Specializing Vs. Doing It All

After attending the Baltimore chapter of AIGA’s Converse event this week, there’s still a lot rolling around in my head. The topic of conversation for the round-table (which was actually a group of square tables pushed together in an L shape, ha!*) was about which was better or necessary: being a jack-of-all-trades or specializing in one area (whether it be a market/industry or a medium—like print, or trade show booths or mobile apps, etc.).

As a front-end web designer and developer (or whatever it is you call what I do these days), I believe the correct answer for an individual, as opposed to a business, is to be a jack-of-all-trades as much as you can.

I can’t speak as authoritatively about the world of print-based design. Yes, the mediums of the print world are varied and each brings its own challenge, but it is always known when the designer sets out to create something, whether that is a trade show booth backdrop, a direct mail piece or an annual report. That’s a luxury that we’ve taken for granted, I think.

Designing for the internet, however, that has become an ever-expanding beast. “Canvas” is nearly irrelevant at this point, as users will be interacting with our products on smartphones, tablets, huge monitors, smart-TVs, e-readers, game consoles… and that’s just right now. Smart-watches, augmented reality screens and audio-interfaces will quickly become part of the normal digital landscape and our job in this web industry will be trying to figure out how to best serve our and our clients’ content to the user in the most logical, usable and enjoyable way possible.

So, because of how quickly the web “medium” is expanding, I think there’s no way around it—we must dive in with both feet and be jacks (or jills) of all trades. It will soon no longer suffice to say you can build a mobile app for smartphones, because a client will want to make sure it can also work in a car’s in-dash display or on their smart-refrigerator display. If we don’t continue to push ourselves to learn these evolving technologies, we will become obsolete, just like a web developer who learned HTML tables and refuses to learn CSS and flexible, div-based layouts.

Now, the only caveat to that statement, is that it is also unrealistic to expect ourselves to become experts at all of these technologies and frameworks. You might become an expert at CSS3, but that will require you to understand HTML5 and browser- and mobile-compatibility, including some knowledge of Content Management Systems (and perhaps some basic PHP and Javascript skills). Beyond that, you’ll need to understand some human psychology and user-experience best practices, and maybe have some familiarity with analytics tools to help back up your research and make sound recommendations to your boss or clients. It is improbable you will have the time and mental strength to achieve mastery over all these elements. And by the time you master one piece, it could become obsolete with the launch of some new product or technology. That sounds daunting, I know. Unless you give yourself the space to make mistakes and be okay with not being an expert at everything, you’ll drown under the weight of trying to master this ever-changing digital landscape.

And that brings me to something I’m really starting to enjoy about this industry. Collaboration and sharing are strangely normal—even prized. Proprietary software has always had a bad rap, and it seems as though proprietary skills and workflows are garnering the same heat. The internet connects us in ways we couldn’t prior to its existence. That seems to fuel the creative energy and collaborative spirit amongst those of us actively creating websites and apps to facilitate those connections. What does that mean for this “specializing vs doing it all” question? It means that you aren’t alone. There’s a whole industry of people willing to share their knowledge, experience and time to help you keep growing and learning. If you don’t know something right away, there’s always going to be someone willing to help, or who knows someone who knows something and can help you connect with them.

So dive in! We’re all just figuring it out. Between follow creators, and learning sites like teamtreehouse.com and lynda.com, there are so many ways to connect and learn. It’s okay not to know everything! Just keep learning.

* This was a tiny pre-cursor to my lame, dry sense of humor and how that will inevitably sneak its way into this blog now and again.

2 thoughts on “Specializing Vs. Doing It All”

  1. Awesome post, Michael! I think you made excellent points about helping each other learn and constantly pushing ourselves to keep up with technology as things continue to evolve. What an exciting time to be a designer! We get to imagine, create, manipulate, and influence the fluid existence of this new world of the Internet. Keep writing more!

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