You are more commercial

It’s a simple concept: the more skills you have in your design arsenal, the more commercially attractive you become. This is especially appealing to small businesses, which don’t necessarily have the resources to hire a different person for every job.

“A designer’s ability to wear multiple hats can and will be what sets them apart from candidates who do one thing exceedingly well,” says Carl Vervisch, creative director at Social Forces, a digital advertising agency based in Tampa, Fla.

He adds: “At the end of the day, it comes down to filling the needs of the business, and the applicant who fills more needs has a major advantage.”

2. You see the big picture

Graphic design is an intricate process. In order to create the best possible design, it helps to have a more abstract understanding of all facets of the industry and how they fit together.

“Coming up with a design is one thing. Delivering that idea is something entirely different,” says Laurent Bourscheidt, creative director at STC Associates. He says it’s beneficial to have sufficient knowledge in multiple areas to solve a design challenge.

So rather than merely focusing on the design of a single piece, it’s important to be aware of how that piece fits into the client’s overall objectives.

“Every part of the design process today is intertwined,” says Bourscheidt. He goes on to say that it can be detrimental for a designer to disregard a piece of the larger puzzle because it shows they’re not in tune with the overall mission.

3. You’re a one-stop shop

As a jack-of-all-trades, you have the opportunity to turn one gig into many more, especially when working with smaller businesses. If you impress your client with your original design, you may be able to offer more than they originally thought they needed.

This is exactly how Bill Weber, owner of Bill Weber Studios, operates his business. He says if a company asks him to design new imagery for their building and he notices they have a lousy logo, he’ll offer to redesign it for them.

Then, if the company loves the sign and logo, they might decide they’d like to expand their request to include informational signs and brochures. They may even decide to revamp their website.

Regardless of how much or how little extra work they commission, as a generalist, you’re able to take it all on.

Benefits of specialization

1. You know what works and what doesn’t

Designers who specialize in a single area have probably gained a comprehensive understanding of their chosen discipline. People who specialize in an area, design or field tend to know what works and what doesn’t, says book and ebook designer Becky Blanton.

Blanton says she much prefers hiring specialists for each step in the production process.

“When I get a book, I send the cover to my cover designer,” she says. “I send
illustrations to my illustrator and I send slides to my slide guy,”

Because she is so focused on the content, Blanton relies on specialists to see the “angles and images” that she may overlook.

2. You are a desirable commodity

By being a specialist, you are positioning yourself as an expert in your discipline. As long as you have portfolio pieces that speak to your strengths, being a specialist increases your stock in the graphic design field.

“Expertise makes it a lot easier to land freelance work or get a job,” says Hyper Modern Consulting owner Thursday Bram. “Everyone wants to hire the best when given the opportunity to do so.”

3. You can name your price

Much like an orthopedic surgeon or a cardiologist, the more one is viewed as an expert in their field, the more they can charge for their services, says Jay Rogers, owner of Jayro Design & Illustration.

“Clients and employers rarely risk their money on people who don't show work applicable to them,” Rogers says. “They want to understand exactly how a designer fits and what value they will bring to the project or company. People who specialize make that leap easier for clients and employers”

So have you decided which side you stand on in the generalist vs. specialist debate? It’s clear both alternatives have their place in the field, so there is no wrong answer. It all comes down to what suits you best.

If you see yourself working with a small business in a variety of mediums, then generalization might be a great fit. If you’d rather work for a large organization investing all your energy into a single expertise, specialization might be right up your alley.

Whichever you choose, the important thing is to commit to one side or the other. If you get too comfortable in that space-in-between, you run the risk of falling through the cracks.

So it’s up to you—would you rather be a jack of all trades, or a master of one?

Do you have any thoughts on the generalist vs. specialist debate in graphic design? Join the discussion on our Facebook page!

Callie Malvik

Callie is the Content Manager at Collegis Education, overseeing blog content on behalf of Rasmussen College. She is passionate about creating quality resources that empower others to improve their lives through education.

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