Gerneralist or Specialist

21 Jun

Jack Of All Trades

Moving in to the world of freelance design involves decisions. How much will I charge? What kind of clients will I target? What kind of work do I really want to be doing? It's that last one that can cause the biggest headache and force you to really consider how you'll be defining yourself. Do you focus on a specific discipline, making refining that particular area your life's goal? A virtuoso of visuals, a responsive design Don or UX extraordinaire. But maybe narrowing your job description down is a tougher task if you're used to being involved at various stages of the process and can bring a little bit of everything to the party whether it's visual flair, solid UX principles or a background in coding? Sacha Greif used the term Unicorn to describe these all rounders. The name is a little misleading, people with these skills do exist but the but the unicorn bit comes in when you're looking for a designer capable of doing all of these things to a high standard. We've all heard the term ‘Jack of all Trades, master of none’ and it's not generally used as a compliment. But maybe the Jack of all trades part isn't so bad. And why does it automatically mean you won't ‘master’ something?

Would you rather carve a door 1% better than you did last year, or learn how to build the rest of the house in the same amount of time?

I'm a designer & Developer. You can check, it says it on the internet so it's happening. But it can be a problem defining yourself in such broad terms at a time when people seem to have abandoned the idea that one person could a put together a user journey, sketch out a wireframe, design a creative concepts then build the thing. They look at you strangely because these are separate areas where a specialist slaves away and produces each element in relative isolation only for the pieces to be “neatly” assembled at the end of the project. You can feel a sense of not belonging to either camp. Developers think you're using Dreamweaver to drag and drop a bloated site into existence while designers think you're going to produce a design with all the finesse and grace of an elephant playing a harp. A few years ago however it used to be the norm. It used be web design. I, like many people, learned to code just so I could actually build my own designs and have something out there that functioned, independent of others. Something that was mine.

Changing Roles

Our industry matured. Roles have adapted and people specialised. UX delved further into aspects of psychology and human behaviour. Front-end development got more diverse as new frameworks sprung up on what seemed like a daily basis and HTML5 & CSS3 grew more powerful. Visual design for the screen evolved to incorporate and adapt the tried and tested design principles of old and to a point where knowledge of typography, grids, colour theory and branding are considered the bare essentials to create work with depth as well as mere shine. Add to this the common platforms we have to design for and all of the limits/opportunities that come with that and it can seem like there is no choice to but to take a deep breath and dive in to one of those pools with both feet and never look back. I considered the idea of just doing one thing. Putting away the code or resisting the urge to read that article on the merits of hamburger menu icons. Positioning myself as the go to person for those pretty interfaces we see in any number of the design galleries we all have bookmarked. Or sticking with UX and it's vast of academic documents and technical looking diagrams.

But a few things nag at me and stop me being able to really commit to just one path, leaving the other elements to gather dust in my locker.

Firstly being just one of these things makes me worry that my decisions aren't informed enough and that I'll be part of a problem I should've seen coming further down the line. If I have to use an SCSS grid framework (thoughtbot's neat is my preferred starting point) to build a responsive grid then I get a better understanding of designing for different screen sizes. If I understand the user journey and their goals I'm able to make better decisions about how to communicate the content. And if I know how a screen is built I can put together a design that will work in the real world and not just in a mock-up. I can make calls that I know are on solid ground straight away.

Add to this the process of designing websites and apps is changing. There is a shift towards prototyping and designing in the browser rather than creating round after round of wireframe documents, PSDs, JPEGS. If you can take sketches and quickly put together a working prototype with HTML, CSS and Javascript then not only can you cut out the need for creating mockups for dozens of screens at 3 or 4 screen sizes but you can see how the product you're building is really going to behave when you get it out into the wild. Communicating your work gets simpler too. Need to explain how the screen resizes to a client or developer? Just send them the link and tell them to check it on their device. Want to show some of the interactions? Get your animators hat on and code it up, no need for vague explanations of how you hope it will work. It's right there. Using tools like Style Tiles and interactive style guides mean you wouldn't have to use your favourite piece of image editing software for putting together a page again if you didn't want to, though I find mocking up a key screen or two in Sketch or Photoshop is still a useful part of the process to get the initial ideas clear.

And lastly if you're doing it right this is a team sport. Being able to discuss decisions and feedback on a level that allows you to contribute and question decisions will help you and your team to gain deeper understanding of both process and the problem you're designing for. And that can only be a good thing.

All this isn't to say you shouldn't play to your strengths and have an area that you excel in and that interests you the most. As I mentioned earlier, keeping up with every aspect to a level that would mark you out as an expert just isn't realistic. A few years ago IDEO's Tim Brown popularised the term T-Shaped designer to describe someone with a broad range of skills (cross bar of the T) with a deeper understanding of a specific discipline (the stem). Whatever you choose to call it being able to function in the areas related to your chosen field is a powerful tool, especially in UI design where we are expected to be art directors, typographers, content strategists, quality control and more besides. We have to keep all of the opposing forces that influence a product in check and maintain the cosmic design balance so we don't end up producing something with thousands of words of useless SEO copy or a simply functional design without those human elements that engage people. So to really master the trade of UI designer we have to be well versed in the related ones.

Read David Cole's article The Myth of the Myth of the Unicorn Designer in full.