My name is Stephen, and I’m a generalist

This week I had something akin to an existential crisis. The whole thing was solely in my head, and alarming in intensity. If you ask me what triggered it, I couldn’t tell you. Though it might have been that potential client that needs to learn about how to deal with potential contractors, but that’s another post entirely.

Part of this mental hurricane was me questioning what it is that I actually do. What is my job, exactly? I’ll spare you the worries about how this question might tie in to age discrimination and how I must remain my own boss in order to continue working. No. I can hear you thinking about it. Stop it.

In the 20 years I’ve been designing and developing for the web, I’ve considered myself a designer. A designer who can code, but still a designer. And indeed, when I started, I designed a lot. I came from print design. Design, especially typography, was what I loved to do. In the work realm, at least.

I wrote my first BASIC program when I was 12 years old. On a Commodore PET. Yes, I see you oldies nodding. We had an Apple II in a special room at school. One Apple II. Programming was like magic. Someone wrote code and made these computers do amazing things!

I was fairly good at math(s), roughly two years ahead of my fellow students, but I’m also easily bored. So after advanced trig, I kind of lost interest in both math(s) and programming. I liked it well enough, but I encountered a dull patch. Other things, like art and theatre, grabbed my interest.

Programming never did let me go. I came to realize that some things are simply more effectively done in code, and that there was space in my brain for both the technical and the creative. But people seem to fight against that particular brand of collaboration between the different parts of the mind. We’re told to specialize. You can’t just specialize in JavaScript; you must specialize in a particular aspect of JavaScript, such as performance. Or a particular library (good luck with that). You also can’t be a “designer”, because what exactly does that entail? Do you do interaction design? Visual design? Or as ambiguous as they come, user experience design?

If I put 10 people in a room and asked them to describe user experience design, I’d get 10 different answers. 11 if it’s a really creative group. While speaking recently at UXLx, I encountered UX designers who don’t draw. “I only do research”. Others design the user experience of websites without venturing into the browser. Graphing software is enough; after all, they’re UX designers, not UI designers. (Oops there’s another one for you.) Some UX designers did more visual design. Confusion ensued.

Not that these disciplines are bad or unnecessary. On the contrary. Nor is the fact that we might soon need a complex table to map out the various types of design we’ve created and their relationships to one another. But where we can complicate things, we tend to complicate things. And when specialization means money, we’re quick to specialize.

And now we’re entering a period in which the spectrum of specialists is just a bit too large for some projects. Like a feature film, all the disciplines need a lot of overhead to work together smoothly. And we look to the generalists. We might call them “product designers” or “full-stack [insert title here]”. Proficient in many areas, expert in one or two. For me, I’m an art director at heart with a lot of experience in graphic(visual) design, interaction, design processes and dealing with large-org project politics. And I can code.

When people ask me for a portfolio of recent design work, I’m shocked to discover that I really don’t have a clear one. The work I’ve done since going freelance five years ago is mostly front-end development combined with design and interaction work. Which all, believe it or not, is part the user experience. Thus, I’ve done front-end design and development consulting work. Accessibility work. Speaking. Writing a book. Co-organizing conferences.

Holy hypertext, Batman, I’m a generalist.

The thing that’s both scary and exciting at the same time is that no generalist is the same. This week I came to realize that I have no clue how to market myself effectively. (No that is not an invitation.) I’m an expert in a few things, and proficient in several more. But for every project, emphasis shifts within those areas.

This week, a friend told me that he doesn’t know what to call himself. Then he said, in his typical manner of a man who believes that every workday is just a holiday that starts with a “W”:

“Embrace the chaos.”

I like code. I like design. I like the place where design and technology meet. Where art and technology meet. It’s a special place. It exists and we should embrace it.

5 thoughts on “My name is Stephen, and I’m a generalist

  1. I think quite many of us are in the same situation. There has been good discussion in the Freelancers Show http://devchat.tv/freelancers/160-fs-a-deep-dive-on-positioning-yourself-as-a-specialist-with-philip-morgan

    If you have a lot of work and you’re happy with the situation then there might not be reason to specialize.

    We all age and some point we might be get exhausted of constant learning from ALL fields. To safely try specializing then it might better to create separate website for that specialization and you should see results within 6 months if there is demand for your specialization.

  2. Leonardo da Vinci was a painter, sculptor, achitect and inventor. They called him an Uomo Universale. Sounds a lot better than ‘generalist’ (:

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