21/03/2011 · Plano, TX · There are many shapes good designers aspire to fill: T-shapes, I-shapes, Ninja Turtles. Rockstars, even. Big, robust agencies love the I-shape: people who are super strong at one line of discipline. Behemoth employers have the overhead to piece together largish teams of specialists, filling each member’s deficiency with another employee. They create divisions by specialization and form like Voltron.
In a small shops – or in lean times like we’re currently experiencing in the U.S. – specialization is not practical. More desirable are the T-shapes: people with deep skills in one area topped by a wide breadth of cursory knowledge in other fields. Generalists such as these are more pliant and ready to bend with any new shift in their employer’s needs.
After working at a five person (at most) shop for three years, I have seen how T-Shapes work well, but I know we generalists can push our skill sets further. Ts leave a lot to be desired; there is a lot of missing knowledge and experience on the sides. A generalist can and should be more rounded. To put a metaphor on it: I strive to be Mega Man. For those of you that didn’t misspend your youth on video games, let me explain…
Mega Man (or Rock Man in Japan) is a good robot that fights bad robots, and after defeating them he gains their special powers. Certain powers work best against other bad robots, allowing you to take them down quicker. It was a simple, tight concept that blew my 10-year-old mind: Work work work work work -> gain a power. Repeat.
The mechanics had a snowball effect, and by the end of the game your little guy was unstoppable. If anything got in your way, you just pulled up the right power + bad-ass outfit and blasted away.
“A visual designer approaches UX design from one point of view, the interaction designer from another, and the programmer from yet another. It can be helpful to understand and even experience the part of the [the project] that others are experiencing.”
— Susan Weinschenk, The Psychologist’s View of UX Design
Being a great generalist is not really about being Mega – or any other superlatives – but just being changeable and comprehensive. Designers in a small shop succeed through constant learning and adaptation. Our modern connected lives let our brains download a wealth of knowledge at light-speed, or at least lead us to the right resources.
Timelines and scheduling play an imperative role. You don’t have to be ready for attack on all fronts at all times. Plan your projects so that you will have time for research and sync your skill enhancements with the needs of each phase of the project. Feeling light in a particular area? With a few weeks of focus, you can be just shy of an expert. Or, you can let some skills lag while you strengthen others that are more crucial for a particular leg of a project. Attack the current problem until it’s left smoldering, pack up your new skills, and move on.
This is the pattern for being a great generalist: solve every problem with extensive research, maintain the highest, objective standards, and don’t be bound by your current skill set. Critical thinking will be your guide. When a solution is good, you will know it, and trust your knowledge when experience is lacking.
Also, remember that we humans do not keep all our knowledge in our heads. Good information organization will allow you to access other’s expertise when you need it. Bookmark, save, and curate. You’ll only need to recall where to find your resources.
“No one came shooting out of their mother’s womb with a paint brush or a Bunsen burner or a calculator in their hand. You didn’t come equipped with a Terms of Service agreement or an Operator’s Manual that spelled out exactly what you would and would not be capable of as an adult. You, your skills, your intelligences, are malleable. Changeable.”
— Sean Michael Robinson, Mr. Square and the Curse of Talent
When changing powers, Mega Man is always Mega Man; only the neat costumes and payload change. As a web designer, there are growing opportunities for which you can apply your skills beyond the web: desktop & mobile apps, eReaders, etc. Each one of these has their own unique challenges and triumphs, but all need solutions for what web-pros intrinsically know: great, satisfying experiences supported by future-proof code. Just make sure to never venture too far from what you know well.
In any shop, generalists are forged by need, and some adapt better to this than others. If you find yourself wearing many hats, embrace it! Too often in our education we are taught to specialize, but this assumes that we are a workforce wholly beholden to large organizations with deep pockets. Small business accounts for 80% of the employment in America alone! And the exodus of creative talent from big agencies to smaller shops continues in earnest.
Perhaps it’s best not to think of this process as building any general knowledge at all, but rapidly branching and strengthening specialties as needs dictate. From this perspective, generalization is just residual. Stick to your core disciplines and bring critical thinking to every problem. When you do, you will crush whatever comes your way. Color-coordinated robot outfits are optional.
Go forth and BE MEGA.
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