“Me, a specialist? Oh no. I’m just a web designer, mate!” Contrary to popular opinion, web designers — the much maligned sub-species of the greater spotted graphic designer — can be specialists, much like anyone else. But does it pay to be a specialist in the noughties?
This is a pressing question for some, but not me. I’m happy in my skin, being a generalized specialist. And I’m not alone, either. Of my kind, their are many.
A brief history of specialization from a generalists perspective
When I started Octane back in ’99, I had every intention of offering a load of different services — everything from video production to 3D visualization and animation, right out to interactive CR Roms, as well as web design. Why no mention of web development? That didn’t come about until about 2002, about the same time my offering began to slim down into something resembling what Octane offers now.
The fact of the matter is, I just couldn’t do everything, not unless I had loads of time and loads of money. Money? For the software to back that proposition up. In reality, I had a finite supply of the former and hardly any (certainly not of the disposable variety) of the latter.
Over time, my proposition was whittled down, not simply because I wanted to focus on the things that interested me, but the things people kept asking for and I was in a reasonably good position to commit to, without wasting either their time or my own.
Now, some of you may be thinking to yourself: “What the hell has liking something got to do with doing it?!” I do what I like — in a very literal sense. If I don’t like doing it, or don’t want to do it, I don’t. If chasing the pound means selling my happiness, then I stop, sit down on a spare patch of grass and watch that gold-coloured coin just roll away in front of me.
It is entirely possible to be a specialist in a number of areas, but not a huge number, or you’re just over committing yourself, no matter how talented / quick you are.
I don’t see many out-and-out specialists these days, not out in the wild. If they exist, they’re usually on a payroll somewhere, where the weaknesses of their narrow field of occupation aren’t so badly exposed, and they remain insulated by other specialists, who together form a greater whole. That’s fine for an agency of 3-5 people, but for outfits like mine, it’s neither ideal or possible.
So how do you become a generalized specialist anyway?
I’m fortunate in that what I do either sits beneath or bestrides other disciplines and professions, depending on how you go about your thing.
I suppose when I talk about a generalized specialism, what I’m really saying is: your knowledge is like the root of a plant, probably not too deep like a weed or a tree, but deep enough so that the winds of client inquiry and project-related problems won’t blow you away.
Make your specialisms overlap
For instance, if you’re a head of marketing, you can employ a web designer or a web developer to realize your internet ambitions.
In another instance, if you’re a web designer like I am, what you do is a function of marketing, so therefor you can reach across into adjacent areas, such as social media, internet advertising etc, to bolster your proposition.
Similarly, web development will bring you closer to IT (though not too close, thankfully), since it’s more than likely you’ll be interfacing with servers, internal networks and their specifics.
With that as a background, and knowing your client needs.
Build a proposition from a specialism
You can start to build out your proposition around those needs and then target certain areas so that your knowledge is deeper and more complete than their current needs require.
So why do this? Because once you understand more of what is possible, you will then realize how you can offer your clients more. However, this does require an element of vision; the ability to anticipate the future direction of your clients.
Recycle your specialisms
Sometimes, you’ll get the direction wrong, but hopefully not by much. And, if you’re smart, you’ll play around with the timing of projects so that what you know can be applied to more than one client at the same time, amplifying the return on your invested learning.
Sounds easy, yeah? Well, it’s a skill that comes over time. If you’re not adept at dealing with your clients face-to-face, or have trouble imagining what they might or might not like, then that too is an area of generalized specialism you need to work on.
Jack of all trades and master of none?
I’ve got letters after my name. Those letters represent 6 years of my life. After all that time and effort and all I get is a lousy degree?! If I’d wanted a masters degree, I’d have needed to invest another 2 years of my life.
It was said by Doctor Watson that upon meeting Sherlock Holmes, he knew nothing of the motion of the planets. Yet in his defense, he got by. Why? Because he was a detective and not an astronomer.
As you can see, the level of commitment required to be a master is not inconsiderable. So don’t worry, Jack! Learn what you need to know, and know enough to know you maybe don’t know enough and you’ll do just fine.