The generalist vs. specialist debate is nothing new. For ages, the question has been posed in a multitude of industries. The B student vs. the A student's ability to provide value to organizations has been argued ad nauseam. I can't speak on many industries, but I can speak on design with confidence. See, I have often had conversations with myself on whether I should try to be more of a specialist or remain a generalist. I've always found myself to be a generalist (though, this recursive point will be elaborated below) and someone "not talented enough" to be a specialist. In 2020, the conversation is still going strong. Should I remain multi-faceted, or should I strive to be more specialized to meet the demand of the industry? Let's explore the benefits and costs below.
First, let's identify a big hole in this debate. When someone says they're a "generalist," we must ask what the hell that even means. The word is problematic because as we drill down into specificity, there's still room to be a generalist in relation to the next level below. For instance, I always say I'm a designer when people ask what I do. I say that mostly to not have to explain specifics of what a Senior Product Designer does, but also that I do more than just product. I design logos. I do motion, photography, illustration, etc. From the outside looking in, one would say I'm a generalist. However, if we could only pick a category above, we'd say that would make someone a specialist. If someone is a "logo designer", that sounds pretty specialized. However, they may be much better at angular, corporate logos than their peer making logos for pop punk bands outside of Cleveland. Or, you'd have someone who's comfortable with both thus making them a generalist in a specialist's space. See the issue? Relativity plays a factor in what should be termed "generalist" vs. "specialist."
Remember when "T-shaped" talent was a thing? The concept suggested that everyone excels in one specific area and then has tangential abilities that aren't as pronounced. Exemplified, this would be like a Front End Engineer having some visual design and UI chops. She's primarily a developer, but can be leaned on to handle supportive tasks. This term was pervasive in the industry. Recruiters threw it around in calls with candidates and designers added it to their resumés to be more enticing. Using the aforementioned example, I think it's safe to call the developer more of a Front End Specialist. She is holding a niche in a spot of the design process. She is not saying: "I'm a Front End Engineer, UX Designer, Researcher, and UI Designer." She is simply occupying one area on the product spectrum.
The Spectrum in Design
However, when we take this example into design, we say a Product Designer is a generalist–not a design specialist. Like I mentioned earlier, as we drill down or up, we can adjust our definition of generalist vs. specialist. Product Designers handle everything from user interviews to detailed UI documentation for developers. In some organizations, it's preferred to divide the role so that each end of the spectrum is handled by a specialist. Seeing a UX Designer or UI Designer job posting isn't uncommon. Sometimes, you'll even see Visual Designer or Interaction Designer roles pop up. They're more rare, but still show demand for super-specialists in design. Perhaps organizations prefer Product Designers as they only have to hire one person who can almost do everything, but not one thing really well. And perhaps others truly want the value of a specified role in their team to lead that front.
Which is Better in 2020?
From my perspective, being a generalist is always better in the long run. Yes, specialists can make stupid money and be in high demand when the industry decides that role is hot. However, generalists can survive long-term industry turmoil better than specialists. Whether it's due to automation, a trend falls out of favor, or companies just can't justify a specific role, being a generalist gives you the tools to fight on other fronts. Let's look at a desert island scenario. Survivor One has a pension for catching fish with a handmade spear. He is tactile and precise with his thrusts and always gets a good haul of fish to tie him over. On a nearby island, Survivor Two scavenges for fallen fruits, catches crabs, and uncovers edible root plants. His hauls aren't nearly as robust as Survivor One, but he is satiated. Over the course of months, this trend continues. Survivor One eats fish every night from the tip of his spear, and Survivor Two snacks on a mash of crab meat and coconut fat. One day, though, the fish no longer appear right out front of Survivor One's island. No matter where he looks, the fish seem to have disappeared. This is because the fish are migratory. They like the warm waters in winter and return to Northern ones come summer. The specialist is now forced to adapt to the paradigm shift. His spearing abilities don't help much to grab crabs out of cracks or identify edible fruits on the forest floor. He has to find a new way to eat. On Survivor 2's island, the changing of season marks a low period in the production of fruit. He is unhappy about losing this part of his diet, but is able to focus on gathering more crabs and root vegetables to keep him fed.
See, the generalist doesn't have all of his eggs in one basket like the specialist. I will not discount that there are some fields that demand hyper-specialization that will be steadfast to industry change, though. At large, generalists can move around their focus to areas that produce. Much like a farmer growing many crops on his land, she can replace dying crop with thriving ones to keep her in business.
Which is Better in the Coming Years?
An issue with role specificity looking forward is that once a role falls out of favor, it can never be removed from your resumé. Sure, you can conveniently drop characters from the title, but the fact remains that on the piece of paper companies judge you on, you show an obsolete role. This is problematic in 2020 as we only increase the rate in which titles turnover. "UX Designer" did not exist in software in the 2000's. Titles were more like: "Web Designer" or even "Creative Director" (shudder). If we consider Moore's Law (where the capability of technology doubles every 18 to 24 months), we'll soon be shedding titles by the year. Perhaps this won't be that big of an issue as hiring managers should care more about what designers worked on and how instead of eyeing the role name and being dismissive. Additionally, we are currently plateaued in technology. The inventions of the internet and smart phone was the last paradigm shift. We are due for another unless we all kill each other first. This next break through will bring about a completely new set of industries and titles that workers will move into. Again, Moore's law will take shape and we'll enter a new churn of titles. Generalists will most likely be the ones who can transition into these new industries. We can fairly ponder, though, that a specific vein of specialist could be prime for them as well.
I adopt the outlook of Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Third Industrial Revolution. In the book, Rifkin argues that the future will be a decentralized web of commerce between sovereign individuals. Utopian perhaps, and federalized government is a huge barrier, but we could eventually have such a world. Maybe it's because I'm a free market Capitalist who believes that economic activity should occur between those buying and selling goods instead of those meddling with markets artificially. The global market would over time edge out specific needs as new innovations come into play. Who's primed to survive that volatility? Generalists. However, there may still be lingering demand for specialists' talents. Think of vinyl. How many record stores were there in the 80s versus now? If it wasn't for the nostalgia-fueled demand for vinyl, the industry would be gone. The best specialists, however, can thrive in that niche.
All in all, we'll see a blend of generalism and specialism, but the former will always have a better chance of survival. Especially in a world of hyper technological advancement, one is always running a risk of getting automated out of a job. Having competency in other skills is crucial to the future designer.