How might we embrace generalism in the design industry?
A New York City poet once wrote me, “the specialist is out of town.”
There is no doubt that the industry’s mindset towards design is shifting. Organizations are now on the hunt to hire the ultimate renaissance person — a unicorn designer if you will.
Specialist positions are, in practice, limiting. On the other hand, generalist positions can seem expansive and detract from any real roles and responsibilities.
Large corporations can afford to hire these specialized roles — and generalists are typically desired at startup environments to save time and resources.
Some companies aren’t even sure what to make of a designer, listing a Graphic Marketing Designer or even a UX Engineer.
Convoluted job descriptions barely reflect the need for generalism. How can we as designers position our backgrounds to be generalized, when organizations only hire for specialists (but what they really need are generalists)?
Design is all about narrative, and the way you craft your story is incredibly important. Draw from your skills to make yourself a more empathetic and generalized designer. Your past experiences have at minimum, honed you to become a problem-solver, and have a unique dimensional perspective for the problem at hand.
Generalism shouldn’t be looked down upon, but rather sought out and embraced.
Chloe Scheffe’s “In Defense of Generalism” shares:
“To be a persistent generalist is actually to be deeply, relentlessly ambitious. It is the natural byproduct of curiosity, of engagement, of unwavering standards, of the insatiable desire for excellence.”
As designers, it’s our job to create functional products with intentionality. It is no longer enough to throw money at the problem or hire some new executives, though those are definitely aspects of it.
It’s not lost on me that as more and more people begin pivoting towards design careers, an undeniable surge of diverse backgrounds and skill sets is brought to the table. This is important and necessary to create more useful experiences and products. Beyond diversity and inclusion within the design industry, it’s important to have a team with diverse experiences, both from cultural and professional standpoints.
A broad range of demographics can enhance a team’s ability to identify the problem and its pain points from all perspectives. Past opportunities and experiences, however you look at it, help craft a more empathetic designer.
Design is inherently a service — the more we engage with diverse perspectives, the more we can better serve a larger audience.
We’re all familiar with the conversation within the industry regarding the democratization of design. Now, basic design thinking workshops and exercises have become increasingly more available to non-designers.
I am all for this movement — the more people understand the importance of design, the more impact designers can make while being taken more seriously. Though cynics may frame it as perhaps “The Death of Expertise,” for designers, a high-level design thinking mindset throughout an organization is ultimately much more impactful.
My Journey as a Generalist
In my own experience, although my background is largely in visual design, I’ve found that other interests have aided in yielding skills and expertise I never would have gained otherwise.
For example, I started photographing concerts at the age of 15. By association, I learned the important skills of boldly cold-emailing, delivering to a client on a schedule, and thinking quickly on my feet. I was even able to learn unique interpersonal skills while interacting with venue security guards.
Another eye-opening experience has been designing with the federal government. Engaging with individuals from completely varied backgrounds, demographics, and experiences has truly been amazing. Pivoting from the private sector to the civic tech space allowed me to explore other interests and intersections, and I want to pass that experience along.
Although there is still a lot of work to be done in the political sphere, working as a young designer in the Census Bureau has allowed me to work on a number of pro-bono high-impact projects that I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to elsewhere.
Students — being a young individual doesn’t discount your experiences at all.
Speaking as a recent graduate and entry-level technologist, years don’t stack up or invalidate your professional background — it’s important to take up space and voice your perspectives. There is an undeniable disconnect between design students and the industry, and we should actively work to bridge that gap.
Explore all your options, find spaces that need your technical skills, experience, and background. Engage often with industry professionals for a broader beyond the classroom perspective — and be as honest as you can.
Going through the motions of design education can seem formulaic, but it’s important to continue to deconstruct design and its intersections.
Listen, learn, apply, and disrupt.