“What do you do?” What seems like a simple and straightforward question can turn into an ordeal for designers. “I am a designer” seems like an easy answer to give, but when the next question is “What kind of designer are you?” it can get complicated very quickly.
When you introduce yourself as a designer, do you struggle to define exactly what you do? Do people try to pigeon-hole you, or have their own preconceived notions about you and your work? When people ask me what I do, I’m faced with a dilemma. I can keep the conversation short by saying I am a web designer, but that term doesn’t really sum up what I do, and implies that I’m also a programmer, which I’m not.
If I say I’m a Multidisciplinary Designer, this is usually met by more follow-up questions. I have to give a lengthy explanation of how I have a diverse skill set, and have dabbled in just about everything. How do you deal with this identity crisis?
Having a broad range of skills and working in a wide range of disciplines can be described as being a Horizontal Designer. If you’re a Generalist Designer, you likely focus on learning new skills, and while you might not be an expect in one single field, you’re versatile and able to do a lot of different work. Generalists have a lot of clients, are able to choose what type of projects to accept, and produce great work.
If Generalist Designers are horizontal, Specialist Designers are vertical, and delve deep into their particular area of expertise. They do indispensable work in a specific field, and have great problem-solving skills in one area. If you’re a Specialist Designer, you’re often consulted for your knowledgeable solutions, and you can provide answers that Generalist Designers just don’t have. However, Specialists can’t take on projects outside of their portfolio, and this could present problems in the future, as the job market continues to shift and change.
In a world that focuses on specialization, the thought of describing yourself as a Generalist is often associated the proverb jack of all trades, but master in none. This usually refers to a person who has many talents, but spends too much time learning new skills to really become an expert in any one discipline. If you have a passion for several different disciplines, your friends and colleagues will probably tell you to pick just one interest, and focus on that for the rest of your life. For people like me (and you), who have a wide range of skills, being told to focus on one thing is discouraging, but we know that with new opportunities popping up every day, it’s impossible to be an expert in everything.
In his book, The DaVinci Curse,Leonardo Lospennato shows that having many contradictory interests and an enthusiasm for an array of different projects is often seen as being a curse. In a world telling us to specialize and find our “true calling”, how do we lift this curse?
The solution is to embrace the principles of the Renaissance Man, and find a specialized but diverse profession that utilizes as many of your skills and interests as possible. Like DaVinci, give yourself permission to excel in several different fields, and embrace all your talents. As the design world continues to develop and change, your unique blend of skills will become your superpower.
When I first became a designer, I realized that the gap between Generalized Designers and Specialized Designers was so extreme! While both these types of designers are indispensable in different design settings, I was looking for a middle road, and I found it as a T-Shape Designer. A T-Shape Designer is like a Renaissance Man, working both horizontally and vertically. Using multiple skills and interests, they constantly increase their broad knowledge base, but focus their energies towards delving deeper into their specialization.
When someone asks me what I do, I describe myself as a Multidisciplinary Designer, or T-Shape designer. I take pride in my diverse portfolio, and I allow new skills to influence my main specialization, which is UI/UX design. To me, design is about solving problems in creative ways, empathetically listening to the needs of clients, and using my knowledge of other disciplines to help clients meet their goals.
Are you having trouble figuring out what kind of designer you really are, or feeling the pressure to specialize? Don’t worry, in the end it doesn’t matter what you do, but why you do it.